(London Free Press — Viewpoint section — Saturday, February 26, 2005)
Modern communications have brought what used to be regionalized disasters to our television screens with explosive, graphic images and urgent appeals for donations.
Yet as the recent events of the Asian tsunami reveal, the response can often be so immediate that it defies the ability of NGOs and governments to administer the funds properly.
Lost in the massive media coverage of the Asian disaster is the effect such repeated appeals have on our ability as donors to actually have our gifts make a deeper difference in areas where funds are targeted. We will probably never know how our donations affected the tsunami hit areas. Moreover, other more serious situations get forgotten. The deaths in Darfur, for example, are more than double the tsunami toll and those dying from AIDS are reaching epidemic proportions.
How can we make our donations count? One example occurred during our February trip to south Sudan. Well-known London developer and businessman David Tennant asked to join us on the trip and was personally able to witness not only the tragedy that has afflicted Sudan but also the hope that resulted from the peace accords. He was especially interested in an idea Canadian Aid for South Sudan has been developing for some time. Called “Smart Aid,” it focuses more on long-term involvement with needy communities overseas.
While Jane Roy and I have seen the conflict through a humanitarian lens, Tennant observed developments through the keen eyes of business. The results were not as you might expect. While huge corporations now line up from rich contracts for the reconstruction of Sudan, he developed business opportunities specifically designed to benefit the Sudanese directly through non-profit initiatives.
Working with local leaders he worked with us to devise a plan where villagers could be employed to grow and collect certain self-sustaining products that would then be trucked to various markets out-of-country. He put up all the start-up costs, purchased a vehicle, satellite phones, etc. and in so doing galvanized a community that had endured the ravages of war for two decades.
Key to the Smart Aid plan is what happens to the profits. In each of these initiatives, all of the profit is turned back to CASS, a London-based organization, to be administered directly back into the Sudanese community. By keeping the venture fully non-profit, the initiative won over the confidence of Sudanese leaders and in the process created local economic initiatives destined to improve the quality of life in those regions.
In the next two months Dave Tennant will return with CASS to assess the projects and possibly expand their reach. He also hopes to take along other like-minded proponents of business.
Because CASS has remained in the same areas of strife-torn Sudan, the ability to plan for long-term growth clearly exists. But what Smart Aid does is bring a dimension to humanitarian work rarely seen. While CASS has freed slaves, built schools and started the YM/YWCA in south Sudan, its efforts have been humanitarian in nature. Tennant’s involvement will actually produce an economy, providing local citizens with resources and wages in a tangible fashion.
What makes Smart Aid possible is the willingness to “write off” the investment. Yet that is what makes the enterprise so appealing to Sudanese and Londoners alike. It takes business charitable donations to a new level, one which provides the locals with the resources necessary to build a productive future and not just a humane one.
The impact on London is also important. Citizens of this region have continued to work with CASS, effectively expanding their involvement in south Sudan for the last eight years. David Tennant’s emergence onto the scene now has the potential to cement this city’s interest in ways that could well be permanent. Tennant hopes to spend the next few months finding like minded business people to sacrificially enhance the southern Sudanese economy, but for the moment, through the Smart Aid initiative, Londoners could well reverse the trend to chase after each disaster as it comes along and instead provide an example whereby Canadian donors can make true structural change, in the process permitting victims such as those in Sudan with the opportunity to build a prosperous economic future.
Glen Pearson is Executive Director of Canadian Aid for South Sudan.