Preamble to a Q&A on international development: Charitable donations, silver bullets and the hapless beneficiary.

By | October 6, 2013
If you don’t ask me what I need then is it my fault I don’t use what you gave me the way you wanted me to?

Impact assessment metrics for this donor funded project will show how many thousands of households in the region received their chemically treated malaria prevention kits consisting primarily of brand new mosquito nets. The photograph above was taken in Eastern Province, Kenya in July 2012.  And shown below is a photograph taken in Western Province a few weeks earlier.

Chemically treated mosquito nets enabling healthier lives by improving food security for beneficiaries.

The first impulse is to blame the beneficiary of this well meaning largesse, paid for by school children in rural Yorkshire or well meaning hausfraus in Bonn, for the lapse but closer examination of the homestead will show that each bed already has its own mosquito net. These are surplus. And one cannot argue that they are not being put to good use, just like the recipients were urged to do so by various well wishers and VIPs in attendance. A good meal of sukumawiki and chicken will do wonders for your health, if you ask me and any Mama in the village. Yes, this is wasteful abundance and a scandal. But there is always another side to the story, and like Kurosawa, we’ll discover many points of view as we attempt to understand the conundrum of continuing scarcity of resources in a world over flowing with good intentions.

On top of the media rankings right now is a recently released biography of Jeffrey Sachs, the Lord of Poverty himself, author of the Millenium Development Village programme – that silver bullet meant to change the world. Instead, the daughter of the founder of a notorious mining conglomerate takes aim straight at the heart of international aid, and, according to rival economist William Easterly, ends the debate on “Big Aid” once and for all. While I’m no fan of any of this and certainly no wide eyed youngster with rose coloured glasses seeking to uplift the downtrodden in my spare time, I do wonder where this leaves us today with respect to social and economic development and what kind of market forces will rush in to fill the vacuum left behind.

In a moment of synchronicity, Regarding Humanity, a conscience driven collective, posed these  questions to me after a particularly powerless stream of tweets:

1. Is the ball already rolling to change the “Development Industrial Complex”? What sorts of shifts needed for process to happen?

2. How can technology best be used to change humanitarian practices that may appear to you to be evolved forms of imperialism?

3. What does dignified, respectful humanitarianism look like to you in the context of the power dynamics you mention?

While I have my reservations on the way the questions have been framed, and my disclaimers include a complete lack of relevant education or experience of humanitarian aid and the international development industry, I’m foolish enough to leap without looking how deep the waters might be. They offered me some definitions on my request and I’ve been doing my homework on this topic. Stay tuned for the answers.

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