Prioritizing Community Leaders is Critical for the Success of Aid and Development Projects

PADANG, Indonesia (Oct. 12, 2009) Marines assigned to Combat Logistics Battalion (CLB) 31 of the 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit (31st MEU), Indonesian service members, and Red Cross employees load a cargo net of supplies from The United States Agency for International Development (USAID)
Image: WikimediaCommons/U.S. Navy

By Giorgia Piantanida

In an effort to increase national security, there has been a global push for several decades to focus on development and cooperation in developing and post-conflict countries. The theory is: if a society is formed and provides opportunities for its members, its members will contribute positively, and it will avoid conflict. While, in theory, it seems flawless, it has had many problems in practice, and among them has been the distribution of aid money to fund development programs themselves. If it does not distribute carefully, the risk of funding harmful programs increases, thereby destroying all the potential strengths of the program.

The distributors of program funds must do it effectively because if the money does not finish in the hands of the people who need it most, it is money they have wasted. One problem is when an international organization goes into a country or community and creates and implements a project it believes will be helpful but without ensuring that it meets the community’s needs. For example, an all-girls school near remote villages in Afghanistan is a great project in theory. However, if the international organization places it somewhere inaccessible to the girls, perhaps because of the route it requires, or there are no teachers available to teach there, the project is futile. It will have no utility; eventually, the building will simply become an empty space and a emblem of wasted money.

When project planners put communities at the center of project planning and implementation, the likelihood of success and long-term viability increases while making it more likely that once implemented, the very people who helped create it will be the ones using it. Folding in community voices is also an excellent way to increase community ownership in projects, meaning that the community will feel more closely tied to the outcome and want to work to protect and strengthen it in the future, long after the implementing partner has gone. This buy-in means that the project outlasts the presence of foreign aid organizations and has long-term positive impacts throughout the community.

The politics and culture of the receiving countries must be taken into account when beginning aid programs, and there must be plans to ensure that aid does effectively arrive to those who need it most. In Afghanistan, aid programs are struggling to be effective because they are not tackling the cultural programs in the communities that prevent aid from having effective distribution. These problems include poor roads that are inaccessible in the winter, Taliban politics, and discrimination against certain groups, like the Hazaras. 

The aim of giving aid to developing or post-conflict countries is to ensure that they can rebuild and come out on the other side stronger. It should sustain them in their long-term journey toward recovery so that one day they may stand independently without foreign support. If this is the aim, but the practice falls short of meeting this goal, then the method is failing—it must either cease or improve. Rather than continuing to root our foreign aid and development work in neo-colonialism, it is time we move beyond and begin to root that work in community building and reconstruction. We must do better as a global community.

Giorgia is a current graduate student in International Security at the Università di Trento and Scuola Superiore di Sant’Anna Pisa in Italy. She is interested in the intersections between climate change and human security, focusing on people flow and global justice. 

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