My thoughts on DIY aid

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?


15 Responses to My thoughts on DIY aid

  1. How Matters says:

    As someone who has been working in the development aid industry for over a decade, the fact that so many people feel called to help is hopeful. However, the biggest thing that well-intentioned do-gooders all recognize is that in the developing world, local people with that same “combustible mix of indignation and vision” that Kristof describes are often already organized and doing something about whatever problem they are concerned about. That’s why it’s so important, as you so rightly say, to support local leaders first!

    I’ve worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in southern and east Africa in my career. Most were linked to churches, schools, or clinics, assisting children by extending services into areas that are not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies. A UNICEF-sponsored mapping exercise identified over 1,800 of these groups working with children affected by AIDS in Malawi alone (NOVOC, 2005). has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that there may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe.

    Yet, the web of local organizations and grassroots initiatives in the developing world, still largely undocumented, unrecognized and under-resourced around the world, offers an opportunity for sustainable and large-scale responses to relief and development that even the most comprehensive and impactful macro-level, “white-in-shining-armor” efforts may never be able to accomplish.

    It’s the local activists that are the true heroes and the true experts about what’s needed at the community level to fight poverty or conflict or AIDS or climate change. It’s time for a dose of humility to acknowledge the vision, structure, and impact that grassroots activists and community leaders around the world do have.

    And our jobs, whether we are working for a multi-lateral donor in Nairobi or having wanderlust dreams while we work a boring office job in Ohio, must be about getting existing and effective community groups the resources that they need to address their own priorities—something that must truly fuel the foreign aid revolution.

    • Akhila says:

      Completely agree with you — there are so many local and grassroots organizations that are undocumented, and unrecognized as you say. Often they are doing important work organizing in their own communities, but they simply lack the resources to effectively accomplish their work. If we, as Westerners, could bring the much needed media exposure, communications, and funds to them, they could do exponentially more. Even more so, we need to bring their voices into the global arena by ensuring their message gets across to audiences across the globe, through the media, newspapers, Internet, etc. Completely agree with you.

  2. Wendy Lee says:

    I haven’t actually visited the blog in a while; been just reading from my Google feed. Great layout!

    I like that you mentioned local context, and one of the easiest ways to learn about various contexts is to engage with people around you that came from or have lived in developing countries. The media’s portray of the developing world is often far from the reality. Like you said, development is complex and there are many different point of views. While it may be difficult to hop across the world and see it first hand, it’s not hard to have coffee with someone and discuss with them the realities of their home countries.

    As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, I would love to talk about my experiences in Cameroon all day long, but usually I don’t share unless people specifically ask me because I don’t want to overwhelm people, nor be one of those who start every sentence with, “When I was in Cameroon…”. Ask for the information, and you shall receive.

    • Akhila says:

      Thanks, Wendy! Yes, I would agree we should speak to people with understanding of different local contexts- even if you don’t have the means to travel, you can network and speak with people with experiences like yours. However, I still think the best way is to directly talk with the poor and local leaders who are changing their communities because even when I speak to you, I get a filtered view of what the poor want and need, etc. I may (or may not) gain a true understanding of what the needs are in Cameroon by speaking with you, although it may further my knowledge of the country/community you live in. The best way is always to talk directly with the communities you aim to work with, right?

    • Akhila says:

      Thanks, Wendy! Yes, I would agree we should speak to people with understanding of different local contexts- even if you don’t have the means to travel, you can network and speak with people with experiences like yours. However, I still think the best way is to directly talk with the poor and local leaders who are changing their communities because even when I speak to you, I get a filtered view of what the poor want and need, etc. I may (or may not) gain a true understanding of what the needs are in Cameroon by speaking with you, although it may further my knowledge of the country/community you live in. The best way is always to talk directly with the communities you aim to work with, right?

      • Wendy Lee says:

        Naturally, though to talk directly to these communities, i.e. my village in Cameroon, is not always easy or possible unless you have a point of contact. But in talking to people around you who are from these communities or have worked extensively in them, they would be able to give those point of contacts.

