Posted by: Andries Louw | 15 May 2010

When helping the poor isn’t helping

This article by Nick Wadhams in, Bad Charity? (All I Got Was This Lousy T-Shirt!) puts arguably the most important question in the non-profit environment on the table: Is foreign aid bad for Africa? Hat-tip to Wendi Wade Hammond, US coordinator of Project Glory who sent me the link via Facebook. Project Glory supports Shiselweni Home-Based Care, a grassroots movement of volunteers in Swaziland who care for people suffering from HIV/AIDS.

This is of course not a new question but unfortunately many people who want to help Africa – and other places where there is large-scale poverty – often cause more harm than good.

The article relates the story of Jason Sadler, a 27-year old entrepreneur from Florida, who decided to collect a million T-shirts and send them to poor people in Africa. Critics say this will weaken the textile industry in those countries, thus putting people out of jobs instead of helping them.

It is understandable when people who have been working with poor communities for decades get very frustrated if others still don’t get the message. And it’s not just Americans who get it wrong. I remember very well the mistakes I made as a young student (I’m South African), organising shortterm mission trips to rural communities in South and Southern Africa.

The main problem however is not making the mistakes, but not learning from them. I would love to ask Sadler’s critics if they had it all figured out when they started helping the poor. The truth is that it’s complicated and that you can never say “I’ve arrived”.

The core question is: How do we minimise the damage caused by inexperienced / uninformed / incompetent helpers? Realistically you can’t prevent it from happening but those of us who are close to the recipients of aid have a responsibility to change the tide.

How do we do this? I don’t think it’s helpful to shout at people like Sadler, calling him an idiot. Maybe what we need in Africa are forums where people who want to help can come and listen to local communities, spend time with them and observe what other more experienced workers are doing, before they are allowed to jump in and dish out charity.

We also need to ask how this issue can be addressed on a much larger scale. To quote the article in Time:

“The long-term solution is not aid. It may seem cruel that aid should stop, but really it should,” says Rasna Warah, a Kenyan newspaper columnist and editor of the anthology Missionaries, Mercenaries and Misfits, a call to arms against aid. “Africa is the greatest dumping ground on the planet. Everything is dumped here. The sad part is that African governments don’t say no — in fact, they say, ‘Please send us more.’ They’re abdicating responsibility for their own citizens.”

In Global Relief, the South African volunteer-organisation I work with, we assist communities to process the trauma of having lost loved-ones, houses and other infrastructure after disasters. We then train local leaders to carry on with the process. They speak the people’s languages and understand the culture. This is one way in which we attempt to empower victims to take responsibility for their own future.

What is your experience with aid gone wrong? Which ideas do you have for addressing this issue?



  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by andrieslouw, Global Relief. Global Relief said: New blog post: When helping the poor isn't helping […]

  2. Hi Andries,

    Thanks for this post. I think having the voices of the people being helped be heard is essential. Also people who have made the mistakes have a responsibility to not only learn from them but share them. Maybe we can start a series of our own stories of sucking.

  3. Andries –

    Thanks for the shout out for Project Glory from South Africa. One of the most important lessons I learned in this regard came through a simple statement from Arnau van Wyngaard, project director for Shiselweni Home-Based Care in Swaziland; “Americans look for where the need is the greatest and come to Africa to fix the problem that created the NEED, which often creates dependency. A better why is to look for where the FRUIT is likely to be the greatest, and that will always be where local people are already working to solve their own problems and serve their neighbors.”

    True confession: Arnau’s advice is difficult for American’s to follow. We are generous, but we are also paternalistic and sometimes arrogant in our efforts to help. Looking for where the fruit will be the greatest using Arnau’s philosophy requires that we come in with questions rather than answers; that we come along side the local problem solvers instead of telling them what the solution is. Because we are prone to this more top-down way of serving in the developing world, Project Glory built this philosophy into our core values. Hopefully our values will create self-accountability.

    I disagree with Rasna Warah’s statement that aid should simply stop. You can’t tell a child without food or water that she’ll have to wait till her government gets its act together; builds infrastructure and an economy. But aid should always be delivered with an exit strategy in mind from the start, and should be managed toward the exit strategy with the locals, always moving toward the day when the aid is no longer needed. And I believe this is far less likely to happen through huge, global initiatives where aid comes from one government and is delivered through another. Grass roots is always more effective.

    Wendi Hammond

  4. Very true Tom! How about a synchroblog with a theme like “My charity blunders”?

    Wendi, I wonder if what you are calling aid with an exit strategy isn’t more or less the same as what Warah calls aid that should stop, because she says it’s not the long-term solution. I interpret that as aid still being necessary in the short-term, provided that it’s “smart” aid. I haven’t read her book but I think the following two quotes from a recent interview with her sheds more light:

    AZ: Given the mounting criticism questioning the effectiveness of development assistance, how likely is that the entire system (UN and non) undergo a broader reassessment of itself?

    RW: The history of reforms within the UN and other donor agencies has not been very encouraging. While the World Bank has in the past, for instance, recognised that the structural adjustment policies it imposed on countries in the 80s and 90s unleashed a lot of hardship on countries, it has not significantly altered the recipe of its proposed economic reforms for these countries — in other words, what is known as “the Washington Consensus” of deregulation, privatization and cutbacks on social spending, continues unabated. The reforms have been cosmetic at best. What is needed is a radical rethinking of the development paradigm, which most UN agencies and the Bank are unwilling to do, as it would severely impact the way they do business in poor countries.

