Politics of Poverty

What does it take for aid projects to ‘strike gold’?

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Emilia Amoateng, one of the leaders of the Concerned Farmers Association of Teberebie, speaks at a community meeting in western Ghana in 2009. Community members relocated to make way for gold mines in Ghana, and especially women, struggle with loss of agricultural land, unemployment, and environmental damage. Photo: Neil Brander / Oxfam America

It’s time to look beyond the usual “players” and strengthen US tools to integrate priorities and feedback from more people in partner countries.

Katherine Stanley is an intern with Oxfam America’s Aid Effectiveness team.

As the daughter of two geologists, I am the first to tell you that finding gold isn’t easy. And even when it’s found, the resource curse that plagues many developing countries with mining or oil wealth gets in the way of progress.

As a professional working in the development sector, I can also tell you that finding gold is essential – not the yellow dense, soft, malleable and ductile metal with the symbol Au and atomic number 79. (I told you I’m the daughter of geologists!)

But rather, our job is to find the “gold” necessary to make aid projects work – sound relationships with the change makers, the leaders on the ground, that are building their countries and communities.

Two years ago, I received one of the most useful “nuggets” of advice in my career so far. As I sat across the table from a seasoned expat aid worker at the nicest hotel in Mbale, Uganda, I was feeling out of place. I was an intern staying at a place with mice in the ceiling, nothing like this fancy place with a bar and a pool. Leaning in closer, he said something to the effect of, “there are a lot of people wanting to do good and a lot of people wanting to take advantage of that, so you need to find yourself ‘gold people’ here on the ground.”

I had arrived in Mbale four days earlier to help set-up the new ‘office’ for Spark MicroGrants, a NGO expanding from its more established community development work in Rwanda. I didn’t know anyone in Mbale yet. Scoping out the city’s only ‘usable’ internet café had led me to my pool-side chair.

But what the man said was true. We had to find “gold people” to get our work going in Uganda. Spark MicroGrants trains local facilitators that help entire communities negotiate how they can improve their own circumstances. Without skilled and committed local facilitators, this is nearly impossible. In scouting local facilitators, humility caught our attention. Honesty built trust. And respect opened opportunities to learn. None of these things happened overnight, let alone on a specific project timeline.

Finding ‘gold’ requires prospecting for sincere, visionary people at all levels. Donors, NGOs, contractors, partner country government officials, national- and community-level nonprofits – we all need strong partnerships, whether helping subsistence farmers in El Salvador grow higher value crops, founding a vital legal resource center in Cambodia, or developing disease-resistant cassava with researchers in Mozambique.

It’s time to invest in systematic efforts to make sure that the perspectives of a broad array of people, including the most marginalized, are heard and brought into a continuous dialogue with the US government and their own governments. That means looking beyond the usual “players” and strengthening US tools to integrate priorities and feedback from host country stakeholders. That means reducing—or eliminating—US policies that prevent US foreign assistance from responding to country-determined needs.

As a development community, do we have what we need to strike gold?


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