Imagine the only prerequisites for being a doctor were two things – good intentions, and enough money to get yourself to the hospital. Hospitals would quickly become choked with good intentioned citizens who want to see sick people get better, who want to help others, and who genuinely think they can. Hospitals would be so overwhelmed and disorganized that resources would start to be improperly allocated, and coordination between staff to best help the patients would fail. The qualified doctors and nurses would not be able to work effectively and would become extremely frustrated if all these good intentioned people started influencing people’s lives with diagnoses and prescriptions without really knowing what they are doing. Criticisms would be brutal, faith in this health care system would be lost, and people would start to question whether or not we should just let the sick people take care of themselves. Letting any good intentioned Joe Blow walk off the street and start ‘helping’ just simply would not work.
Now lets look at the development sector. There are hundreds and hundreds of NGO’s working in developing countries; over 500 from the US alone. Most of these organizations make it extremely easy for good intentioned (GI) Joe’s to volunteer without any previous experience. And if you can’t find an NGO from the list that really resonates with you? Well, all you really need is the money to get started, a goal to make the world a better place, and a website with a “donate now” button (there are actually 10-step guides to setting up your own NGO!). But is that the best way to go about putting your good intentions to use? Can a mass army of untrained GI Joe’s save the world? What makes me so special? What makes EWB different? I’m still searching for the answers, but I’ll share some initial thoughts. I warn you though – we will both come out of this with more questions than answers.
First, and hardest to swallow, I’m not some anomaly. I do not have extensive knowledge in development; I don’t have any previous experience. I am just another GI Joe. But I am a GI Joe who is part of an organization with a training program. The JF programs has extensive pre-departure learning modules, it puts you in contact with experts so you can gain development wisdom, and provides a hands-on experience so you can make proper diagnoses, make the right prescriptions, and ultimately gain context to funnel those good intentions. So it might not be the Harvard Med School of development workers, but the JF program is in a sense a training scheme. It’s a step in the right direction, but I don’t think we are there yet.
Now let’s talk about EWB and how it fits into the tangled mess we call the ‘world of NGO’s’. The way I like to break it up is into three groups: donor NGO’s (e.g. Gates Foundation), consulting NGO’s (e.g. CESO), and implementing NGO’s (e.g. CARE). EWB is a consulting NGO. Instead of implementing our own projects, drilling wells, building schools and bridges, EWB works with local governments, businesses, and implementing NGO’s to influence projects that have already been designed and funded. Now we are even starting to work with donors to not only influence how a project is run, but also what projects get funded. So in that sense EWB isn’t cluttering the sector with projects, but rather trying to work with those that already exist. That’s great, but we aren’t really doing anything to mitigate the problem. We just aren’t adding to it.
Some people argue that there is no place for NGO’s or GI Joe’s in the world. These criticisms revolve around the fact that billions of dollars of foreign aid, and thousands of development projects, have gotten the developing world seemingly (notice the emphasis on seemingly) nowhere. But let me ask you this. If it were our imaginary GI Joe run hospital that was failing, would we simply throw our hands in the air and say, “well maybe it’s best if we just let them cure themselves, and take care of their own problems”? Doubtful. We would look at those inefficiencies and try to improve the system. So I don’t think the answer is just to stop doing development work; there will always be a place for GI Joe’s. What that place is, and what the prerequisites are for working in development might just need some adjustments.
I have more thoughts on this, but not exactly sure how to tie them into this post. I think I’ll end by saying, I’m eager to gain insights on the topic while overseas to help give some substance to my opinions and thoughts. Maybe it will help solidify what I am currently thinking, or maybe my opinions will completely change. Either way – you’ll hear about it.
Keep you posted,