Aid Can Do More Harm Than Good, Here's How to Do It Better

On Monday this week, MPs debated a non-binding motion on scrapping the United Kingdom’s commitment to spend 0.7% of GDP on Official Development Assistance (ODA), commonly referred to as ‘foreign aid’. The debate was initiated by a petition from The Mail On Sunday, which gained more than the 100,000 signatures needed to force a parliamentary response. 

But they were missing the point.

Developed countries have an obligation to assist the most vulnerable members of our global society. Not least because our historic, and in some cases continuing, actions have contributed to global inequality and social injustice that persists. The UK’s aid spending commitments are something to be proud of. Advocates of dismantling this commitment point to inefficiency, ineffectiveness and non-sustainability of development projects. Such concerns are valid, but does this mean we should abandon our commitments and turn our back on people in need? 

Of course not.

The debate to be had is about how we can ensure our well-intentioned and compassionate commitments deliver results. Compassion alone is not enough - how can aid be done better? 
Disability Africa is one of thousands of western NGOs of all different shapes and sizes that works in Africa. All are well-intentioned, but on a recent trip to The Gambia I was struck by some things that make Disability Africa stand out in this crowded field. Our template and our actions are:

      Holistic and Pragmatic

Many organisations choose between advocacy and service delivery; between promoting people’s rights and giving them practical help. Disability Africa recognises that the only way to improve outcomes for disabled young people both immediately and sustainably is to do both, and we combine the two in everything that we do. 

We mobilise people to raise awareness of the rights, needs and plight of disabled young people in their community. In countries where governments are often distant, and make little impact on people’s lives, comparably close-knit local communities are the arena in which attitudes can be changed. And we provide services to meet the needs – medical, recreational, social and psychological- of the present generation of disabled young people, making profound improvements to their lives. We must not advocate for an inclusive future whilst failing to give practical support those who need it right now. Likewise, we cannot simply provide practical support without changing attitudes to ensure that equity for disabled young people is achieved and sustained in the future. 

Whilst Disability Africa was founded to improve outcomes for disabled young people, how exactly to define a disabled young person in Africa is a little more complex than you might think. In The Gambia, we have found many young people who are presently ‘disabled’ solely because of an existing injury that has been left untreated or bandaged by a local ‘bone-setter’. Untreated fractures, lead to infections, pain and deformity. Whether these children are to be classified as ‘disabled’ or not is of no importance to Disability Africa. When we find children who can be prevented from becoming disabled we give them access to appropriate medical care, so that they can grow up free of stigma, and live a normal, fulfilling life. 

      Innovative yet Simple

Disability Africa uses community interventions which are innovative and yet beautifully simple. In our mission to improve the almost non-existent participation of African disabled children in mainstream education, our team in The Gambia are piloting another innovative but simple solution. We are establishing ‘inclusion clubs’ in schools. The aim is to inspire non-disabled students to help us locate their disabled peers; who are absent in the classroom, isolated in their own homes, and unknown to education and health care providers, usually due to the stigma that surrounds disability in Africa. Extended families in The Gambia typically live together, in the close proximity of walled ‘compounds’ of houses. We aim to harness children’s free access to their whole communities, their natural inquisitiveness and absence of strongly engrained prejudice often found in adults. Children can enter any compound and are welcomed, often invited to eat with families that are not their own and even sleep over - they know their communities like the backs of their hands. Finding, registering and helping a disabled child to attend school will be encouraged by the school curriculum. The children may even conduct a formal survey project of disabled children in their community. Once attending school disabled children will be supported by non-disabled peers in the classroom. We are certain that this low-cost, child to child approach will deliver remarkable results from which everybody will benefit.  

      Sustainable and Replicable

If development is not sustainable, then it is not development. Sustainability is the greatest challenge for NGOs working in development, and yet it is frequently an afterthought when projects are designed. Disability Africa makes indefinite commitment to projects – sustainable outcomes are impossible to achieve in a three-year cycle, particularly when they depend on changing people’s attitudes. Whilst our commitment is indefinite, we recognise that relationships of dependence are counterproductive; which is why we plan a clear, but not time-constrained, pathway towards full ownership and responsibility for the project for our local partner organisations. 

The World Health Organisation estimates that around one-seventh of the world’s population suffers from some form of impairment. African countries typically have populations where around 50% of people are under the age of eighteen.  These basic statistics indicate, that disabled young people in Africa represent a hugely significantly, but largely invisible, group of seriously disadvantaged people. Almost everywhere on the African continent the needs of disabled young people are neglected and their rights unrecognised. This is why Disability Africa wants to do something big; because something big needs to be done. Every initiative that Disability Africa has developed has potential for replication. Of course, adaptation will be needed to different settings and cultures across this diverse continent. But the values we promote and the outcomes we seek are so simple and universal that we truly think our template can be, deserves to be and, above all, needs to be replicated all across Africa. 

This is how we are ‘doing Aid’.

Do you think the same way as us?

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