Watching the aftermath of the earthquake in Haiti on television, I was fascinated by the number of aid groups or NGOs that had already been working in this poor almost forgotten country. And yet with all the financial support that had been given over the years by ngos, the people were still struggling in extreme poverty. Traveling through Asia and Africa which are swarming with these non governmental, non profit humanitarian groups( ngos) that depend a large part on donations, I realized this has become a new big business in the world. Non profit doesn’t mean that the people running the ngo are not paid.
A huge part of donations made to organizations like the Red Cross, Mercy Corp,
and Unicef, are used to pay the salaries and run the organization. So even if they supposedly do not make a profit, they are running businesses and paying salaries and the employees are being paid to be humanitarians. I have been told by different sources that sometimes only 5%-20% of donations actually are used to help the suffering.
When I was in Bangladesh several years ago, I had a conversation with two young educated Bangladeshi guys who admitted that the many of such groups working in their country were only fronts for illegal businesses. Every third world under-developed nation has become dependent on ngos to save them, educate them, provide clean water sources, build roads, feed the people, build hospitals and schools, support orphanages and the list goes on. And ngos are providing well paid jobs with excessive benefits for Europeans and Americans who have become enamored with this career choice. We are taking responsibility away from these ineffective corrupt governments and in many cases not empowering the people.
I worked with an American run Ghana based clothing company several years ago. Volunteers were charged a minimum of $1400 for five weeks of volunteering, supposedly to cover housing which I found myself for $100 a month. The Ghanian women were employeed as piece workers, battiking large rolls of white muslin and sewing thousands of garments to be shipped to the States and sold at trade shows. Yes the women were paid more for their work than normal wages and they hired more people to produce the clothing. But the American women, ex peace corp volunteers, ran the business and without them, it would not survive.
While some of these private non profits are educating and feeding the poor of the world, our governments are paying the people in high places in these countries for permission to take out oil, minerals, wood, fish and whatever else is valuable in these countries. So whatever NGOs are trying to do to improve lives, our governments are helping to keep these corrupt governments in power.
At this moment I am in one of these extremely corrupt African countries. Several of the world’s richest oil companies are paying large sums to officials here to extract and export petroleum. At the same time, hundreds of villages have no source of clean water and are waiting for a foreign aid group to help them. There is a well run hospital in the next town that was set up by a Dutch ngo with various other foreign donors. But it is almost impossible to reach this hospital which sits 2km up a curvy, steep, rocky dirt road. Most people walk or go on a mototaxi to reach the hospital. Today I drove my friend’s four wheel drive truck up the hill and prayed the engine was not going to fall out. When I mentioned to the nurses and doctors that a sick person would die before he could reach the hospital, they laughed and asked if I knew any NGO that would build the road. When I suggested their government, they laughed again. As long as our corporations and our governments engage in business with these criminal regimes, ngos will remain a necessary evil creating dependency and ineffective government. Everyday I am approached by someone here in the village asking if I can help find foreign donors to fund a water project, an electric project, a hospital for disabled children or tools for poor farmers. Ironically our governments and international corporations are keeping dictators in power and our ngos are keeping their people from death and starvation.
Postscript.. As I have criticized ngos, I want to acknowledge two that I support that are a vital force in the world. Doctors without borders supplies medical care in poor countries that lack doctors,hospitals, and rural medical care. They are the first ones in war zones, environmental disasters and refugee camps. Partners in Health, started by Dr. Paul Farmer in the rural areas of Haiti, provides medical care to the poor as well as training the locals to be doctors, nurses and car givers. PIH is now working in several African and South American countries as well. Please read his autobiography “Mountains beyond Mountains by Tracy Kidder who followed Farmer climbing mountains in rural Haiti to reach the poor and the sick…
One person can make a difference.
Postscript again…..There is another type of ngo run only by volunteers, raising money from donations. One Family International(OFI) who funded the water project at the bi-lingual high school here in Fundong, Cameroon is this type of non profit. The Rotary clubs of America also are also run by volunteers and their present focus is funding clean water projects throughout the world.
please read comment by Gloria H..regarding the red cross..