Thursday, February 28, 2013

When aid is a crutch and not a solution

I spent an unsettling afternoon yesterday listening as people from a very poor village in this region inadvertently revealed to me one of the major problems with international aid.
The village is home to about 100 families, virtually all of them scratching out the most meagre of existences from land that's too steep and too full of clay to be good for farming.
Their five-year-old school is looking the worse for wear, but there's no money to fix the screens or stop the water that's making its way into one of the two classrooms. The roof is in danger of collapsing on the local church. There are no jobs or school past Grade 6 for the young people, only four vehicles in the whole town, and no housing options for expanding families other than to squeeze another three or four people into Mom and Dad's teeny adobe home.
So as you can imagine, they were happy to see us. My organization was there to help them identify and priorize community projects, and the villagers were very eager to talk about what they needed
A new soccer field, for one. A kitchen for the school. Equipment for the people in town who have some marketable skills but can't use them because they didn't have tools. Help starting up a new bread-baking business. A new roof for that church. Better roads. Retaining walls that could be backfilled to create tiny lots for more houses. Latrines for the houses that don't have any. A better way to handle garbage other than just chucking the stuff into the street, which is what happens now.
Good ideas all. The plan now is to pitch some of those projects to international funders to see if somebody wants to put up some money.
But the truth is that you could fund every one of those projects and the community would still be a dirt-poor place with little hope for a diet that goes beyond corn and beans, sustainable infrastructure, or a future for its young people that isn't just more of the same.
Please don't interpret this as me saying we should stop international aid. Countries like Honduras have seen major improvements over time in the health and well-being of their citizens because caring donors and governments in distant lands ponied up for carefully considered interventions.
 International aid also has the potential to shape government policy, and this country could certainly use some of that. My own little organization has done some great work to help individual families lift themselves out of the grind of daily poverty.
But projects alone can't change the future of a community, or of a country. Whatever projects are ultimately realized in that little town we visited yesterday will not change the fact that its residents are poorly equipped for the modern world, unable to sustain their own community, and destined to live ever more marginally while waiting for the next group of well-intended visitors to show up with more project funding.
 Hats off to whatever group got that school built in the village, but where was the money supposed to come from to maintain it in a town where everybody lives virtually without income? And while many would argue that a Grade 6 education is better than none at all, is it anywhere near enough schooling to prepare young people for an increasingly complex and global economy?
If the unemployed seamstresses, mechanics and plumbers in town had the tools they needed to work, where would they find the people to pay them for that work - or the transport to access larger commercial centres? If the local bread-makers were helped to start a business, where would they sell their goods?
And would their business make enough money to cover costs? Or would they end up like the villagers in other towns around here who started raising tilapia through an injection of international funds only to discover they couldn't make enough selling the fish to pay for the cost of feeding them?
Projects are great ways to kick-start a new day. It's smart to use international funds to build schools in countries committed to reforming their education system but too poor to get started. It's caring to put foreign dollars and expertise to work to strengthen health care in a region digging itself out of a crisis. It's an excellent investment to provide seed money for private enterprise in a town where all the ingredients are there to make a new business work.
But stringing a bunch of projects together without ever getting to the root of a problem - well, that's just busy work. Honduras has plenty of that, but will spin its wheels as a country until there's long-term, strategic support for transformation that goes all the way to the top.
Until then, we're really just putting a pretty face on the status quo. I feel for all the Hondurans who know it.