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The Canadian Organization That Didn't Screw Up Global Aid

03/20/2015 06:04 EDT | Updated 05/20/2015 05:59 EDT
PRAKASH SINGH via Getty Images
This photo taken on March 19, 2015 shows a girl helping her mother carrying water containers on a tricyle rickshaw to their shanty in Ghaziabad, east of New Delhi. A new UN report launched in New Delhi on March 20 ahead of World Water Day on March 22 warned of an urgent need to manage the world's water more sustainably and highlight the problem of groundwater over-extraction, particularly in India and China. The report says global demand for water is increasing exponentially, driven largely by population growth. AFP PHOTO/ PRAKASH SINGH (Photo credit should read PRAKASH SINGH/AFP/Getty Images)

There is a favourite Ethiopian folklore when it comes to something that defines the African continent -- charity aid.

The story is about a visiting aid worker to the East African nation. As told by elders, the idealist man was touring the work of his organization when he met a young girl who dreamed of going to school in order to escape the poverty that is crippling her life. He was encouraged and heartened by what he heard.

The following week, before he departed, he gave his driver $1000 for her education and a note encouraging her to follow in her dreams. The driver took $100 and passed the remaining $900 to his supervisor along with the note, and the message followed the chain-of-commend all the way to the girl in her village. By the time it reached her, the only thing that was passed on to her was the note minus the money.

That is what aid to Africa really is. It has less impact because the intended recipients do not necessary receive the benefits. If charity aid is effective, we would have had real impact and less charity organizations.

As the Zambian-born Economist, Dambisa Moyo recently pointed out, "Despite the world spending $60 trillion in Africa in the last 60 years in aid, the number of Africans who live on less than $1 day has doubled in the last 20 years." That is worrisome.

While I support and champion short-term aid -- the 1984 Ethiopian famine, tsunami -- long term aid cripples growth, promotes a culture of dependency, creates conflicts, inequality and corruptions. That just may be why we should look at different and unique ways to engage ourselves to the less fortunate instead of the conventional way. In plain terms, charity-based aid is an idea whose time has passed and the world needs to look for unique ways to help and sustain hand-ups.

One Canadian organization that maybe doing it differently and effectively is CUSO -- Canadian University Services Overseas.

Founded in 1961, the group works "to improve the lives of people living with poverty and inequality around the globe" and as a result, "each year the organization mobilizes hundreds of volunteer professionals who work with local partners to create positive, lasting change."

For almost a decade, CUSO has been mobilizing the African diaspora in Canada to lend its professional expertise to their homelands. It seems to work as many friends have answered the call and have volunteered in many parts of Ethiopia for a year and made tangible impact to the country.

Earlier this week, I attended one of CUSO's Diaspora Volunteer Speaker Series as recent returnees reflected on their experience volunteering in Ethiopia and the work and impact they had.

I was taken aback with what I heard. For instance, one of the volunteer looked back on his time in Afar region and the people he mentored and helped. He reflected on how he stopped a 12-year-old bride from marrying an older guy so she would be free to go to school by personally paying the dowry money her father would have received. He shared with a near-capacity audience about the long-term relationship he wants to build with the village and the people he met and issues he wants to champion on their behalf and certainly not just be a stranger their livelihoods.

It seemed it had an impact for him and the village he spend a year helping. What a great way to fulfill one's great Canadian ideal and citizenship. I was heartened as new volunteers signed up with a child-like dream of changing a society far from their reality in Canada.

For CUSO, the objective is to make sure "volunteers work with overseas partner groups on locally and nationally managed projects" and insure "the benefits of their work continue to be felt by local people long after the volunteers have passed on their skills and returned home".

What a great initiative worthy of our support.

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