Last weekend I attended a fundraiser at New York University Law School raising money for Krisiko Asha (Hope for Agriculture). In terms of the philanthropic world, the evening was microscopic in purpose, serving to advance sixteen tiny villages in the remote hills of Nepal, a small, poor Asian country. The room was full of Nepalese, Indians, a smattering of returned Peace Corps Volunteers and a few others with interest in the Himalayan country.
Rajeev Goyal, the Indian-American impresario of Krisiko Asha and a returned Volunteer who had served in these very villages from 2001-2003 and has traveled back ten times, implored the participants to contribute to the cause. Members of his immigrant family and friends raised their hands again and again, and the event netted around $15,000, an amount that many upscale charities would have considered pathetic for all the effort and energy.
I left that evening not thinking that I had seen a quaint sideshow irrelevant to the world and its purposes, but something of importance. Americans are obsessed with size, not only in our homes and our hamburgers but in our supposed help to the rest of the world.
For half a century the West has poured trillions of dollars in foreign aid into the so-called developing world. In her passionate polemic Dead Aid, Dambisa Moya writes that in Africa most of this money has propped up corrupt elites, and little of it has advanced the economic fortunes of beleaguered, impoverished peoples. Such arguments appeal to conservatives who for decades have condemned foreign aid as an unholy waste. But it is progressives who should be the most upset at the massive misuse of foreign aid. There may be few things as pleasurable as the public profession of virtue, but there are few things worse than pretending to help someone when all you do is hold him down until he drowns.
In her recent book The Blue Sweater, Jacqueline Novogratz is almost equally devastating about the squandering of aid as Moya, but Novogratz and others have found a third way through entrepreneurial ventures to advance the fortunes of the poorest of peoples in Africa and Asia. Many of these ventures are headed by talented immigrants to America who made their fortunes and have returned to their lands of birth to help their people. That is just one way, one vector among many. Through out the developing world, beneath the noses of the mandarins of aid are an amazingly diverse series of undertakings, foundations large and small, NGOS, and entrepreneurial experiments that truly have helped people. The successful projects are run by those close to the people and understanding of the local culture.
Novogratz's mentor John Gardner, the founder of Common Cause, told her that in philanthropic ventures "the most important skill needed is listening." The Hope for Agriculture project is about listening. Rajeev raised the money to build five new schools in those hills. They are not the traditional whitewashed, two-story buildings that are seen all over Nepal. They are colorful, unique buildings true to the cultural traditions and spirituality of a people. They were designed by somebody who listened.
This summer Rajeev is taking the designer of the vernacular schools and a half dozen of the local people, including a former school master, the master builder of the schools, a nursery teacher, an agriculturalist, and two students on a month-long tour of Nepal. They will see what has happened to their country in the last half century in the name of development. They will see the good and the bad. They will see the once enchanted capital of Kathmandu among the most polluted cities in the world. They will see permaculture farms and projects that are virtual gardens of Eden, potential models of a new kind of green revolution. They will explore new ways to build homes and to advance local economies. They will listen. And when they finally return to their home in the hills, the 4,500 people in the sixteen villages will gather together and they will listen to what their neighbors have seen and learned and discuss the future of their community. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Nepal and I plan to travel with the group and report what they say.
These Nepalese hill peoples have always been either ignored or exploited. History, when it intruded upon their lives, was something that was done onto them. They have never had a say. Nobody ever listened. It is an idealistic, even quixotic idea that these few thousand people can make their own futures, but for a moment at least their lives seem full of possibilities they have never had before.