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Is Aid Depressing?

August 12, 2010

Are NGOs doing more harm than good? Todd Johnson, newly returned from Ethiopia, noticed an anti-NGO sentiment spreading among struggling Ethiopian entrepreneurs he met. Johnson cites several examples, such as the Buy One Give One (BOGO) trend, which sends products to developing countries thanks to Western consumers. The hidden cost of this model lies in the fact that BOGO crowds out local enterprise.

He presented his star witness, Sammy, an Ethiopian entrepreneur in Addis Ababa:

“Africans don’t see a reward system in place for being entrepreneurial. In fact, they view it as a matter of survival, not an opportunity to lift themselves out of poverty. Rather, what they learn at a very early age is that in order to make good money, they should learn to speak English incredibly well and then maybe, just maybe, they can get a job driving for an NGO. In a few years, if they play their cards right, they might be able to land an NGO job as a project manager and even advance further.”

Given this, he continues, how can local businesses compete with the high wages and job security that NGOs offer? Why should they even try?

Most would take issue with this complaint by noting that, without NGOs and the aid of developed countries, many entrepreneurs would have even fewer opportunities. By this line of reasoning, NGO activity may indeed have unintended consequences in developing countries, but the net effect is positive.

There is no easy answer to this debate. It would certainly be disheartening for an aspiring do-gooder from the developed world to discover that she is harming the very people she wanted to help, but the aid community is rife with jaded souls who set out to change the world, only to discover that the world is big, old, and all too often resistant to change.

Defending NGOs, Chris Blattman pointed out that, just like any other job, aid is “hard and messy”, but in aid, “most of the failures are small, while the victories are huge”. With that in mind, he said, “Give me aid any day”.

William Easterly also offered his own characteristically sage advice for would-be aid workers: harness your passion, focus on your specific field or region, recognize that you won’t change the world, and embrace your small, yet noble, role in a much larger effort.

So, if you can accept those terms, pack a bag, hop on a plane, and meet the challenges of aid head-on. Just make sure to work with your host country’s citizens, not against them, around them, or without them, and maybe you can later say that, all things considered, you did a good thing.

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