Aid: let’s think local

Our volunteer Sally Meisenhelder considers what works best in aid.


One of the first things apparent in Cambodia is the incredible number of NGOs.

There are the offices of two international NGOs on my block and I pass many others on my walk across the Russian Market area. According to Open Development Cambodia, there are 1,315 active NGOs in Cambodia. More than half of them are located in Phnom Penh. Half of them are local NGOs. Almost half, 670, are local NGOs. This percentage can be expected to increase as more donors and international NGOs localize their projects.

The United States is the seventh largest donor to Cambodia. Most of the assistance is channeled through international NGOs. There are some reasons for this. U.S. citizens receive a tax deduction for charitable donations. These donations can only be given to U.S. non-profit organizations which take a portion of the donation as administrative cost.

Donations can then be transferred to local organizations to support specific projects. Aid from the U.S. government comes with many restrictions – 8 pages of restrictions. The reporting requirements and rules are almost impossible to follow for small local organizations (see page 40 – 48). USAID has commissioned a study on localizing aid, hopefully with the intention of making more aid available to local organizations. The report done by the Overseas Development Institute found that “localizing aid is a critical element in any aid strategy aimed at strengthening systems.”

I have volunteered for many different organizations and have seen that the organizations that make the most impact are those that are local. Local knowledge always trumps the plans imported by outsiders, even if similar projects were successful elsewhere. The most successful organizations I have seen, are those that are begun locally and grow locally with some small, no-strings attached assistance. Assistance should be in solidarity with local people and not given as charity.

I have been involved in two such efforts. A U.S. based NGO, Doctors for Global Health, only works where it has been asked to work by a local group. In Nicaragua, we were asked to help start a community clinic. The “donation” was my expertise in training health promoters and advice on clinic design. In addition, there was a $2000 cash donation used to buy medicines. This clinic, 10 years later, is still self sustaining and serving the community.

The second is an organization in Chihuahua, Mexico. A few women decided to form an organization to fight gender based violence. They started with the loan of an office and some small donations from U.S.-based organizations. Today, they provide a full range or services, psychological, legal, and self-advocacy training. Although they traveled to other places to learn best practices elsewhere, they developed their own program. They won a suit in the International Court against Mexico and gained national and international recognition.

For development to be truly sustainable, sustainability must apply to organizations as well. CWF fits that model. Locally conceived to fill a local need, locally run with a mostly Cambodian workforce, CWF is able to provide much needed financial assistance to development in the countryside. It provides local jobs and training as well as a teaching experience for international volunteers.

To anyone seeking to volunteer, I recommend that you look carefully before you invest your time and money. Think about sustainable organizations, demand transparency of the organizations finances and think about solidarity versus charity.


By Sally Meisenhelder

Image taken from a CRDT chicken rearing presentation.

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