Thursday, December 14, 2006

Trust versus corruption

I've been spending my active time working on scaling up my favorite project, as you all know. But my less active energy (i.e. thinking, pondering, puzzling) is spent on two topics: Trust and Corruption.

Corruption came up at the tail end of reading William Easterly's "The Elusive Quest for Growth". Sure, we all know about it, but the impact on development is so big that it should dominate any policy discussion. There are sites, like Transparency.org and others, that spend their existence on the problem. A major issue is that no one has found a surefire way to eradicate corruption. Corruption has a corrosive effect on aid as well, since it impacts confidence that aid will go where it's intended.

By contrast, the hands-on development assistance delivered by small NGOs doesn't have nearly as much leakage. Much of my enthusiasm for Appropedia is due to my desire to crank up this approach to aid delivery, in part to increase the person-to-person contact between the developed and developing worlds. As I read about the challenge of corruption, I got even more motivated to promote small NGO aid delivery.

Now, as it happens I'm pretty much a greenhorn when it comes to delivering aid (though I hope to change that over time). So I knew I needed to connect with experienced people to see how the world really works, so that I could do the right things to scale the impact. Repeatedly, the key component to making a small NGO-to-community engagement work in the developing world is...trust. You must have a trusted man-or-woman-on-the-ground. It could be an expat, but those are fairly uncommon, so doesn't address the "scaling issue". So that means it will probably be a local. And you'll need to trust them. And they will need to trust you.

As I've been considering this conundrum, I came across Aaron's post, and had to laugh. Yep, that captures a piece of the problem! Sure, most of us in the developed world have probably seen (and perhaps even touched!) skin that's a different color than our own. And though there are bigger barriers than the visual differences, it's a great nutshell story for the magnitude of the gap.

So how do we bridge this trust gap, and (mostly) bypass corruption to deliver aid and build relationships? Ah, well, that's the puzzle.

My ideas for solutions include:
  • Changing the way we vacation in the third world, so that we don't rush past all the faces but find some way to stop and bond with at least a small number of real people for several hours. That by itself is important. Translation will probably be necessary. Locals that already speak a foreign language have probably bonded a lot and are somewhat westernized. Get them to connect you to someone who doesn't speak a foreign language.
  • Revive the "pen pal" notion to grow a relationship with someone you met while traveling. This could be challenging, given the translation thought...but there are now some amazing free translation tools on the web. Email pen pals require connectivity, though. So maybe your travel plans are part of an Inveneo project :-). Or perhaps it really does make sense to work on a deeper relationship with a local who speaks your language. This might lead to...
  • Looking for ways to support "exchange students", or just visitors, from the developing world for a few weeks in the rich world. It's hard for me to imagine someone sponsoring a visitor unless there have been quite a bit of contact (a la pen pal) over time. And I have no sense for the US visa challenges involved.
As I say, these are just thoughts. That will lead to action. That will make a difference. I'll bet you've got thoughts about making a difference. If you've written them down, please leave a comment with a link. If you haven't, please do some thinking, then start a blog or a journal and practice articulating your thoughts. Writing is a great way to bring a series of ideas into a coherently expressed theme.

Trust me.

(Or maybe you think this post is a counter example? :-)

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