They’ve Eaten the Money

I told Robinah I’d help her out. She was in a desperate situation. Robinah is a single parent of four children who also supports her HIV infected mother and a crippled orphan. For the past ten years Robinah had been a teacher at the school where I worked. Then she got fired without notice on the first day of the new semester.

At that point the school owed her three months of back wages and it was easier for them just to let her go. The headmaster replaced her with the very students she had been teaching. The new high school graduates were hired not for their experience, but because they could work for practically free. In Uganda there are no enforceable labor laws. Robinah will probably have to start digging full time in the fields to provide food for her family. Without money for school fees her children, ages 4 to 12, will have to join her. Her mother will have to find a way to purchase her antiretroviral medication.

You’re probably gearing up for me to start pleading with you for a donation for Robinah. “GIVE! GIVE! GIVE!” I should be saying. “For the price of a gourmet cup of coffee this family can have a new lease on life!” At the time I gave Robinah $50. That was enough to get her family through the month. Future assistance remains uncertain. She has no bank account to wire money. I can’t even contact her because she doesn’t even own a phone, let alone e-mail. What do I do, put my faith in a charity to get the money to the right place?

As individuals we give millions of dollars to help those suffering in the developing world survive.  Does all of it reach people below the poverty line, the people like Robinah, who truly need it?

I knew that the school fired Robinah because they didn’t want to pay her, not because they didn’t have the means. I worked in rural Uganda as a community development consultant for two years and followed the money trail from start to finish. I was brought on to a local organization to help with its visibility and give it some publicity. We targeted European trust fund kids on their gap year and others with cash to burn and little afterthought of accountability. We recruited teen voluntourists to come out and workation with us for a few weeks. It was a summer camp that you could put on your résumé. The cash was flowing. In fact, the headmaster couldn’t fire Robinah in person because he was flying to Europe for his annual “fundraising trip”.

You seal up your donation in an envelope and send it to your favorite philanthropic fund. A large portion of that gift goes towards the organization’s administrative costs. That includes stuff like the office rental, phone lines, land rover purchases, and employee salaries. Then what’s left over is distributed over a large population of the organization’s target demographic. Just how much depends on the efficiency and honesty of the organization.

Briefcase organizations focus entirely on fundraising. They run non-profits with a for-profit business strategy. The headmaster I worked for had a pretty good scheme going. He was building a lecture hall, but it had taken him over seven years and it never seemed to get done. Charity groups would come work on it for a week and then give the headmaster completion funds which he pocketed. A new charity would show up in the village oblivious of the last group and the cycle would repeat itself. “The money was eaten” is a popular saying in Uganda.

The founders of my organization were upper-middle class, highly educated, and charismatic. They’d go after overseas money like sharks. I should know: they targeted my friends and family. They’d hustle me on a daily basis. First they’d appeal to my sympathy for the poor, then to my guilt, and if that didn’t work they’d threaten me.

I was asked to sponsor children, buy food and animals, bribe government school officials and traffic cops. My girlfriend was robbed of $400 and her passport at my supervisor’s house while she was taking a shower. My supervisor refused to call the police. Another time, I was on a bus full of senior citizens coming back from  The UN’s International Older Persons’ Day festivities when the supervisor demanded a large sum of money for gasoline. When I refused he told the driver to pull over to the nearest ATM and waited until I made a withdrawal. The next year the same bus of older persons followed me down the street to my house and parked there until I yelled at them to go away.

One day my supervisor got a hold of my home address and decided to visit my parents on his “fundraising” trip to the U.S. He and his wife blew most of their money in Vegas and by the time they got to my home in New Mexico they were broke. They wouldn’t leave until my parents bought them airline tickets to Chicago.

