Why We Should Stop Running to Help Developing Nations....and Start Paying Attention

Why the Traditional Model for International Aid is Ineffective
Mar 26, 2010 2:45 PM ET
 “Deep in every liberal sensibility is a profound sense that in a world of moral uncertainty one idea is sacred, one belief cannot be compromised: the rich should help the poor, and the form of this help should be aid…[and yet]…across the globe the recipients of this aid are worse off: much worse off. Aid has helped make the poor poorer, and growth slower.” Dambisa Moyo, - Dead Aid   Over the past 5 decades, developed countries have poured over a trillion dollars (US) into developing countries. Yet for many observers there is little evidence of the sustainable improvements in the lives of the world’s poor that would be expected from this level of investment. Something does not seem to be working. Books are written, suggestions made, studies conducted, debates held, and international commitments made. So why is there this ongoing deep disconnect between the desire of people and countries to help others from making a sustainable and positive difference?    Stories and myths abound of well intentioned individuals and organizations that follow the well trod path to developing communities and countries wanting to make a difference and only making problems. And yet there are successes. From my own experiences and readings on the topic I am increasingly curious about the emergence of what appear to be approaches that seem to break from our cultural beliefs regarding development and aid. I am curious about a need for a shift in our thinking:   From we are experts to I have something to learn from you - North American culture values experts and specialists. We are well educated and we believe that our knowledge is true – therefore if we bring our knowledge to a developing community or country their circumstances will improve. This is a belief that leaves little room in our thinking to hear and perceive the knowledge of the people we are coming to help.    From we can bring in a solution from elsewhere and it will work here to your circumstances are unique and need to be understood before a solution can be created – Modernism has led us to believe that processes and structures can be transferred from one context to another and that they will `fit’. Years of organizational experience should be telling us that this is rarely the experience.   From we can talk about your needs without you in the conversation to you are the most important participants in the conversation - In the Foreword to the book Dead Aid, the contributor Niall Ferguson makes an important observation – “…it has long seemed to me problematic, and even a little embarrassing, that so much of the public debate about Africa’s economic problems should be conducted by non-African white men.” Effective conversations happen when all the people involved come into the conversation and are prepared to listen and be changed by the conversation. It is in conversation where we chose to be open to new possibilities, especially when all perspectives are present.   From there is one right way to there are multiple and contradictory ways to the outcomes desired – It is uncomfortable for us to live with the ambiguity of multiple and contradictory solutions and we have a socialized preference to reject ambiguity and to move to quickly to action. We want people and governments to move quickly and to make decisions correctly, and we have low tolerance for error.    Fortunately there are personal mastery competencies that we can foster that will help us shift our thinking:   Humility – a belief that there are things that I don’t know and I want to learn from you. Curiosity – a willingness to be open to other perspectives and to examining my own deeply held beliefs. Unhelpfulness – as Peter Block identifies in Community : the structure of belonging, don’t be helpful. Being helpful and giving advice are really ways to control others. In community we want to substitute curiosity for advice. (p. 109) Embrace Ambiguity – I don’t know what I don’t know and things will emerge as we learn together.   Looking for some more ideas on the challenges involved in international aid? Check out Community Enterprise Solutions and Changemakers. Or, share some of your own thoughts as to how we can move beyond our bias’ and neo-colonial attitudes and behaviors.   ACAC5701