28 March 2011 ~ 1 Comment

Earning the right to leave your money in a country

Whenever a group of people visit me in Cambodia and want to learn about responsible development, we usually go visit RDIC, an organization working with a variety of rural applicable technologies in the areas of water, health, agriculture, and more. Whenever we’re there, I’m always struck when one of the managers, John, says one of his staple lines: “What gives you the right to think you can leave your money in this country?”

He’s spot on…. what gives me the right to leave my money here? What makes me think I know the best way to give my money to solve the problems I perceive here? Who was I to think I could come here and try to serve when I hadn’t learned?

BUT, what gives me the right to travel to this country and NOT leave my money here? If I travel through and I take so much from the place I am visiting, what right do I have to leave without trying to “help”?

Such is the traveler’s dilemma…

This, I realized, addresses our core message at PEPY Tours. We do NOT have the implicit right to leave our money in a country because it’s burning a hole in our pocket, because we come from a wealthier country than others, because we feel pity, because we feel guilt, or just because we “want to help”. We have to EARN the right to leave our money here, because throwing our money around without doing research and following up on our actions can do more harm than good. It could be argued that we shouldn’t have the right to come to visit to begin with if we aren’t willing to try to make sure our money, both from our travels and our giving, goes to responsible hands hands…. but this learning sure takes time!

I had no right to leave my money here when I first came to Cambodia to fund the construction of a school – I knew very little about the country, about development, about how to vet a partner NGO, about what successful community development might look like, etc. I hope I have now educated myself and earned some rights to financially contribute to development in Cambodia by:

–    RESEARCHING and learning how to give wisely. This also means vetting projects and programs well, connecting not just with the people involved in the project, but others who are much more knowledgeable about the specific area that I want to work in.

–    INVESTING IN PEOPLE, not just things, through capacity building, trainings, and connecting people to ideas and to each other. I realize now that before PEPY went out to invest in a building in 2005, we should have first joined forces with an invested community and involved teachers and school support committee in the process.

–    FOLLOWING UP on the funds I have given. I have made mistakes and funded irresponsible projects, but if I walked away, didn’t ask questions, or refused to believe when I found out that my funding had been misspent, I would have failed to learn from my mistakes and I would perhaps have continued to invest in the wrong things.

–    COMMITTING TO IMPACT, not inputs. It is easy to give away a few bednets and equate that action to saving a few people from malaria. In fact, if I gave you three bed nets, you can probably guarantee that you can give them away in the next hour and consequently report a 100% success rate for your “project”. But if I asked you to REALLY save three people from malaria tomorrow, it would be a lot harder to achieve and perhaps even harder to measure. That said, we can’t take the easy way out, just because it has guaranteed results. We need to commit to impact over inputs, which makes our work messier, harder to track, and more prone to failure, but has the potential to be way more successful at working towards solving the problems we face.

Once we have committed to researching, investing in people, following up, and committing to our impact, I believe that we can then tell John that we have indeed earned the right to leave our money here. The more we learn about development successes and failures, the more right we earn to donate to Cambodia by becoming more likely to invest in positive impacts.