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How Not to Give to Africa- Reflections
simon chambers
 I read a blog post today by Marieme Jamme, where she talks about how NOT to give money to charities working in Africa.  Jamme is specically talking about Africa in her work, but I think most of her points can transfer fairly well to other regions of the world, too.  She raises some interesting points about how one should go about choosing a charity to support, and also about making sure one is giving for the right reasons.  In the blog post, she lists 15 "points worth considering", which I will post here in order to comment on them:

1. Do not fall into the trap of thinking that Africa is all about poverty. It is extremely rich in resources both human and natural.
2. Do not watch TV images of Africa and feel only pity: starvation, war, HIV-AIDS etc…
3. Do not give money to Africa in an attempt to make yourself feel good
4. Do not give money to Africa because you feel guilty about colonialism
The first four address some of the reasons that many people give to Africa which are not helpful.  I know that the TV commercials which almost seem to revel in poverty and disease (I think we all know the ones) irritate me so much that I change the channel whenever I see one.  Not because they depress me, but because the make me angry.  

My own philosophy of partnership- which I base on that of PWRDF- is that *everyone* is powerful and deserves dignity.  Some people are in more fortunate situations, others are in difficult situations.  We need to work together to address the issues which cause these differences of situation.  

It is difficult to argue against giving to make yourself feel good, although I know it is necessary.  The reality is that charities that push the "feel good" message often do well- because people like to feel good.  They want to help someone else, not confront their own contribution to the problems which that person is facing.  It is far easier to write a cheque than it is to stop buying products made in countries with dubious human rights records.  And most people prefer to feel good about doing something positive rather than feeling bat about themselves because they have done something negative.

5. Do not forget that governments are often incompetent and corrupt. The intended recipients of aid are not at fault
6. Do not forget that there are 53 countries in Africa where your money can make a significant difference.
Point 5 I've seen raised about Haiti as well- people talking about the need for governmental change to allow aid to be more effective.  It is worth repeating the latter part of that point: The intended recipients of aid are not at fault.

7. Do some research on your chosen charity before committing yourself to a donation, or support.
8. Do not write a cheque or set up a direct debit before asking for proof of how the money will be spent. Not all charities are accountable
9. Donate to just one or two preferred and registered charities; this will make you more focused and make it easier to monitor the results
10. Do not assume that you cannot visit an NGO – either in their offices or on the ground: it’s your money after all

Basically, do your research before you give.  Make sure you are supporting a reputable organization whose values reflect your own.  Investment advisors always tell you to research a stock or mutual fund before investing.  Do the same thing with charities!

Point 10 is true, to an extent.  Absolutely- for transparency, as well as good public relations, charities need to be open to having people visit.  But I shudder to think what our offices would look like at PWRDF if each of the 30,000+ people who wrote us a cheque for Haiti relief decided to stop in and see what we were doing.  Our office of 20 people would be a little overwhelmed, to say the least!

Not that I want to discourage people from getting to know their charity of choice!  Just try to be aware that the people working there have a job to do, and are often overworked!  :)

11. Why not consider a visit to Africa to see for yourself and make friends before donating?

This point is the one I have the most difficulty with.  My own visit to Africa in February 2009 was an incredible and life-changing experience.  And I don't want to deny anybody the ability to have a similar experience.   But I know how much work it was for our partners to arrange our trip, to host us, etc, etc.   We went with a specific purpose in mind, at the invitation of our partners, and have been working since we returned to Canada to raise awareness, share stories, and to build relationships between youth in Canada and Burundi.  

I also know that many people engage in what amount to vacations to visit and learn about poverty and other issues in Africa and other places around the world.  These people often come in expecting to be the great saviour of the communities they visit, thinking they know the solutions to the problems, wanting to build a school or orphanage, etc.  All the reading I have done about this kind of trip shows that the long-term results are often limited, and tend to be far more about benefiting the visitors and not the visited.

I am sure that Jamme means this in a different way- to go and meet people, to learn about them as people and as a community, and to see where a partnership can be developed (or where you can support an existing partnership- see below) to enable that community to make significant, sustainable, long-term change.

12. Do not think that you cannot find individuals, philanthropists and volunteers that are already active on the ground and liaise with them.
13. Do not forget to consider empowering a local individual. Invest time in teaching and learning with that person so he can pass the knowledge on to others in the community
14. Target charities with a sharp focus on a particular area: health, new technologies, empowerment, education, infrastructure, rape centres, climate change, water, agriculture, etc
15. Finally, make friends in Africa and find partners and doers that can help you get involved in ongoing or stagnant projects. There is no need to reinvent the wheel.  

Jamme's final set of points involve looking for others to work with who are already exploring solutions to problems in whatever field you wish to focus on.  One thing I saw in Burundi was that there were many many projects on the go, being supported by many many organizations- churches, the UN, individual governments, other NGOs.  So before you decide to start something new, make sure there isn't already someone doing similar work.  That way you don't duplicate their efforts, can benefit from the mistakes they have made and overcome, and work with a project that the local community is already behind.

All in all, I think Jamme's thoughts are a great starting point for anyone who wants to make a difference in the world!  Sure, I have a few issues with some of her pieces, but I think this is a great set of questions for people to reflect on as they decide how they want to do their part to make this a better world to live in!