Africa: How can we help?

Recently I described some of the obstacles facing people in sub-Saharan Africa that deprive them of freedom of choice: lack of access to education and health care, high incidence of disease and poverty.   With so many people struggling to survive and put food on the table, few have the education or time to consider the big picture. The infrastructure in many African countries is dismal: roads are terrible, schools and hospitals remote and understaffed. Even those with the will and knowledge to potentially pull themselves out of poverty may have great difficulty finding the means to do so.

What can we as Canadians do to help? The most obvious thing is to donate to one of the many charities that help the poor in Africa. As individuals we contribute to many African causes. We give money to support children, provide materials, build latrines or wells, supply goats or fertilizer or any number of other resources to villages or families or individuals.  But how much does that help?

Such donations help a little, but they do not do much to empower African people.  Fostering a child helps that child and his or her family in the short term, but not necessarily in the long run. A family with an additional influx of cash might eat better or ensure more children in that family obtain an education or establish a business. But it is also possible that the family will become dependent on the aid and when the child is grown and the money stops flowing, the family will relapse into the same state as before.

Similarly, if the goat dies or is eaten, the family or village may simply revert to poverty. If we supply fertilizer for farmers, local suppliers may be put out of business.  If we supply food, the local farmer will have no market for his produce, so he too will need a handout. The populace becomes dependent on aid, and if it is cut off, they may be worse off than before.  In places where aid agencies have built latrines, people do not necessarily use them. The latrine is there, but it has little value for them if they do not understand the connection between sanitation and health. Wells and schools are useful, if maintained and supported by local governments and councils. If not, they may be a waste of money.

The media images of starving children, faces covered with flies, pull at our heartstrings. We feel guilty and concerned; we donate money to help that child or village. It’s a kneejerk response.

But there are other ways of providing aid that may be much more helpful. The old Chinese proverb springs to mind: Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.  It might be even better to say: Help a man learn how to fish in a way that makes sense for him and he will be able to feed himself for a lifetime. Unless our aid is helping African people find their own feet, they may be no closer to obtaining freedom of choice, because they are dependent on our aid.

A number of organizations now try to work with people in developing countries to help them identify and overcome the root causes of the problems facing them. These groups do not necessarily send any money or resources or supplies to Africa, they send volunteers, with expertise and sensitivity, to work alongside the farmers or government workers or manufacturers and help them figure out solutions from the ground up. Then the volunteers move on, leaving the local people with knowledge, understanding and connections so they can continue to overcome obstacles and make changes on their own.

Engineers Without Borders (EWB) is one such organization. Their volunteers go to Africa on short term placements (4 months) or for longer stays (2 years or more) and partner with other aid agencies on specific projects. They help Africans identify and repair existing water mains. They coach local leaders in ways to educate the populace about sanitation or train them to use data analysis for decision-making. They engage in complex work to improve the agriculture value chain, meeting with everyone involved in farming, transporting, manufacturing, packaging and marketing produce, and working to bring these people together so they can figure out how to overcome obstacles.

If you want to read more about EWB’s projects, check out their Perspectives Challenge where individual members of the organization (many on volunteer placements right now) provide insights into the work they are doing.  There’s also a helpful explanation of agricultural value chains in Mark Brown’s blog from Ghana.

In every instance, the idea is to assist and empower people at the local level so that when the aid ceases, those people are not left destitute; they have gained knowledge and skills and connections that will allow them to make progress on their own.

This approach to aid obviously makes more sense than the bandaid solution of feeding one person or even one village, of providing stuff whose value may or may not be lasting. Still, it is hard to know exactly how much difference our donations make. While the occasional determined individual may ask the question “Where’s my goat?” and embark on a crusade to find the answer, most of us try to make judicious choices and then hope our money is being spent usefully.

More alarmingly, we don’t even know the end results of the $4.5 billion in foreign aid Canada contributes to the developing world. We know where the money goes in general terms, but there are no tracking mechanisms to determine outcomes.  EWB is advocating to rectify this situation and improve the overall effectiveness of our foreign aid.  Through their ACT (Accountability, Creativity, Transparency) campaign, they are pressuring the government to sign on to the International Aid Transparency Initiative, which would not only make our foreign aid more accountable but could also save taxpayers $7 million per year. To find out more about this campaign or to sign an online letter and/or petition, follow this link: http://act.ewb.ca/

An initiative that improves the effectiveness of our foreign aid spending can only be a good thing. Meanwhile, if you are donating to aid agencies, I encourage you to look for agencies that lend a hand rather than giving a handout.

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