Food For Thought

Lasting solutions through local initiatives

“Development assistance needs to be supported with a firm three-legged stool – donors, recipient countries and the community, particularly at the local level, where human capacity so often goes under-recognized and, just as often, is straitjacketed by a combination of misguided donor aid policies and arbitrary implementation by autocratic governments in the recipient countries.”
—  Tom Grubisich, and Jennifer Lentfer, “Development Marketplace:  Turning Ideas Into Action”

By Donna Shaver 

In the past few years, there have been a growing number of experts, including many Africans, who assert that classic model of foreign aid for Africa from the governments of developed countries and from international organizations has not worked.  Some assert that such aid has actually hurt development in Africa.


For decades, the West has been providing billions of dollars of support to African countries for economic development, education, health care, and more.  Although there are some positive signs of growth and development, substantial change in sub-Saharan Africa remains elusive, especially for the poor and for rural populations.


Although more children are in school, many schools are inadequate at best, with teachers frequently absent.   Women are still dying in childbirth at some of the highest rates in the world, and with limited and inconsistent access to contraception, are giving birth to children they cannot adequately feed.  Millions still do not have ready access to clean water, cook over open fires, and live in inadequate dwellings.  Child marriage is common, with all the concomitant issues of health problems, domestic violence, and illiteracy.  Outside the cities, health care is usually on a continuum from inadequate to unavailable.


There are numerous reasons why aid has either not reached its intended recipients or has not been used for its intended purposes.  Some of the more pervasive are these:


Corruption:  On Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2011, only two sub-Saharan countries ranked low on the scale—Botswana at #32 and Rwanda at #49.  Nine were ranked moderately corrupt, twenty-one heavily corrupt, and three (Burundi, Sudan and Somalia) highly corrupt.


Across the developing world, but especially in Africa, much—if not most–of the money provided by the developed world has been grossly misused.


It’s not just money that disappears. Goods such as emergency food aid sent to Africa can frequently be found for sale in local markets, having never reached the people for whom it was intended.  This photo of bags of split yellow peas from the United States was taken in the local market in Bahir Dar in NW Ethiopia.  The bags are clearly marked “NOT TO BE SOLD OR EXCHANGED”.


It is important to note that it is not just foreign aid that is subject to corruption.  Money allocated by governments for specific purposes such as education also finds its way into private pockets in huge quantities. In Poor Economics, Banerjee and Duflo illustrate the point:  Uganda gives per-student grants to the schools for maintenance, textbooks, and extra programs.  In 1996, two researchers set out to determine how much of the money was actually received by the schools.  The answer was 13%, and more than half the schools didn’t receive any monies at all.  The only logical answer is that a most of the money ended up in the pockets of district officials.


In addition, corrupt officials pocket the money from whatever resources the country may have—to a staggering degree. Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, has huge oil reserves—the 10th largest in the world–but most of Nigeria’s oil wealth finds its way into the pockets of the top 1% of the population.  Most Nigerians are very poor, and see little benefit from their country’s rich resource.  Equatorial Guinea also has major oil reserves, and an abysmal record in human rights.


Debt:  Africa’s Odious Debts, by Léonce Ndikumana and James K. Boyce, focuses on the huge loans to African countries.  The authors contend that foreign loans, although intended to better the lives of citizens, often end up in the hands of the elite. Moreover, a large portion of this money is then siphoned off into offshore bank accounts and investments. While foreign loans become private assets, the debts accrued remain public as “wealthy individuals hold the assets [and] the African people as a whole hold the debts through their governments”.


“Debt service payments represent the third and final act in the tragedy of debt-fueled capital flight. In the first two acts – foreign borrowing in the name of the public, and diversion of part or all of the money into private assets abroad – there is no net loss of capital from Africa. What comes in simply goes back out again. It is when African countries start to repay these debts that the resource drain begins.”


Conflict Over Natural Resources:  We in the West tend to think of sub-Saharan Africa as uniformly poor.  But many countries have access to astonishing wealth through their natural resources, which could be managed for the benefit of their populations.  Some countries, such as Nigeria and Equatorial Guinea, have great oil reserves, but all the profits go to the ruling class or the foreign companies that build and manage the oil wells and refineries.


