The Development Dilemma

Why making change for children and families is so difficult.

As the world now knows, a recent, joint investigation from NPR/Pro Publica revealed that the American Red Cross has been challenged to justify their spending in Haiti on disaster relief, following devastation caused by the earthquake that hit the country in 2010. Minnesota congressman Rick Nolan is calling for a Congressional Hearing on how the money has been spent.

The confidence of the general public in the honesty and effectiveness of nonprofit organizations delivering disaster relief has been shaken. People are saying, ‘If we can’t trust the American Red Cross, who can we trust’?  The American Red Cross (like other major non profits, such as Oxfam, UNICEF, Save the Children and others) are considered some of the longest established and most trustworthy non-profit ‘brand identities’ in the world, and, in this respect, are advocates for the effectiveness for all non-profit disaster relief giving. The recent findings could potentially stop thousands, if not millions of people from donating money toward disaster relief. This is why a discussion must be entered regarding how and why people should continue to give to non-profits. It is also necessary to discuss how people can identify organizations that can deliver good development and fully document the work accomplished.

It is understandable that people would choose to donate to a large, well-known and trusted organization such as the Red Cross, but what does the Red Cross Experience tell us? The first thing we have learned is that that the Red Cross’s work in Haiti is not an example of good development. In the life and death situations affecting thousands or even millions of people that we see after earthquakes and tsunamis, the need for relief is so great and the challenges to deliver it often so complicated, that a step by step approach to delivering aid must be followed through a well organized and proven local infrastructure. The Red Cross found themselves with a huge amount of money, but disorganized local networks and no overall planning and management structure through which to spend the money effectively. Despite facing the music in this instance, the Red Cross are surely not alone in being a large, well known and trusted, outside organization trying to bring relief and development, but lacking in deeper long term connections with those who can truly deliver targeted relief efforts at the point of greatest need and transition into a plan for long term relief and rehabilitation of the country.

Disaster relief brings all types of logistical challenges for people and organizations wishing to deliver aid and it is often reported that NGOs are ineffective as they pile into a country in chaos, ultimately serving the larger organizations – like the Red Cross – who have secured governmental support and prioritized resourcing. In many cases this system does not appear to be working.

Luckily, for those in need and for people who wish to donate to organizations that make a real difference in people’s lives, there is another way.  Who can people trust with their donations and how can they identify an organization capable of delivering good development?

Good Development IS happening around the world. After the April 25, 2015 Earthquake in Nepal, the International Child Resource Institute (ICRI), with a budget of no more than $39,000, reached 3,412 families in 96 communities in 7 districts, during the first month of intensive service.  This comprehensive service provision amounts to $11.43 per family. Aid was delivered in the establishment and operation of Temporary Child Protection Shelters, provision of meals, creation of child friendly learning zones (as schools were destroyed or unsafe), and the provision of first aid counseling, trauma counseling, human resource allocation and much more. 

What is it about ICRI that allowed them to be so effective?  ICRI Nepal is run by local people for local people.

  1. Following their mission and objectives, ICRI must be invited by local leaders engaged in the areas of need to develop and carry out local programs operated by local people.
  2. The agenda for all projects including disaster relief are established by the local organizations partnering in the work with the collaborating international NGO.
  3. ICRI never states that they know what is best for a local community or a national disaster relief effort. They learn from locals and plan with them for each program and service to be provided.
Children in our Temporary Child Protection Shelter IN Kathmandu make different sculptures during the day

Children in our Temporary Child Protection Shelter IN Kathmandu make different sculptures during the day

