Normal measurements of international aid mean nothing at the grassroots

About thirty men and women ‘read their reality’ to provide the idea that became the Capacity Foundation, a Malawi-based charity

Five years ago I sat on a hillock in rural northern Malawi and listened to 30 people recount their daily lives and their struggles to survive and raise their family. What they had to say led to the Capacity Foundation.

The group had gathered to tell two westerners about real life at the grassroots in Malawi. My wife, Anne, and I had met some of them the day before at a social event and their casual remarks about their lives prompted us to learn more. As we listened, the group articulated their challenges.

A lot of the families lived solely on what their piece of land could grow, which was mainly cassava – a root vegetable that fills stomachs but has virtually no nutritional value. They had no visible income.

For those who could make a modest living, they were in constant dread of disruption to water and food supplies. Water drawn from a borehole is good for two or three hours before it is no longer drinkable without boiling – and that means cutting wood, carrying it home and burning it on a fire. Diets are very limited and neither children nor adults thrive.

People make sacrifices to send their children to school. Primary education is free but there are practical barriers if the school is distant, there are non-teaching costs, or the child is needed to work the fields. There is a high incidence of single parenting and lots of orphans, with extended families of taken-in nephews, nieces and grandchildren being routine.

Secondary school is not free. Lots of people drop out of education after the primary stage, and many who start secondary don’t finish. Girls suffer most when they approach puberty for a variety of reasons – menstruation leading to absence, early marriage, and pregnancy being the main ones.

Tellingly, the group returned again and again to a theme: they wanted the means to improve their situation, mainly by being able to carry on a little business. This was people telling us that they wanted to stand on their own feet and address their own problems.

The next revelation was that international aid just didn’t touch these people. Aid is often ‘delivered’ (to use the jargon) in the form of equipment – for example, the British Council supplied computers and printers to the education offices. It did nothing for rural poverty and didn’t in itself educate a single student. It became apparent that massive investment such as the Japanese Government’s development of the country’s airport would help show that Malawi’s GDP had moved a smidgeon, but it didn’t grow any better food in rural Malawi. In short, the normal measurements of international aid were meaningless at the grassroots.

Try as we might to find examples of international aid, it was hard and unreliable. The local schools were either crumbling or relied on a charity to build the odd classroom. The local clinic was too distant for the really sick and the pregnant to reach; and the stock of antiretroviral drugs was dependent on another charity – but worse, the charity’s attentions had switched elsewhere and there was no follow-on supplier. It was a picture of perilous cliff-edge existence.

But the community had the answer, too. Such was their desire to “do a little business” that they jumped at the chance to accept loans (and business training) with – and this is the unique idea – some of the profit from the businesses being ploughed back into a community fund that could pay for the things that they would otherwise stand in line waiting for NGOs to finance.

So, the Capacity Foundation is a novel and sustainable way of the community helping itself. As a measure of progress, consider this: the Malawi Government gives this local community about £3000 a year towards its development. By the end of this year, the community will be generating as much as that itself – and that’s after only two years.

Stephen Maund (Co-founder, the Capacity Foundation)

2 thoughts on “Normal measurements of international aid mean nothing at the grassroots

  1. Andy Renals Reply

    Hi Stephen,

    I was drawn to read your blog as I am always interested in the work of small, very efficient charitable organisations. Congratulations on starting something with the power to effect positive life changing outcomes.

  2. Alison Pearce Reply

    Thank you Stephen for helping me to understand a little better the difficulties communities in Malawi have daily and how micro loans can be so transformative in giving people the opportunity to earn money which can then be used to raise educational standards and enable them to make their own choices and decisions.

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