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  • Writer's pictureGunnar Garfors

Who Deserves Your Aid Money?

In a pygmy village in Central African Republic.

Internationally there are thousands and thousands of organizations that provide aid to “less fortunate people”, primarily in the poorest countries in Africa and Asia. Many of these charities are engaged in a “beauty contest”, boasting about spending as little money as possible for administration of the organization, as opposed to “effective aid”. But that is not all you should look out for before deciding on who is worthy of your money.

Do note that the background for this blog post comes through years and years of travel, no systematic or extensive research. On my journeys to every country I have informally spoken to or interviewed dozens and dozens of people working for NGOs, UN agencies, governmental programmes and other types of organizations involved in the aid business.

Providing to those without access to what most of us take for granted in the western world is noble, by all means. But we are also talking about organizations with access to a lot of formal and informal lobbying. No sane politician would for instance remove much funding to aid without being at risk of losing large amounts of voters. Because to give aid is the right thing to do. Or so we are told by the organizations that pass it on to the needy. At least they claim that they do, although is it clever to trust the gatekeeper, the proxy, the middle man? I am not arguing that they are consciously witholding aid. I am just saying that they are not necessarily using it as well as they could – or should.

There are several aspects that matter.

  1. Some money will necessarily have to be used for administration, but the figures should ideally be as low as possible. Primarily due to the fact that a lot of that money goes to western employees with wages that may be tens or hundreds of times higher than that of local employees. Instead of hiring one western person, with substantial overhead costs, an organization can hire dozens of people in low-cost countries where the aid is actually needed. To move wage costs abroad will help boost the local economy and provide housing and food on the table for many families in need. Which means that high administration costs aren’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as a lot of the administration happens in underdeveloped countries, using local people. Just make sure that these employees are given fair renumeration. And keep in mind that the local economy will benefit in other ways too, through office rental, transportation and other overhead.

  2. A lot, and I mean A LOT, of the money is usually used to employ western people that provide their expertise at home or in the field. These people typically have good educations and are not people in need. To keep them on board does however require a big chunk of limited aid budgets, which means that one of organizations’ biggest incentives for pressuring politicians to maintain such budgets is to keep their own jobs. Money you give to charity fills up the same budget chest. These western humanitarian organizations are in other words essentially fighting to keep western paychecks and overhead costs, often with actual aid as a mere bonus.

  3. Quite a few of these westerners will travel a lot to keep track of programmes, to coordinate aid projects, to provide training and to meet with local politicians to make sure that their organizations are still going to be welcome next year and the year thereafter. And be under no illusion that many of these politicians won’t demand aid money to make things run smoothly and to guarantee future access. Travel obviously costs money. But you will be surprised to learn how many of these aid workers that fly business class or first class. Just imagine how many kids you could help in the developed world for the price of a business class ticket.

  4. Naturally they gotta stay somewhere too. My experience is that disturbingly many aid workers stay in resorts or 5-star hotels. That is wrong for so many reasons. First of all, these hotels know their worth to spoilt western customers and charge heaps of money – often more than a similar establishment in a western city. Secondly, they are almost exclusively run by western companies – which means that the money these organizations spend on accommodation doesn’t really help the local economy much. They may not even hire local people if it is cheaper to fly in labour from i.e. Bangladesh or the Philippines. And naturally, most other hotel guests are westerners, locals can hardly afford such pricey accommodation, so don’t expect inside info on local matters. Thirdly, visitors here do not get anything near a real picture of the situation on the ground. These hotels are usually fenced with guards, pools, cable TV, high-speed internet and restaurants. I have heard from many NGO employees who on trips to the field hardly see anything but airports and the hotel. Of course this doesn’t apply to everyone, many venture into slums and small villages or hamlets, and work inhuman hours to make a difference. Some choose to stay in the same conditions as those they are there to help, but alarmingly few judging by my discussions. And perhaps most importantly, how can aid workers get much needed respect from local people when they enjoy lavish lifestyles and fancy hotels in some of the poorest countries on earth?

My intention is not to point fingers at any specific organizations, I just think it is important to think about these issues and to ask questions before deciding on which charities to contribute to.

A good start is to look into whether they follow UNs sustainable development goals whereas Charity Navigator provides info on what to look for in terms of accountability and transparency. Big organizations demand more administration and seem more inclined to let employees travel in style than small ones, so giving to grassroot organizations may be a good starting point.

In Norway charitable organizations must provide information on how much money is spent on administration (losely specified) and how much is being spent on its purpose (as specified in its charter). This is far from specific enough. I would like to see percentages spent for the following four budget items, as a minimum:

a) Aministration in the industrialized world

b) Administration in the developing world

c) Transportation (with information on average spend per flight)

d) Accommodation (with information on average spend per night)

If the charity you consider donating to doesn’t volunteer that info on its website, perhaps it may share it with you if you get in touch. Or perhaps you should rather donate to one that is as transparent as you would expect. Perhaps even better yet – instead contribute directly to local businesses through microloans or investments. We are generally too focused on aid. Boosting the local economy can be done so much better in other ways: “Give a woman a fish and she has food for tonight, teach her to fish and she has food for a lifetime.”

The books “Dead Aid” by Dambisa Moyo and “Aid and other Dirty Business” by Giles Bolton go more in depth about these and other related matters.

As travellers we are very priveleged and fortunate. Not only can we afford to visit far-flung places, we also have passports that enable us to do so (or are at least able to get one without hassle). In my opinion we ought to help out when we can. Not necessarily by giving to traditional charities, perhaps through supporting individuals and local businesses wherever we go.

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