Monday, May 18, 2009

On handout mentality

Recently, I was looking at working on a project based in southern Africa. It was a very worthwhile project which would open doors to a great many people, and I was deeply excited about it. The project leader, too, was delighted to have found someone who had been born and bred in the region and had an insight into the culture and current events, and a love for its people.

However, my involvement was cut short when it transpired that the project leader expected me (and other consultants) to work pro bono.

His view was that Europe-based consultants working on Africa-based projects do so as an act of charity. That's just the way it is. Didn't we know this? He simply could not imagine how rich westerners could be so churlish as to expect payment from poor Africans. I suspect this was the reason he sought out consultants in Europe rather than trying to find local people to work on the project in the first place.

This dependency mentality is an unfortunate side-effect of the big-hearted work of charities and aid organisations.

Hear me out.

I know many people who have gone to do charity work in poor communities and have found the people there unabashed to ask for (even demand in some cases) items of clothing or other personal possessions. They are so accustomed to rich westerners who 'give them stuff' that it has become an expectation.

It is one way of ensuring that these communities never achieve self sufficiency. Never ascend the steep slopes of our so-called flat world.

I would suggest that, instead of simply deluging these communities with our cast-offs and hand me downs, we should be looking to the longer term. This means engaging with community leaders to draw up a progamme by means of which the community is weaned off its dependency on external assistance. This means leavening the handouts with education, with skills training, and - over a period of time - shifting the balance, so that the community becomes increasingly capable of providing for their own needs. I would expect that, over time, the demand would be for less clothing, more manufacturing skills; less food, more agricultural skills; less this is how it is done, more how do you think we could improve on this. Fewer fish. More fishing rods. (I am not blind to the fact that fundamental needs such as food and clothing are a long way from learning consultancy, but I believe the principle holds because they are informed by the same ingrained practices and expectations).

Until such time as they reach a point where even the education and training are things they are able to do for themselves... and better than any outsider not steeped in the culture and the vagaries of the landscape.

Until they reach a point where, when they identify the need for external expertise they do not yet have (a) they are able to hire such a provider at a fair rate of pay and (b) the external provider's brief includes the mentoring of local people to take up the slack when the contract is over.

This is enablement. This is sharing, rather than giving away in an act of charity, which always puts the giver in a position of superiority over the receiver. This harks back to a previous post about Stephen Downes's giving v sharing argument.

I would have gladly mentored a few southern Africans and worked myself out of a job over time, but in the meantime I expect to be paid for my work. I have bills to pay and a family to feed... and I can't bear the thought of my people being so disempowered as to be dependent on handouts.


Anonymous said...

I think you would have enjoyed our guest speaker at church yesterday morning. He works with a group doing mission work in Haiti. He talked about the fact that mission work falls into 3 general categories: relief work, development work, and proselytizing. Relief work is important after natural disasters, but giving handouts all the time isn't a long-term solution. He argued for the need for development even in places where the poverty is immense and overwhelming, where our first inclination as Westerners is to provide relief. They're teaching farming techniques and planting trees, with incentives to keep the trees in the ground for several years. They're getting tilapia ponds started and teaching the techniques to farm and maintain the ponds.

It may be that I just missed it, but one thing I didn't hear him talk about was local leadership: training Haitians to train others. So the development work is good, but I think the best mission projects have an element of enabling locals to "own" the project. I totally agree with you that training yourself out of a job would have been the right approach; that mentoring should be part of the process. Handouts are just relief work, not a long term solution to any of the systemic issues.

Karyn Romeis said...

@Christy Absolutely. There is a point at which need is so great that fish are what is required, but once that supply chain is set up, there is a need for 'tough love' and the beginning of fishing lessons!

Downes said...

I have come to think that the best sort of aid programme is one which purchases locally, rather than bringing goods and services provided by donor nations.

The development of capacity will never occur while there is no development of a productive capacity nor local markets for these providers.

It's not a question of whether or not recipients pay for goods provided (and I think rather too much moralizing takes place over this). It's a question of who profits from the economic activity generated by aid programs.

This is why I have been speaking more and more harshly against OER programs that involve providing funding to large and rich western-based universities to 'give knowledge for free' (to use the OECD phrase) to lesser developed countries.

The emphasis of any OER program should be to foster the development of a local capacity to produce these resources, which is effectively a redistribution of charitable activity and charitable spending.

I think that the 'poor people should/should not pay' argument is a red herring. And it detracts from a reasoned discussion of development aid.

Karyn Romeis said...

@Downes I don't disagree with anything you say. I have known people who collect enormous quantities of cast off clothing, which they then ship into poorer areas. The people of these areas are expected to pay a nominal fee in order not to instil the handout mentality.

This is not the stance that I am taking. Not for a moment.

I also recognise that the prices that these big-hearted people are able to charge undermine local industry.

The culture of expecting handouts, however, is symptomatic of the disempowering approach that has been the norm. It is one I have addressed because it impacted on me (and others involved with the same project) and it saddens me.

Nick said...

Could not agree more. This handout mentality is toxic and is evedent not only in third world countries but also in countries like Australia. Fewer fish, more fishing poles is exactly the mentality globaly we need to adobt.