We're amazed to seen the creativity displayed by these children

We're amazed to seen the creativity displayed by these children

The International Child Resource Institute (est 1981) was invited into Nepal and requested by the Nepal Central Child Welfare Board and other agencies to establish ICRI Nepal as a local NGO in 2001. Local staff were hired and the Nation Center on Learning Resources (NCLR), the Network for Children Prisoners and Dependents, and the National Corporate Responsibility Network were set up under ICRI Nepal’s umbrella. A national Planning Blueprint was established with one and five year comprehensive plans and clear goals objectives and activities for each program to be enacted locally. ICRI worldwide acts as a capacity builder and trainer as requested by ICRI Nepal and other networked, local NGOs. When emergency situations arise a complete plan is already in place for ICRI Nepal to go into immediate action to conduct survival, disaster relief, education, health and long-term recovery objectives. Thus, ICRI’s success at delivering aid for a relatively small amount of money in a high impactful manner was enabled as the organization developed over time in collaboration with the local community, with local and national community leaders where local people lead and outside agencies listen and follow.   

ICRI’s work and the work of others in Nepal points to good development.  By understanding what good development requires, we can best identify those capable of delivering it. The secret to good development lies in the following:

  1. Think and act locally. No international relief or help agency should presuppose that their efforts will be successful unless they have cultivated long term, meaningful collaborations with local organizations who will work as leaders and mentors to the international agency.
  2. No outside agency should enter another country unless they have been invited in, not when the crisis arises, but many years or many months before, when a structure and plan for relief and rehabilitation has been developed. 
  3. Helping agencies should never expect to leave 40% or often more of the funds raised in their home countries in their own bank accounts as administrative overhead and indirect costs. Credibility is built on true dedication to maintaining the transparency of their own agency. So long as agencies are forced to support massive fundraising efforts and not report the true cost of those efforts, little or less meaningful and substantive change can take place.
  4. Bigger is often not better. While major change can be accomplished, plans must be “contoured” to fit vastly different cultural and economic conditions within the same country in need. Massive amounts of funds that must be distributed rapidly often lead to spending rushes where little impact is made and where the objective is to justify ‘the spend’ and does not promote the desired change/result. Large amounts of positive change making can take place by assuring local teamwork, local leadership and coordination of each activity toward the production of desired, impact producing outcomes.
  5. Success breeds success. ICRI’s success in Nepal took place as a result of a continuum of successful work from the 14 year partnership of ICRI Global and ICRI Nepal. ICRI Nepal’s Country Director Dhirendra Lamsal’s provides true local leadership, and his Nepali team have worked together to make meaningful change for many years. This model is working in several other countries, with empowered local leaders encouraged by inside and outside experts that they can call upon, day or night, to make substantive lasting change in many countries, for generations to come.
  6. Good development follows a Planning Blueprint. Organizations that offer effective relief will have used a Planning Blueprint or other planning tool to establish a local network. Local issues will have been narrowed and focused in common for all network stakeholders. Strong constituencies will have been built up around the issues and the NGO, local key gate keepers and local decision makers will all be speaking the same planning language.

Thus all change making is truly local and the work of international NGO’s is to support, at times empower and most often follow the lead of well trained highly experienced local staff who can much better accomplish the necessary change at all levels. Good development is actually easier to deliver than bad development when an organization is set up along the lines of the principles outlined above.

For organizations that have local offices in disaster zones, the work will never be over. ICRI can and will work with any committed and dedicated local organization, worldwide as long as we have a proven local structure to deliver coordinated and effective development.  

Thus, to answer the question ‘If we can’t trust the Red Cross, who can we trust?’, the answer is simple.  We must only donate to and only trust the organizations that are well established in the countries that need relief, have a strong local leadership and a history of delivering effective change on the ground. While the American Red Cross certainly does a great deal of good work around the world, good development is best delivered by those already living in the country and by those who have followed a step by step plan to establish a local network. It is for this reason that the general public need not despair with non-profits or stop donating. They simply need to change their culture of giving, and look deeper into which organizations can deliver effective and long lasting relief. 

ICRI would like to open a forum for further discussion on this issue and start a change in the culture of giving, so that money donated reaches those who truly need it, every dollar of the funds donated is accounted for and the true impact of the aid provided is measured and documented.

To become engaged in this dialogue please leave a comment below or email us at info@icrichild.org.