Don't give to charity in Niger

When you see people suffering you want to help.

That makes sense. Nobody wants to see people suffer. Everyone wants to help.

But when you live somewhere like New York City or Niamey (the capital of Niger &

the country that ranks least developed in the world) and poverty's everywhere, it's hard, even overwhelming, to know where to start.

Expats who live here sometimes feel like walking cash machines. Beggars crowd you at stoplights. Young boys working under the stifling sun flock to sell you phone cards (for which they get a very small percentage), and everyone &

from your friend's ex-guard to your own student &

asks to borrow money, often.

The standard response to this dilemma is to give to organized charities. You make a donation to a non-profit organization that helps people. Your wallet's lighter and your conscious clearer. Right?

Wrong. There are so many problems with the charities in Niger that I do not donate to them. I don't think ALL charities are bad. I suspect that not even all the international and American charities in Niger are bad. But the way these organizations make money off the poverty in this country, without giving back any noticeable or lasting improvements, makes me deeply suspicious of the work they're doing and the motivations behind it. The NGO system &

with its emphasis on getting donations and grants and its negligence of what happens once the money's in the office &

is itself a big problem. The focus is on raising money (in order to fund your projects and your own salary), not necessarily on how it's spent.

The recent food crisis in 2005 in Niger was a huge boon to NGOs. Put pictures of starving children on the Internet, add alarming statistics, and you've got a formula that will yield you a steady stream of cash. Question: How much of that cash actually goes to the population? Answer: very little.

So where's the money going? A large portion of it to project overhead, often disproportionately to the few expatriates who work for the NGO. It would be impolitic to name names but most of the houses of the heads of NGOs, all those big international organizations you feel so smug about donating to, are palatial. They have a large staff of domestic employees (to whom they pay market, meaning sub-standard and poverty-insuring, wages). Their air conditioning is paid for by the NGO (read: your charitable tax-deductible donation goes to environmental degradation). Project directors usually have no qualms about using company vehicles for personal as well as professional transportation. These cars are worth more than the local employees will earn during their entire careers.

Ask my friend B. who works for one of these international NGOs and who is paid a local salary, a salary that ensures, even though he works ten-hour days and often through the weekend in the hot sun in the bush outside of Niamey, that he does not have enough money to get married, buy a car, or pay the young man who washes his clothes and does the cleaning more than $30 a month. B., who majored in Sociology, is fluent in the two most widely spoken local languages, and is as hardworking as he is honest. He took a pay cut when he signed his contract with this particular NGO. After a year of outstanding evaluations and results from the field that make for perfect write-ups in annual reports to solicit more funds, he was shocked to see his new contract had an even more modest salary. The NGO had decided to give all its local employees a pay cut.

If I want to help improve someone's life in Africa, I don't think paying for a white person's air conditioning is the way to do it. Instead I sign our housekeeper up for driving lessons and help her open a bank account. I arrange to pay several thousand dollars for a friend's education, and I loan the student the $30 he needs to get through the next month, which he'll pay back in French lessons for my son. It's imperfect. I look at the empty eye sockets of a beggar whom a young girl is leading around and I feel anything but smug. But I want to help, and the only way I know how to do it is one person at a time.

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