    AZ: What alternative could be envisaged to the current situation/system? What needs to be changed? Where should the impulse for change come from? (government, civil society, local communities, young generation, other…)

    RW: This is a very complex question, with complex answers, but as a start, I would suggest weaning ourselves from aid, and formulating our own policies and strategies based on our own realities and contexts. The impetus for this change has necessarily to come from African governments, but must be carried forward by all sectors, including civil society. Rwanda, I believe, is one of the countries that is actively seeking alternatives, and could show the way forward to others.

  5. Good intentions + ill-informed = bad outcome.

    I don´t have any experience with giving aid to poor people/communities, but I have a lot of blunder-stories to tell of where I tried to help people, and then it blew up in my face. (A quick example is where I once picked up a Hillbrow prostitute-junkie to share the gospel with her over a KFC lunch. After the meal she asked me for R50, which she said she needs to buy food for her baby, and then asked me if I can drop her at her flat. Naive as I was, I gave her the R50 and waited for her as she ran into Checkers to buy food for her baby. Well, i waited and waited and after half-an-hour I realised she took me for a ride. I was angry and drove up and down through the streets of Hillbrow looking for her. I finally found her standing on another corner… I got out and wanted to talk to her, but she started screaming “**** off you bastard!, you are chasing away my business!” I was offended and angry, ran after her and yelled “I want my money back! I want my money back!” I found out the hard away that day that prostitutes don´t give refunds).

    In hindsight I guess I just should’ve bought her the Kentucky and send her on her merry way after I shared the gospel with her. Did she need food? Yes. Did she need to hear the good news? Yes! Did she need money? Yes. So where did I go wrong?

    I was naive. I didn’t know here background. I didn’t know anything about people with addiction then and how they can manipulate and lie to get money for the fix they need.

    I think the need to help those who need help is good. But we need to be better informed about WHO whe are helping and HOW we are helping (or not helping, or what is not helping) them.

    Good intentions + ill-informed = bad outcome.

  6. Yes – I think Warrah is thinking along the same lines as I, with the term exit strategy. Another great read on this subject is “The White Man’s Burden” (can’t remember author, and my son has my book). He makes a case that global aid efforts like those from the UN and other large government agencies are designed without the recipients even at the discussion table. How can a bunch of white academians determine what Africa needs without input from Africa. Further, their programs almost always lack mechanisms for either feedback or accountability, practically insuring their failure.


  7. Thank you Andries for a very thought provoking issue.

    We all go through a time of naive, heartfelt, I must do something’s. It is those who come away after having learned from their experiences who go on to mighty things… usually un heralded and unseen in general; just as should be so we do not fall prey to Phariseeism.

  8. Giving food and shirts to the hungry and naked is fine, but…

    There are people in our church who make expeditions to where poor people live and hand out old clothes and studd, willy nilly, to all comers, regardless of need, fit or appropriateness.

    If you are going to distribute such things, then it should be through community networks, with people who know the needs of recipients. That’s why the early church had deacons.

  9. Andries nice to see some South Africans getting it right – I like the methods your employers are using. I think the golden rule in the community development world is never to give anything away for free (including clothes, food parcels etc). We treat communities in Africa who need long term development, like countries who have just had a natural disaster (like Haiti). Thus the dependency cycle continues. I recommend this book – “When Helping Hurts – Alleviating Poverty Without Hurting the Poor. . .and Ourselves”

  10. Brian – I have that book and haven’t read it, but I have some tension with your statement about the “community development golden rule.” I certainly understand how the cycle of dependency continues through unrestrained aid. However, issues of cyclical poverty are complicated and sometimes largely out of the control of those suffering the most. When we have food, how do we withhold it from a child who will starve without it, or ARV’s from a woman who will die and leave orphans without the drugs, or access to water to a family who will contract parasites while waiting for the community development pieces to fall into place?

    The Shiselweni Home-Based Caregivers we work with sacrificially give what they have to give, time and talent caring for their neighbors who are sick. We in America come along side as partners and give what we have – for free – funds to purchase drugs and supplies for their work.


  11. Hi everyone,

    I’m new to this topic, so please forgive any naivete in my post. From where I am sitting (in a comfortable chair in a well-made building typing on an expensive laptop), I think what Africa needs is infrastructure, not free t-shirts or more missionaries. Surely with efforts concentrated on building water systems, sanitation facilities, farms, schools, power stations and the like, Africa can start developing in such a way that it becomes entirely self-reliant? Or are there political machinations in place that deliberately thwart efforts to make that happen, despite ongoing efforts? ARE there ongoing efforts to build African infrastructure?

    I also entertain a cynical belief that foreign aid, for the most part, does not reach the people it is intended for and instead ends up enriching those charged with managing it. Another belief follows about political interference being the actual reason aid doesn’t really solve anything – the interference happens to ensure the continued flow of aid, as why would aid be sent if it is apparent that it’s not really needed?

    Since I’m not affiliated with any aid organisation, NGO or the like, I’d love to hear from people posting here (who presumably have actual real-world experience with this kind of stuff) whether any of these beliefs hold water, or if they are just a warped and uninformed view of a deep and complicated issue.

    If so, please feel free to say so, I will appreciate the lesson.

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