Simply... How Voluntary Aid Works


new internationalist
issue 228 - February 1992

Simply - How
voluntary aid works
The ads make it sound simple. Your gift will mean a blind person can have a cataract operation or a well can be dug. In reality, of course, by trusting your money to an aid agency you are sending it on a long journey. Here is what happens to it on the way - arid how the wheel of voluntary aid brings back messages and motivation to your door.

Illustration by JIM NEEDLE

No development agency could devote itself entirely to practical work with the poor: it would wither on the vine very quickly. Unless people at home are told how they contribute to the poverty and injustice in the world they will feel no sense of responsibility. The message from the project partner or country office should include local people's perspective on the roots of the problem.

We are likely, for instance, to welcome a fall in the price of sugar on our supermarket shelves unless we are told that producers in the Third World who depend on it for their livelihood are losing out as a result. It is the job of the campaigners to absorb the messages from overseas - and get them across to the public and the policymakers.

The days when charities depended on the tin rattling outside the shop are long gone. Modern charity fundraising uses all the sophisticated marketing techniques of big business as well as inventing their own: direct mail blitzes; credit cards which funnel 0.25% of every transaction to the charity of your choice; telethons, showbiz extravaganzas with messages built in.

This is a fiercely competitive world, especially with the economy in recession: agencies talk about their commercial secrets'. In some agencies the end of raising money will excuse even the most exploitative means. But while fundraisers in the best charities may strain at the ethical leash they generally manage to steer clear of both negative images and child sponsorship - and still raise the money. It's quite a feat when there are so many worthy causes which can pluck your purse strings more easily than, say, the story of a farmer in Guinea-Bissau.

The charity process does not begin when you write your cheque: something has prompted you to give to this particular organization. The ads it has placed, the messages it has put across about its work, have convinced you that this is an agency which can be trusted to use your money well. For many donors, this is where involvement ends: sending off the cheque is a kind of ritual act designed to assuage guilt and give the illusion of action.

We are all like this to some extent: we cannot be active in every cause. But faced with the choice between the donor who gives $100 as a once-off and the one who gives $10 but remains involved, who finds out about the roots of poverty in the rich world and campaigns to do something about them, the best aid agencies would always choose the latter.

Ah, the administrator. The bureaucrat who eats up precious cash pushing paper and stops it reaching the poor - or so runs the right-wing press image of charities. But of course there have to be reliable accountants receiving your money. The modern charity has senior managers and personnel departments, tax specialists and computer experts, information and education officers, few of whom even venture outside their own shores.

It is rather difficult to say where 'administration' begins and ends. But charities need all of these people if they are to function efficiently in the modern world. Without careful administration there could be no good aid, since charities would simply have to hand over your money without knowing what happened to it.

Some aid agencies, such as Novib in Holland, Christian Aid in the UK and CORSO in Aotearoa/New Zealand, do not have workers overseas but channel all their funds through 'project partners' in other countries. And all but the big child-sponsorship agencies distribute some money through these partners - homegrown organizations concerned with social and welfare issues.

Partners come in all shapes and sizes. They could be a very large organization, like ORAP in Zimbabwe, which co-ordinates all sorts of projects and acts as intermediary between the villager and the foreign aid agency. Or they could be a small group dedicated to working with the local homeless. More and more such organizations are springing up all over the Third World. By working with them agencies minimize the danger of imposing Western ideas of what development means: local people determine their own priorities and, within set boundaries, are trusted to get on with the job.

The best agencies do not descend on the poor from the horizon, kicking up the dust in their fancy jeeps and showering dollars on the poor of whatever village they happen to pass through. More often than not they will target specific geographic and activity areas. In general they respond to approaches from local groups - if the initiative comes from the agency it might misunderstand the local dynamics or impose an idea which will wither for lack of interest once the foreigners are gone.

It is generally an illusion that development charities make a big impact in a poor country; their work is usually a drop in an ocean of difficulties. But they certainly make a substantial difference to the lives of individual people and communities at village level. They reach the poorest with your money far more effectively than official aid ever could. Government aid bureaucrats recognize this and hand over to charities some of their own budget.

Many, but by no means all, development charities have their own workers overseas. It is their job to make sure the right kind of projects are supported and ensure that your money is wisely spent.

The biggest charities can have a vast network of overseas offices. The size of each country office can vary widely: Oxfam UK, for example, employs 120 people in Sudan but only three in Vietnam. The great majority of these are locally recruited, from project officers and administrators to drivers and night guards. Oxfam's key workers overseas used to be called 'field directors', implying that they were simply implementing directives from the centre. Now they are called 'country representatives' and are supposed to represent not only Oxfam but also the country and its concerns to people back home. This is indicative of a general shift in the thinking of voluntary aid agencies.

The bulk of your money will find its way to the overseas desk which is its last staging post within your own country. Most development charities allocate responsibility for channelling funds by region: there is likely to be an Overseas Director, with under her/him co-ordinators for Asia, Africa, Latin America and so on. More and more agencies are drawing up strategic plans into which their development aid should fit: filling a particular hole in a country's health provision, for example, or concentrating on the environment. The direct link with workers or partners in particular countries is usually provided by desk officers. Most of their work is remorselessly practical: responding to demands for information; arranging transfers of funds, working out travel details for the health expert who is about to visit and so on.

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