Monday, December 31, 2012

Monuments to Philanthropic Ignorance

A research lab with equipment that no one knows how to use

A feed mixing machine that hasn't even been put together yet. No one knows how to put it together.

Tractors sitting in fields useless, laboratories fill with unused equipment, wells that no longer pump water, factories that are closed and locked, and bridges that are very difficult to cross and many other "monuments" are scattered across Ethiopia and many other third world countries. I have come to call these "Monuments to Philanthropic Ignorance". In Wikepedia we read that "A monument is a type of structure either explicitly created to commemorate a person or important event or which has become important to a social group as a part of their remembrance of historic times or cultural heritage...something of extraordinary size and power, ...also to mean simply anything made to commemorate the dead, ... The word comes from the Latin "monere," which means 'to remind' or 'to warn.' "
Torgee Bridge- The approach has worn away leaving a two foot step to get onto the bridge. When the locals saw us they asked us when we were going to fix "our" bridge. We had never been there before.

Most of the monuments that I am talking about are structures: buildings, wells, bridges, but others are equipment: tractors, trucks, medical and laboratory equipment. These items become and in some cases are meant to be monuments commemorating the giving of the item, instead of being useful gifts that lift the people out of poverty.

A Problem that we Cause
Well meaning people and governments all over the world have looked in on suffering populations and said we need to do something. Great sums of money are raised in philanthropic ventures to help these poor people. Then the time comes to decide how to best use that money to help the people. Often the results produced by spending this money create more harm than good. The objects delivered or built don't fit with the wants and needs of the people, local markets get disrupted, a society of dependence is nurtured and begins to flourish. The villagers become good at receiving handouts and showing the world how much they need them. The charity representatives are treated like royalty and really feel that they are making a difference in people's lives. The question is what kind of a difference are they making.

Fame before Functional
Unfortunately in many cases the philantropists are more concerned with the monuments that they can build with this money than on focusing on lifting the people. I talked to one organization that told me that they knew the money could be better spent in other ways but that the donors demanded that a well or a school be built so that their name could be prominently displayed to show their generous giving. 

In most of these cases the natives view these monuments as belonging to the donor and expect the donor to be the one to care for these projects. When the monument stops working or becomes run down the natives wait expectantly for the donor to come back and take care of their monument. After all it has the donors name on it and the villagers had done nothing to have them feel ownership of the project. The donor now comfortable with the fact that he has helped in the world, either doesn't realize that the monument is no longer serviceable or is frustrated by the fact that the villagers won't take care of it and keep the precious gift going. 

Both the philanthropist and the villager become frustrated with the other and the monument sits there "dead". Can we not use it to "warn" or "remind" us of the waste of resources? We need to learn from our mistakes and not build monuments but work with the villagers to build people and societies. Some of these projects may not be able to have your name proudly attached to them or may not make great pictures to show your friends at home but they will be what the villagers need.

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