This is a guest post by Weh Yeoh, who talks about how charities need to need to work themselves out of a job to be sustainable.
“Well yeah, of course that makes sense. If you don’t plan your own departure from Cambodia, you’re just going to be stuck there forever. You’re not actually helping anyone.”
It was two weeks before I was due to speak at TEDx Haymarket. While chatting with a barista in Sydney, I mentioned the topic I had chosen – that international charities should plan their own redundancy from other countries.
And it seemed from a very brief conversation, that at least one person agreed.
It got me thinking. If after 5 minutes, a barista can understand the value in exit strategies, why isn’t this idea embraced by international charities?
There are so many well-intentioned projects happening in the world. Volunteers are flying everywhere. Used books are being sent cross-continentally. And yet, it seems that some problems are never truly solved.
My first degree was in physiotherapy. At university, we were taught the difference between addressing symptoms and solving problems. Treatment such as heat, ice and massage may make a patient feel better, but they don’t necessarily solve any underlying problems. They merely address symptoms.
The underlying problem is solved when the clinician isn’t needed anymore.
And yet, from working in China, Vietnam and Cambodia for over 8 years, it seems that the same logic isn’t applied to international charities. After all, how is it that they can stay embedded in other countries for decades upon decades?
Just as a clinician needs to plan their own redundancy, so too does an international charity. This ensures solving a problem, rather than addressing a symptom.
But the reality is that international charities aren’t structured to ever cease work. They are structured to perpetuate the work they’ve already started.
In 2010, I co-founded a blog, WhyDev, with my university classmate, Brendan Rigby. WhyDev existed to discuss international development best (and worst!) practice.
Since then I’ve seen a lot of charities that measure success like this.
This is not to devalue the impact of this work. There is no doubt that millions of people around the world have benefited from it. But this is simply measurement of symptomatic relief. It’s short term. And it perpetuates a phenomenon I call the hamster wheel of international charity work.
The hamster wheel works like this. International charities request funding, do the work, and then justify why they should get more funding. And this keeps on repeating.
While this hamster wheel exists, there is simply no business case for most international charities to solve problems. It’s much easier to address symptoms.
There is perhaps no country where this is more evident than in Cambodia, my home for 5 years. Anecdotally, I was told that the country has the second highest number of charities in the world, and the second highest number of UN agencies.
It was the recipient of an estimated half a billion dollars of aid money for decades.
And so, when I recognised the huge need for speech therapy services in Cambodia – a country with not one single Cambodian speech therapist – I was aware of the hypocrisy of what I did next. I started yet another charity.
But, in starting OIC Cambodia in 2012, we began with the principle that the organisation had to exit the country at some stage. This exit point was difficult to define, and it took at least a year for people to help me crystallise it.
But once it was defined, there was no ambiguity – this is where we are going. This is how we are going to get out. And it’s how we are going to ensure that Cambodia owns the work, in our absence.
Since stepping back from the leadership position in 2017, and handing over the project to our predominantly Cambodian team, I’ve had a bit more time to look around the international charity space. And despite how easily my barista grasped the value of exit strategies, in practice, this approach is not common.
I could count on one hand the number of international charities that are intentionally exiting developing countries. And despite the improvements in people’s lives globally, the markers of success hadn’t changed.
In 1985, a group of musicians got together to form Live Aid, with the promise of delivering 100,000 tons of food for starving people in Ethiopia. This effort may have inadvertently lead to the deaths of 100,000 people through an aggressive migration campaign. It perpetuated the image of Ethiopians as passive recipients of help. And it had no clear end point.
In 2018, the majority of international charities have not evolved past bean counting. They haven’t developed plans to move from “doing” to “stopping doing”.
And when I broached the topic of exiting with international charities, I tended to get two responses. The first was a feeling of being threatened. The second was apathy. This is when I realised that it was an idea before its time, and that it was an idea worth spreading.
When I was asked to speak at TEDx Haymarket about it, I took it with both hands. I wanted to make sure that the message was clear – we need to reconceptualise how international charities define success.
I also wanted to make sure I did the story justice. Early drafts of my talk were re-worked, thanks to some great advice. I had used language of “othering” in the first versions, unintentionally. I hadn’t explained clearly enough how international charities worked – as someone who had spent 12 years thinking about it, I clearly had some assumed knowledge. The talk was too short, then too long, then too short, then too long again!
Finally, after over 100 rehearsals, and after presenting it to 10 separate groups of people, I was ready.
The final video for the TEDx talk will be up shortly, so let’s reserve judgment on how well it went until then. But in the meantime, I’m glad the conversation is moving.
For international charities, getting back to the core of why we’re doing this work is vital. I don’t want international charities to view redundancy as threatening. I want them to see it as an opportunity. That through making ourselves redundant, we can shift resources to another part of the world, perhaps somewhere with an even greater need.
Because serving those in the world who need us the most – well isn’t that the point of charity in the first place?
Weh Yeoh was born in Sydney, Australia, and lived, volunteered and worked in Asia for 8 years. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies. He has volunteered in Vietnam, interned in India, studied Mandarin in Beijing and milked yaks in Mongolia. He is the founder of OIC Cambodia, an initiative that aims to establish speech therapy as a profession in Cambodia and co-founder of Umbo, a social enterprise bridging the gap for rural children to access allied health services.The main image shows Weh giving his TEDx Talk in Haymarket.