10 things Africa has taught me about non profit work

 August 17, 2010

I have known, for a few years now, that accountability is the key to success in the nonprofit sector.

I saw it in Haiti. The hustling, the donation I couldn't track. Where did it go?

This year, I read A Billion Bootstraps, and its contents sparked a semester's worth of research. Author Philip Smith writes that there is a 9 billion black hole in nonprofit spending, and it was his commitment to finding solutions, along with his insistence on having found them, that drove me to research microfinance further after reading his work. In May, I presented my findings to my integration class under the title, "Solutions to Global Poverty."

I talked about microfinance. I talked about "safe" organizations to donate to. I talked about working through locals that had already established themselves.

I talked about what I was coming to do in Africa.

Yesterday, I sat on a brick wall outside a meeting for the medical mission here next week, and I pulled my legs up so I could rest my chin on my knees as I thought back through my trip, and what I've learned. Mostly, I just felt numb and I stared at some corn stalks. I was too tired to think - and that didn't feel like a good first point to make. Later, I climbed into the car and Isaac fell asleep on me, listening to one ear of my ipod. At home, we started discussing all the beads that I need to fit in my bag somehow to sell at home. I had forgotten some mats I had made in the car "boot," and drug them inside pull out and look at in the light. We talked about those too, and the difference between giving a handout and a hand up. Alex talked about accountability, and his responsibility, here, to making sure the money that comes back gets used for something more sustainable, even, than rent or school fees - something like a business that could carry forward, even when the mzungus stop coming to pick up necklaces to sell.

My brain turned back on, then, and I realized that my observations in Haiti turned book knowledge have begun to turn to firsthand experience this trip. Later that night, I sat under my mosquito netting, and began to jot down the following list.

I know that the things I've learned will take their place in a long line of old hat realizations as I continue to work in the non profit sector, but, like James Taylor says, "We've got to keep the big ball rollin,'" so here goes -

1. Habitat for humanity is no longer offering free housing. Here, in Uganda, they're charging rent. Anyone with momre info, please comment. I haven't researched this yet, I'm writing what I've seen.

2. I've heard, from both locals and NGO volunteers, that most big organizations (World Vision included) use at least 90% of donations to cover overhead costs.

3.  100% of your donation going to a person in need doesn't always mean that it's serving any kind of good cause. 100% of your donation could be going to imported vodka or acrylic nails - I've seen it used for both.

4. Monitoring where your money goes is a day in and day out job that has to be done by someone on the ground. I have not been convinced, in any way, that an organizaiton can effectively do this by checking in either sporadically or remotely.

5. Orphanages are not always the answer. In fact, I've found that many "orphaned" or "abandoned" children have extended family that is still living, and that more people could be affected and helped by organizations focusing on helping families to provide for themselves. Not to mention, you're helping to end a cycle of poverty and devastation, instead of taking children out of it.

6. It's really hard to truly know the true nature of a nonprofit online. Case in point: there's a certain orphanage outside of Jinja that many people sent me the blog address for before I arrived in Africa, and I later found out that there were more than a few problems with its management. And the problems are quite serious.

7. More AID isn't always the answer. I've been thinking a lot about the states giving out ARVs in Uganda, and their plans to cut AIDS funding. As I hear, firsthand, about clinics turning organizations that have been providing ARVs to children for free, I begin to wornder if aid that doesnt push towards a goal of self sustainability isn't aid that cripples.

8. We work to empower, not to take over. Millie said this to me this morning, and I loved it. "The greatest poverty is not lack," she said. "It is the inability to make decisions or to know what you would like to do and do it. We would like to help people get up their confidence again and run!"

9. Lasting change involves commitment. Again, this morning, Millie commented, "If you come and you do one thing and you go, the people will look and say, 'Oh, look what Mzungu came and did and then went.' And, now, what did you leave from what you brought?"

10. When given to the right organization, the right person in the right situation, donations make a HUGE difference.

I've seen that firsthand, too.

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