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Where Does the Money Go?

Submitted by Carol Phelps


From what we've been told by people we've met in developing countries, much of the inflowing money does go to graft and corruption... and I imagine much of what we've heard is true, though who knows how much of the complaining by people who didn't get the money is sour grapes because they didn't get some/enough of the foreign windfall.

I'd like to think things go better when you work with individual local people, as our family does, but even then they're human beings, not paragons of selfless virtue... Now and then you hear how they "borrowed money from the school fund" to get their car repaired, etc.

And when you meet with locals employed by American NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations), you can't help but notice that they're wearing nice suits and driving SUVs, while the other people in town are in rags and flip flops. It's all complicated by the patronage system so clearly laid out in the book, "African Friends and Money Matters". The "big man" takes half the foreign money for himself, and passes out $10 here and there to his relatives and supporters, and now and then invites them to a big goat or pig roast, and they're all thrilled.

That said, some stuff does get done in foreign countries. And you get much more "bang for you buck" doing a project in the developing world than you would have gotten in the US. (Largely because the labor and management costs are so much lower in a world where people are happy to earn $6 a day!) Sometimes we're suspicious when money we donated "evaporates" under doubtful circumstances, but it's hard to say which things were graft, and which were genuine mishaps that were outside of the control of the locals who received the funds. I remember in Kenya being shown the spot (a ground-mounted structure) where "the solar panels donated by World Vision used to be, before they got stolen"...

When we asked for the results of a school garden project we supported elsewhere in Kenya, we were told the garden didn't exist any more since a herd of elephants came through and destroyed it. (A follow up investigation through a different NGO we knew confirmed the elephant story. Just because such problems don't happen in Wisconsin, doesn't mean they don't happen elsewhere!) Yet other times people very proudly send you photos of solar systems or huge bags of emergency food or school facilities or something else which you paid for.

And then if you visit the location in person someday, the grateful recipients not only show you what your funds paid for in person, they treat you like you're visiting royalty. Out of their dire poverty, they heap you with speeches and flowers and garlands and dancing and food and drink and gifts - their gratitude and appreciation is overwhelming and humbling and astonishing. You can't imagine what it's like, if you've never had an entire village meet you on the road with baskets of flower petals and garlands of bright marigolds and singing and a festive balloon-bedecked camel cart for you to ride on, to escort you into their Indian village, where they've erected a tent like they use for weddings, and filled it with chairs and a stage area (where they put you as the guests of honor) and then they start hours of dance performances and speeches and singing and music, and then they ask to you to give an impromptu speech to the assembled crowd via a translator... Then afterwards there's tea and a lavish meal served to you (you pray as you eat/drink it, because it's local food prepared by hand under enormously unsanitary conditions, and you know it could make you deathly ill, but how can you refuse it, knowing they're offering you their very best of the best - they even managed to find a couple china teacups for their honored guests somewhere!)

Then they show you their gardens and their livestock and their school, and invite you into their homes. And the women come up and present you with gifts, with as much shy pomp and circumstance as if you were famous celebrities - some wrapped in decorative little scraps - a lavishly hand-beaded and embroidered purse (representing weeks of work), several decorated cloth-covered rings (for carrying water pots on one's head), a ballpoint pen (they know westerners use these - they have no clue they are both cheap and readily available where we come from), a red lightbulb (with a base which wouldn't screw into a western socket), large hand-stitched quilts (how will you ever fit them into your luggage??), a bouquet of breathtaking peacock feathers (these didn't fit in our luggage either, but I carried them home in my hands, and managed to talk them past airline crew members and customs officials who were pretty sure they shouldn't allow them past).

If you have never personally been involved in the "money flow into developing countries" you can't imagine what it means to people.

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