        • Akhila says:

          Definitely true. And to some extent if you want a career in the field of development or human rights, you do have to spend a substantial amount of time in the field. I haven’t, so this is something I’m always really keen to find…and I really hope to go abroad and work prior to graduate school, or at least while in graduate school.

  3. [...] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Kavita Rao, Nonprofit Millennial. Nonprofit Millennial said: My thoughts on DIY aid – by @akhilak #nmba [...]

  4. ronit says:

    I would add one thing to your post, which is this: one way to provide an influx of western resources (human, skills-based, and financial) that are used effectively locally is to develop western-based NGOs whose missions are predicated on deliberately partnering with local organizations in less developed countries.

    This is different from personally working for local organizations, as often a western-based NGO has access to funding that a local NGO will not, and may have accountability requirements that could reassure potential donors. (As an American, for example, I know that regulation of non-profits exists, and I can easily research the laws and status of an NGO based in the US. Most people are far less likely or able to do the same research, find the same answers, and achieve the same comfort level with the laws governing non-profit organizations in a different country.)

    Partnering poses a number of challenges for both organizations – cultural misunderstandings, differing priorities, overcoming any perception of a savior-victim dynamic. This is in addition to all the normal interpersonal challenges that come up whenever you have two or more people in a room – potential personality conflicts, differing ambitions, office politics. These issues can be converted from being deal-breakers to laying a strong foundation for mutual accomplishment when both parties come to the table committed to investing the time to work through them throughout the duration of the relationship.

    It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do, partnering with a local organization. It’s hard to find the people who are on the same page as you are, and it’s an on-going challenge for both parties to keep the relationship strong. But when it works, and it *can* work, it’s an amazing platform for development and education…on both sides of the table.

    • Akhila says:

      I agree with you about creating Western-based organizations partnering with local community organizations/leaders to an extent: who is the leadership of the organization? I would say that the Western base NGO, unfortunately, always gets the bulk of the attention and the “credit.” That’s what we see in the social entrepreneurship movement- we see so many young people from the West starting organizations, and THEY are the face of the organization, the “brand” and the voice. But, where are the voices of local leaders? I would argue that in theory, creating a Western-based NGO that sends resources to local communities can be effective, but in practice? Oftentimes, the local activists and leaders doing all the hard work on the ground end up having no voice that is apparent to the general public. I’d say that such arrangements can be effective as long as, the Western-based NGO staff make sure to promote the grassroots leaders as much as possible. And to promote them *more* than they promote themselves, indeed. But I completely agree with you that the structure makes sense in terms of best utilizing the resources we have available to us in the West.

      And, partnering with a local organization is definitely difficult. Right now for instance, I work with an Afghan judge who is leading an access to justice NGO in Kabul and surrounding provinces. Definitely there are cultural differences, challenges, and communication barriers. But I think that learning from these obstacles can be an amazing learning experience for all involved, and I agree- can be an incredible platform for development.

  5. Ryan S. says:

    Hi Akhila and co.:

    I know this is an old blog post (particularly in lieu of 2011!), but I thought I’d share my two cents on D.I.Y. aid.

    I readily confess to having been an aspiring Two years ago, a few friends and I got caught up in the inspiration of the Millennium Development Goals and founded a 501(c)3 nonprofit called the Kroo Bay Initiative. We now work collaboratively with offices of the University of North Texas and deliver financial and material support to NGOs in an extremely impoverished community in Sierra Leone. These local NGOs make services available that include a) microcredit, b) primary-level education, and c) women’s vocational training services. We are now poised to partner with other NGOs in the area.

    As relatively inexperienced newcomers to development, my colleagues and I bumped into a number of epiphanies along the way to our new place as a student-staffed NGO:

    1) Service duplication
    Upon receiving funding from the Clinton Global Initiative, we envisioned taking a page from Greg Mortensen’s playbook and building new schools with local partners all across Sierra Leone. Two realities thankfully prevented us from entering this Quixotic campaign: firstly, the fact that we didn’t have the enormous funds we needed to pay for overhead, namely airfare, and secondly, the realization that an exorbitant amount of aid travels to Sierra Leone every year (some reports say 40-60 percent of its GDP).

