‘Do-it-yourself development’: the world of citizen aid and what to do about it

March 4, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Seb Rumsby

As our world becomes increasingly globalised, there are now more and more chances for people from vastly unequal economic situations to meet and connect – be it through tourism, migration or social media. At the same time, we are witnessing a widespread disillusionment with so-called ‘experts’ and technocrats in the realms of politics and international development. This has led to a democratisation of sorts whereby ‘development’ is no longer seen as the exclusive job of governments and professionals, but something which ordinary citizens can take the lead on.

The past 30 years have seen a huge increase in the number of small-scale non-profit organisations, which don’t quite fit the traditional NGO box – they are usually informal, unregistered and privately funded. We can call it citizen aid, everyday humanitarianism or ‘do-it-yourself’ development. You know the sort of thing: some Westerners go backpacking, are shocked to see abject levels of poverty and decide to ‘do something about it’. They start teaching English to local children, and raise funds for materials among their friends and families back home. And just like that, a new private development initiative is born!

That’s not to say the world of citizen aid is an exclusively North-South affair. Ordinary people within developing countries organise grassroots aid initiatives among their own communities, and everyday humanitarianism has become increasingly visible in wealthier countries over the past decade in tandem with the increasing levels of inequality and retrenchment of public welfare. Think about the volunteers delivering goods to makeshift camps in Calais, setting up soup kitchens and helped recent arrivals at the height of the European refugee crisis.

Citizen aid typically relies on volunteers with no formal experience in the development industry, with projects often focusing on youth, education, disability or health support. According to Fechter, a key feature that sets them apart from “mainstream” development practice is the personal relationships at their heart. Close personal connections – which are not always possible through large, ‘professional’ NGOs – are made between founders, donors and those they support, and the immediate, visible rewards of their efforts are key motivators. Indeed, private development practitioners often intentionally distance themselves from the red tape and bureaucracy of the development industry, which they see as inefficient.

For example, an American friend of mine regularly fundraises among his community as well as digging deep into his own pockets to travel to Laos annually, build houses for some impoverished villagers he has met, provide capital for them to invest in fish-farming and teach them business skills. He refuses to work with ‘corrupt’ state officials or formal NGOs because, in his words, “you can’t build a nation with nonprofits”. Instead, he sees himself as a ‘batman’ figure, “saving those who can’t be saved” through the formal poverty-reduction schemes.

Inevitably, it is tempting to consider the problematic dynamics of such a comparison. Appe and Schnable give five of them for starters: amateurism (lack of technical skills/training), fragmentation (lack of wider collaboration), restricted focus (not addressing root causes of poverty), material scarcity (lack of funding/resources) and paternalism (outsiders control resources and make decisions on behalf of disadvantaged populations). At best, these combined problems lead to well-meaning but inefficient development projects. At worst, they are unsustainable, unscalable and do more harm than good.

Because they tend to stay ‘under the radar’ and avoid collaboration with both state and other international development actors, everyday humanitarians can be guilty of ‘reinventing the wheel’ by repeating the mistakes that more established NGOs have already made, learned from and now train staff to avoid. Unfortunately, for the same reasons it is difficult for the development industry to engage constructively with citizen aid – for one, we have no idea how many thousands of unregistered initiatives are operating across the world.

So what should we do about this phenomenon then? It would be easy to dismiss citizen aid as another ‘developmental failure’, more often than not rooted in the same unequal international power relations which causes endemic poverty. On the other hand, there is a great deal of enthusiasm and goodwill associated with these initiatives, and the reality is citizen aid is here to stay. A more pragmatic approach might be to provide training and support for everyday humanitarians in order to maximise their developmental impact.

This is what we are trying to do by creating Aimed at citizen aid founders and volunteers, this website offers an interactive self-assessment survey and free, personalised feedback in order to encourage best practice regarding issues such as local power relations, measuring project effectiveness, potential for wider collaboration and sustainability. The idea is to get people to critically reflect on what they are doing, encouraging them to think about the bigger picture and learn from others. Currently, we are trying to promote it to the very diffuse and decentralised world of citizen aid – readers, please feel free to share it on to those who could benefit from it.

A common theme of do-it-yourself development is what Fechter calls the ‘logic of the one’: if we can just change one person’s life, then it will all be worth it, etc. But what if we could just change two people’s lives with the same resources, if we were a bit more sensitive of the local community’s priorities, a bit better at measuring our impact, and collaborated a bit more with others working towards similar goals? Like it or not, citizen aid is not going to disappear but is rather growing in importance. The least that the development community can do is overcome our qualms, and at least try to engage and improve its impact on the people it is trying to help.

March 4, 2021
Duncan Green