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The Revolution Will Not Be Donor-Harmonized

Shanthi Kalathil's picture

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 

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Submitted by Anonymous on
I am copying and pasting a comment on the DYI article by GlobalGramma that contemplates on your query in the last paragraph: " do we avoid reinforcing the deadly sense (our own as well as theirs) that those we serve are powerless or inadequate to overcome their circumstances? The poor are rich in many, many ways (in courage, strength, tenacity, resilience, compassion and willingness to work hard, to name only a few. Their capacity for joy and human connection often far outstrips our own. How do we celebrate those immense gifts and ensure that we avoid compromising them by seeing those we serve as "poor" and "powerless" (which only deepens the mindset of being impoverished). Waiting for the next handout, poverty becomes self perpetuating. To truly serve the poor, these questions must be grappled with. These questions are not the product of my own thinking. I have been privileged to volunteer for ...Sri Shuddhaanandaa Brahmachari. His work, Lokenath Divine Life Mission, is always structured around the above principles. From women's microcredit self help groups, to organic farmers' clubs, to street schools and homeopathic medical vans, all of Shuddhaanandaa's programs are firmly grounded in self-help. The mission provides extensive educational support while eschewing spending on infrastructure, and investing in human beings. We are not fighting poverty," Shuddhaananda says, "we in the business of expanding wealth.". .

I'm completely with you in being "more interested in understanding how this kind of 'DIY revolution' can be sparked WITHIN developing countries themselves." The fact that so many people feel called to help is hopeful. However, the biggest thing that well-intentioned do-gooders all recognize is that in the developing world, local people with that same “combustible mix of indignation and vision” (Kristof's phrase) are often already organized and doing something about whatever problem they are concerned about. Thankfully many of the organizations Kristof listed in his accompanying blog operate with that central to their approach. I’ve worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in southern and east Africa in my career. Most were linked to churches, schools, or clinics, assisting children by extending services into areas that are not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies. A UNICEF-sponsored mapping exercise identified over 1,800 of these groups working with children affected by AIDS in Malawi alone (NOVOC, 2005). has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that there may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe. Yet, the web of local organizations and grassroots initiatives in the developing world are still largely undocumented, unrecognized and under-resourced around the world, offers an opportunity for sustainable and large-scale responses to relief and development that even the most comprehensive and impactful macro-level, white-in-shining-armor efforts may never be able to accomplish. It's the local activists that are the true heroes and the true experts about what's needed at the community level to fight poverty or conflict or AIDS or climate change. It’s time for a dose of humility in the sector to acknowledge the vision, structure, and impact that grassroots activists and community leaders around the world do have. Thus our jobs, whether we are working for a multi-lateral donor in Nairobi or having wanderlust dreams while we work a boring office job in Ohio, must be about getting existing and effective community groups the resources that they need to address their own priorities—something that must truly fuel the foreign aid revolution.

I agree about your point regarding the role donors have been and will be playing on the 'macro level'. I do not think that the examples constitute a ‘revolution’ in foreign aid. Revolutions rarely start when the ‘Harvard Business School’ is mentioned in the third line of an article – but this more of an ironic remark on the side. Nick Kristof certainly features three interesting, worthwhile initiatives that may be indicative of a new type of D.I.Y venture philantrophy, but deep down sound quite familiar to those who have been engaging with development issues for a while. My full reply to his article is on my blog:

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