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“Can Foreign Aid Help This Girl?”  This was the question posed by Nicholas Kristof in the NY Times last weekend.  His article told about a Haitian girl who attends school because of the efforts of a determined local woman.  This community leader, Rea Dol, founded a school that now serves 835 poor youth in this besieged country.  She was able to accomplish this feat by linking with a Canadian foundation and a U.S. high school. Similarly, other local citizens have mobilized to educate and bring literacy to their own – with the help of foreign donors.  Kristof commented, “The school is an exemplary marriage of local leadership and foreign donors.”

This brings me to the broader controversy addressed by Kristof – whether foreign aid is helpful or detrimental to the developing country.  I too have read and seen on television criticisms about the efficacy of foreign aid.  It is common knowledge that corrupt individuals from all walks of life in the poorest of countries have sidelined and wasted billions of dollars for personal gain.  This has been called dead aid – dead on delivery, if it was, as Kristof points out, in fact delivered.  It is true that many well-intended projects can be ill advised, resulting in negative consequences to locals.  And it is also true that there is a certain type of “do-gooder” whose actions, if honestly scrutinized, may be more about personal desires or needs than about the needy, themselves. 

Concessions out of the way, however, the fact is that there are many Rea Dols, citizens dedicated to helping their own neighbors, who depend on the “kindness of strangers” – small grassroots NGOs, visiting volunteers (many of whom are teachers travelling on their carefully saved bankrolls) and sometimes, passing tourists.   These local activists, if you will, lift populations disregarded by their own governments. While such aid may be limited in scope and may not pass the rigors of sustainability sought by large funders, it delivers real, vital outcomes to those whom it touches.

Almost five years ago, I travelled as part of a “voluntourism” program to Tanzania.  I taught English at an informal community school through a remarkable young man who had absolutely no prospects for higher education or a job.  When I returned home, so did my resolve to help these youth, teenagers left out of the public school system, some with learning disabilities.  So I teamed up with two other educators, younger women, who also had volunteered there, and formed a 501C-3 to garner support for this population.   
Today this young man, who translated for me five years ago, holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Internet Technology from a major Tanzanian university.  Thirty-five (35) other teenagers and young adults, who had negligible prospects, are enrolled in secondary and higher education.  Another 60 local teenagers walk miles every day to attend formal classes at the community center to study English, math and other subjects.  Some also study methods of crop production and chicken-raising.  All are acquiring computer skills so that they can tap free learning on the Internet. A library just opened at the Center for students and adults to borrow books or simply sit and read a newspaper for the first time.  And over 700 individuals who either care for a disabled family member or serve the disabled (including the autistic) have forged networks of support, advocacy and learning by attending first-time workshops and seminars.
All of this has happened because of the coming together of one small U.S. non-profit, EdPowerment, Inc., and Tanzanian community leaders.  They could not help their neighbors without us.  We could not help their neighbors without them.  This is the kind of partnership Mr. Kristof described.  It is effective, good foreign aid.  It is not rich in financial capital and maybe not even in the “intellectual capital” that steers mega-aid programs. But it is a lifeline for the have-nots born into dire circumstances.  And it can only continue with action from both constituents, local citizens and global humanitarians.