A More Sustainable Way to Better Support Global Development

At the empowering people. Network, we are often asked this question by our followers: How can I best support international development? In this article, we try to give an overview of several thoughts and approaches into this complex topic.

For every person that takes the time to ask, we feel there are hundreds more that never ask the question “how”, and, in their desire to help, take action on the first opportunity they see to make an impact. Giving donations, helping promote educational campaigns, and travelling to volunteer are some of the most common contributions. While certainly all these actions are based on good intentions, sometimes, unknowingly, our efforts create more harm than we imagine. Sometimes the interdependencies are so complex that you can rarely project which effect one’s actions will have on the greater social and economic environment. Also, it may happen that external effects arise that actually worsen the situation of the people you’re trying to support.

Some of the more common problems are:

  • Voluntourism

Cristian Birzer (1) describes “Voluntourism” as: People travel to a resource-constrained region to do work they aren‘t necessarily qualified to do. Essentially it means if a teacher volunteers in a school to give English lessons, that’s a good thing. If a high school graduate without pedagogical and methodical experience does the same, it’s not. If the teacher decides to dig wells – he’s equally unqualified. Unfortunately, an entire industry (such as Projects Abroad (2) or International Volunteer HQ) has been created around voluntourism, which promotes short term and unqualified volunteering with wonderfully created promotional videos. In Cambodia families have even been urged to ‘sell’ their children to foster homes, to create more orphanages so that westerners can volunteer there (3).

  • Buy-one-give-one models can destroy local businesses

Buy-one-give-one has been pioneered by US companies and while it seems like a generous idea it can have strong negative impacts. Donations of consumer products (shoes, soap, etc.) do not solve the underlying problem that people cannot afford these products in their home country. On the contrary, it may even destroy the local business structure. How is a local shoemaker supposed to sustain his small workshop if a multinational is donating shoes for free? To their credit, many companies have adapted their local models (4) and are not trying to give their support in terms of capacity building or buying the products in-country.

  • Donations can derail sustainable programs

With donations, people are curious how much of their money actually arrives in the field and how much is ineffectively spent on overhead costs. Overhead costs are not ineffective, they include things like fundraising for the project. So, if your dollar could be used to raise 2,5 dollars for the same cause, wouldn’t that be effective? The common approach to judge non-profits’ effectiveness by how small their overhead is not only restricts their ability to operate, but also hinders them to raise a lot more funds that would be needed. Dan Pallota (5) asks to rather judge NGOs on their impact and their vision.

epExpert Zachary Zweig (third from left) is a mechanical engineer and supported the German company Smart Hydro Power in Colombia to make their smart turbines even more efficient. In addition, he conducted research on local water utilities and developed measures to improve irrigation and hygiene conditions.

Together with our partners at MovingWorlds (6), we try to help solve problems through skilled-volunteers with high impact projects around the world. So, if you are asking, “how can I best support international development?”, we hope that the three tips from MovingWorlds can help you create the change you wish to seek:

1. Get Informed

As prominent author and speaker Ernesto Sirolli shares in his TED talk: If you want to help someone, shut up and listen (7). We all have our ideas how we could support others, but in different local settings, different social structures and with different mindsets it may simply not work. But it all starts with getting informed. You can find five easy ways to start achieving the sustainable development goals in your own life (8).

2. Take Action

There are lots of ways to take action: personally (9), professionally (10), politically (11), and with your philanthropic (12) efforts. From your shopping, travel, eating, and social habits, there are many small and big adjustments you can easily make to do less harm and create more good. If you want to get involved with your knowledge and person on site, there are special programs to ensure the right activity, such as our empowering people. Expert service (13) and a wide range of other programs. Primarily, being an expert is about providing skills and supporting others. In addition, working in a new environment is exciting and enriching for both sides.

3. Give Smartly

Most importantly, however you decide to give, give smartly. The “Effective Altruism” (14) movement uses data to help you make a bigger impact with your donations. Impact-investing initiatives fund local entrepreneurs that solve basic needs and create social and environmental good (15). And should you decide to volunteer, make sure to read MovingWorlds’ latest data in the Stanford Social Innovation Review on skills-based volunteering: 7 tips on how to make sure you use your skills and time in a way that will actually help (16).

Carlo Zafrani (center) is an industrial designer who volunteered as an epExpert at BEMPU in India. Their product is a bracelet that monitors babys’ temperature to protect them from hypothermia. As many Indian women are illiterates, Carlo supported BEMPU by designing pictograms to explain the solution.

About MovingWorlds: MovingWorlds, SPC is a Social Purpose Corporation. Their mission is to connect people to life-enriching, immersive experiences that create a sustainable impact.

About the Author

David Hoffmann

David is a project manager in the area of Development Cooperation and is working in and contributing to a number of activities within the empowering people. Network such as the epExpert volunteering service, epOnsite trainings, website etc. Prior he worked on development issues for the European Parliament, Brussels and the German Embassy in Chisinau, Moldova. He volunteered as project coordinator for humanitarian disaster aid missions and in donor liaison for “Give a Goat” Uganda.

David studied Economics and Geography at Munich and Constance and holds a Master’s degree in Applied Economics from LMU Munich, Germany.

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