Nick Kristof’s recent article, “The D.I.Y. Foreign Aid Revolution,” has inflamed a lot of tempers across the internet. He wrote about a number of well-meaning Westerners who went abroad, started “DIY” aid projects in order to help people in developing countries. The article is geared towards the idea that, since governments and intergovernmental agencies haven’t delivered to end poverty and human suffering, we, in the U.S., can take it into our hands to engineer DIY projects to tackle development. Sure, while his article might have given us all some warm fuzzy-wuzzies inside, there are many flaws to his approach to aid. Since I’m by no means anywhere near an aid or development expert, let me link to the following articles which effectively explain why aid is more complex than the stories that Nick Kristof portrays:

While I tend to agree with all the “critics” (perhaps more appropriately: realists) that aid is complex and should be done, as much as possible, by professionals, I also think we shouldn’t deter smart people of any age who want to enter the field, from doing so. What is missing from the conversation, I feel, is how we, as Westerners, can be involved in the most effective way that still makes use of our skills and talents.

As a young person passionate about international human rights issues, but as obviously someone beginning in her career and thus an “amateur,” I want to know how I can best be involved. Unfortunately, I find that all too many articles about development give the following advice:

  1. Many of the critics say, “Just focus on local issues, because you know the local context better and can be most effective in your own community.” Unfortunately, I don’t find this to be a good solution. My passion is for international development and human rights, not for the local equivalent. And in all honesty, I see a greater need in the developing world, and I’d like to contribute where the greatest need is. As is obvious, the level of poverty, rights violations, and human suffering in many developing countries is simply staggering in comparison to social ills within the United States or other Western nations. Quite frankly, I find this advice to be frustrating.
  2. Others say, “Just give money, as that’s the best contribution you can make as someone without knowledge of local context.” I also find this to be a frustrating piece of advice. What if I don’t have a lot of money, and work for a non-profit? What if I’m not interested in being a rich philanthropist myself, and don’t want to spend my life making big bucks at a corporate firm, in order to ultimately give it all away? What if I actually want to make a career in the non-profit and development/human rights sector? “Just give money” is good advice for many, but not good advice for someone like me.

So, ultimately, how can someone like me (or you) contribute to international development? Again, I’m no expert (far from it!), but here are some suggestions from my own experience…

  1. Study, learn, travel, understand: First, make sure you learn as much as possible about the country or region you want to work in, internationally. Travel, study abroad, or take an unpaid internship with an NGO abroad. (However, don’t engage in poverty tourism – go with an NGO doing good work in a community that can be proved to be effective). Understand as much as you can, whether through formal (university classes) or informal (reading books & blogs, talking to experts) education, about international development and human rights.
  2. Support local leaders: There are so many ways we can find local community leaders and activists who are dedicating their lives to their communities and their countries. For all the “social innovation” out there, I am sure there are individuals in the communities you aim to work with who are doing similar work, already. Seek out these local activists, organizers, and organizations, whether through your travels or network. And then, jump into supporting them as much as possible! Here’s where our experience can be truly valuable; we have a strong grasp of the English language, connection to international media and connections to people who have money to spare in the U.S. or other Western countries. We can pour our hearts into (1) fundraising, and (2) marketing and communications on behalf of local leaders and activists. Many people are doing great work, but imagine how much they could do within their communities if they had money and effective ways of communicating their important work to Western donors, newspapers, and foundations. Their voices are simply not heard in the international arena, and we need to bring their leadership into the global forum. In my humble opinion, this is really one of the best ways we can contribute to development. Don’t start your own projects– but work to promote local leaders.
  3. “Join” the development field: And of course, you can actually make a career out of this work by “joining” the field. I haven’t, yet, but there are many ways for young people to get degrees in development and human rights, work with international NGOs and multilateral organizations, and social enterprises working to promote social change. We can develop expertise in either a technical area (like human rights, access to justice, or even agriculture, economic development, ICT, etc), a country/region/language, or a particular professional skill (communications, social media, grantwriting, etc). And you can make a career out of being in the international development field, again, not by starting your own projects but by working with organizations proven to do effective and important work.

And what about starting your own organizations? I think we see a lot of examples of social enterprises out there, which make it seem exciting and “sexy” to start your own organization. Especially so with the rise of fellowship programs like Echoing Green, PopTech, Ashoka, and Skoll. However, I think that ultimately the change should come from local leaders and community activists who truly know the nuances of what their community needs. And I think that our role is, and should be, primarily to support these leaders. Don’t get me wrong: there are examples of excellent social enterprises and non-profits started by young people. Here’s just a few– Samasource, FORGE, Frontline SMS. And yet, I would say– support local leaders when you can. Defer to their leadership if possible. That way, you minimize the possibility of the complete failure of your project- it’s something the community wants, and it’s clearly going to be there to stay. What better outcome could you want?