International aid and some of the challenges...
21st June 2012
I've recently been asked to speak a bit about international aid. Talking on a subject that's broader than just the work of CCT has inspired me to look a little deeper and do some further research - I've recently read Dambisa Moyo's book 'Dead Aid', listened to various online debates and read a number of essays. Thought I might share some of my thoughts on the topic and how CCT fits into the picture.
My work in Cambodia began, not as an attempt to eradicate global poverty, but to change the lives of a small group of Cambodian children. So initially I had no goals for CCT beyond giving the kids in my care a life full of hope and opportunities. But over the years I’ve been living in Cambodia and running CCT, I’ve seen some of the problems hindering the progress of Cambodia’s development. I began asking myself some hard questions: ‘is CCT’s work focused on sustainable long-term development? Are we contributing towards the endemic culture of dependency seen in Cambodia today?’ As a result of asking these sorts of questions, my vision for CCT has grown.
The discussion surrounding how to best help those in need is a crucial one. More than a trillion dollars of aid has been given to the developing world in the last few decades and over a billion people are still living in absolute poverty today. Where I live, in Cambodia, over four million people, 30% of the population, are living below the national poverty line. There’s clearly still much to be done and the lives of millions of people depend on us getting it right.
So, before I go into some of the challenges facing international aid, let me first explain what we mean when we talk about aid. As Moyo writes in 'Dead Aid', there exists three types of foreign aid: Government-to-government aid, relief or emergency aid and NGO humanitarian aid. Government to government aid is in the form of payments made directly to governments or via institutions such as the World Bank, relief/emergency aid is provided in response to catastrophes and calamities like the 2004 Asian tsunami and NGO humanitarian aid is aid provided by Non-government organisations to institutions or people on the ground.
NGOs play a different role in development to that of government-to-government aid. We’re working on different scales with vastly different budgets. But both forms of aid can be powerfully complementary, provided we’re all focused on addressing the challenges that face all forms of aid work.
One of the challenges we face is to ensure international aid is directed at projects that are not focused on hand-outs and charity, which end up creating a cycle of dependency, hindering long-term development. I think that, generally, everyone concerned with poverty reduction agrees the primary focus of international aid needs to be on systemic change. We have to continually ask ourselves, are our projects serving to drive transformative change?
The answers matter because ultimately development aid needs to be about ending the need for assistance in the first place. This requires intellectual rigor to ask the hard questions and make sure development resources stay focused on long-term change.
When I first moved to Cambodia in 2007 many of the local NGOs I encountered were merely providing temporary relief of poverty, resulting in negative long-term consequences. At CCT we only bring children into residential care as a last resort. I've witnessed many other NGOs in Cambodia take children away from their parents, sometimes leaving some of their siblings behind, and put them into an orphanage. The thinking behind this is that if a family is too poor to support their children, then a sufficient solution is to alleviate the parents of the burden of raising their children.
There are many problems with this strategy.
Even if the children taken to the orphanage are able to get a good education and eventually find a job, they’re still never going to be able to break out of the cycle of poverty because they’ll forever be supporting the rest of their family. In Cambodia, it’s commonplace to find one family member working hard to support their entire family who have become financially dependent.
So, this method is not only completely unsuccessful in helping Cambodians to escape poverty; it has also been contributing to the growth of orphanages in Cambodia. In the last seven years the number of orphanages in Cambodia has doubled and the number of children living in institutionalised care has more than doubled. The fact is, the vast majority of children living in these orphanages are not actually orphans, in the traditional sense, they have families but have been placed in these institutions simply due to financial hardship.
And, sadly, abuse in Cambodian orphanages is not uncommon. Children are vulnerable when taken away from their parents and, tragically, many Cambodian orphanages are terribly mismanaged and the children can often end up being commodities used to bring in funds, which are then embezzled by corrupt directors. What I came to realise was that, no matter how well an orphanage is operating, wherever possible, the best place for a child is with their parents. It also became evident to me that the cost of running an orphanage is much higher than what we're doing now, which is to use microloans to assist poor families to become financially independent, allowing them to care for their own children, ultimately seeing them break free from the cycle of poverty for good.
In addition to assisting impoverished families to get up on their feet and become financially self-sustainable, CCT is also working on a range of community development programs, as well as setting up commercial enterprises, which promote self-sufficiency and create jobs. We are also focusing on projects that empower women, because focusing on women and girls has been found to be one of the most effective ways to fight global poverty, in part by addressing the issues associated with the demographic obstacles to a country’s development.
Another challenge to international aid is ensuring we’re acting to address the needs and desires of those we serve. It sounds obvious, but it’s no good having a board of white men sitting around a table in the west, deciding on what’s best for people in countries like Cambodia.
If we want our projects to have big impact, we need to know our customers. We need to seek their input, be open to their insights and learn from them. This is where the value of NGO humanitarian aid is clear - we work with people in local and grassroots situations, filling in the gaps often where governments will not or cannot. NGOs, working at the coalface, can provide assistance directly at the source and communicate with the people and communities to ensure their voices are heard and projects are developed around what they want. When we do that, it can lead us in promising directions that we may never have anticipated…
At CCT we place a high value on communication with the people we are working to help. CCT’s staff is comprised primarily of Cambodian people, who are dedicated to seeing the end of poverty in their own country. And I am fluent in Khmer, so am able to easily and clearly communicate with my team and with the children, families and communities we are working with.
One of the newest projects we’re working on at CCT is building a new Community Women’s Centre – which will ultimately be a place for women in Battambang to meet, develop their own focus groups and ultimately decide on the purpose of the centre that we’re building for them.
So, I think the bottom line is, no matter what form of development assistance you’re talking about (relief aid, government-to-government aid, or NGO humanitarian aid), all aid needs to share the same vision for long-term sustainability by helping people to help themselves. We need to move away from shortsighted band-aid solutions and ensure our projects are not contributing towards creating a culture of dependency on foreign aid.
Einstein once said "Insanity is defined as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." So we need to continually ask ourselves the hard questions.
Progress requires a progressive outlook. If we want developing countries to develop, we must keep developing the methods of delivering aid, being ready to adapt to current social climates, focusing on what is working and moving away from what isn’t.