The global south is littered, literally, with the remains of failed international aid projects. So-called clean cookstoves had more appeal to western donors than to women in India, Africa or Latin America. Wells and taps that were intended to provide clean water have fallen into disrepair. One 2009 study estimated there are 50,000 broken rural water points across Africa that represents a failed investment of US $215-360 million. Oops.
It’s easy to understand how this happens. If a nonprofit provides cookstoves or water taps or chickens or books, that’s what it will give poor people, even if what they really want is malaria nets, a schoolhouse or cash.
As Jennifer Lentfer puts it: “One of the killer assumptions that has plagued the aid industry for years now is the idea that there’s a blank canvas upon which our interventions will make things better.”
Lentfer and Tanya Cothran are editors of a new book of essays called Smart Risks: How small grants are helping to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. Lentfer, who is director of communications at the nonprofit Thousand Currents (formerly IDEX), and Cothran, who is executive administrator of a foundation called Spirit in Action, believe that community groups in poor countries know better than experts in the west what they need.
Both are small organizations, so it’s no surprise that Lentfer and Cothran focus on small grants. Thousand Currents gave away just under $1 million in 2015, the last year for which a financial report is available on its website. Spirit in Action reported donations of just $34,000 on its 2015 Form 990.
Most of the international grant-makers who contribute to Smart Risks also embrace the small-is-beautiful mantra. More important than how much they give, though, is how they give. They support grassroots groups with flexible, unrestricted, long-term support.
In an essay called “The five essential qualities of grassroots grant-makers,” Jennifer Astone, executive director of the Swift Foundation, asks:
Why not rethink the model of pushing money and projects onto communities, and instead let local priorities determine the needs and drive the design and pace of the work?
Why not, indeed? But this bottom-up approach to global grant-making evidently remains unusual. A report on global humanitarian assistance released last week by Development Initiatives found that national and local responders directly received just 2% of funding reported to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs Financial Tracking Service in 2016. That said, much funding for grassroots groups flows through intermediaries like Thousand Currents, Spirit in Action, Global Giving, Accountability Lab, and the Urgent Action Fund. These groups are showcased in Smart Risks. Continue reading