Sunday, February 1, 2015

Reflection on international aid

By Ben, Cap Corps Midwest volunteer in Nicaragua

 When we donate time or money to a cause, we want to know that what we gave is making a positive difference.  We don’t want to spend time on things that don’t matter, and we don’t want to waste money.  I think that makes a lot of sense, but in the year and a half that I’ve been in Nicaragua working at a local NGO, I’ve found that this impulse on the part of foreign donors can have unexpectedly negative repercussions.

When the youth center where I work gets grants to do a project, say an after-school program to 50 under-served youth with classes in Spanish, English, Math, and Dance, the grant providers want to be sure that we are doing what we said we would.  They cant follow us around constantly to see that we are keeping our end of the bargain.  So the most common form of accountability are attendance lists that every kid has to sign at every event. The lists ask for things like name, date of birth, ID number, telephone, and signature.  The lists have to match up, so the kids cant make mistakes.  The lists cant have tears or stains.  Heaven help you if the kids use a red pen.  In a normal week at my youth center there are around 30 attendance lists that need to passed around and monitored so the kids don’t draw on them.  Projects also require periodic reports, photos, and testimonials.  I understand why.  But I also understand that all the time we spend obsessing over lists and writing reports to prove that were doing work reduces the amount of work we can do.  All the paperwork draws staff away from kids who need attention and love and toward mind-numbing tedium and burnout.

Another thing that donors look at when deciding which organizations to donate to is their efficiency.  I remember a couple years looking through Guidestar at the percentage of a charity’s budget allocated to direct service versus administrative costs.  I thought, my money will go farther if it is directly reaching the people.  That’s reasonable if we are giving to a hand-out kind of organization, but if we look solely at efficiency as a standard it is going to push us away from donating to organizations seeking to create social change (because socially oriented work requires more staff, i.e. greater administrative costs).  I’ve seen how my coworkers are underpaid and overworked, in large part because of requirements by the grant providers that limit how the money we receive can be spent.

The trickiest funding issue for me is related to the goals people fund.  The NGO with which I work is based in “Popular Education.”  Popular Education is a method for working for social change that starts with the needs and dreams of the people, and then works from there.  The realities of non-profit funding stand in complete contrast.  Well meaning donors will fund a particular project.  We have several projects aimed at reducing violence against women.  That’s a great goal.  The problem is that it is a goal for Nicaraguans coming from non-Nicaraguans funding the grants.  When goals are set outside of the community trying to reach them, it undermines their effectiveness.

My Take?
If we are blessed to be able to put a portion of our time or resources toward a cause, we need to be able to balance personal responsibility that our gifts are being effectively used with trust that allows organizations to adapt to and work well with their context.  That’s easier to do when we have relationships with the organizations we’re involved with, but that’s not always possible.  I also fear that this sort of perspective could push people toward only supporting domestic causes even though the international community has so many needs and opportunities.  Ultimately, I take my experience as a challenge to give more freely and trust more deeply.