The scandal surrounding Greg Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute is fascinating because it’s entirely consistent with the broken practices and culture in community development organizations – not only in the developing world, but in the U.S. too. When you build a school that remains vacant and unused from a lack of adequate community engagement or planning, you’re not serving your targeted communities.
(In addition, it seems that Mortensen’s Central Asia Institute misused funds and focused inordinate amounts of attention on promoting the founder itself. A different problem!)
What’s broken? Both organizations that advertise on TV – Save the Children, Worldvision – and the organizations funded by government agencies like USAID, have grown focused on producing things that are easy to measure, like:
- Number of schools, playgrounds, hospitals or other infrastructure items constructed
- Amount of money spent
- Number of children who would fit in school if it were full (similarly, number of patients who would be served by hospital, etc.)
But those things don’t matter. The things that matter are difficult to measure, like:
- Building functioning education systems
- Creating real opportunities for economic development
- Earning “buy-in” for desired behaviors and practices, whether health, environment or culture-related
A Case Study from Mali
I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali, in a small village called Sogola. My predecessor there worked with the village to build a women’s health clinic (just a concrete building, really) with the theory that the village would be responsible for staffing it. When I left, three years after the building was complete, there was no health worker staffing the clinic. This reveals the central problem: The government did not have the funds to provide one, and the village did not tax itself to provide the funds. Development organizations are focused on providing measurable infrastructure, but that infrastructure is pretty meaningless without the people to provide services.
My neighbors in Sogola were focused on big, landmark projects, like building new cement buildings, or maybe buying metal fencing to make gardens or chicken coops. These are one-time infusions of cash, and not self-sustaining or change-generating projects. And who can blame them? Aid agencies have been only too happy to distribute funds for “stuff” – concrete buildings, metal fencing, solar panels, etc. – because distributing “stuff” is easy.
The problem is that all this distribution of “stuff” stands between Malians and their own ability to develop their economies. My village was no better off with an empty health clinic than it was without it. Money can build clinics, but it cannot produce good health care systems. It can provide equipment or materials, but not a society of businesspeople and entrepreneurs. The solution isn’t another building. The solution is investing in people by giving them the means to invest in themselves.
Image Credit: Save the Children on Flickr