I got suckered in too. A team of social workers and I conducted a needs assessment of the child-headed households in the area. In my village there were many. We found that the biggest problem was not just that these children’s parents had died from AIDS, but that they suffered from malnutrition. I raised money from my friends and relatives back home in the States to build a one-acre school farm. Corn, beans, cassava, and pumpkins were planted in anticipation of 850 vocational students working the land and eating what they grew. The students harvested the crops. However, instead of turning the 200 kilos of corn into school lunches, the school threw the sacks on trucks and sold them at the market. I demanded to know how the money was spent. I was told it was paying teacher salaries. I knew that Robinah never got that cash and that her young replacements were working in a simple exchange for room and board. The only one left was the European-bound headmaster. That’s when I got the feeling that I had inadvertently invested in child labor.

When all the money falls into the hands of the middlemen strange power relationships start to occur. The headmaster used to call the neighboring villagers peasants. He wasn’t too far from the truth. As he received more donations he acquired more assets and bought more land. The poor, many of them orphaned, students worked that land in a sharecropping deal for substandard education. The community had progressed little past feudalism. Foreign aid seemed to reinforce this way of life.

What’s the solution? I’ve heard many critics say that we should just stop aid all together. Although my brush with corruption was especially malevolent, I disagree. The community I lived in has been suffering from the HIV/AIDS epidemic for almost thirty years. It is under no fault of their own that they live with affliction. Empathy is a uniquely human trait. To turn our backs on them is the same as turning our backs on ourselves. You’ll notice that I haven’t directly named names in my whistle blowing. Corrupt as they are, to incriminate the guilty parties would cut off the marginalized populations they serve entirely from outside relief efforts. We must continue to help, but seriously deliberate on how we give assistance.

There are often better contributions of aid than money. One of the best gifts I gave was seed. Seed and Light International donated 18 lbs of seed to the village and we distributed it amongst 25 families. The seedlings grown ended up in the home gardens of seven villages. Seed isn’t a handout, but an opportunity for farmers to invest their own time and energy to create food. Most community members survived at a subsistence level. Our small gardens provided nourishment to the people who needed it most. Surplus produce was even sold at market to generated income. Most valuable of all, the farmers grew more self-reliant.

Assistance works best when it is given in direct response to a community generated need. Unfortunately, most of us in the West don’t have the luxury to travel to Africa and follow the relief efforts through on the ground level. Thousands of miles away, those starving for aid don’t have the means to communicate with their donors. I’ve done my best in my blog posts to bring awareness to the plight of the Ugandan people I worked with and lived alongside. Now it’s time to help them build up enough capacity to remedy their situation. Technology has made the globe a more intimate place and given us the advantage to work together to improve the state of aid. I welcome any comments or suggestions on how we can make a lasting positive impact on people like Robinah and their livelihoods.

As long as the Third World is reliant on foreign aid, we as donors are reliant on third party charities and NGOs. We must demand accountability and transparency in their operations.  Here’s a few things you can do:

  • If you give to a group, invest yourself in a long-term relationship.
  • Research the organizations beforehand and talk to other donors. A lot of the big name charities don’t use their earnings as efficiently as you might think.
  • Follow up on how your money is spent and become outraged if it isn’t used correctly.
  • The best way to know where your donation goes is to make contact with the individuals already working in the field.

Peace Corps volunteers, missionaries, doctors, and students are fixtures in the development world. As individuals they make a long-term commitment to live with the local people, learn their language, and their way of life. They are often more helpful than dealing with larger NGOs who take a substantial cut of the contribution or partner with corrupt local leaders to gain access into a community.

The current economic development paradigm in the Third World is flawed. Although it has originated from post-colonial reparations, the method still forces those in developing nations to be subservient to richer, Western powers. For development to work foreign aid must be finite. Assistance alleviates immediate suffering, but over the long-term it creates a culture of dependency. This weakens the human condition just as much as AIDS weakens the human immune system. If development goals are to be achieved, the people they target must meet them on their own terms and in their own capacity. As an American I can go no further to solve Uganda’s socio-economic problems. To fix them the solution must be distinctly Ugandan. Only a native Ugandan can provide that.

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