The media wants us to believe that making a positive impact on the world is as easy as writing a check to that organization with the commercial that makes us all tear up. But, as a culmination of several discussions and my own observations here, I’m realizing that social impact is much more like a complicated business than it is a simple, heartfelt gesture. Just like a business, several decisions have to be made, each affecting the efficiency of the process and the value of the outcome. The two most obvious questions are “who are you going to help?” and “how are you going to do it?” And just like in a business, the investor is indirectly responsible for the outcome.
When considering how I could help people, I never gave much thought to who I should help nor how difficult it could be to make that decision. I assumed that helping anyone would have to be, well, helpful. But when you choose to help, you’re forced to decide who should benefit from your support, whether that is a conscious decision or not. And to make sure you’re helping – and not hurting – the person, certain aspects should be taken into consideration when deciding: Does this person want my help or am I forcing it upon her? Is this person in the position to receive my help responsibly or is there a threat of some problem, such as corruption, arising? Will this person remain dependent on my help hereafter or will this enable him to help himself? Many people are tempted to help others when the opportunity is conveniently presented to them, like giving a beggar on the street some change or donating to the organization that comes knocking at the door. But in such a case, it’s easy to overlook the fact that those people may not be the best candidates to receive the help; it may be better spent elsewhere. And your donation may actually hurt more than it helps.
The second question gets a bit more complicated. There are several aspects of the “how” factor that can change the outcome significantly. At our last monthly Training Seminar, we collectively narrowed down a list of principles of “good” development into three categories that can be used to evaluate the potential outcome of any development initiative. It should take into account context- natural environment, culture, and social relations. It should respond to local interests and perceived needs- locally supported, based on effective observation and listening, and creating options, not obligations. And finally, impact and consequences should be taken into consideration- sustainability, social justice and equity, and investing in capacities toward self-sufficiency. Many well-intentioned attempts to further “develop” an area seem like great ideas at first glance, but upon application, they fail to meet these requirements.
My host father spoke to me in depth last night about the different types of help the community has received from different people and organizations in the past. Judging from our several conversations about development, I would say that my father is one of the most pro-active advocates for progress in Zuleta. So, it was interesting to hear his opinion on the different projects. He first spoke of the help of a local organization, originally created by the descendent of Galo Plaza Lasso, the Spaniard who took over this portion of the land from the indigenous inhabitants many generations ago. Needless to say, there is a history of tension between the Plaza Lasso family and the locals. The way my dad sees it, the organization of Galo Plaza looks down on the people of the community. They support the community not out of generosity, but haughtiness, expecting endless praise and recognition in return. The people here often refuse help and donations from the organization for this reason. While I can’t say for myself if it is true, what really matters is how the community perceives it.
He then told me about the community’s government system. The president of Zuleta became very popular by recently installing every home with electricity and a telephone line. While many people were thrilled to receive all this for free, my dad was frustrated that the president seemed to be rewarding such idleness. These people could have obtained electricity and a telephone line by simply doing it themselves, but they had no interest until they were told it would be done for them. He told me that receiving things without earning them is a sure way to form a bad habit. He went on to say that, on the other hand, the Ecuadorian government provides them with tubes to install running water themselves. Through a community effort, everyone works to receive the benefits. This way, he says, they can feel justified in accepting the help without becoming dependent or idle.
Now, when I hear about a project, invention, or donation, I instinctively run it down the checklist of “good” development principles to decide whether or not it really has a chance at making a lasting impact. We have to be critical and realistic when assessing different development options. Given the amount of money, time, effort, and responsibility involved in making a social impact around the world, it makes sense to manage it like a business. The only difference is that the profit is measured in the lasting changes you make.