MADISON, Wisconsin – Not all aid is created equal. Skeptics of foreign aid have good reason for being cautious, but all the situation calls for is smarter investment:
Do not give to the middle-man when you can give to the people.
The United States has developed a practice of only funding foreign governments which have demonstrated the will and practice of rooting out corruption. There are still dictators, and it is naïve to think that corruption will ever be fully eradicated, but refusing to give aid to countries with corrupt rulers only harms the impoverished citizens.
The solution is to give funding to proven organizations that place little or no middle-man between the money and those it is meant to help. This takes a lot more research on the part of donors and budget wranglers, but anyone who really wants to make a positive difference in the world will see it as a necessary labor.
Do not send a professional if you can train a local.
Bad aid programs bring in high-earning executives or laborers to organize clean-ups, construct houses and schools, deliver vaccines and antibiotics and run hospitals. This means that a great deal of the aid goes toward paying the abroad U.S. citizens rather than alleviating the problem at hand. And while professionals may be necessary at the onset, they should only stay for as long as it takes to train their replacement. Locals who are invested in their community are much better contenders for improving it; it is likely they only lack funding and training. The locals from a place attracting aid are also in greater need of employment, so spend money on training them to be nurses, midwives, sanitary inspectors, teachers and carpenters.
Local involvement also ensures that the project will continue after the aid workers have gone home. Chances are that if the project cannot be run by the community, it will not last long in the community. When the locals are involved in the planning and management it becomes adopted into the area and is protected when it might otherwise have been resisted.
Do not send water when you can build a well.
Food aid is a huge demand in poor countries and disaster areas, but when that food comes from the U.S. it can take as long as six months to arrive in the designated region; this method brings business to U.S. markets while it depletes local markets abroad. When food is brought in, the cost of local food goes down, meaning that farmers cannot make a living and cannot afford to feed their families or plant as big a harvest the next year. This creates a vicious cycle that can result in famine in regions capable of growing their own food.
On the other hand, when food is purchased from the community or neighboring regions the local markets flourish and food can be served almost immediately. Even if food does have to be flown in, costs can be greatly reduced by providing land-owners with seeds to plant, breaking the dependency on food aid.
Do not build a school before you have teachers.
Shoving more money at a problem won’t fix it if the execution or foundation is faulty. Schools are a wonderful inspiration for funding, but they’re useless if there are no qualified teachers; Condoms do no good if women can’t get their husbands to wear them; closing down a brothel can’t be called a victory if those women then starve because they cannot find work. Almost every time the problem can be traced back to poverty, and if aid is not directly combating local poverty, then it is not getting to the root of the issue.
It is also important to understand the value of what is being paid for; a church group that builds a school in Ghana is not about building a school. If that were the case, it would be much cheaper to pay locals to build it and mail back a picture. The real purpose of that trip is to encourage further acts of humanity; participants will come back, tell their friends that the experience changed their lives and hopefully embark on a life-long mission to build more schools. It would be nice if that could happen while the locals still got paid, but that is not always the way it works; sometimes aid peters out unless money is spent on demonstrating its significance.
The worst thing that aid can do is create a demand for more aid. Good aid works to eliminate itself, and places power back in the hands of the people it serves. Good aid in an investment in the generations to come, not just the one at hand.