We’ve learned in lecture that the NGO (non-governmental organization) sector is prevalent in Benin, but not always productive. Many NGOs merely consist of a guy and a business card, while others have to spend all their time chasing the funding, to the extent that their original mission is neglected and they aren’t very specialized. This funding often comes from governments or aid organizations in the west, various organs of the UN, and church groups within Benin.
For the purposes of this summer semester, each group can apply for a grant of up to 200 USD for a project to help build the capacity (increase the efficiency/productivity) of the organization with whom they are volunteering. While that isn’t a lot of money, it’s a lot in the local currency of CFA—100,000. It’s also difficult for many people we meet to understand that we are not a major aid organization, but rather a small student group. As a result, people often treat us like the dollar signs they believe us to be.
Are we the new funding they’re chasing?
It’s irrelevant that we don’t have the deep pockets of the UN (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…) because so many people believe we do, and act accordingly. And in a way, aren’t we already altering their activities and taking away from their specialty? Most of the organizations we’re working with are altering schedules and modifying their way of doing things in order to accommodate our need to volunteer, and our odd time line.
The first day we met the women from the Group Mossava, the micro enterprise (NOT micro-lending) group I am working with, they said hello, informed us of the machines they would like us to buy them, and welcomed us to Benin.
This experience is not unique.
At the orphanage, students were taken around on a tour of the facilities, which turned out to be a tour of things the orphanage needed them to buy.
I worry that we are accidentally becoming like the detrimental aid organizations and aid packages we study. If we disrupt them and take away from their work and specialization, how are we better than USAID blindly pouring money into the country? Perhaps our detriment is not on such a grand scale, but if we go on believing that underdeveloped countries exist to fulfill our need for education and our need to volunteer, we will only perpetuate the harms of foreign aid, thereby taking away from the good it can serve.