Last month I launched how-matters.org, a blog on aid effectiveness that explores how development practitioners can raise the level of human dignity within international aid and put real resources behind local means of overcoming obstacles. My entire reason for starting this blog was to get a dialogue going about how to challenge the parts of the foreign assistance system that erodes compassion, such as the conditionalities, the lack of genuine community participation and ownership, and the droughts and then floods of funding.
In working with international agencies over the years, I found myself continually experiencing the limitations of donor-controlled, project-based funding and the need for community-driven development initiatives that were genuinely responsive to local needs. My experience highlighted to me that large aid agencies are often ill-equipped to support their staff to openly struggle with the paradox of development. There was always much discussion (read, bellyaching) over gin and tonics at night, but I was frustrated that nothing was actually ever acted upon the next day. Also, the new amateur international “do-gooders” coming on the scene also desperately need a sense of community to improve their efforts.
So when considering what to do, I decided first to reach out to my former colleagues, friends, and acquaintances around the world involved in international development, working at the levels of U.N. and in academia to small grassroots organizations, to get a sense if there was a need for this dialogue. I sent almost 150 emails to folks asking:
“If you personally could do one thing to change ‘the system’ of foreign aid and development assistance, what would you do?”
The number and diversity of responses has been overwhelming and intriguing…and it keeps coming as the blog gains a following via social media. Most of people’s responses to the question rest firmly within the cerebral aspects of our work – systemic or structural changes needed, funding mechanisms, programming approaches, challenges of governance and dependency, and the paradigm of foreign aid itself. Yet what I detect at the core of most of these responses are feelings, expressions of frustration, confusion, and extreme disenchantment. There are some good organizations and some impactful initiatives, but we know there are many more organizations still battling superiority complexes, modernist viewpoints, and serious racism within the system.
I write about aid professionals’ experience because I believe that in our day-to-day work, we have the ideas and much more power to change things then we often perceive. Consider the foreign aid system is made up of well-intentioned, smart people who want to change the world! Therefore, I am encouraging these folks to think more about not what we do, but HOW we do it. Postings include good practices, reflection and rumination, guest bloggers, and links and resources on aid reform and supporting community-based organizations.
Ultimately, I hope to inspire dialogue among a fuller, more inclusive community of those involved with foreign aid and international assistance around the world. It’s time for the sector to prepare for what Dennis Whittle, co-founder of GlobalGiving.org, terms the pending “democratization of aid.” My deep, deep feeling is that international development or philanthropic work should not be so abstract or over-technicalized. It’s time to abandon the “infusion of outside expertise” mentality and the heavy accountability systems that demotivate everyone and create a glass ceiling to prevent the participation of local people. I believe that our role as “outsiders,” whether we are working for a multilateral donor in Nairobi or having wanderlust dreams during our unfulfilling job in Ohio, must be about getting community leaders the resources that they need to address their own priorities.
Transforming society and challenging the bonds of violence, poverty and oppression in the developing world is, at its core, ultimately about connecting with and listening to people. Thus, how-matters.org is an expression of my professional, but more importantly, a personal resolve to nurture alternative models of foreign assistance that build the skills of development practitioners to identify and support the dignity, knowledge, culture, abilities, and efforts of grassroots leaders and social innovators around the world.