News: Whose Development?

Recently I was asked to assess the tax-deductibility of donations made to an organisation focusing on the important work of people with disabilities.  To qualify for tax-deductibility, donations to overseas aid must be for either emergency relief, where for example a disaster has occurred, or for sustainable development programs.  A number of criteria need to be considered, and since organisations often run diverse programs, blanket judgments can be difficult.

The opportunities for people with disabilities are often still very limited, so activities that see them making meaningful contributions to building their community’s capacity are especially developmental.  However, also important in any assessment of development is the sustainability of the activities: How do donations contribute to the organisation being able to exist by its own means?

If the organisation’s existence depended on unending handouts of food then that might appear to be a valuable thing for those of us with plenty to contribute, however the ATO are unlikely to accept such donations as tax deductible.  Conversely, donations that help build an income producing industry (e.g. by hosting a volunteer, or purchasing equipment,) will be acceptable.  A plan, demonstrating how such income will cover future equipment, materials and staff wages (enabling them to buy their own food), should be assessed as sustainable, and thus donations become eligible for tax deductibility.

Palms supports the idea that to achieve sustainable development our requesting communities need to initiate and therefore own the plan.  This is not about jumping through hoops, but having a genuine plan implemented, perhaps through a local community-based organisation.  This is exactly why Palms volunteers are trained to spend their first months earning the trust of their hosts while coming to a clear understanding of the host community’s plans, the very different cultural context, and how their skills can be realistically applied to these plans in this context.

It can and should take six to twelve months before a volunteer is engaged effectively.  Many temptations can occur in this time. Our Western impatience for action or need to feel good about giving might see a frustrated volunteer depart early, or alternately organise large injections of funds from Australia.   The latter runs the risk of putting good sustainable development back by decades, as locals tend to defer all planning and power to the visitors who build great kudos from the resultant “success”.

Of course the real measure of success is seen in what happens when the donors and the volunteers have gone.  Happily I can look back with some satisfaction on the Technical Centre in Samoa where I trained local teachers.  In 1990 when Palms started sending volunteers 20% of the staff were Samoan.  Twenty years later as a proud, expanding, and important national training centre producing carpenters, boat builders, motor mechanics and metal workers; a Samoan fills every position from Principal to the newest of teachers.

It does not operate exactly as a TAFE in Australia and might be judged by some as in need of items that could be donated to “get it right”.  However such thoughts are often driven by unreal visions of perfection, unrealistic even in Australia’s resource rich environment.  Fortunately Samoans are too proud to be passive recipients of aid, so do not easily welcome outside judgments about what they require for their development.

We may need to be more careful when working alongside people who have been traumatised or who have endured a long history of dependence.  We will do more damage in the longer term if we allow what we want to achieve to dominate, with the result that we reinforce a dependent mindset.  After the drought in Ethiopia in the 1970s, US food aid continued for so long that agricultural skills of new generations were never developed.

I know that many might want a black and white answer to the question about what is developmental. However, development is a process, or series of activities, each of which needs to be assessed prior, during and after each activity is undertaken.  Often one sustainable developmental activity encourages another, as all who participate are fulfilled by the patient achievement of outcomes that allows them to proceed with dignity.

Black and white answers may not be possible, but the growing capacity, desire for engagement, and control taken by a local community in directing the next activity are measures of development success.    If development is failing, with people entrenched in dependence this will not happen and donors may be left feeling: “After all we did for them, why can’t they do something for themselves?”

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Tell me and I'll forget. Show me and I may remember. Involve me and I'll understand. - Chinese proverb