musings on travel, international living, development aid, politics, turkey (the country more than the meat) and anything else that comes to mind...

Friday, December 14, 2012

(My) Changing Face of Development Aid

If you are 'the person' that regularly reads this blog you know that I was recently back in South Sudan. You might also be aware that I've been working in such fun places for the last 4-ish years, learning more about myself and the world than any classroom could ever dream to afford a student.

I hope to continue contributing to the development aid community of NGOs, multi-laterals, etc. into the future, helping to 'fix' projects, assess impact, design projects that fit needs, etc. There is so much great work going on by people (including me) who have all the right intentions. But...

There's always a 'but'...

Living in Cambridge, MA - the research center of the development world and a hub for venture capitalism/startup businesses - leads me to believe that maybe NGOs aren't the only ones who can/should address global poverty (*gasp*).

In Pagak, my latest field post amidst swampy awesomeness, we desperately tried to train (mostly women) farmers to be able to live at or above subsistence in an area that is so fertile and rain-filled I'm pretty sure I saw several of Jack's beanstalks reach into the sky (they were weeds). We provided medicine to the community despite the existence of a local market for medication that sprung up whenever the rain (or our collective disorganization) meant we couldn't get supplies in. Intrepid community members were sent out to deliver medicine and medical supplies to communities 5 days walk away, inaccessible by any other means.

Without the generous support of donors (mostly from 'rich' countries with stalled economies of their own), how would these people learn these skills and access these services? More importantly, are NGOs doing more than prolonging the status quo and/or creating aid dependencies? 'Sustainability' is often thought of as people being able to do the things you (the NGO) teach them on their own after you're gone.  What if sustainability meant private enterprises inclusively filling market gaps and making money while they're at it?

I'd argue that the private sector may be able to fill a lot of these gaps over time. It may take a while in Pagak (where asphalt is a luxury), but, in places like Rwanda, private sector-driven growth models have shown astounding results in the last 10 years.

More private sector involvement will not immediately eradicate poverty. NGOs are still much better situated to respond to humanitarian crises and disaster situations than inherently more risk averse companies probably will ever be. Cries of non-inclusive growth will undoubtedly be true in some cases. Long histories of extractive private enterprise that oftentimes enriched local political elite at the expense of the poor (read: colonialism) will loom over every transaction. Private sector-driven economic growth is not the panacea; as David Cameron points out there are many strands to the golden thread of development.

But (and there's always a 'but' remember) maybe there's something there that we - development practitioners, academics and policy-makers - need to explore a bit more? Business folks are all but openly scorned by development types (partly out of salary jealousy), but maybe a model whereby companies invest in (and make money out of) the developing world is a more 'sustainable' one?

Being in Cambridge I can't help but want to study this more, to read about how it's worked, to write my thoughts down, to perhaps even work in the private sector one day (*double gasp*)? Maybe I could help businesses make money in the developing world in a way that infuses capital into local markets, builds infrastructure, pays staff a living wage and provides valuable technical skills? Would that be so bad?

Or maybe I should just stick to addressing the academic/policy divide in development? Or maybe I stick with the NGOs? Or maybe...

So many ideas. So many options. So much work to be done.