To Make The World A Better Place: Reflections on NGOs and Their Work | ArtSocket Gallery Magazine

To Make The World A Better Place

By Header image credit: bachmont

A note from the editor:

Rules change as one switches lifestyle from a tourist to an expatriate. Being a resident (even a temporary one) requires living on the level with the countrymen who might have been serving us drinks on a different occasion. Some cultures reject Westerners while others welcome us with open arms. Frequent travellers seem to see the overwhelming and complex relationships between global communities and some of the underlying reasons for the tensions that arise between them.

After his lengthy residence in Asia, preceded by more years of travel Ian spent a few months in Africa as a volunteer. His job involved working with local communities on projects that would better the lives of those around them. Since then, he presented his research (pending publication, 2015) to the International Conference on Sustainable Development (ICSD) in partnership with the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) during the UN week in New York September 2015. Currently, he is completing his Masters in Development Practice while working at UN Development Programme (UNDP) in Indonesia on several different projects, including sustainable fishery and palm oil, illegal wildlife trade.

This article explores a clash of our capitalistic ideals with the harsh realities of life in developing countries.

All things expressed in this article are the sole views of the author and do not represent the viewpoints of the institutions and organizations mentioned.

I was sent to volunteer in Africa...

My students in Tanzania during my placement
My students in Tanzania during my placement

Malaria, women empowerment, HIV/Aids, child marriage, street kids, corruption in government, drug abuse. A (short) list of what my students are interested in. Their average ages are mid-twenties, and they're all keen on tackling issues of this size. They want to volunteer at their placements and learn from other class members who have gone into at-risk communities.

A year-long course of Emerging Leaders program; the students are to complete two grant proposals from the research done during the previous course on "how to assess communities". As part of this program, I have given them an opportunity also to be placed at another NGO that best matches their interests and to begin working on the issues at hand.

I felt disappointed realizing the gap in ambition levels between my students and my friends back home. Keeping track with my friends on Facebook I read their complaints and debates about what's wrong with the world. While offline only a few of them would take charge to write to their MP's. Fewer go on protests. Even less go out to volunteer their time. As I travel back and forth between the third-world and first-world countries I feel like us, Westerners, carry an enormous misconception about the world. Everyone is somehow isn't as good or just lazy if they're not doing as well as us. Though the irony is with the privileged attitudes that come with complaining and expectations that someone else would fix everything for us.

We want change to happen in the most profound, passionate way. Yet it's not being followed through with any action by the common folk.

Meanwhile, in the less developed world, the communities seem to be much more avid and action-oriented. I was not prepared for the amount of enthusiasm and energy that my students brought to class. They crave change. They're hungry to do something. They're motivated to make the world a better place.

I wish some of that motivation and proactive attitude would travel back to Canada and help us bring our visions of a better country (and the world) alive.

My buddy Omar's volunteer English school that I visited
My buddy Omar's volunteer English school that I visited

Western Saviour Complex

Reckless, inconsiderate development can be detrimental and perpetuate all the things wrong with the world.

"Western Saviour Complex" is a struggle that many development practitioners encounter. How does the Western world help an underdeveloped country without repeating colonial history? How do we not appear hegemonic, neo-colonialist, and demeaning to the people that we are there to help? Not all noble actions are without negative consequences. And in some cases, perhaps and seemingly, deliberately keep the assisted in poverty.

In 1975 after Mozambique won independence from Portugal, WHO declared their health care system as a model for the rest of the developing world. By 1980's they have established 1,200 rural health posts, 8,000 health workers were trained, and 11% of the government budget was committed to health care. And then the Rhodesian war broke out.

Enter the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and their crusade to develop the poor. By 1987, Mozambique adopted IMF's Structural Adjusted Program to recover from the conflict's fallout. IMF describes itself as a promoter of international monetary cooperation and exchange rate stability, facilitates the balanced growth of international trade, and provides resources to help members in balance of payments difficulties or to assist with poverty reduction. To get the aid (in a form of a monetary loan) of the IMF and World Bank, Mozambique must follow the SAP model.

The SAP model requires the country to shock the economy back into "health." Which demands the country to inflate the currency, print money, and drive their currency lower and lower. Much like what the U.S. is doing now (quantitative easing). This is followed by opening up to the world market, privatizing everything, and cutting government services (like healthcare and education). Prices are to be increased, and exports devalued. The loans are billed with a very high interest. Thus, the free market is promoted/invited. More like free for the Western countries it seems.

The point of the loans is to encourage entrepreneurship, speaking on a very generalizing term. Sure it's possible to have investments into infrastructure also, anything to promote employment, jobs, businesses. The fundamental idea of SAPs is to cut the government so that it has a decreased debt and then increase competition of services in a free market domestically and globally.

There are many problems with developing countries through SAPs. Which, as a result often resulted in failures. The fundamental way the finance scheme is operated with conditions and interest rates and the lack of financial infrastructure to handle correctly and efficiently this kind of financial system is one of such drawbacks.

