Giving Hope to the Future through Education

   Opinions & Editorials

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"Make sure you have a different opinion, then people will talk about you."
                                                                                           - Arab Proverb

Thoughtful Guatemalan Girl
On this page of our website we have created links to a number of editorials, opinion articles or blog postings which we feel are relevant to our efforts as a non-profit organization working to improve the quality of life in Guatemala through education. Certainly, the opinions expressed in these articles are sometimes challenging and confrontational. But, we also think they are well worth considering and reflecting upon.

We welcome others to submit their own comments or opinions, and/or send to us articles that they feel should be included on this page. Contact Us if you have a comment, article or opinion you would like share with us or have posted on our site.

Finally, opinions expressed here do not necessarily coincide with the policies or practices of Avivara, nor do they necessarily represent the opinions or perspectives of our Board and/or staff.


In a recent paper published by OXFAM entitled The Cost of Inequality: How Wealth and Income Extremes Hurt Us All (January, 2013). it was noted that extreme wealth and inequality on a global level are reaching levels never before seen and are getting worse. It goes on to state, "The IMF has said that inequality is dangerous and divisive and could lead to civil unrest. A growing chorus of voices is pointing to the fact that whilst a certain level of inequality may benefit growth by rewarding risk takers and innovation, the levels of inequality now being seen are in fact economically damaging and inefficient."

As the world is rapidly entering a new and unprecedented age of climate change, resource scarcity and volatility, extreme inequality is increasingly environmentally unaffordable and destructive. Those in the top 1% of wealth and income have been estimated to have a "carbon footprint" 10,000 times greater than the average US citizen (and 24,000 times greater than the average Guatemalan. Editor's Note.) Increasing scarcity of resources like land and water mean that assets being monopolised by the few cannot continue if we are to have a sustainable future. Poverty reduction in the face of extreme wealth will become harder as resources become more scarce. More equal societies are better able to cope with disasters and extreme weather events. Studies also show that more equal countries are also better able to reduce carbon emissions.

Extreme wealth and inequality is not inevitable. After the Great Depression in the US in the 1930s, huge steps were taken to tackle inequality and vested interests. President Roosevelt said that the ‘political equality we had won was meaningless in the face of economic inequality.' These steps were echoed in Europe after World War Two, leading to three decades of increasing prosperity and reduced inequality. Similarly the growth of the Asian tiger economies like Korea was achieved whilst reducing inequality and meant the benefits were widely spread across their societies. More recently, countries like Brazil, once a poster child for extreme inequality, have managed to buck the global trend and prosper whilst reducing inequality.

The policies required to reduce inequality are also well known. Decent work for decent wages has had a huge impact. The rise in the power of capital over labour has been identified by Paul Krugman among many others as a key cause of the recent crisis and one that means that assets are not being used productively, in turn reducing demand.
Free public services are crucial to levelling the playing field. In countries like Sweden, knowing that if you get sick or that you will receive good treatment regardless of your income, is one of the greatest achievements and the greatest equalisers of the modern world. Knowing that if you lose your job, or fall on hard times, there is a safety net to help you and your family, is also key to tackling inequality. Similarly, access to good quality education for all is a huge weapon against inequality.

Finally, regulation and taxation play a critical role in reining in extreme wealth and inequality. Limits to bonuses, or to how much people can earn as a multiple of the earnings of the lowest paid, limits to interest rates, limits to capital accumulation are all only recently-abandoned policy instruments that can be revived. Progressive taxation that redistributes wealth from the rich to the poor is essential, but currently the opposite is the case – taxation is increasingly regressive and the poor pay higher effective tax rates than the rich, a point recently highlighted by Warren Buffet among others, who has called for greater taxes on the rich. Cracking down on tax avoidance and tax evasion goes hand in hand with more progressive taxation. Closing tax havens and ending the global race to the bottom on taxation, for example with a globally agreed minimum rate of corporation tax would make a huge difference It is estimated that up to a quarter of all global wealth – as much as $32 trillion - is held offshore. If these assets were taxed according to capital gains taxes in different countries, they could yield at least $189 billion in additional tax revenues.

Read the entire OXFAM article here>>

There are currently over 1.8 million non-profit organizations in the U.S. – about 1 for every 175 U.S. citizens. And who among us has not felt overwhelmed by the numerous appeals for disaster relief, medical research, support for our church’s latest building project, funding for the local youth sports program, feeding the hungry, or even something as ridiculous as sending a million t-shirts to Africa. It is no wonder that we are all feeling a little “compassion fatigue.”

So, are there too many non-profits? A number of people say yes. The arguments in favor of this position are that too many non-profits are inefficient and poorly managed. Or that many are not meeting any real community need but rather supporting the financial needs (or the egos) of the founders and/or staff, and that some are actually fraudulent.

