11/30/2014 06:35 pm ET Updated Jan 30, 2015

For Ebola Response - Think Infrastructure, Not Donations

Blend Images - KidStock via Getty Images

Since I started working as a law professor*, I am constantly impressed by my students and I feel that I learn as much from them as they do from me. It helps that I work at a law school that is invested in enrolling students who have had real-life experience and who have a commitment to pursuing social justice.

After my last blog post, in which I sought to add an African perspective to the Ebola crisis and argued for a longer-term response, in which infrastructure that would support permanent medical personnel is the focus, I received a comment from one of my students that simply blew me away. I have the student's permission to anonymously share it (in its unedited entirety) here:

I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Senegal from 2011-2013. I lived in the region of Kaolack, the village of Ndiago. I spoke only Wolof with my village and refused to speak the little French that I knew. (It didn't matter because no one understood French anyway.) I lived in a hut, showered outside and went to the bathroom outside. My role was teaching women how to make personal gardens and teaching women and girls about valuing education and their bodies.

Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs) pride themselves as being part of an organization that is a hybrid of 1) an international aid organization from a first-world country who sends trained professionals who are aloof to the host country culture, people, and way of life and are there to "do good in the world"; and 2) groups that mobilize and train host country nationals to do things themselves. We were Americans from a first-world country, but we learned the host culture and language. Moreover, one of the goals of Peace Corps was to train host country nationals in the areas of health, environment, agriculture, etc. As you can already see, there was a distinct divide between the work of Peace Corps and other international aid groups and our interactions with the Senegalese people.

Many PCVs experienced first-hand the two different theories of international development: aid (money, material items) that is freely given and aid that is taught. We experienced having USAID or WorldVision come to a village WE were working in and show the villagers what their idea of "international aid" was. They would give things away so freely like computers or money to "build a building." As you know, it was very difficult for us to do our work with organizations like that around. A Japanese organization had latrines built at the elementary school in my village that no one used because they just relieved themselves on the sides of buildings or out in the fields. (The Japanese made a really nice plaque on the latrines, though.) In addition, two Belgian women donated computers and money to the middle school. Like you, I commend their efforts for donating/giving something valuable to others.

However, in agreement with you, there's a lot more that my little village of Ndiago needs. We didn't exactly need latrines or money to fix up a building to make a library. We needed more effective teachers at the elementary and middle school to each the kids how and why to use a latrine or how to take care of books. Villagers need to want to have latrines and learn how to search for money (either within the community, from the government, or from a Senegalese organization). They need to teach girls and boys about puberty and sex. They need to be trained on how to bestow the value of education on students.

I write all of this to say: Many people may be taken aback from the title of your article. More often than not, people do not understand the consequences of giving money or sending foreign aid. Yes, it helps them (temporarily). Yes, it gives them what they are asking for (at that moment). But what happens when the Americans/French/Belgians/Chinese are gone? Will Senegal/Nigeria still stand?

This is why I am very skeptical about giving to relief organizations. I've SEEN what they do with things when they get it. When we donate clothes to "Africa," people don't wear the clothes; they sell them. Babies in my village ran around pant-less with noses dripping, but "America" sent "Africa" clothes.

Thank you for sharing your article, Professor. I've actually been thinking about Senegal lately and have been meaning to call my host family. Perhaps I will this weekend. See you in class tomorrow."

I am absolutely humbled by the admirable empathy displayed by this student. I have no doubt that those who give donations to charities or NGOs working in developing nations have good intentions and are trying to help, the problem is that, most times, this either isn't the most effective way to help or, as demonstrated in the comment above, such "help" can actually back-fire. In order to truly help someone, the first step is not to "treat them like you would treat yourself." The first step is to LISTEN to the people whom you are trying to help, to engage them in such a way as to help them help themselves.

Some of the comments to my last blog post revealed an attitude of: "they should be happy for whatever help they get." This is short-sighted. It is important to recognize that Ebola, and indeed other disease epidemics, affect us all, regardless of their origin. As we saw from the few cases of Ebola in the U.S., disease epidemics can no longer be quietly ignored in our interconnected global economy. When we provide effective help to eradicate Ebola, we are not helping "them," we are helping ourselves.

*All opinions in this and other blog posts are mine alone and are not to be attributed to my employers.