There is a fundamental conundrum built into the helping relationship that confounds so many well-meaning attempts to be effective in both the aid business and the philanthropic sector. The conundrum relates specifically to those efforts aimed at “helping people help themselves.” If, on the one hand, the doers are really helping themselves, then the helpers may not be having an obvious, demonstrable, or measurable effect on the outcomes. Thus the helpers will have a hard time convincing their bosses of the measurable results of their help. If, however, those helpers are in the driver’s seat generating demonstrable outcomes to satisfy their organizational demands for “having an impact,” then it is very likely that the doers are just along for the ride and not exercising much self-help at all.
Instead of confronting this conundrum, aid agencies and foundations tend to think that there is some way they can escape it—with more intelligent listening, better partnerships, enforcing clearer output-based conditions, and the like—and use their money to bring about so-called “inside-out” change. Foundations, like various aid agencies in the international arena, are basically money-moving machines, and money is the quintessential “outside-in” motivator. Thus, the more direct effect foundations and aid agencies try to have, the more they crowd-out, suffocate, and falsify any budding inside-out motivation in the people supposedly being helped to help themselves. Instead of fostering self-help, the money-moving machines foster learned disability and aid addiction.
There are certain specific aid interventions, which fall under what might be called the “vaccinating children” approach, where direct methods can work in some sense. These interventions essentially entail the helpers delivering a commodity or service to the more-or-less passive doers and enforcing specific output-based conditions (aid based on “vaccinating X children”). Many development practitioners indulge in a refined form of self-delusion by flooding their minds with this approach as if it were universal instead of relevant only to special cases. Most real development work is concerned with deeper questions of social change, capacity-building, culture, and sustainability—where the vaccinating children approach is ineffective, if not ultimately counterproductive.
One discourse related to the vaccinating children approach argues that some countries are so incapacitated by geography, climate, and disease that development assistance must take the form of disaster relief. Any attempt to focus development assistance on capacity-building or longer term strategies is met with emotional and demagogic cries that “children are dying” and that assistance should therefore take the form of quick direct deliveries of aid. Many development agencies, already frustrated and pressured by the ineffectiveness of their money-moving strategies, may be quite willing to give in to these appeals to recast development assistance even more in the model of disaster relief—as if the reason for the development failures of the past is that the rich countries have not given out enough money and the poor countries have not received enough. After all, giving out money is one thing these agencies know how to do.
While the world has disasters aplenty, the general recasting of development assistance in the mold of disaster relief only aggravates the real problems of capacity-building and sustainable social change. If the purpose is helping people to help themselves (rather than to sustain or increase the demand for “helpers”), then an accelerated direct approach of money-led assistance is ultimately a self-defeating strategy. Responding to the recent calls of the aid industry to double official aid would not only not solve the problem but would also tend to aggravate the problems by smothering self-help initiatives in favor of money-seeking and corrupt development projects. Reforms carried out by doers as a means to the end of getting aid money are unlikely to succeed or be sustained.
A key to getting communities organized and helping themselves is often an outside community organizer, animator, or facilitator. Organizing efforts start with mobilizing community capabilities and “assets” to see what people can do for themselves without significant external resources. If Foundation X funded an organizer or team of organizers, then it would be crucial that the organizers not be a conduit for the communities to have access to Foundation X’s money. Otherwise, the community will constantly see the organizer as a source of outside money. When and if the community does need to raise outside resources, then the organizer(s) could help it raise funds from other foundations or government sources—but never from the sponsoring foundation.
There are other ways that an indirect approach might work to support community development. Take the example of the Highlander Folk School, which fostered community and labor organizing during the 50s and 60s in Appalachian communities and in the broader civil rights efforts in the South. In spite of the name “school,” Highlander operated more as a place for community groups to come together to strategize, learn from each other, and consult with experienced staff. Highlander brought no money to the people it helped, but it required money itself from various sources to keep operating.
Here, then, is another way a foundation could indirectly support organizing efforts in communities. If Foundation X supported an urban or rural folk school, then it would be imperative that it not be seen as a door into the foundation’s vaults. This sort of light-touch intervention could create a resource for many communities without smothering self-help impulses in any of them. The real question is whether organizations ordinarily functioning as money-moving machines can—without major overhauls—sponsor indirect strategies where money is not the leading edge of the intervention.
Certain foundations and aid agencies spend much time trying to separate the genuine from the money-seeking projects. In a co-evolutionary process, the mone