I’m skipping to #4 on the How to Help from Home list because I haven’t written #3 yet.
Don’t support infrastructure projects. Why? Because you don’t want to be like this little white girl.
Developing countries don’t need infrastructure projects. As much as it may seem like, “Oh, this community would be so much better if it only had clean water. Wait, we could build them a borehole well.” – that’s not true. Moreover, that sort of attitude is actually detrimental in the long run.
First, governments need to be accountable to their citizens to provide basic amenities. Citizens need to demand these essentials from their governments. Countries can’t be run by individual, uncoordinated charity organizations. At the very least, communities should develop their own forms of local government and community groups (as in common in Latin America).
Building a borehole well or school or road decreases a country’s sovereignty.
Second, why are western teenagers building stuff in Africa anyways? Are they qualified? Probably not. Are they taking away construction jobs from local workers? Probably yes.
Third, few issues in developing countries are as simple as they appear on the surface. It might appear that a paved road would solve a lot of problems in an isolated community (better transportation to cities, improved access to medical supplies), but there always spinoff effects. For example, as transportation improves the rates of HIV/AIDS usually increases as well. Sometimes women start having sore feet because it’s harder on the human body to walk long distances on pavement than dirt. Is there community ready to deal with those consequences?
The unfortunate truth is that most charity organizations who build infrastructure projects don’t think about the long-term picture. They want something tangible that’s easy to fundraise for. They want to provide youth groups the chance to “make a difference” and feel great about themselves. A new school building is much more photogenic than an improved tax system.
This is an especially hard task on my Ways to Help from Home list because a lot of great people work on these sorts of projects. Whenever I talk about Africa, someone will say something like, “My friend went to a rural village to build houses for the poor. He said it was a life-changing experience.” I have never once replied, “Actually, I don’t believe that’s the best use of resources” or “In the long run, you’re doing more harm than good.”