When Aid Ends

August 28, 2012 § 5 Comments

Copyright World Vision, 2012. Photographed by Matthew Paul Turner.

Today I saw something I have never seen in the developing world before. I saw the end of poverty.

I am honestly not even talking in hyperbole—though if ever there was a day characterized by grand gestures, it was today. Today World Vision left the Willuwa ADP (area development program) here in Sri Lanka. And it was a day of celebration. Yes, there were tears; yes, there was sadness. But these were not tears of desperation nor were the goodbyes tinged with anxiety. This was the sadness of saying farewell to friends. The people of Willuwa were sad to see their friends from World Vision leave, but they also knew they were being left in good hands: their own.

The question of when aid ends is rarely asked. It’s easy to assume once a charity is in an area, they’ll always be in that area. Perhaps that’s because rate of change is so slow. Perhaps it’s because the developing world has always been the developing world. Perhaps it’s because we don’t actually expect charity efforts to work. Whatever the reason, an exit strategy is rarely part of the plan. But if today taught me anything, it’s that the end needs to be in mind from the very beginning.

So when should aid end? I am sure there is a much more detailed, scientifically and sociologically sound definition than this guiding World Vision’s (and other’s) strategies, but based on what I witnessed today, here’s what I would say:

When the community doesn’t need you anymore.
For the past three years, the Willuwa ADP has been transferring ownership of all their efforts to those in the community. Over this time period, they have gone from paying several people’s salaries to paying none. All salaries and resources are now being taken care of by local community based organizations. World Vision has been monitoring these groups for months now, but has not been leading or initiating any efforts.

Of course, this could not have been done well if this plan hadn’t been in place all along. For 15 years—since the start of the Willuwa ADP, World Vision has been empowering local organizations and ensuring the ownership, staffing and interaction with the community has been done hand-in-hand with those groups. So that now, when it’s time to leave, these community based organizations are trusted local entities with a track record of success.

When the school system doesn’t need you anymore.
Education is often one of the most broken institutions in developing areas. Children rarely make it all the way through—dropping out at a very early age to help out at home or offer a supplemental income to their families—schools are chronically underfunded and under-resourced, tutoring programs are almost non-existent. Yet education is the key to escaping cyclical poverty.

Today, children of all ages danced and sang for the closing ceremonies. One group of girls presented several traditional Sri Lankan dances—dances they had recently performed at national level competitions. These were girls from the Willuwa ADP, girls who not that long ago would have barely had enough food to eat or clean water to drink, let alone the luxury of devoting hours to dance practice. The arts are often the first to go in areas of poverty. But with an increased focus on education—in addition to basic food and water security—children can discover their talents, their skills and then begin to dream.

When families don’t need you anymore.
Domestic violence. Single parents. Alcoholism. These are the bane of so many poverty-stricken areas. These and other domestic issues make the family unit incredibly unstable in the developing world. As a foundational building block for society, families need to be a significant focus for any development efforts.

At the Willuwa ADP, domestic violence was a huge issue. It’s not anymore. Like, at all. This is the result of intentional family counseling programs. These programs had couples making family goals and development plans together. The families regularly met with a counselor and were held accountable to their development plans. Such unified goals placed both the husband and wife on equal ground and encouraged a mutual respect. As families worked together to reach these new goals, they shared in the success and gained the tools to face new challenges together.

Community, school, family. These are three of the four core institutions for a strong society. When these areas are strong and functioning well on their own, it’s time for aid to end.

(What is the fourth institution? The church. But more on that here. It’s complicated.)

Today’s celebrations were grand. A parade that made its way through miles of winding roads, pausing at every village for an individual blessing. A (spicy) feast laid out for hundreds. A ceremony of song, dance and speeches that lasted well into the night. Today I saw a community transformed. Today I saw that poverty is solvable.

****Full disclosure: I’m honored to be a guest of World Vision’s this week in Sri Lanka, along with these very talented bloggers. I have long been an advocate of child sponsorship and I will always tell you it’s one of the best ways to spend $35 a month. It really works. If you are interested in sponsoring a child in Sri Lanka, click here.

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