Others would argue that as long as non-profit charities meet certain criteria, they do serve a very necessary and useful purpose. At a recent webcast hosted by the Urban Institute, five panelists examined and discussed the following questions:

Too Many Non-Profits?
The Non-Profit “Masquerade”
Does the charity/non-profit really provide a public community benefit or does it exist to maintain the founder’s or staff’s livelihood?

Many remember the 60 Minutes expose on Greg Mortenson and his Central Asia Institute, where it was alleged that much of the money raised by his organization went towards promoting his books, and that many of the schools that had been built were actually sitting empty. Unfortunately, that is not an isolated case. In Guatemala, the press has investigated a number of Guatemalan NGO’s that have been “fronts” for obtaining money from and for corrupt government officials, and in some cases used for laundering drug money.

But this problem is not limited to Guatemala. In the U.S., many non-profits put up beautiful and heart-rending websites with very prominent DONATE buttons, but are very short on providing information on how their donations will be actually spent. We recently had a conversation with one U.S. non-profit working here in Guatemala. However, upon reviewing their financial operations (which required some digging since the information wasn’t available on their website) we found that over 60% of their revenues went to cover administrative staffing, and less than 30% went towards actual program expenses.

In another study of 44 U.S. 501(c)(3) charities working in education in Guatemala, only 12 (29%) provided information on their website regarding their financial operations. And of those twelve, six had either some accounting irregularities or a ratio of program expenditures to administrative and fundraising expenses that did not meet the Better Business Bureau Wise Giving Alliance Standards.   

This is not to say that the charities who do not post their financial information are not doing good work, but it does cause one to question just how effectively their donor support is being managed and utilized.

So, how can a donor be confident that they are not simply supporting a non-profit “masquerade?” 
  1. Check to see if the organization provides easy access to their financial reports or their annual 990 reports to the IRS.
  2. Do they provide an annual report that is specific in describing how their donated resources are used?
  3. Has the organization been reviewed or approved by an independent charity reviewing organization such as GuideStar or Charity Navigator?
If you can’t easily find out these things about a non-profit, be wary. Legitimate and well-managed non-profits are more than willing to share this information with the general public. Heart-tugging pictures of needy children, slick website design and prominent donate buttons do not always translate into people receiving the much needed assistance that is promised on the website. 

Too Many Stalls in the Marketplace?
Are non-profits competing with and/or duplicating the efforts of private businesses, government agencies, or other non-profits? Or is there collaboration with governmental agencies and other aid agencies in the same field or region? Is the organization utilizing resources effectively by leveraging their resources with the resources of others?

With recent demands for cuts in government spending worldwide (or in the case of Guatemala, where public spending for social services such as health, education and infrastructure has been woefully inadequate for decades), the need for non-profits providing much needed services continues. In addition, over the last several years, non-profits may have proliferated because of the weakened economy. Unable to find work in the private sector, a number of individuals have started their own non-profits as an alternative means of employment.

In other cases, people have traveled to places where poverty is endemic and have been moved to “do something.” (This would be the case in the founding of Avivara.) And while we applaud this entrepreneurial spirit and sense of compassion, it can sometimes lead to a situation where non-profits are “trampling over the same mission” as other non-profits and/or government agencies.

We have run into that occasionally here in Guatemala. A common example is when a group from the U.S. comes down and builds a new, privately funded school in a village where a local government school already exists. The new school then draws students away from the public school, which could have been renovated or repaired and provided with much needed supplies for significantly less money. In those cases, the egos of the donors are certainly stroked, but the overall benefit to the community is much less than what it could have been.

In our experience, NGO/NPO’s that coordinate their efforts with local systems (educational, political, and economic) and collaborate with other aid agencies have a much greater impact than those who ignore the work of others and choose to “go it alone.”  At Avivara, we have consciously chosen to work with teachers and students in the Guatemalan public school system (even with its myriad of frustrations) rather than reinvent the wheel by opening an independent school.

Another example of our collaboration with others was the building of a computer lab at San Jose Pacul School. Through the combined efforts of the local municipal government, the parent community in the village, another NGO and ourselves, we were able to collectively raise enough funds to complete the building of the lab.

In addition, we currently collaborate with several other NGO’s in our area in sharing administrative functions and facilities, thus freeing up more money for our and their program expenses.

The Road to Hell is Paved with Good Intentions
Does the organization truly understand the need it is trying to address, or is it doing more harm than good because of a lack of understanding of the local culture, economies, and/or political structures where it is working? Are the activities of the organization actually building local capacity or is it instead creating increased dependency on “whites in shining armor?”

