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International development aid: a 'hand out' or a 'leg up'?

By Dani Barrington - posted Monday, 3 February 2014


In the past weeks there has been an outcry over slashes to the Australian Aid budget. However, Julie Bishop has been quoted speaking about how these cuts are helping us move away from a “hand out culture”.

As someone working in the international development sector, I struggle to see how a politician with intimate knowledge of aid spending could refer to it as a “hand out culture”. I am an academic funded by Australian Aid dollars, and I am certainly not working on “hand out” projects. In fact, I am collaborating with amazing organisations and individuals to build the capacity of developing communities so that they can determine their own paths out of poverty. And I am one of many, many people in the sector doing so.

My colleagues and I know that just “handing out” development infrastructure is unsustainable (click here to read my rant about this in relation to toilets). I think that one of the best descriptions for the mentality of most of us working in the international development sector is summed up by the United Nations Resolution “The Future We Want”. In particular:

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“We recognize that opportunities for people to influence their lives and future, participate in decision-making and voice their concerns are fundamental for sustainable development.”

There is a growing understanding that sustainable international development can only be achieved through teaching and empowering communities so that they can affect the change they want to see in their own lives. And many of these projects are funded by Australian tax dollars. So perpetuating the belief that the Australian international development sector promotes “hand outs” does not represent the true value of the cooperative work being done by researchers, practitioners and communities.

As an academic, I know a whole lot about very little (for a great understanding of the ‘nipple’ of knowledge that Ph.D. holders possess, check out The Illustrated Guide to a Ph.D.). My academic colleagues also know a lot about their own specialised topics. But to actually contribute meaningfully in this sector, it is essential that we collaborate with… well, everyone! Aid projects require knowledge in a range of fields, including technology, health, culture, policy, economics and more. Perhaps most importantly, they require good relationships. All members of the team, including communities themselves, must work together to bring about sustained change through techniques including a strengths-based approach to capacity building alongside community-based participatory research.

I have been lucky enough to work on two Australian Aid funded projects which demonstrate this in action, both of which have been collaborations between multiple organisations working together towards sustainable international development. One of these projects was an AusAID funded Australian Leadership Award Fellowship (ALAF, now known as an Australia Awards Fellowship) and funded by DFAT). This particular ALAF was a partnership between the International WaterCentre and Town Development Fund, and involved bringing fourteen Nepali water engineers and managers to Australia for a four week intensive program on Water Supply and Sanitation through Integrated Water Management (IWM).

This was a targeted approach to use Australian Aid funding to assist in developing the water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) sector of Nepal, through the collaboration of many Australian private and public sector supporters. The Nepali participants would use and share the knowledge they had gathered through the program to improve the WASH situation of communities they partnered with. In particular, this would assist in developing local capacity to address Millennium Development Goal 7c: Halve, by 2015, the proportion of the population without sustainable access to safe drinking water and basic sanitation.

As the academic coordinator for the course it was not my role to deliver four weeks of content, but to use my networks to find the most qualified and talented facilitators I could. In order to deliver a useful, integrated program, this involved individuals from universities, government agencies, utilities, consultancies and NGOs.

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Incorporation of all of these sectors was crucial to training the Fellows in IWM. WASH is not the sole jurisdiction of any one particular organisation, even in Australia. Using a wide range of interactive tools, fieldtrips and workshops, the facilitators delivered a comprehensive program, from technical WASH interventions to conflict resolution with stakeholders. They did this given their own experiences, both in Australia and abroad. It required us all to reflect on the skills we had developed over the years: working on the ground with communities, researching new approaches, writing policies.  No single person or organisation could have delivered this content alone.

Through Australian Aid funding, this project gave fourteen talented individuals, actively working to improve the standard of living in their own country, new skills so that they could instil some of the principles of IWM they had learned to ensure locally-driven sustainable development in WASH. And that is what Australian Aid funded projects really focus on: providing not a “hand out” but a “leg up”; assisting communities to be able to achieve their self-identified goals.

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About the Author

Dani Barrington works in the field of water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) in developing communities.


She works at the nexus of technology and society, particularly investigating how appropriate technologies, community-led programs and public policy can improve health outcomes by increasing sustainable access and use of adequate water resources, sanitation and hygiene facilities and services.

Her current position is as a Research Fellow at Monash University. Dani also volunteers with Engineers Without Borders Australia (EWB), where she is Editor of the Journal of Humanitarian Engineering. In 2011/2012 she was seconded by EWB to work in remote communities with the Nepali NGO Nepal Water for Health. You can find her on Linkedin at www.linkedin.com/in/danibarrington.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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