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Lessons from Ghana: Making a Difference

My recent trip to Africa reminded me of some of the finer points of delivering assistance and support in areas of great need. These are lessons learned from many years of being involved in areas like Thailand, New Orleans and other areas of unique and extraordinary need.

It is my experience and observation that generous people are drawn to certain areas and certain types of need. The conditions in many regions of Africa are a perfect example: Celebrity focus, news headlines and other media reports has created an awareness of living conditions in parts of Africa. That is good. However, awareness does not always represent a solution: sometimes action does not even represent a solution.  As we like to say within our organization, “Generosity is not the issue, effectiveness is.” Part of being effective is delivering what is truly needed in the eyes of the beneficiary.  

When delivering aid to a people, regions and cultures we may not fully understand, there are things to be aware of that, in context, easily explain why so many efforts do not work. I am going to try to articulate a couple of these important details and perhaps spark deeper thought and discussion when it comes to international giving.

Truthfully, we cannot underestimate cultural differences. We frequently see aid delivered in the form that the donor feels appropriate, rather than what the community in need really desires and recognizes. We saw this after the deadly Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004 when well-meaning groups shipped large quantities of coats and scarves to a hot, humid region of southern Thailand; the intentions were good, but the effort was lost on people with very different and specific needs. We see a similar dynamic in many international efforts: housing development for people who culturally would not live in the types of shelter being constructed; a failure to involve appropriate and respected leaders who can be the lubricant between those who want to help and those in need; Last but not least, trying to jump ahead of the process and bring people to a point we as donors feel they need to be, rather than a point they desire to be.

As donors, we need to consider the culture we seek to aid from a perspective of dignity and sustainability. Anthony Oliver-Smith writes,

“The best outcomes imaginable [are] systems in which people can materially sustain themselves while beginning their own process of social reconstruction.” 

Essentially his is the “Teach a man to fish …” philosophy. The sound bites and clips we see in the media, which serve a great purpose by bringing public attention to global need, often abbreviate the situations to the point where a generous and prosperous nation like the U.S. is compelled to react immediately. Again, it is with the best of intentions, but in ways that we see as appropriate from our perspective.

The fact is that when people are in desperate circumstances, you usually find that some sort of displacement is at the heart of the situation. Whether it is caused by political unrest or natural or man-made disasters, there is almost always a dual sense of disconnect from the things they hold dear and at the same time a pride in what they consider to be their heritage. In these stressful times, many look to religious tradition for identity; they seek to reestablish what is meaningful to them. They depend on those they trust the most. That is the starting point.  

We as donors and as caring global neighbors need to remember this. Again, quoting Oliver-Smith,

“We should approach the goals of reconstructing and reconstituting community with a certain humility and realism about the limits of our abilities. Such humility and realism have not characterized to any major extent, the planners dealing with uprooted peoples to date.”

Our usual American-driven focus on cost-containment and efficiency must be maintained to be sure, but not to the point of excluding the needs and wants of the very people we are trying to help. I cannot say it any better than Oliver-Smith:

“Donor-driven …designs [can] endanger the connection that people establish with their built environment, violate cultural norms of space and place, inhibit the reweaving of social networks and discourage the re-emergence of community identity.”

With this backdrop, the Forever Young School in Ghana (the dedication of which was my reason for traveling to Ghana in the first place) is a model. It was created in partnership with local leaders. It was built by local artisans. It is staffed by local teachers who received training from outside sources, but are allowed to teach in a manner relevant to their local community. The dignity and autonomy of tribal leaders is recognized and respected. Local culture was not considered an obstacle, but an asset from which to build. The project is well-designed and takes into account details in a variety of areas, including transportation needs, recreation, academics, health and medical support. It has become the cause of community celebration!

The day we arrived for a special ceremony opening the school, families and local leaders assembled at 4:00 am to prepare for our visit, which was not scheduled until 2:00 that afternoon! They sang for us, they danced, they provided food … the sense of gratitude was at a level that can only been seen when a proud and deserving community is helped to achieve what they need in a manner meaningful to them.

As a result, I left feeling like the donors and organizations that supported this school had created something they could feel proud of – both from a relief-of-needs perspective and a donor efficiency perspective.

It was truly inspiring.

-Rick

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Filed under Initiative: Charitable Giving & Accountability, Initiative: Nonprofit Operations

Report from Ghana

I had the privilege of spending last week in Accra, Ghana. It was an opportunity to see first-hand the efforts of two of our fine Operation Kids Charities: Right To Play and Forever Young Foundation, in addition to a new micro-credit effort by the KOMART Foundation.

There is more to tell than I can cover in several blogs, but I wanted to start with this. As part of our client service of managed giving, we are typically conservative when it comes to international aid; certainly not because we do not care, but rather due to the extreme potential for fraud and various levels of misappropriation. Africa is general is an area where an ability to deliver aid effectively has been questionable at best.

I have been asked many times by many donors about the solicitations they see on TV and via direct mail, if those “faces of need” really receive the donated help? Sadly, the answer is, “Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don’t.” Anyone who follows this blog or any of Operation Kids’ activities knows that this inconsistent outcome is simply not good enough for us.

In regions such as this, it is even more critical that we get on the ground and observe unfiltered, the delivery of aid efforts and the tangible results. In the case of Accra and the aforementioned charities, I am very pleased to say, the report is good, and the results are real.

First let me comment on Right To Play. The concept of using sports to teach certain skills and attitudes may seem simple on the surface and for those in developed countries you may associate the teaching aspect of sports with sportsmanship, teamwork, discipline, etc.  While those are all real and valid byproducts of a well-coached sports experience, in developing countries the effort takes on an entirely new and life-saving dimension.

Trained Right To Play coaches have the trust and confidence of the children they coach. Based on that relationship and the innocent distraction of “play,” a soccer ball can be used to represent a virus – say HIV – and a simple game can show a child for the first time how the virus spreads. The games address other critical issues such as peaceful conflict resolution which can, in regions where children are forced into military duty sometimes as young as 11 or 12, be the difference in whether some of these children experience a childhood in any sense, or go on to a normal adulthood. The simplicity of the Right To Play model is the genius of it, and to see it first-hand is inspiring to say the least.

As far as the other programs we observed, including the work of KOMART and Forever Young Foundation, I would prefer to address their efforts with individual stories. Over the next couple of months I want to explain in detail, how they have overcome the major issues that are blocking effective aid in so many regions of Africa, and introduce you to some of the individuals who live in Ghana, are Ghanaian by birth, and have not only elevated their own lives, but the lives of thousands of young Ghanaians. I think you will find their stories fascinating and the images compelling.

-Rick

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Filed under Initiative: Charitable Giving & Accountability, Initiative: Children's Issues, Initiative: Thought Leadership