As a donor – we need you to understand your role and how we see giving/charity/and the issues related to creating sustainable solutions.
So I thought I’d outline our vision for helping the wonderful people of Ngombe Compound, Lusaka, and the entire country of Zambia. I hope you hear my heart in this – I’m not trying to sound condescending or like a know-it-all or something. We barely know anything about combating extreme poverty, but we feel strongly about a couple things and I thought I’d share them with you today.
Broken Program Models
I’ve worked in the non-profit world since 1990. In that time I’ve seen a lot of International mission and aid type program models (from A (AIDS relief) to Z (Zika Virus Intervention). I wish all of the programs I’ve seen were effective at combating poverty, but they aren’t. That’s a serious problem!
Some of the program models I’ve seen, (the worst), are hurtful, wasteful, and render poor families and communities dependent on perpetual handouts. There is a nagging question that every charity leader needs to answer…
Can my charity (and donors) do too much, give too-much, and intervene too much? Can we cause harm by taking control out of the hands of the (truly) responsible people and “handling” it for them?
Specifically, in 2009 when we first entered Ngombe Compound in Lusaka – we saw,
48% of the kids HIV Positive with no clinic and no medical help
70% of the children have lost both parents to HIV/AIDS/TB or Malaria.
kids at the Needs Care School only getting 1 small cup of porridge for lunch each day
Kids with no school uniforms
Girls that don’t go to school when they are on their time of the month because of a lack of supplies
The moms don’t have jobs but want to help
No school building (so they met in a half-built church)
Very few 7th grade children going to Secondary School (what we call high school)
And many many additional challenges – this list honestly just scratches the surface.
Why Do Good Intentioned Donors Do Harm?
The short answer is – yes – of course donors can cause harm by creating programs that bake in dependency and obliterate self reliance. Bad medicine. Good intentioned people can do TOO MUCH and therefore dis-empower local moms, dads, teachers, and community leaders – the people who are actually responsible for the situation.
We’ve struggled with this over the years as we’ve worked in Ngombe – always trying our best to NOT be the problem solver, money giver, (hero of our own story). That is not a good long-term solution. That’s wasting the most valuable of all human resources – people’s ability to overcome their own problems. We want the moms, dads, and teachers of Ngombe to be the hero of the story.
Turning Your Abundance Into A Weapon
When you stand in a urban slum in Africa, or a very rural village far away from any town, you understand that the people don’t have much (compared to what you are used to). And you realize that you have a lot by comparison – and your community of friends and family back home has TONS of financial capacity by comparison. Surplus resources that could solve a lot of problems – it’s easy to see a simple solution. You give – they get.
The first response is to simply give – give – give. Give to solve the problems. What’s wrong with that? Jesus said to give. You give out of your surplus capacity (of time, money, fabric, sewing ability, health supplies, food, vehicles, clothing, etc.) … giving to people who don’t have any of it. They are (of course) grateful.
Many charities work to make this a pinnacle of achievement – an emotion provoking feel good moment where we all rejoice together at “what God has done.” How much can you give? Can we give more? Can we give millions? Can we give billions? Shouldn’t we?
Of course – when we do that we are managing our resources out of our surplus to solve their problem because they don’t have any resources. But the real compassionate / caring / loving question is,
How Could The Moms and Dads Of The Slum Get To A Point Where
They Can Manage To Solve The Problems On Their Own Out Of Their Own Capacity?
And … is there anything we can do that would help make that happen – without destroying their self-reliance?
These are the questions we obsess over at Sew Powerful. They haunt us. It’s a much harder set of questions to answer. It means that you have to set aside the quick and easy knee-jerk response that says,
“Well, I’ll just give you what you need today –
and maybe get you therapy later to deal with your self-reliance issues.”
But the self-reliance issue never gets dealt with.
Mainly because the Americans don’t even know what they are doing. Plus, they get so good at setting up a capacity pipeline that they (we) hire the Africans to simply manage the abundance of the flood of giving. A charity industry is born. The Africans have jobs and a better standard of living. They work for the charity.
But that is NOT the same as truly creating real capacity within the community.
At Sew Powerful we truly believe that clothing children, and providing girls health supplies (and training) is a problem best solved locally – by the moms and dads of the community – out of their own financial capacity. Our job is to help them put together a system that generates real resources – that they keep – so they have real SURPLUS capacity.
Creating True Capacity & Abundance
Sorry if I sound like a raging capitalist, (I am an entrepreneur after all), but I don’t know of any other method for creating true financial (and time and resource) capacity in a local community than by moms and dads making money in legitimate ways and accumulating assets that they manage. Moms and Dads having real jobs.
Creating a money making venture anywhere is hard. Doing it in an urban slum is crazy hard. But as long as the moms want to keep working and learning (and trust me they do) we will keep helping them figure it out.
At Sew Powerful we have two things happening at the same time:
- A Sewing Cooperative in Ngombe (the worst slum in Lusaka) where seamstresses create school uniforms (that the parents pay for) and feminine hygiene supplies (that go in the purses that the donors provide). The seamstresses are paid for their work – giving them a real income – and the dignity of knowing that they are making an impact on their community. This is our CORE activity. It’s hard work.
- Donors from around the world create purses that are delivered to the Ngombe Sewing Cooperative. This is partly an awareness / fundraising strategy (let’s be honest) and partly a way to help support and encourage the Ngombe Sewing Cooperative. It is also VERY helpful because the fabric (and time) our world-wide group of seamstresses have to contribute to the project is amazing. Of course we also need financial support. We need YOU and your abundance (and generosity) if this crazy 2-part model is going to work. We also need to encourage and support the Sewing Cooperative by involving you in the effort.
Achieving Real Capacity Milestones
In my last post I mentioned that the largest charity in Zambia was eager to sign a 4-year MOU (Memorandum Of Understanding) with Sew Powerful to distribute purses and feminine hygiene supplies to girls in need because the product was coming FROM Ngombe.
They had NEVER heard of donations coming OUT of Ngombe – and they wanted to learn more. Even after several conversations they still thought we going to somehow ask THEM to give us something. When we explained WE where going to give THEM something (of value) they were shocked! Imagine…
A tiny little sewing cooperative in the worst slum in Zambia giving over $30,000 worth of purses and feminine hygiene supplies to the largest charity in the country for use that their program sites. Imagine their shock!
But this isn’t the only capacity milestone we’ve achieved together. Before this large milestone, we also…
#1 – Created school uniforms for over 1,200 current students and well over 2,000 students in total.
#2 – Provided 500 purses and feminine hygiene supplies to the girls of the Needs Care school.
#3 – Regularly distributed clothing to rural schools (Susu Village).
If you’re still reading this then you are a TRUE saint – amazing partner – and friend. We are so incredibly blessed and honored to work with each of you. We are making a difference together. Learning how to serve – and doing our best to effectively use the resources we’ve been given.
Jason, Cinnamon, Esther & the entire board of Sew Powerful