Beggars can’t be choosers, but are they really beggars…

“Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth” and “beggars can’t be choosers” are platitudes I hear when I talk about inappropriate and unhelpful aid.

Misconception #1: Aid recipients can’t be choosers

Those who say beggars can’t be choosers mistakenly assume that people that receive aid are begging for help and therefore any aid is helpful. The truth is that most aid recipients are not out begging for assistance, instead aid agencies have decided to provide assistance for a variety of reasons – which will be the topic of another post.

Misconception #2: Any aid is better than no aid

The second misconception is that all aid has either a positive impact or no impact on those that receive it, therefore there’s no harm done even if the project is not successful. In truth aid recipients invest in the aid they receive whether it is time, money, political capital or penalties paid for receiving aid. If aid is useless or, in some cases, harmful then the aid recipients are worse off than they would have been without aid.

I thought of this as I was building my garden last weekend. I had invested several hundred dollars in materials and two full days labor to build raised beds. For the fill I needed a mixture of vermiculite, peat moss, and compost. My neighbor, a “master gardener”, offered to give me compost which I happily accepted. But instead of the fine, soft, dark brown compost I’d been anticipating, a wheelbarrow full of a gray, slimy, clay-like substance was set down in front of me. I smiled and thanked them for their offering and actually debated using the foul mess. But I couldn’t bring myself to do so because using it would have done more harm than good. I’d invested far too much to destroy it in an attempt to be polite. The sayings “don’t look a gift horse in the mouth”, and “beggars can’t be choosers” floated through my mind as I worked. I realized that although the compost was given to me, I was not a beggar and therefore had the right to be a chooser. I also realized that I did not have to accept this “gift horse” just because it was given to me.Fishermen harvesting fish at an ecotourism project, this project eventually failed. copyright Saundra Schimmelpfennig

I was reminded of all the “gift horses” that had been given to Thai villagers after the tsunami. They were not out begging for assistance, and in fact were already planning to rebuild their lives as they waited for the water to retreat. Most had never even heard of aid agencies until hundreds of them descended upon the area bearing an assortment of recovery gifts. Each of these gifts required an investment from the villagers.

This photo is of Thai’s harvesting fish at an ecotourism project. Despite a substantial investment of time and effort on the part of the village the project never became financially viable. When I last visited the village all attempts at ecotourism had ended because many families were no longer willing to put the time and effort into a project that may never work. Photo by Saundra Schimmelpfennig.

Receiving aid requires time

One of the biggest investments aid recipients had to make was their time. Following the tsunami parents often spent less time with their children than before the tsunami. Although they wanted to be home with their families they felt compelled to attend every meeting called by aid agencies for fear of not missing out on assistance if they stayed home. With some villages having as many as 20 different aid agencies leading project meetings were often. In addition many projects required villager time in implementing, a furniture building project required villagers to learn how to operate tools and build their own furniture. Although villagers were interested in this project many could not do it because the aid agency only opened the shop during working hours. Villagers complained that to participate would mean missing a week’s worth of work and potentially losing their job because they are absent.

Receiving aid may require an investment of money

Tie dying project that collapsed. Photo by Saundra Schimmelpfennig Another investment villagers make is in purchasing supplies needed for the aid project. One aid agency taught villagers macrame, which was not a big seller. Another organization taught villagers to weave baskets from colored strips of plastic, once trained the villagers bought all of their own supplies. The baskets sold as long as there were aid workers and disaster tourists willing to buy them. Later on the market for items made by tsunami survivors died out and villagers were left with unsold baskets and a lost investment in strips of plastic.

This photo is of a tie dye project done in the same village as the ecotourism project. This project also collapsed when there were no longer an aid workers or disaster tourists to sell too. When I last visited the building built for tie dying was abandoned and each family had many goods in plastic bags that they could not sell. Photo by Saundra Schimmelpfennig

Receiving aid may put the aid recipient at risk

There are parts of society that may not be pleased with aid projects and may punish those involved in them. In Three Cups of Tea the village had to give up cattle to appease a powerful group unhappy with a school that would educate girls.

An even greater punishment for involvement in an aid project came from the government itself. AnĀ  aid project worked covertly with locals to develop ways to bypass a government imposed block to the internet to allow free access to information. The government discovered this and, according to one of the project staff I spoke with recently, every local person involved in the project was now either dead or imprisoned.

The potential price aid recipients pay to receive aid should be factored into all aid decisions

Aid recipients do pay a price for receiving aid. They are not passive recipients of foreign largess, nor do they want to be. We would do well to evaluate the potential cost to villagers against the potential benefits before beginning any aid project. Villagers are not beggars, therefore they have the right to be informed choosers.