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The Bureaucracy of Change

The Bureaucracy of Change

The Bureaucracy of Change

Lying on the couch, it was with a great deal of eagerness that I typed the words “best non-profits for developing countries” into Google. Having just won the race for Eighth Grade Service Chair, albeit unopposed, I was filled with the drive to serve my position the best possible. Sure, I could choose an organization to channel our fundraising effort towards by throwing a dart at the glossy charity pamphlets and benefit invitations cluttering the kitchen table, but what kind of leader would that make me? I wasn’t going to go small with some local organization, I wanted to help people in Africa. I wanted to make a difference.

This drive had started the previous summer, when I spent eight weeks absolutely miserable at sleep-away camp. I found refuge pouring over The New Yorker that my parents sent me each week, curling up on my bunk with the latest issue, trying to focus on the world away from cliques and dirt that was my summer. But with gaps in the mail system, my supply of the magazine was scarce and I found myself flipping to the same dog-eared article: “A History of Violence.” It detailed the emergence of South Sudan as a country and the brutal ongoing Sudanese conflict. By the light of my flashlight, I learned that there were only 30 miles of paved roads in South Sudan, that seven out of ten Sudanese were illiterate, and that the conflict was rooted in tensions among Muslims and Christians. All of a sudden, the allure of arts and crafts and campfires lost all remaining appeal and I sunk into a deep self-reflection: Why hadn’t I known any of this before? Why wasn’t I doing anything about it?

So, iPad in hands on that September afternoon in 2012, I was going to do something about it. I knew I wanted to help people, I just needed an organization. Through my string of Google searches, I eventually found one called UNICEF, the United Nations Children’s Fund, and scrolled through their extensive list of countries they worked in, issues they covered, and crisp, clean photos of children in tents post-earthquake, children eating protein biscuits. Statistics. It only took a dollar to give a child water for forty days. It was perfect.

With only a limited amount of money being donated to non-profits, charities need to set themselves apart from the pack to receive donations. Every dollar given to UNICEF is one not donated to CARE, or PLAN, or WorldVision. Organizations need to be proprietary in order to survive in the multi-billion dollar industry of non-profits. One problematic marketing technique used by non-profits to gain “proprietary” status is advertising their overhead spending number. In every non-profits’ spending pie chart, costs fall into either the “overhead” category (funds used for operational purposes, like employee salaries or heating) or “program” funds (going directly to “the cause.”) Donors love to look at these numbers: it’s intuitive that organizations spending 60% of their budgets on overhead are making less change than those only spending 10% on operational costs.

But not spending as much money on operations doesn’t mean those operations simply go away. If an organization gets rid of their accounting department, there is no one to keep track of funds. Not having a fundraising committee means having less funds. As projects for an organization’s cause increase, so must operational costs. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Red Cross sent confused staff and perishable foods because they hadn’t invested in training field workers. But because donors look exclusively to the objective, magical overhead versus program costs when deciding where to donate, non-profits are pressed to decrease overhead costs as much as possible, compromising the effectiveness of the programs the organization aims to improve.

The most powerful non-profits in the world thrive because they are so large that they can afford to run huge operations with little overhead costs. These monsters of the sector have one significantly shiny thing in common: they center around disaster relief. As McNutt explains in her book Damned Nations, donors are attracted to donating to “emergency” situations, mostly natural disasters. They are tangible, heavily publicized, and in need of support, the perfect combination of selling points for a cause.

A textbook example of this is the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Less than three weeks after the sizable disaster struck already-impoverished Haiti, donors had pledged over half a billion dollars in relief efforts. Tent camps sheltered hundreds of non-profit organizations, camps that looked not too different from the spaces where survivors of the earthquake were living. Donors, NGO’s, and government aid associations crowded Haiti. However, their efforts focused on short term recovery projects, like clearing roads of rubble, but ignored long-term programs vital to a sustainable reconstruction. Nine months after the earthquake, only 2% of the 25 million cubic meters of debris had been cleared from Port-au-Prince.

The complicated narrative of aid began with a backdrop of New Hampshire’s cascading mountains in 1944 at the posh Mount Washington Hotel and Ski Resort. As Dambisa Moyo chronicles Dead Aid, the United States was looking at a decimated and unstable Europe in the wake of World War II. Even more concerning than the loss of a trade partner was the possibility for history to repeat itself, for another war to emerge from the ruins of economic collapse and post-war instability.

The US needed to figure out a solution quickly, and had called together 700 delegates to do so. They determined that Europe was going to need enormous amounts of money. In 1947, then Secretary of State George Marshall announced the post-war strategy (called the Marshall Plan) surrounded by the elite, ivy-veiled libraries of Harvard University. By 1948, the US had granted European countries $13 billion in aid and had helped to create multilateral trade organizations, like World Bank and IMF, to lay economic foundations in reconstructing Europe. And by the end of the 1950’s, it was clear that the Marshall Plan was a huge success. Aid had repaired infrastructure. Aid had created jobs. Aid had restored economic vitality, and aid had put the US at the center of multilateralism.

