This past Saturday, I went to the Cambridge International Development Course (CIDC) run by Cambridge’s Humanitarian Centre. Overall, it was a mixed bag. I went to one really inspirational talk by a man named David Barker (that article does not do his story justice), and one really painful talk full of statistics and not much substance.

But one thing that struck me about a couple of the main speakers was that they stood up at the conference and told everyone how much NGOs and aid are failing. Kristy Smith, Director of the Methodist Relief and Development Fund, gave an exhaustive list of all the challenges NGOs can’t handle and why their “project” model fails. Benny Dembitzer, Director of the Global Development Forum, gave this list of why aid is ineffective:

  • “Aid is dispensed as an extension of welfare, not a tool for development
  • Short term, not long term
  • Dictated by the donor, not the recipient
  • Contradictory and incoherent
  • Neglected local development of agriculture
  • Aimed at governments, not people
  • Poverty has become an intellectual challenge”

Yet at the bottom of this list Mr. Dembitzer included (in smaller font): “but is desperately needed.”

Both of these speakers ranted about the failures of aid and NGOs for over 30 minutes each, and then proceeded to tell us that we should keep using the same aid and NGO models. They just need to be “reformed.”

I was impressed with their honesty about the challenges (and failures) of NGOs and aid. I was unimpressed with their solutions. “Reform”? Seriously? After 40 years of trying the same things over and over again, “reforming” the process along the way, you’re telling me we should continue along the same path that you clearly think is failing? Major “reforms” haven’t worked in the past, why would they work now? This solution, to me, is like having a tennis instructor who simply tells you to “try harder” every time you miss the ball.

I think we need a different solution. Something far from the currently accepted practices so that we can’t slip into the same rut. For me, that solution lies in business models and social entrepreneurship.