In other cases, the natural resources have led to brutal armed conflict, so that the populace not only suffers deprivation, but violence at the hands of all combatants. Thus that very wealth is creating untold misery.  Heavy civilian casualties result both from the fighting and from starvation and disease.  (Just such a conflict over oil is playing out that this very moment in Sudan, where the developed north is bombing and starving the Nuba people in the south.)


Several countries have diamonds (or benefit from the illegal diamond trade–blood diamonds)—Sierra Leone, Angola, Liberia, Cote d’ Ivoire, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Zimbabwe, Botswana, and South Africa.  All but Botswana, Zimbabwe, and South Africa have suffered greatly from conflict over diamonds.  (Botswana is the model for using its diamonds to build a strong and nearly corruption-free economy.)  Many of the minerals critical for the manufacture of electronics come from Eastern Congo, including cassiterite, wolframite, coltan, and gold.


Civilians, including many children, have become slave labor for extracting minerals and gemstones.  Rape on an unimaginable scale has been characteristic of most of these conflicts, and continues almost unabated when conflicts end.


Misguided AssistanceAside from the three main inhibitors of development in Africa (and other developing regions of the world), we should also note that there has been a considerable amount of misguided assistance.  Many charities are doing excellent work.  But there are many of stories of projects gone awry because outside organizations assumed they knew the right solution to a problem, without taking the local people into account, or without putting into place the components to make the changes sustainable.

  • There are abandoned wells (boreholes) all over Africa—drilled by aid agencies and charities that neglected to ensure that the wells and pumps could be maintained (parts available, people trained to service the pumps, etc.).
  • Much attention has been given to providing energy-efficient cookstoves to rural populations in Africa and Asia to reduce the need for procuring fuel (a task which falls mostly to women) and to reduce the incidence of dire health consequences for women and children from being exposed to indoor smoke.  However, there are a number of instances in which local women did not like the kind of stoves they received and continued cooking over open fires.
  • After the 2004 tsunami in Aceh, Indonesia, many widows were supplied with sewing machines to provide them with a means to make an income.  But many of these widows were farmers, and what they needed was help in asserting their rights to inherit the land from their deceased husbands—land that had been seized by their husbands’ families.  In addition, the market for sewing was soon glutted, so there was little income to be made.



Community Based Organizations & Local NGOs


Fortunately, new models of community development are being explored.  A very promising model is small-scale local projects– conceived, funded, and implemented by local people.  These are called small scale NGOs, grassroots organizations, or Community Based Organizations (CBOs).  Our August DFW recipient, Global Grassroots, is experienced in training people to create and lead these local NGOs.  They train women (and men) to form and operate their own organizations—local NGOs—to plan locally needed projects, raise funds, and execute their plan.  The ownership of the project is local from conception to completion. Programs that have the best chance of being effective are those that are conceived of, of benefit to, and effected by the local communities.


In a document entitled Community-Based Rural Development: Community-Based Organizations, the World Bank defines CBOs as follows:


“Community-based organizations generally consist of a number of individual members who organize around a common interest or need. They vary greatly in size and in purpose. Some are women’s associations and self-help groups organized to gain access to credit and other services. Others are user groups like water use and land management associations which organize to manage a common property resource. Producer organizations organize activities and pool resources around the production of crops, livestock, fish, or forest products and post harvest processing and marketing. Community-based health committees and education committees are commonly engaged in.”


Another World Bank paper, Indigenous Knowledge for Development:  Opportunities and Challenges, speaks to the utility of this model: 


“Indigenous knowledge (IK) is used at the local level by communities as the basis for decisions pertaining to food security, human and animal health, education, natural resources management, and other vital activities. IK is a key element of the social capital of the poor and constitutes their main asset in their efforts to gain control of their own lives. For these reasons, the potential contribution of IK to locally managed, sustainable and cost-effective survival strategies should be promoted in the development process.”


Two of the examples included in the Indigenous Knowledge report:


  • “In Senegal, external partners had for years engaged the country authorities to abolish female genital mutilation (FGM), though with little success. Indigenous knowledge and empowerment of community groups eventually made a national impact. After attending an adult literacy course conducted by TOSTAN, a local NGO, a group of women from a village called Malicounda decided to address the issue in their communities. They convinced the traditional spiritual leaders to join their campaign against the practice.