At the same time, the UN and its agencies were born for similar purposes: to rebuild Europe, to prevent future conflict, and to provide aid without racial, religious, or political discrimination. In 1946, UNICEF was created and began working in 13 European countries. Its funds came primarily from the US and Canada, and by 1950 it was working in Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Palestine, alongside other new charities (McNutt) such as Oxfam (founded in 1942), CARE (1945), and World Vision (1950.) US aid efforts remained solely focused on Europe until recovery was nearly complete in the late 1950’s.

As Europe regained economic footing, international banks had money to spare. Shortly following the successful Marshall Plan, policymakers turned to aid as a method of increasing economic growth, and they had a perfect place to put it: Africa. Thirty-one African countries declared independence from European powers in the 1950’s and 60’s, leaving them without the reliable economic stability their colonizers had provided, and without formal economic systems. With the Cold War beginning to ramp up, the US and the USSR used aid as an incentive for African states to become capitalist or communist, to fuel the fire of US dominance or Soviet hegemony. Determining recipients of aid had nothing to do with the circumstances of its people or the competence of its leadership, but its vulnerability to becoming blue or pink. The billions of dollars funneled into Africa weren’t grants, but loans that had to be paid back with interest, a system of aid that continues to undermine economic potential of African states.

Throughout the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s, aid shifted focus from foundation-laying projects like economic reform and transportation infrastructure to poverty alleviation on the individual level. Programs such as agricultural grants and food supplies began taking up more and more of the aid budget. This tangible, benevolent approach combined with the economic boom of the 90’s fostered a huge increase in donor support. While aid continued pouring in from governments for political purposes, Africa as a whole was adopted by celebrities (think Bono’s 1985 Live Aid concert) with complete ignorance of the complex, individual problems confronting each state and ethnic group within the continent. The western public saw one Africa: one, dark starving child that desperately needed Americans to save it.

Lack of cultural concerns continues to hinder foreign aid operations today. In 2011, USAID appropriated $18 billion for development projects in Afghanistan. Without taking cultural considerations into account, US officials constructed clinics against the wishes of Afghans and built schools that have yet to be attended. This ineffective use of funds stems from differences between Western ideals and Afghan culture: although education is fantastic for sustainable development and a human right, Afghans who think otherwise are unlikely to send their children to school just because the white aid worker knocking on their door says it’s a good idea. This is why in countries where UNICEF works, half of the employees are native to that country: to provide input relevant to those being helped and bridge cultural gaps.     

Cultural considerations plays a huge role in the effectiveness of aid. For years, polio was abundant in India. Up until 2009, the country had the most cases in the world. The solution to a disease like polio is as simple as one vaccine. Relatively inexpensive, tangible to donors, and a main focus of the Millennium Development Goals, it seems that vaccines would be low-hanging fruit.

Despite huge sums of aid spent on immunizations, the virus was still pervasive, especially in Muslim states of India. Parents were not taking their children to be immunized because they believed the vaccines to be evil, and were hesitant to administer anything to their child not from a tikadar, a religious leader closely tied to health. Resistance to the vaccines were only overcome when aid workers spun it on a religious level― children won’t be able to perform prayers properly if they are disabled, and the Quaran does not take a stance on vaccines. In February 2014, India was declared polio-free. It only took two years of the new, culturally contextualized methods to be effective, as opposed to the decades of aid wasted on techniques that were simply not working.

Coming right from Ugg-booted, white-walled New Trier, it’s probably not surprising I failed the radioactive hand swab security test at O’Hare. I stepped into the partitioned section and answered the officer’s questions as another uniformed person looked through my suspicious Vera Bradley bag.

“What are you going to New York for?”

“I’m speaking at a UNICEF conference. It’s their Annual Meeting.”

“Congratulations, that must be exciting. I’m still going to have to give you a pat-down.”

It was very exciting. I had come a long way since 2012. Eighth grade did not go as well as planned: no one seemed to understand the urgency of my fundraising efforts, not enough was getting done, and I felt completely alone in my relentless ambition to do big things. I wanted so badly to collaborate with people who cared as much as I did. I worked hard. Every weekend I set up a table in front of the Glencoe Walgreens with my bubble lettered “UNICEF” poster and semi-edible chocolate chip cookies for sale, getting not much profit for a lot of effort.

Eventually I made my way through the ranks of teen activism. I did research. I read books on economics, blogs on foreign aid, and every spam email from a charity that came my way. I found organizations that offered positions to high school kids and filled out every application in sight. I found contacts at the Midwest UNICEF Board Office, and learned and grew as an activist. I’ve made big strides; I’m an ambassador for this and a co-head for that, but I still doubt myself. Creating clubs, getting petitions signed, and fundraising are all messy projects, especially when doing them alone. But even if my work has any impact at all, even a small one, I will keep fighting and hoping for a better world.


Celia is a sophomore at New Trier High School. She is passionate about human rights, gender equality, and service learning. Celia is a Teen Advisor for the United Nations Foundation campaign Girl Up, which empowers American girls to support their adolescent counterparts living in developing countries. 

She is also an ambassador to UNICEF and volunTEEN nation, and has served on DoSomething.org's Youth Advisory Council. Celia's work has been featured on The Huffington Post, Teen Y!, and the volunTEEN nation blog. You can find her eating Mexican food, at policy debate tournaments, and on Twitter


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