DIY aid: A report on a 'revolution' or merely an indication of how development journalism is changing?

Nick Kristof’s New York Times article on ‘venture philantrophy’ (D.I.Y. Foreign-Aid Revolution) made me think about the changing coverage of international development issues in the media, because as interesting as his case studies are, I do not think that they constitute a ‘revolution’ in foreign aid. Revolutions rarely start when the ‘Harvard Business School’ is mentioned in the third line of an article – but this more of an ironic remark on the side. 
Nick Kristof certainly features three interesting, worthwhile initiatives that may be indicative of a new type of D.I.Y venture philantrophy, but deep down sound quite familiar to those who have been engaging with development issues for a while. I do not know the featured initiatives, but since I have been doing research on and in Nepal since 2002, I will focus on the initiative in Nepal to highlight some of my more critical remarks. The mere words ‘orphans-Nepal-primary school’ make me sigh a little bit. This is not exactly a revolutionary project even as it may improve the lives of some children. Similar projects have been around for a long, long time and one of the many problems that Nepal faces at the moment is the absence of decent employment for many young people, a functioning secondary and/or tertiary education system and a general lack of participation and opportunities for young women and men. I am not going into the history of development in Nepal here, but there are many cultural, structural macro challenges in place that make any initiatives with orphans/children a worthwhile cause, but one that is unlikely to be the seed for a revolution in foreign aid. From UNICEF to Maybelline to Rotary Clubs around the globe, working with children in Nepal is an established part of the aid industry. 
But still, this and the other two initiatives are not just some random ‘do good’ initiative but they have some interesting facets that are indicative of how development has been changing recently.  
First, there is a new ‘global’ tune to these initiatives. Long gone are the days when the family trekked through Nepal and produced a slide show in the local community centre. Photoshoots in New York, trips to Rwanda and conferences in London nowadays can take place all within a week. And there is a new transnational elite that goes with the flow of travel, information, advocacy and fieldwork. It helps to bring many interesting stories from developing countries back home quickly and share them with the global audience of Ted-conferences, Twitter or MDG summit side events in New York. It makes ‘the story of the woman in India’ more accessible and hopefully makes the complexity of development more palpable at donor conferences, but also for ‘normal’ NYT or Guardian readers. One challenge I see is that stories all too easily become vignettes for a short blog post or a text box in a report and often lose some of their messiness in the process of entering the transnational sphere. They are also mostly focussing on the positive aspects which reminds me a little bit of Barbara Ehrenreich’s critique of ‘positive thinking’. There is still no ‘quick fix’ to most challenges in development, despite ‘philantrocapitalism’, microcredit or the increased use of mobile phones for development causes. But all of these aspects have helped bringing development issues closer to the mainstream of journalism. 
Second, getting involved in development has become an acceptable middle-class endeavour. There is still a place called ‘Freak Street’ in downtown Kathmandu, but you rarely see ‘freaks’ these days. Whether you attended Harvard Business School or just want to take a gap year and teach English to children in Cambodia, going abroad to ‘help’ is a multi-faceted industry. There is also a growth in charity events (especially if it involves running) or so-called corporate social responsibility initiatives. ‘Poorism’ and ‘voluntourism’ are two terms I have come across recently and while I by no means accuse any of the people and initiatives in this article of this attitude, it has helped to create a ‘buzz’ for development for better or worse. There is often a fine balance between the ‘celebritisation’ of development when people are featured ‘who can save the planet’ and truly innovative ideas that will make a difference to many people. 
Which brings me to my last point: The ‘revolution’ of foreign aid is also the revolution of how media are reporting on development issues. Debates and blogs in the Huffington Post, the Guardian new international development portal, an article in the New York Times-development has become a regular part of (liberal?) journalism. This is exciting, timely and necessary in the debates with donor governments and their taxpayers’ money. It is also an interesting way to start important debates and bring together more traditional journalism with feedback and critique from the ‘development community’, e.g. from Dave Algoso and Tom Murphy, . ‘Facebook’, ‘World Bank’, ‘orphans’, ‘Maybelline’, ‘Rwanda’, ‘Harvard Business School’ or ‘menstruation’ are a good representation of how ‘development’ is changing – and that critical feedback on these changes is necessary more than ever.


  1. As someone who has been working in the aid industry for over a decade, the fact that so many people feel called to help is hopeful. However, the biggest thing that well-intentioned do-gooders all recognize is that in the developing world, local people with that same “combustible mix of indignation and vision” (Kristof's phrase) are often already organized and doing something about whatever problem they are concerned about.

    I’ve worked with over 300 grassroots organizations in southern and east Africa in my career. Most were linked to churches, schools, or clinics, assisting children by extending services into areas that are not sufficiently reached by government or international agencies. A UNICEF-sponsored mapping exercise identified over 1,800 of these groups working with children affected by AIDS in Malawi alone (NOVOC, 2005). has already registered over 110,000 local organizations and movements working on a wide variety of issues in 243 countries. They estimate that they may well be over 1,000,000 such local groups operating across the globe.

    Yet, the web of local organizations and grassroots initiatives in the developing world are still largely undocumented, unrecognized and under-resourced around the world, offers an opportunity for sustainable and large-scale responses to relief and development that even the most comprehensive and impactful macro-level, white-in-shining-armor efforts may never be able to accomplish.

    It's the local activists that are the true heroes and the true experts about what's needed at the community level to fight poverty or conflict or AIDS or climate change. It’s time for a dose of humility in the sector to acknowledge the vision, structure, and impact that grassroots activists and community leaders around the world do have.

    And our jobs, whether we are working for a multi-lateral donor in Nairobi or having wanderlust dreams while we work a boring office job in Brussels, must be about getting existing and effective community groups the resources that they need to address their own priorities—something that must truly fuel the foreign aid revolution.

  2. I think you are onto something here Tobias. Great article


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