Within two years these empowered women had convinced sixteen neighboring communities to abolish the practice. As a result of the growing impact of the Malicounda initiative, by the end of 1999, the practice was declared illegal in Senegal. The Malicounda initiative has spread to other groups in the neighboring countries where already more than 200 communities have abolished FGM.”


  • “In a Food for Work Program in Nepal, indigenous knowledge has been a more effective agent of development than modern technology. A donor-assisted food distribution program was incurring major losses of food along the distribution line. The project managers turned to the local community for solutions. It was jointly determined that using local equipment (e.g., bullock carts), distributors, and community-based supervision would be the most appropriate way to distribute the food in the local context. Hiring local bullock carts in place of the covered trucks operated by city-based companies provided additional income for rural communities and improved transparency of the distribution process.”


In short, empowering local people, especially women, to bring about the changes they want in their own communities effectively addresses the barriers to sustainable progress—minimizes or eliminates corruption, incurs little or no debt, eliminates conflict, and ensures that the change is beneficial to the community.


Dining for Women is all about empowering women—to find and implement their own solutions, to grow in stature in the eyes of the community, to find their voices, to assert their rights.



UN Millennium Development Goals


Goals that are addressed by Global Grassroots in Rwanda

Goal 3:  Promote gender equality and empower women



Recently, Rwanda conducted elections for the Presidency and the parliament had a referendum on a new constitution. For the first time in Rwanda’s history, free and fair elections were held. The new constitution guarantees a minimum of 30 percent of parliamentary seats and other leadership positions to women. Today, Rwanda has the highest number of women parliamentarians in the world with women constituting nearly 50 percent in the Chamber of Deputies and about 35 percent in the Senate. The Government of Rwanda also has 34 percent of women in its Cabinet. UNDP has been supporting the Rwanda Parliament, in particular the Rwanda Women Parliamentary Forum. In February 2007, the Forum held an international conference to share its experiences and to forge partnerships with development allies in the area of nation building. Speakers at the conference agreed that women play a critical role in the development of nations and in the attainment of the MDGs.


Global Grassroots addresses women’s leadership and empowerment at the local level, to quote:

  • Our curriculum deepens a woman’s sense of power to act for social change and provides concrete skills, strengthening her capacity to initiate her own solutions.
  • We provide the resources for our teams to promote the physical, educational, social, emotional and financial wellbeing of women and girls in their communities — and to claim the same for themselves.
  • We provide educational training, financial resources, and ongoing support to ensure long-term self-sufficiency.
  • Our program offers women avenues for earning personal income through the management of their own sustainable non-profits, or “micro-NGOs”.
  • Leveraging our leadership and social entrepreneurship tools, our change agents engage in iterative problem-solving to expand their work, teach others, and address other priority issues facing their communities.

Banerjee, Abhijit V. and Esther Duflo.   Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty.  Public Affairs, 2011.

“Conflict Minerals”

Corruption Perceptions Index – Transparency International.

Easterly, William.  White Man’s Burden:  Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good.  Penguin Press, 2006

  Global Gains through Community-Based Approaches.  World Bank—Global Environment Facility:  Operations in Sub-Saharan Africa.  2006.


Gorjestani, Nicolas.  Indigenous Knowledge for Development:  Opportunities and Challenges. The World Bank, 2000

MDG Monitor:  Tracking the Millennium Development Goals.  Goal #3:

Moyo, Dambisa.  Dead Aid:  Why Aid is Not Working and How There is a Better Way for Africa.  Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2009.

Ndikumana, Léonce and James K. Boyce. Africa’s Odious Debts – How Foreign Loans and Capital Flight Bled a  Continent.  Zed Books, 2011.

  Report on a survey of CBOs in Southern Africa, Oct. 2002 – August 2003.  Available at

  Thompson, Martha.  “Sometimes a Sewing Machine is Not the Answer”.  Unitarian Universalist Service Committee, Rights Now, Spring/Summer 2010, pp4-5.