Saturday, December 26, 2009

Thoughts on Humanitarian Aid

Rick Steves, the famous travel guide author, gave a speech to the Commonwealth Club. At the very end of his recorded speech, he riffed for a minute about the differences in European and American approaches to helping the poor and about the obligation that we have to reach out.

You see beautiful kids in your travels that are every bit as precious as our kids. And when I look at these girls on a garbage dump in El Salvador, I see every bit as much deserving beauty there as my own daughter.

I know my daughter's got $5000 for straight teeth and money left over for whitener. And I looked around her class and apparently every girl has $5000 for straight teeth and money left over for whitener. That's not a bad thing. I don't apologize for that. We have a winning society. I work hard; my daughter gets straight teeth.

But that doesn't negate the fact that in this village, the moms are not home because they're out walking for water. And for the cost of two sets of braces, we could drill a well in that thirsty community to parents could stay home and take care of their kids. That's not a guilt trip. That's an opportunity.

I share Rick's desire to improve the world. I also recently heard a bit of wisdom from Sharon Eubank on this topic in a recent lecture at the BYU Kennedy Center. Sharon shared some of her experiences in dealing with international humanitarian aid. Her talk was explicitly about the vital importance of keeping LDS humanitarian aid and LDS proselyting strictly separate to ensure our continued ability to do humanitarian work. I want to highlight a different point from her talk, however.

Sharon is involved in the wheelchair distribution effort for the LDS Humanitarian Services division. For a while, they would find the cheapest wheelchairs to distribute to poor people around the world. This gave them the largest number of wheelchairs for their limited humanitarian dollars. However, they discovered that when the wheelchairs inevitably broke down, there were no local resources to repair or replace the chairs and the recipients were eventually just as bad off as they'd been before. Lesson: Pay more to purchase chairs locally and strengthen the local market to ensure that the chairs and suppliers will have longevity.

Sharon has seen humanitarian projects with big plaques on the wall (see her talk about that about 34 minutes into the video) that stroke the ego of the donor who made it possible. But something perverse happens. The community doesn't feel ownership of the well that was dug or the clinic that was built. Eventually, it decays, along with the sign, and the donor's name emblazoned on the plaque becomes a symbol of neglect and abandonment rather than a symbol of hope and empowerment. Lesson: emphasize community ownership and maintenance. The local people must learn to build and maintain the project and have the resources to carry it forward.

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