On The Ever-Present Dependency Conundrum

Originally published by Brandon on mbjones.net.

Dependency is always a consideration at the forefront of what we do:

  • ”Where it doesn’t exist, how do we avoid creating it?”
  • ”Where it might exist, how are we enabling it?”
  • ”Where it does exist, how could we quench it?”

I posted last year on ways we as outsiders can work with local leaders in healthy ways and it begins to address the dependency issue but not in full. 

Last week I stumbled across this article by Justin Long which begins to tackle it head on and I really liked what it had to say. 

First of all it sheds a bit of light on why it’s typically a bad thing:

  • the work isn’t sustainable when the outside money leaves
  • it isn’t reproducible or scalable
  • feeds money addiction
  • it puts outside organizations in unbalanced positions of power

Read the article for further details on what he means by these things. I think it’s an important read if you have any interest at all in the “aid” space (regardless of whether it’s religious or not).

As I read it and was reflecting, the notion that it “feeds money addiction” struck me anew as I was remembering a specific situation from some time ago. I had a meeting scheduled with someone, a local, who runs a nonprofit in East Africa, and he wanted to explore how we could be partners. Unfortunately the entirety of the conversations revolved around money (”How much can you provide for this need?” - “How much will you pay people to come to trainings?” - “Will you put our teams in fancy hotels?” etc). It definitely felt like this gentleman was used to getting lots of money from outsiders to the point of being wholly dependent on it. 

Long’s article continued on with his “rules of thumb” for dealing with money in these sorts of situations; I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was almost identical to mine. In brief, here they are (but again, read his article for further details):

  • Don’t pay salaries to nationals
  • For key meetings & events try to “find a way” for key people to attend
  • Occasional capital expenses are OK if they will have a serious impact
  • Rarely, provide funding for joint projects
  • Very rarely, provide funding for communication expenses

I think these are quite good and strike a needed balance. We know that outside money kills reproducibility and sustainability faster than almost anything else but sometimes its necessary and will feed emerging movements in healthy ways so we can’t be completely closed to the idea. Balance is important.

I might add a couple of rules:

  • If you only ask for money when we first meet I will always say ”no”. You can gauge a lot about someones motives depending on how they respond to that ”no”. If they are just looking for someone to bankroll what they are doing, you’ll often never hear from them again.
  • Always charge at least something small for training events. It doesn’t have to be the full price of attending (we typically heavily subsidize events) but we’ve found people take seriously what they are willing to invest in even if it’s something that appears to be small like $20 for a 2 week class. I’ve been involved in trainings where participants did the opposite - they were payed to be there - and most were zoned out and had no real interest in the material but instead just wanted their checks. 
  • Where possible give anonymously. This helps protect new relationships especially as it can help relieve some of the power differential and is not necessarily perceived the same as straight up “outside money”. 

I’d love to hear if anyone reading had any thoughts or any rules that they’d add. Feel free to comment if so.