Saturday, 30 October 2010

The Overseas DIY debate

The development blogosphere is (still) a-buzz with (sometimes snarky) debate inspired by this piece on what is apparently an emerging revolution of DIY aid. Most of the criticism of the piece (I think valid) has been that it suggests aid work as something uncomplicated. Find What Works has a series of posts expanding on this issue beginning with this one entitled How Complicated Can Things Really Be? (Hint: very!). Kristof's response to the criticism here got me thinking about another issue with his concept of a DIY aid revolution.

In his postscript, Kristof says the following:
I’ve generally found that grassroots, locally owned aid projects have a better record than large scale, top-down ones that don’t always have the same buy-in.

I think he's right. I think this is key. But here's the thing: grassroots, locally-owned aid projects are not started and run by foreigners swooping in to save the situation. A friend challenged my thinking on this issue by asking why large aid agencies or aid experts/academics/practitioners would want to stop others from going out and doing aid by themselves, irrespective of degrees/funding, etc. Why stop people who want to help from helping? Apart form the obvious issues of complexity and potential harm/unintended consequences (see above), why is DIY aid is potentially a problem?

It is a problem for me because of the nature of the particular kind of aid/development work Kristof is talking about. He's not talking about people who care going out and doing something to make things better for their own communities or more vulnerable communities nearby. He's not talking about people looking around them and saying 'how can I improve things right here where I am'. He is very specifically talking about (generally) young, (often) not particularly high-educated Americans going to other countries to save the world.

This changes the conversation. There is no reason that people can't be involved in and contribute their energy to development efforts. Eliminating poverty needs lots of involvement and often involvement far beyond just cash donations. But there is something wrong with the idea that anyone who feels like it should be supported in their desire to go off to a 'poor country' and do whatever they like in the name of 'development' or 'aid'. As someone pointed out in the twitter exchanges, this is tantamount to saying that anyone who 'cares' should be supported in his desire to experiment with the lives and livelihoods of the poor.

The same ethical concerns exist for big organisations and professionals. What makes these foreign professionals better able or better equipped to solve problems than local people than passionate amateurs? If a random, lone foreigner walked into my community and told us how to solve our problems or started implementing projects on her own, I would question her right to be there. The only reason it might sometimes be justifiable for foreigners to be involved with the development of a particular area or country is if those people bring skills or knowledge that does not exist locally.

Aid experts, the people hired by large organisations, (usually) have the advantage of having been exposed, either in person or through studies, conferences and networking, to similar situations in other countries, so they can bring knowledge the local people might not have. Random Foreigner, without the support, access to information or education that a professional has, brings nothing to the situation. What makes her better equipped to develop care solutions for local orphans than those who live in the area and are already part of the lives of those orphans? What gives her the right to claim the status of (to quote Good Intentions) 'white in shining armour'?

The issue is not that people care - it's great that they care and want to help, it's the fact that these individuals (and those who support DIY aid) think that their desire to help gives them the right to go to far-away nations and tell 'the poor' how to run their lives. Development professionals have a lot to contribute because they offer insight(based on their understanding of what has happened in other situations. They're not the silver bullet. Their usefulness is that their knowledge might speed up the process. Ultimately, countries, communities, regions will find their own solutions but a faster process might mean dying so professionals are sometimes helpful. Unless the DIY-ers can offer more than would be achieved by the local community, I'm not sure there is any reason to see them as an advantage to development at all.

(PS Tales from the Hood beat me to it and puts it much more succinctly here: Not About Us.)

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