One of the larger issues is that the loans are billed with a very high interest. The problem arises in the fundamental idea of neoliberalism - though some will argue that. The basic idea of SAPs is to cut the government so that they have a decreased debt and then increase competition of services in a free market domestically and globally. Cutting down the government means slashing services like healthcare and education and giving it to the private sector. Essentially, selling it off and taxing the private companies while using the loans to help subsidize businesses to encourage competition.TanzaniaA view of the sea from my hotel in Tanzania.

A view of the sea from my hotel in Tanzania.

There needs to be a balance between neoliberal and a "state-led development" model where the country invests a certain amount of money into its core social programmes. When health care is cut, for example, the private companies charge money for these services instead. The people generally cannot afford them, which results in them in becoming more and more sick. Population with declining health can no longer stay productive. It's a perpetual cycle. This is reflected in the education as well; economists have shown that lack of education can contribute negatively to the income levels. There have been many studies showing investments into healthcare and education from the state has increased nations' GDP (which is a terrible indicator for measurement of development; in any case HDI is slightly better). The reason for WHO to proclaim Mozambique as a model for health care before the Rhodesian war is because of their investment in primary health care.

Within a decade, only 2% of Mozambican budget is devoted to health care (from a previous 11%). With the lack of sufficient support from the Mozambique government, the health care system began to fail. NGOs started to descend like flies on shit. Expats from all over the world entered. By 1990, over 100 agencies were working in the country with a budget of over $1 million USD, as compared to the domestic health services of $750,000. Moreover: "It is noteworthy that the World Bank and IMF took no account of the war in their programme design, merely referring coyly to 'external factors', thus locating the impact of the war outside the programme framework" (Harrison, 542). This means the war Mozambique suffered does not contribute to the failing of their economic state, and so the focus of development is not post-conflict resolution. It is merely focused on economic development.

With the IMF policies in place, local testimonies include this statement from a Mozambican: "During socialism we had money but nothing to buy, but now there's a lot to buy, but we have no cash."

The drop in salaries for doctors reflected the decreased support government provided upon taking up the IMF policies. This forced health professions to work with the international NGOs, whose interests did not seem to align with the needs of the local people. This worsened their reputation as a real profit-based businesses, disconcerted with the welfare of their beneficiaries and ultimately driving them further into poverty.

Mozambique is one of many examples of SAP failures.

In other cases, the SAP scheme puts the locals in the hands of the free market for the allowance of domestic product they can afford. Bolivia, can't get their quinoa anymore at the same price (inflation adjusted) they used to due to the huge export market to fulfill the "organic vegan lifestyle" of the Western countries. The system of creating things for the rest of the world is flawed. It is based on a market of material goods which is not sustainable. An infinite expansion of economic growth (through trade or otherwise) cannot happen forever. There are limits to growth.

Environmental concerns are usually put last (ala environmental Kuznets curve - where people will only care about the environment until it interferes with getting money or food). Which should not be the case. Consider an investment in businesses that freely pollutes water supply from a textiles factory. The general population is not being looked after due to their declining health resulting from the pollution while the company gets subsidies to operate. Large businesses that get these incentives need to be regulated concerning their externalities. It'd be great if they can produce with zero pollution and be able to hire a whole village and trade globally. But what usually happens is that they hire the village and pollute the environment around it, without any compensation for the sick as a result. Let alone the environmental destruction. The government is essentially shooting itself in the foot with this move. That's exactly what happened on Lake Koka, in Ethiopia.

The intention of the SAP scheme may be well placed, but the result is often utterly devastating for the beneficiary countries. With all the crippling debt that it causes and over 20 years of trying the same scheme without any improvement, many start to ask questions as for intention of this plan.

Perhaps this is the way the "Global North" [Western powers] maintain control, power, and influence through curbing developing countries' advances. Keeping them poor and in debt as a form of control. When you become a beggar, well, you can't be a chooser. On some level, this very much could be a scheme or a ploy played out under a "humanitarian" disguise.

Each country has a very particular scenario. To blanket all the countries under one SAP program ends up ultimately destroying their economy and livelihood.

Me in Kavre's potato fields after work
Me in Kavre's potato fields after work

Humanitarian crisis and aid work seem noble and worthy. But ultimately the poorly planned policies controlling overseas operations end up working against those countries, placing them in crippling debt, at the mercy of their lending institutions. This generates contempt within the countries subjected to such aid.

"Freedom and democracy" still seems only to exist for those who are born into it.


Pfeiffer, James. (2003). International NGOs and primary health care in Mozambique: the need for a new model of collaboration. Social Science and Medicine. 56. pg 725 - 738.
Harrison, Graham (1999) Corruption as "Boundary Politics": The state, Democratization, and Mozambique's Unstable Liberalization. Third World Quarterly. 20 [3]. pg 537 - 550

This article is an edited version of what was originally posted on October 2014 on Ian's blog.