It's hard not to be inspired by Nick Kristof's article on "The D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution" in the New York Times. His detail-rich story of energetic, socially conscious people routing around the bureaucracy of large aid organizations to tangibly and directly improve people's lives in the developing world is both important and thought-provoking. And it helps reframe the ongoing debate about the effectiveness of development assistance from one of "nothing works" to "there are so many ways to make this work."
The article, for me, raises several questions. How can the creative energy of individuals be harnessed while still making sure that the hard-earned lessons of development assistance are not ignored or constantly being rediscovered? Take the now widespread assumption that governance matters in development. Do non-tangible issues like supporting anti-corruption efforts, building a capable independent media, or ensuring transparency in budgeting also lend themselves to such do-it-yourself efforts? Are there issues, such as governance, where the involvement of large donors can make a bigger difference? Kristof acknowledges that the overall impact of the projects he mentions are a drop in the bucket when talking about the array of development challenges worldwide. On the other hand, I also wonder whether it's easier to tackle what can be for large aid organizations thorny and sensitive issues (such as politics and/or corruption) when they're handled on a case-by-case, small-scale basis. After all, it's impossible to ignore politics - with a small p - at the micro level.
Finally, I was intrigued by his discussion of developing a culture of altruism - but I'm more interested in understanding how this kind of "DIY revolution" can be sparked WITHIN developing countries themselves, rather than following a mainly developed-to-developing country direction. After all, surely there are ways to harness the entrepreneurial spirit and passion of people living in developing countries to help themselves and their fellow citizens. If we can expand the discussion to not just include but highlight these ongoing efforts, I think we can all give Bono a run for his money.
Photo Credit: © Arne Hoel/The World Bank