A JVP float about NGOs piggybacking the tsunami
I recently saw a proposal from Global Giving that calls for almost a million dollars to tell NGOs how development projects are going. OK, but why not put the money straight into development, or into the government? Also, recently, I ended up at a house that belonged to the head of a major development organization. It was palatial and spotless, you could play cricket in the hall, hit a six into the pool. The place had a full staff but no one lived their. The head of the org stayed at his girlfriend’s house. 50 people could live in that space. At some point you have to wonder how efficient this development model is.
The main issue is that there is a system for delivering education, health, empowerment and work. It’s called the economy. People don’t necessarily want to be given those things. They want into the system. By having donors make the decisions on what people need and then having foreign NGO staff give it to them, it actually goes around the system. Less of the money touches the local economy than if you simply gave it away.
Most dev programs are based on the premise that the end recipient can’t be trusted, that they will waste the money. The response seems to be appointing a foreigner to waste the money for them. Most grant based stuff is not tied to the need of the end user, it’s tied to the need of the grantee. Hence you get a lot of peace building and women’s empowerment programs coming from the west and very few jobs for men so they can stay out of trouble and money for women so they don’t have to be out of the house all the time while people be molesting their daughters programs. Many times I have seen people writing proposals to fit the grants available rather than proposals to fit the need.
One alternative which I’ve always thought would make sense is to simply give people the money. Forget the salaries, the cars, the colorful reports, the awareness-building campaigns. There are a lot of people out there for whom Rs. 100 a day makes the difference between putting the kid in school or the kid selling rotis. Recently, there was a Newsweek article that seemed to get the point.
Zanele Figlan has seen firsthand what does and does not work in the fight against global poverty. Living in a shack on the outskirts of Cape Town, her family serves as a reminder of South Africa’s 15-year failed effort to house its poor. Instead, Figlan says, the most effective help she receives is the $1 a day the government provides for each of her two youngest sons, which amounts to more than double her monthly income and allows her to make sure they’re well fed. It also means she can afford to send them to a reputable school in a wealthier part of the city, something that was previously unthinkable.
At first glance, simply handing out cash to the poor may seem naive. When cash-transfer programs, as they’re known in the parlance of international aid, first rolled out in Latin America in the 1990s, they were met with skepticism, especially from development agencies more intent on structural reform than redistributing wealth. More than a decade later, however, evidence shows that even modest payments grant the world’s poorest the power to make their own decisions; it also indicates that they make smart choices, especially on matters of health and education.
I am not saying this works for everything, but I think it is quite obvious on the ground that the current NGO development model is broken. It takes money out of the system – both the government and the private sector – and ends up being just a show. They don’t water the earth, they give us potted plants. Nothing really grows.
This is not to say that the current development culture is not well-intention, though some would disagree. I just think it’s not especially efficient. Why spend a million dollars to dispense a hundred thousand? Just give it to the people and let them make decisions on their own.