This is a critical issue which requires much soul-searching on the part of non-profits working in developing countries, as well as those traveling philanthropists who participate in “voluntourism.” The following except from the essay, Desire & Imagination: the Economy of Humanitarianism in Guatemala by Jose Oscar Barrera Nuñez speaks to this issue.

“Education Without Borders (EWB) came to our village to improve education here. They were people from Spain who focused their work on building classrooms and providing teachers with professional training.

At first things were all right, but later the teachers rejected them because they thought the EWB people were monitoring the teacher’s work in order to penalize them. The Spanish teachers working in the project left very frustrated saying that ‘the teachers here don’t want to work.’

Furthermore, the EWB teachers only wanted to schedule their workshops in the afternoons, but the local teachers would not come to these workshops because they had work to do in their homes in the afternoon and evening, and many lived in neighboring villages where there were only one or two public buses each day. To attend an afternoon workshop was a burden for the local teachers. However, this irritated the EWB teachers who left the village much earlier than planned.”

In another case in this same village, a young woman from the United States came to implement a story-reading project to improve literacy skills in the elementary school. Her experience was somewhat similar. After a two-week training with the teachers, she returned to the U.S. She then returned several months later to the village to find that none of the teachers were using the materials or the techniques she had provided earlier. She was upset that the teaching ideas she had implemented were only put into action when she was there and that the teachers did not do things “on their own.”

Her experience made her confront the fact that she had constructed in her own mind and project what she felt the local teachers needed based on her U.S. teaching background and experience. She ended up not being able to reconcile the imaginary of social justice and civic engagement she had learned in college with the realities she encountered in Guatemala. She stated that doing the readings in college on empowerment was easy. But then to really do it was a whole other story."

Another common situation we run into here in Guatemala are large teams of volunteers coming to build houses, schools, stoves, water systems, etc. to “help the poor.” Some people refer to these folks as the “whites in shining armor.” They are often the ones who often get their pictures and story written up in their local newspaper or church bulletins for their humanitarian efforts. We applaud their desire to help, but painfully, we are also aware of the many Guatemalan who could have done this same work and put food on the table for their families at a cost much less than the airline ticket and hotel rooms the volunteers have paid for. We have also seen quite a bit of growth in this business of “voluntourism.” It appears to us that the businesses organizing these projects are the primary beneficiaries and not the people supposedly receiving the help.

Here is another sad, but somewhat humorous example of this. A person had visited a poor village in Guatemala and saw that the people there had no indoor plumbing and were “doing their business” in the fields near their homes. This person then returned to her church community and convinced them to raise the money and put together a team to go back to the village to build a public latrine. With money in hand and a team of volunteers, her group returned to the village and built a four stall concrete block latrine, complete with toilets.

A year later, she came back to visit the village. Upon opening the doors of the latrine she found it stacked from floor to ceiling with ears of corn and no toilets. (And the people of the village still doing the same old thing in the fields, as they had done for centuries.)  The moral: The group spent thousands of dollars for a latrine and travel, when what the village really wanted was a secure place to store their corn.  A little more listening and a little less assuming would have gone a long way to develop a more fruitful relationship between the village and those who wanted to help.

So, are there too many non-profits? The answer has to be yes when they are primarily benefitting the people who run them. Yes, when they create dependency and foster paternalism. And Yes, when they do wasteful, unwelcome and stupid things.

But, in contrast, when non-profits steward their donations honestly and wisely, and utilize resources in collaboration with local recipients in ways that actually support grass-roots development and respect local cultures, then the answer is no – We need more of those!

(This Op/Ed piece was originally posted on the Avivara website on April 24, 2012.)


"How you answer this question will depend at least a little on why you think they are poor. Why do you think the poor are poor? Do you think they are poor because they are lazy? Is their poverty cosmic retribution for wrongs committed by their ancestors? Do they deserve to be poor?"

"Do they deserve our cast off clothing, our old shoes? Do they deserve our discarded bicycles and old soap? Do they deserve church youth groups coming to practice on them for two weeks? Do they deserve us shutting them out of our planning processes or delivering aid based, not on their priorities and need, but on the priorities of donors, foreign governments or for-profit corporations? Do they deserve celebrities popping in for a few days of 'humanitarian assistance'  perfectly coiffed, cameras rolling?"

"We need to be talking about relief and development work in terms of what the poor need and, if you will, what they deserve. Not deserve in the sense of something they earned. But deserve in the sense that they are human beings, just like us. Personally, I believe that the poor deserve the best we're capable of, if for no other reason than simply by the virtue of their humanity."

The entire text of this article can be found on the blog, AidSpeak, and was posted on January 12, 2012.

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What do the poor deserve?
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