This essay is part of a special investigative project, Tracking Charity.
Today marks the launch of my new global investigative project, Tracking Charity. In the months ahead, I'll be traveling around the world bringing you stories that look critically at the multibillion-dollar international aid industry.
I’ve been reporting on this topic for more than a year with my podcast, Tiny Spark. During that time, I’ve received pushback from some listeners who say I shouldn’t critique people and programs that are trying to “do good.” This is a valid point, and it’s one I want to address head on.
To my mind, the most important barometer of aid effectiveness is how it impacts the people it is trying to help. That is why I will put the recipients of aid at the forefront of every story I report. I am interested in knowing if programs work for them. I want to find out what happens to people who live at the end of dirt roads when charitable projects don’t pan out as promised.
Above all, I want to figure out how we can move forward more responsibly and effectively. Being constructive is a key component of this project because I don’t want my stories to discourage people from trying to use their skills to assist others. Nor do I wish for listeners to become cynical about international aid projects more broadly.
But we have to hold well-intentioned projects, carried out in various corners of the globe, to the same high standards we expect for programs that affect our own children and our own communities. I fear there is a double standard when it comes to projects we undertake in regions far from our own. I am deeply concerned that we accept substandard results as simply the cost of “doing business” in the developing world.
I discovered this double standard in my recent investigation into medical volunteers in Haiti and while reporting my upcoming story on using bed nets as a tool to fight malaria in Africa. Why are we willing to accept poor outcomes and even loss of life in other places when we would never accept the same where we live? Some might say it’s the best we could do. But I don’t agree. We are capable of so much more.
That is why I ask tough questions of those who conceive and implement grand projects even when my questions – and their answers – are difficult for some to hear.
I hope my stories will spur dialogue and honest debate about how we can better assist others. I hope this project will illustrate how difficult it is to “do good’ even though we’d like it to be easy. And I hope that my stories will encourage donors, social entrepreneurs, and the nonprofit sector to become more transparent – to talk about what worked, what didn’t, and why.
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