International Development: Recommendations For and Against
Thinking about getting involved with, or donating money towards an international development organization (known more commonly these days as an NGO, non-governmental organization)? Maybe you want to know a little more about the directions in which international development is going these days. Maybe you want to know about the kind of work that different NGOs are doing in reality, on the ground. Maybe you just want to know where to send your used socks and baseball equipment (if that’s the case, don’t bother reading this – you won’t need it).
Honduras, famously the second-poorest country in the western hemisphere, has a ton of international aid organizations currently at work, ranging from large projects from foreign governments (like USAID) to small local groups, such as the coffee cooperative that I work with which sits at the extreme “small” and “local” end of the spectrum.
This isn’t really my area of expertise enough for me to write much of an analysis of international development in general, but concretely, I can point out some of the characteristics of NGOs and their projects here that, in the opinion of myself and other Peace Corps volunteers, do good work, and why:
Effective NGOs tend to be run on a local level, by local people. The bigger and more remote a project is, the more money gets wasted in administrative costs, the less contact there is with beneficiaries, and the less knowledgeable about local situations the project designers tend to be. USAID is a good example of an organization that routinely commits all these sins and is generally held in low esteem by Peace Corps volunteers. Homegrown NGOs are finally starting to get their act together around Honduras and my opinion is that they generally do much better work than the big projects, even though they may be under-funded and have less technical capacity.
Effective NGOs tend to concentrate on basic social services projects. A good project should benefit everybody in the village or town where it is built, and the more specialized the project is, the less people are going to participate in it. The three types of projects that are most built, most all-inclusive, and most effective are those that deal with water, education, and health. Seriously, you can’t go wrong with a water or latrine project. One of my favorite projects done around here is the water system-with-water-board. Water is important enough that the water boards function a lot more commonly than other community organizations because people put pressure on them to function. The necessity of making a water board work also teaches accounting practices, leadership, organizational skills, and community responsibility.
Contrast this kind of project with the expensive irrigation systems USAID was donating (and still is, I think) to produce huge quantities of jalapeños - complete with market contacts to sell them. Those projects tended to benefit only a few large producers with the capacity to make them run, and despite being supposedly highly profitable, are now mostly abandoned. This style of development has been mostly phased out by now on a worldwide level, but USAID is to this day still supporting it. Why waste time with this crap when Honduras has lots of places with no water, no latrines or health centers, and a national educational system that never should have made it out of the 18th century?
Maybe the Honduran government shouldn’t be getting so much of a free pass to neglect water, health, and education, but there’s probably a way to apply pressure to them to get their act together while continuing to support basic social services projects.
Effective projects don’t give stuff away. Charity sucks. It undermines local production and makes people dependent. Charity on a large scale does more harm than good. This is not an exaggeration.
I guess I hit on all the most important topics, especially in my first point. If I had one suggestion to make to people interested in international development, I guess it would be this: Either just support basic social services projects, or actually go to another country and spend some time working with the people there. Some development projects do in fact cause more harm than good, so be careful.
A final note - it may seem like I'm picking on USAID a lot, but they certainly do some good work as well, and there are many other organizations that make the same mistakes they do.
This week has been pretty weird. I came back from working with the trainees and traveling a lot, to find that there wasn’t anything to do real immediately in my site besides prepare for future events. I’ve finally gotten close enough to my Closure of Service (COS) date that I’ve started to think about it quite a bit, and this has produced a large range of mixed feelings. I really want to see the States again, but I don’t want to leave my beautiful little house in the mountains. I really want to have running water and hot showers again, but I don’t want to deal with regular working hours. I really want to see my family and old friends, but I don’t want to leave my friends here.
This might partly be made easier by the fact that most of my best Peace Corps friends in Honduras are gone – my normal COS date was August 12, so now the only people left from my training group are the ones that extended their service – myself, my friend Joshua, and Nicole Hubby, who lives WAY up on the north coast. And I’m all by my lonesome down in the south. :( I suppose I am going to have to become a nostalgic has-been with the new trainees and load them with all my hopes for everything that I didn’t accomplish as a Volunteer. It’s kind of funny, how young and green and enthusiastic and idealistic they are – just like my group must have been two years ago.
I don’t know if I had mentioned this previously, but the large project that I have been working with COCAGUAL to apply for got approved by FORCUENCAS and we are all set to start working (we started this grant application around April). I haven’t talked about it in much detail here because of past experiences with trying to get money and not wanting to say too much until it was solid, but it is now – so here is what will be done:
- Build a roofed area and a shed to make and store solid/liquid organic compost for sale as a source of income for the cooperative.
- Produce 1,000 baby coffee plants for each member of the cooperative to use in the renovation of their plantations – replacing old and decrepit coffee.
- Provide seed for 100 meters of a special kind of live barrier (erosion control method) for each cooperative member.
- Do several different training events related to organic certification, plantation management, commercialization, and how cooperatives work.
- Go on a field trip with 12 people to Nicaragua to see a technologically-advanced organic coffee farm and how it works.
- Get some equipment for the cooperative like a telephone and antennae for the office where I work.
- Implement to a small degree some other improvements in people’s farms, like worm composting, drying with screens, and making better traps for honey-waters (a contaminating by-product of coffee processing).
FORCUENCAS is putting in 700,000 Lempiras, which is like $35,000. The entire project probably costs about $50,000 when you factor in all of the work that will not be compensated, and will directly benefit about 45 producers and their families. I’m pretty happy about the project because it was essentially formulated by members of the cooperative (especially Isaí) with me helping to direct their ideas. Most (maybe all) of the work will be done after I leave, but at least I have the satisfaction of getting a freaking project approved, which would not have been the case if I’d put all my hopes on the BCIE (Central American Bank of Economic Integration -jerks!!). I only regret I wasted so much of my time with the BCIE and we didn’t start working with FORCUENCAS until it was almost too late, but that’s how the cookie crumbled I guess. The person to replace me in Agua Fría will not be bored at least. They’ll get to teach English to my Maestro en Casa class in October too, haha. Good times.
Smooches to all my homefries,