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Questions you should ask before making that donation to an organization ‘saving’ Africa

January 26, 2010

These are notes from a talk i recently gave at a giving circle of the Foundation for Sustainable Development but that I think apply broadly.

Before you open your wallet I think you should seriously contemplate these question:

  • What power do you wield?  It is important for donors to understand themselves as the consumers of philanthropy since the end recipients of aid do not hold the ultimate power.  The village woman where the project you are funding will eventually be implemented really has no say on whether that project should be implemented or not.  You do!  Traditional business models tell us that the customer is right.  Philanthropy doesn’t work that way though.  In this case, you, the donor, is actually the consumer of philanthropy and it is you who has the power to ensure that a certain project proceeds or grinds to a halt.  Once you step into that donor role you then have a moral obligation to do your homework.
  • Why am I engaging?  Why am I giving? Is it out of a sense of superiority? What do I expect in return?  Am I in danger of re-creating the ‘white man’s burden’.  We all get something out of engaging in philanthropic giving and the pleasure is not a bad thing.  What we do need to be aware of are the unspoken expectations that we often place on the recipients of our aid.
  • How can we avoid replicating the mis-steps of past engagement with the continent?  Before your donation their is  along history of external engagement with Africa.  From the Chinese in the 14th century, the Arabs, Portuguese, missionaries, World Bank officials…… You and the organization you are about to support are not the first.  How are we all positioned within the historical context of those external interventions into Africa?
  • What is the legacy of earlier external engagement in this community?  Have the other people or groups who have engaged with the community whose project you are about to fund disappointed the community with unequal partnerships?  You are almost certainly not the first ‘donor’ to show up.  How have other donors before you acted?  What is the community’s historical memory about interacting with ‘donors’.  So often we focus on how communities have shown accountability to previous donors and never even ask if previous donors have shown true partnership to the communities we seek to engage with!
  • What existed on the ground before we showed up?  If you are about to fund a microfinance operation do you know what forms of debt existed in the community before you showed up?  What is the culture around debt and credit in this community?  In what ways does microfinance fit and not fit within already existing cultural understandings of debt there?
  • Beware of what Chimamanda Achidie calls the ‘single story’ of poverty in the community you are engaging with.  Often we are tempted to think of the people we want to aid as being poor and only poor.  They are more than that.  In fact, chances are, that within any community you engage in are indiginous attempts at eradicating poverty.  Do you know what they are?

Coming next: Questions to ask before giving that microfinance loan

Understand yourself as a consumer of philanthropy since the end recipients do not hold the ultimate power.  The village woman where the project you are funding will eventually be implemented really has no say on whether that project should be implemented or not.  You do!  Traditional business models tell us that the customer is right.  Philanthropy doesn’t work that way though.  In this case, you, the donor, is actually the consumer of philanthropy and it is you who has the power to ensure that a certain project proceeds or grinds to a halt.  Once you step into that donor role you then have a moral obligation to do your homework.
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