Hope, and the Aid Debate

It's tiresome and tedious, the never ending debate about what works in development aid

It's tiresome and tedious, the never ending debate about what works in development aid.

The one camp insists governments do more. The United Nations argues that any country aspiring "to global leadership through permanent membership on the UN Security Council" meet the 0.7 target for development assistance. The 0.7 percent target refers to the agreement of developed nations to commit at least 0.7 percent of GNP to foreign aid. Meanwhile, another camp champions free enterprise ("trade not aid"), entrepreneurship, and the work of privately financed NGOs as the primary means to lift people out of poverty.

We know certain things by now.

First, there are precious few graduates of foreign economic assistance. Aid is often misspent, goes lost -- or into the coffers of corrupt authoritarians. In some instances investments are made in well meaning projects that do little to put a nation on a path to self-sustaining growth. An inherent problem with the 0.7 percent goal is the focus on funds raised and dispersed, rather than on services delivered and impact achieved.

Second, we know there are savvy people like Columbia University economist Jeffrey Sachs who grasp the problems of traditional aid and have worked to develop new approaches. The Sachs-led Millenium Villages Project (MVP) -- funded by a mix of government and private contributions -- aims to tackle problems of extreme poverty in rural areas by improving access to health care, clean water, education and food production. The verdict may not yet be entirely in, but critics like economist William Easterly and journalist and author Nina Munk (The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty) already point to a litany of shortcomings and failures in the MVP approach.

I recall a conversation I had several years ago about Iraq with a journalist from the Caucasus, a war correspondent who had lost eight friends and family members in the second Chechen War (August 1999-May 2000). About the troubled U.S.-led invasion in Iraq, he said he was well aware of all that was going wrong. He and fellow countrymen were more interested, though, in hope, as he put it -- in what was going right.

I've come across three NGOs the past year that are getting things right. All three focus on educating and empowering girls and women in the developing world. All three, the ins and outs of the aid debate aside, offer inspiration and hope.

Future Brilliance, started by British businesswoman Sophia Swire, supports women in vulnerable border regions in Afghanistan. I can attest to the demand. I've spent time in the country, having worked for a media company that operates an Afghan radio station. Our most popular program was a call-in women's health care show hosted by a female Afghan gynaecologist. The work of Future Brilliance is equally straight forward and concrete. One project trains women to cut, design and sell jewellery. The larger purpose: to nurture self-reliance. Swire deplores the culture of dependency so often associated with aid projects. Future Brilliance is not naive. If the Taliban return to power, it's also important that women have work they can at least try to do at home.

Many of the women trained by Future Brilliance are illiterate. An estimated 85 percent of Afghan women have no formal eduction. A new NGO called the Girl Project, launched this year by Glamour magazine, plans to concentrate on the problem of education (Disclosure: Blue Star Strategies, a strategic advice firm with which I am affiliated, has done work for Glamour magazine). I attended Glamour's "Women of the Year Awards" at Carnegie Hall in New York this fall and expected, well -- glitz, bling and glamour. I got that. What I hadn't expected, though, was the substance of the evening; women (and girls) of considerable accomplishment from around the world, acknowledged for their contributions in education, innovation, science, and human rights.

The Girl Project estimates that there are some 50 million girls around the world being denied access to basic education. Partnering with several well known NGOs, The Girl Project wants to help send some of these young women to school. It's a simple concept, Glamour's special project director Genevieve Roth tells me: "we want to use the Glamour brand to raise awareness and money to do something good in the world." Last year, Glamour honoured Malala Yousafazai, the 17-year-old girls education advocate and Nobel Laureate who was nearly assassinated on a school bus in Pakistan in October, 2012. Among this year's honourees: 11-year-old Poonam, who has fought to stay in school in Pakistan, in the face of "everybody [being] against it," as she puts it.

Getting girls in school is not easy. Founded in 1993, The Veerni Project -- in Hindi, Veerni means heroine or woman of strength -- is the brainchild of London and New York-based philanthropist and human rights entrepreneur Jacqueline de Chollet, a tireless advocate of girls education. De Chollet was inspired to start the Veerni Project after meeting a young woman named Bhanwari in a poor, remote village in north western India. De Chollet tried to buy a shawl from the malnourished Bhanwari. "As soon as I handed her the money," she says, "a man came in and snatched it from her feeble grasp." Today, in that very same area, the Veerni Project operates a successful school for 90 girls.

"The fact that our boarding school is 60 percent lower caste," de Chollet tells me by email from Jodpur where the school is located, "does not make us popular with everyone." Progress is incremental. Of a recent meeting with the poor illiterate parents of some of these young girls, de Chollet writes: "They [the parents] are so proud of their daughters -- two are now in a girls college, the first girls from that village to attend college and the only ones out of 300 that belong to the Dalit caste". When she's not thinking about security, helping the school nurse, and signing new leases, de Chollet is busy forging partnerships with other schools on other continents, including in Africa. She connects people; she grows communities.

Do initiatives such as Future Brilliance, The Girls Project and The Veerni Project answer all the questions of the aid debate? Hardly. In a sense, they operate according to the principle of the "butterfly effect." The late dissident, playwright and Czech President Vaclav Havel once described it this way:

You have certainly heard of the "butterfly effect." It is a belief that everything in the world is so mysteriously and comprehensively interconnected that a slight, seemingly insignificant wave of a butterfly's wing in a single spot on this plant can unleash a typhoon thousands of miles away. ... We cannot assume that our microscopic, yet truly unique everyday actions are of no consequence simply because they apparently cannot resolve the immense problems of today.

You don't have to believe in the butterfly effect to appreciate that important work is being done. There's impact, and hope, as the aid debate carries on.

Before You Go