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"Our partners know best what they need"

It’s not often that international aid is featured on the editorial pages of a major newspaper. So I was excited and pleasantly surprised to see the New York Times Editorial Board write the opinion Foreign aid is having a reckoning.

The authors start by outlining the problem. For example, “planeloads of free American corn can help famine victims in the short term, but they can also put local farmers out of business, making the food supply in the long term more precarious.” Aid is not neutral. It impacts local politics.

Beatrice with her potato field and Ruth with her passion fruit crop. These two women are SIA Small Business Fund farmers.

Painting people who receive support as helpless victims distorts reality and creates a stark power dynamic where donors get to see themselves as “saviors.”

If we really believe that Black lives matter, then the reckoning is necessary.

The opinion piece quotes Degan Ali, an activist in Nairobi, who wants humanitarian funding to be a “direct as possible.” She advocates for turning away from top-down model, toward shared decision-making and flexible funding. International fundraising “should be based on amplifying the dynamic work our communities themselves are engaged in.”

Our Reckoning

If you’ve been following Spirit in Action for a while, you’ve probably seen some of this “reckoning” in action. Our mission statement recognizes that “our partners know best what they need and can create the change they envision.” To live into that mission, our funding goes directly to community-based organizations like Kakuuto Development Initiative and Midwife-Led Community Transformation, amplifying their work. These organizations are doing the work before our funding arrives, not waiting for a savior.

In addition, this year we’re piloting a new initiative of multi-year funding grants. For organizations like Flaming Chalice in Burundi, knowing that they will receive funding for three years creates stability and allows them to hire a local coordinator for all their activities. Manasse, pictured here, used to be a volunteer for Flaming Chalice and the SIA grant means he can now dedicate his full attention to the work. The funding commitment from Spirit in Action also makes their group more attractive to other funders.

The pandemic canceled my trip to Kenya last year and nudged Spirit in Action to rely even more on the local expertise of our African Advisory Board members. One of the un-used and about-to-expire flight credits in Kenya is able to be transferred from me to Wambui Nguyo. She is already in the country and can make the visits that I had planned last year.

It’s a long way from Opinion pages to real change, but it’s exciting to see these practices that we’ve seen work so well make it into the mainstream conversation!

Wambui Nguyo is a trainer, organizer, and African Advisory Board member in Nairobi, Kenya.


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