Mary Walker: Aid as commodity
July 9, 2013
I recently contacted a famous international nonprofit organization that provides a specific product to impoverished people in developing countries about how to, as I described it, "put an individual into the pipeline to receive the assistance that your organization provides." I got no response. I have become increasingly frustrated throughout the years as I go looking for ways to assist the girls, their mothers and siblings with the myriad humanitarian products offered by international nonprofit organizations — everything from cows, solar-charging flashlights, energy-efficient cookstoves and rainwater storage devices to high-yield, disease-resistant maize and potato seeds.
I have perused website after website that describe these organizations, how useful the product that they provide is to impoverished people around the world and what a donation provides in the way of one of this or 100 of that. Most visible and catchy of all is how easy it is to make a donation — in big, bold green boxes, "How to Donate" spread throughout the site so that it cannot be missed by people wanting to help.
Rarely, however, do these organizations describe in detail how the recipients for their commodities are chosen or, even less frequently, how an individual can become a recipient of the organization's self-described "life changing and poverty reducing" product. And they are commodities after all — products of value that meet a certain need that can bought and sold just like any other, albeit with a nonprofit organization controlling their distribution. But those who really need the commodity — whether it is a cow, a solar-charging radio or water purification device — only will have access to it if they happen to be in the path of a church, specific government program operating within a specific geographic region or a celebrity do-gooder. In Kenya, this leaves out about 75 percent of the population who really need these products.
I keep hoping that these well-meaning organizations will start a new trend and focus more on how to effectively distribute their aid to the individuals and families that are most in need and focus less on how to raise more money because, by and large, most of these organizations do not need more money. What they do need are better practices in how they use their donated funds to reach those most in need. It is very easy to put more "Donate Here" interactive buttons on a website. It is more difficult to rein in costs by hiring and training local employees in the countries that they are active in (at a decent local, not American, payscale), encourage frugality among their international staff in their travel and living expenses while staying in developing countries or stop paying inflated "wages" to on-site middlemen to deliver products just because it is a bit inconvenient, dirty or too far from the capital city for the organization's American-wage paid staff to deliver directly.
I hope that one day, the hallmark of a successful aid organization is in how well it documents exactly how it has assisted specific individuals and their families and not on how much money it has raised.
Mary Walker, a 25-year resident of Clark, volunteered at the Tasaru Girls Rescue Centre, which rescues Maasai girls from female genital mutilation and child marriage in Kenya. She now provides college and university assistance to several girls from the rescue center. Mary can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.