It Takes Consultation to Help a Village
Gabriel Browne, a small farmer in Liberia’s Harlandville Township, thought a biofuel project of Buchanan Renewables, a Liberia-based company that produces fuel for energy plants from biomass, would be life-changing for his family and his community.
It was — but not for the better.
Mr. Browne, a father of seven children, is one of more than three million Liberians who depend on farming for subsistence. A majority are still struggling to rebuild their lives since the nation’s brutal civil war ended 15 years ago. He relied on rubber trees for his family’s meager income and to pay for his older children’s schooling.
So he took a big risk when he agreed to let Buchanan Renewables clear his farm to make space for new rubber trees as part of its project, which was supported by American foreign aid. But, as is all too common in development, the project collapsed and the trees never materialized. Now Mr. Browne can no longer afford to educate his children. “The youngest three are with me now. They would go to school, but there’s no money,” he said in a recent interview, using a borrowed cellphone. “They’re not learning nothing.”
Buchanan Renewables was funded largely by the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), the United States government’s development financing agency. The project had promised to improve farmers’ livelihoods while bringing a source of renewable energy to a region where most people had no access to electricity. When it failed, OPIC was criticized for having overlooked numerous red flags.
Now, small farmers like Mr. Browne who cleared their farms are poorer than they were. They have received no compensation.
And though there was a modest public uproar over the project’s failure, news coverage at the time largely missed the main cause: Nobody had asked people in the community what they considered most necessary to improve their lives.
This relatively simple step — consulting the people who would benefit from the project — is overlooked in a vast majority of overseas philanthropic and development projects, whether they are led by large institutions like OPIC or the World Bank or even small nonprofits. “People are well intentioned, but a little bit of good intention with a lot of money can do a lot of harm,” said Natalie Bridgeman-Fields, a human rights lawyer. Her organization, Accountability Counsel, works with communities in developing countries to file grievances in an effort to hold large institutions like OPIC accountable when their projects bring harm rather than improvement to the people to be served….
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