The Problem with International Development

Thoughts on International Development from Corrie Fraser, UK Director.

Those of us who are passionate about supporting developing countries to grow are often originally motived by the clear imbalance and inequality we see when comparing Western economies to those of developing countries. I always assumed that the purpose of international development and international aid is to help and support those who have less and to create more opportunities for people living in poverty, right? Unfortunately, too often this cause does not match the reality of many international aid programs.

Let’s look at the idea of coming to someone’s ‘aid’ from the perspective of an individual with a problem. If a person you meet has a problem what is your natural response? Usually you would go and speak to this person about the problem and ask them if they have any ideas of how the problem may be solved. Once they have offered some suggestions you may then suggest that you could potentially support them by offering them some time, resources or skills that fit in with those suggestions. Then together you could solve the problem as a team. On a bigger scale this is how international development should work, but unfortunately all too often it does not happen. Instead you find plenty of suggestions flooding into developing countries from oversees without much dialogue with those actually facing the problems that come with poverty. Doesn’t this seem counterintuitive? If there are individuals dealing with adversities day in and day out, surely they are the most qualified to offer suggestions and surely they deserve to make their dreams and hopes for the future known. This is what community led and community driven development is and that is what developing countries need. People do not need others coming to tell them how to solve their problems, they need those with more resources to support them, share their burdens and have a healthy dialogue about how to transform their communities.

 You may think that this ‘Western Saviour’ attitude is spearheaded by NGO’s and aid organisations, but the truth is that it originates in the sources of funding and ultimately in the minds of the wealthy. If those who hold the largest proportion of the worlds wealth; whether they be governments, corporations, funding bodies or individuals; hold this view then it will filter right down to the very communities they aim to help. If we do not empower people to be a part of their own communities’ development in a way that respects and encompasses their own dreams for the future of their families, communities, cities and nations then what we are doing is not truly coming to their ‘aid.’ Far too often support is tied to specific ideals that match the motivations of individuals sitting in fancy offices thousands of miles away from the community itself and therefore it renders itself practically useless in the hands of a local person who is ready, motivated and willing to pull themselves out of poverty and make sustainable improvements to their community.

 So why does this really matter and why does this mind-set hinder development? Let’s revisit your ‘friend’ who has a problem that needs a solution. Perhaps this person is moving house but needs somewhere to stay for a few weeks after they move out of their current place and before they get their new keys. You may be thinking that the answer is simple, you could offer them a room? However, what if they actually live in a different city and they need to be at work every day 100 miles away from where you live? Once hearing this information would you then suggest that they stay with you? Of course not, you may suggest that you could contact a friend or relative that does live in that city and ask them to put them up for a few weeks. This all assumes that you have actually spoken to this person that needs a place to stay and listened to their specific needs. When those with the resources do not listen this results in a vast waste of resources. Resources and funding are too often pigeon-holed for specific things that potentially do not fit the community they arrive in.

One such example of this is that of reusable sanitary towels. First of all, I am not suggesting that reusable sanitary towels are not good inventions and don’t provide a great solution for many girls in developing countries, however it completely depends on the context. A few years ago an organisation donated a number of reusable sanitary towels to some of the girls in one of them slums that we work in and at first they seemed like a great way to tackle the problem of unaffordable sanitary items for girls. The girls gratefully received them, smiled kindly and said thank you. A couple of months later some of these girls spoke up, ‘We don’t like to use these reusable sanitary towels because we live in the slums and do not have anywhere private to wash them, hang them up or bathe. We also have a problem accessing enough clean water to wash them separately so we threw them away after one use.’ Of course, why would girls living without access to safe, clean and private sanitation want to use reusable sanitary towels? This is an entirely inappropriate suggestion for girls living in this context. Kids Club Kampala now provides monthly giveaways of regular sanitary towels to girls in Kampala’s slums as part of our supporting teenage girls programme. This issue was a relatively small scale problem and a few reusable sanitary towels were wasted in the process, however think of how much could be wasted on a miss-targeted, large scale international aid campaign of a similar nature.

There are of course millions of organisations around the world working in partnership with communities, listening to their problems and coming alongside them, and even many large NGOs carry out community based research and needs assessments to listen to the needs of the communities they serve. However, I believe that as long as the resources are tied up in Western and foreign ideals then there will continue to be a disconnect between communities in need and those aiming to support them. For this reason, organisations and community based projects need more individuals who believe in community led and community driven development to support them, partner with them and donate to their cause.

At Kids Club Kampala we are passionate about working with communities, listening to their thoughts, needs and opinions and supporting them to work towards their dreams. We often struggle to have enough finances available to support each great idea that comes from the community members themselves and therefore we need your help to be able to continue to make an impact in the 18 communities we work in. If you would like to become a Kids Club Kampala partner and help us to support communities please sign up to give a monthly gift.