The aid and development sectors work hard to promote and maintain an air of importance and legitimacy, but there are some hard truths that we need to face if the industry is to grow and address the huge challenges we, as a global community, continue to come up against - climate change and the increased frequency of natural disasters, unhindered economic growth causing environmental and social deterioration and the rise of political fundamentalism, just to name a few.
For individuals not directly associated with the industry, awareness is mostly garnered via the media and it is what the media perceives to be 'sexy' as to where the priorities in foreign aid often lay. What this means is the small, local and most sustainable initiatives often miss out.
Here are three truths about foreign aid and what we can do about them:
1. The unspoken code
In the aid and development sectors* there are people who are in it for the wrong reasons. These people, in their relentless pursuit of rewards and money, have justified the use of foreign aid dollars on fancy cars, apartments and overpaid salaries. There are others who feel uncomfortable about this - the discrepancy between local and expatriate salaries and conditions is enough to sound the alarm bells. Worse still are the bloated bureaucracies that rely and perpetuate the myths that the charity model (where aid is given unconditionally and continually) is an effective and sustainable model of development. It's time for an honest conversation - the social change that development programmes and humanitarian responses aim for is incredibly complex and difficult to achieve. It takes generations. The sector isn't perfect, nor should it be expected to be. It's an inexact science that needs as many people and resources behind it as possible. It is high time organisations practice what they preach in terms of labor rights, sustainability and local empowerment. The unspoken code must be spoken about.
2. Misery sells
The relentless pursuit of funding has led to a race at the bottom among charities - who can sell their cause in the best way. This approach not only normalises misery, and therefore increases donor fatigue and apathy, but it is often misrepresentative of the people and countries which these charities seek to depict. It's time for organisations and individuals to take the high ground and stop perpetuating myths about developing countries and the people which inhabit them. Some deep reflection on our communication and education approaches is necessary - to build a higher level of understanding globally about the big issues and how we can collectively address them.
3. Administration suffocates innovation
There's a reason why there is a global shift towards smaller, more local organisations as recipients of aid dollars. The big aid bureaucracies including the largest charities, donors and UN agencies, are slow-moving, change-resistant beasts. While the sector likes to think they are innovative, the truth is there are very few truly innovative programs. The structures that have been set up in the name of accountability and transparency (which are very important) have stifled new approaches and innovation. Most of all, they have disempowered the very people that aid and development programmes aim to help. It's time to look at new models of development including social enterprise, social business and community-led approaches which are not only sustainable, but don't rely on foreign-led efforts which drain capacity rather than build it.
It's Time to Embrace the Future
The international aid and development industry should, at its heart, be about great, positive and social shifts. There are, by and large, an enormous number of talented, hard-working and benevolent people trying to make a difference in the world. Transparency initiatives mean that you can now track every cent of your donation to the beneficiary. Crowdfunding sites like Pozible and Start Some Good mean that small, local initiatives with a social cause can raise previously unattainable funds. Access to information and news also means that there is no longer an excuse for apathy and inaction. The rise of social business and social enterprise is proof of this revolution and evidence that smaller, local initiatives truly can achieve social change, albeit on a micro scale.
One such initiative - Harmoneat, a social business in Myanmar is raising funds to enable them to promote trust and tolerance using food - is harnessing the digital revolution; global support for local change. Harmoneat, through its cooking school and food truck, aims to not only build bridges in a country emerging from 60 years of civil war, but fundamentally empower local people with skills and opportunities.
Instead of seeing this global revolution as a threat, the aid and development sectors should re-harness the power and benevolence of individuals, embrace the digital revolution and truly refocus on the principles which we all know should underpin our work - empowerment, innovation, equality.
* The term 'aid' is used often when referring to humanitarian emergencies whereas 'development' refers to longer-term efforts. Confusingly 'foreign aid' is used to refer to money given by other countries for both humanitarian and development purposes.