Optimizing Assistance Efforts in the Developing World

Pippa Biddle, in a very frank post on her personal blog, reflects on her assistance efforts in the developing world, beginning with where she started:

Our mission while at the orphanage was to build a library. Turns out that we, a group of highly educated private boarding school students were so bad at the most basic construction work that each night the men had to take down the structurally unsound bricks we had laid and rebuild the structure so that, when we woke up in the morning, we would be unaware of our failure. It is likely that this was a daily ritual. Us mixing cement and laying bricks for 6+ hours, them undoing our work after the sun set, re-laying the bricks, and then acting as if nothing had happened so that the cycle could continue.

Basically, we failed at the sole purpose of our being there. It would have been more cost effective, stimulative of the local economy, and efficient for the orphanage to take our money and hire locals to do the work, but there we were trying to build straight walls without a level.

I’ve had similar inklings in the back of my mind on this topic when it comes to volunteer efforts and philanthropy, but never sat down to think it through fully. Pippa’s post already has helped further my thinking it this area. I thank her for posting it.

It’s not enough to want to do good. The world is full of well intentioned, yet wildly ineffective, people. Worse, even good intentions can have negative consequences. This isn’t cynicism. Quit the opposite in fact. To have an impact in a desired way, one must develop an effective strategy and be willing to tweak it along the way.

At the same time, there is no shame in trying things then using that new information to adjust our strategy. We’re always working with imperfect information. It’s how we react and adjust along the way that determines whether we end up where we want to be or have the impact we want to have.

Thinking a bit more strategically when it comes to our own volunteering, philanthropy, and similar efforts can only be constructive. Same goes for optimizing our approaches to problems that will continue to persist long after we’ve left the scene.

Of course, as with many things, analyzing our own situation is never quite as simple and obvious as we’d like it to be. At the end of the linked article there are additional thought provoking comments from others. One comment from Jeff Allen, directed at Pippa, stood out to me in particular:

When an emergency (man made or otherwise) hits a population, and it overwhelms that local capacity that you say should have been building libraries or caring for kids, then people are more than happy to work together with outsiders to get their community up and running again. I’m talking about emergency, short term humanitarian aid. It requires special skills which you are developing from your experiences so far. Keep learning things, useful things that people will need your help to learn because they won’t have the time to learn it “right”. And keep practicing the humility you have (it’s a rare gift). You’ll need a lot of that.