    Even if we had the funds to realize this grand vision, we would’ve surely duplicated any number of services of existing schools, run these institutions out of business, displaced teacher and staff income, and furthered the savior-victim dynamic that one of your fellow posters mentions below. To put it simply, we would’ve done more harm than good. The small amount of aid we initially delivered to two schools furthermore revealed a tension between the funders of these institutions that we likely would’ve encountered elsewhere.

    Particularly since living and working in sub-Saharan Africa for about ten months, I’ve learned that a number of D.I.Y. revolutionaries do precisely this all around the continent: come with good intentions, invade the domestic market with cheap goods or free aid, displace someone else already providing the same service at slightly higher cost, and fail to compensate the third party. It’s just bad aid. Hence why KBI now collaborates with local partners to help them realize their visions.

    2) One man’s corruption is another man’s opportunism
    Sub-Saharan Africa is widely (and unfairly) regarded as the most corrupt continent on earth. This is a brand — a negative brand, but a brand still. It is furthered not only by Hollywood and a sensationalist media, but also by the marketing tactics of so many D.I.Y. organizations. And these same organizations, upon realizing that some people will take advantage of their naivete, react by enacting sometimes culturally insensitive M & E practices. I’ve seen my share fair of otherwise well-informed Americans talking down to accomplished people — managers, Ph.D. holders, community leaders, etc. — because they whitewash them as corruptors. It represents a poor understanding of the culture and circumstances, and reflects this understanding by becoming bad policy.

    The reality is that people, particularly in the poorest parts, are essentially opportunistic because of the need for survival. This is entirely the case in parts of Sierra Leone. The need for food or money to feed your family or pay off a loan shark overwhelms the regard for ethics — just like it might for any of us. There is a place for rigorous M & E policies, just not the kind that will humiliate or denigrate your partners.

    For our part, KBI understands that this will happen (it has in the past and will in the future). When we send students and board members to Sierra Leone, we do so with the understanding that corruption/opportunism will take place. Someone may lie about their accounting practices, others might exaggerate prices in local markets because of our skin color (this year’s student personnel, for example, are largely white). We don’t like it when it happens, and we try to prevent it from happening, but it’s not the end of the world or even a partnership if it does (unless our partner’s misrepresentation is gross and hinders their or our mission).

    3) Business really is personal
    Most D.I.Y.ers get into the aid business because they want to make a difference. This lends importance to their lives, studies, and career for all the right reasons. A lot of these people may get into it for the wrong reasons, however, and end up creating bad conditions for others or for government and aid agencies. They do so, in part, by failing to read widely (Dambiso’s Dead Aid comes to mind as required reading, as does this blog!). My experience tells me, if you’re going to be a, do it the right way.

    This became a much larger reply to your post than I initially wanted! Still, I felt like the past two years I spent with KBI, from its founding to its current incarnation, entirely reflected all of your findings. If you’re interested in learning more about KBI, feel free to visit our temporary website at

    By the way, Akhila, I am a devoted follower of your blog posts. It’s helpful for me to read about the exploits of a fellow Gen-Y’er who strives to sustain her restless idealism even after college. Keep up the good work! :)

    Reading this is all the more interesting, since my business associate, a professor who partly specializes in development economics, and I sent our student personnel a copy of Kristof’s D.I.Y. article. I will follow up by passing this blog post on as required reading as well!

    • Akhila says:

      Ryan, this is a great comment and it’s good to see your experiences and lessons learned from your own experimentation in starting an NGO/DIY project. I’d love to repost this as a short blog – would you be okay with that?

      It’s always good to hear from people with experience starting projects because it’s not so cut and dry as you illustrate. Aid *can* be effective and good and DIY projects can be the same but it’s a lot more complicated than we think/assume it’ll be at first.

  6. [...] response to my blog post a while back on the DIY aid debate, sparked by Nick Kristof’s column highlighting DIY aid projects, Ryan S. recently left a [...]

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