Doing harm

This is my contribution to the Second Aid Blog Forum on “Admitting Aid Failure?”

My organization makes a point of not targeting individual beneficiaries but taking a community wide approach. This means, we always distribute tools, seeds or food to whole communities and when we build wells or latrines they always benefit the whole village. However, we have a small amount of money to help extremely vulnerable cases directly.

So far, in my area, we have only dipped into this pot twice, in both cases to help teenage girls who are refugees from Ivory Coast but not living in refugee camps and who had just given birth. The first time went smoothly, but unfortunately the second time has been very problematic.

Teenage mother heading a household of six

This is a case of a 17 year old girl who came to Liberia without any family members. She has four brothers and sisters between 9 and 2 years of age. In addition, she gave birth in August and the father is not around. The six children are living with a woman to whom they are not related in a very remote and hard to reach village in Liberia. The girl and her siblings were always working in the fields and their clothes were worn and dirty – clearly they were in a very difficult situation. In addition, the village is in a very remote and hard to reach area of Liberia; the road is terrible and cars cannot cross the last bridge before the village so that everything has to be carried.

We decided that we would give this teenage mother some assistance. We didn’t have another assistance programme in the village (we interviewed the girl as part of our family tracing programme) but we knew that one organization was providing food and another medical care to the villagers.

Since we didn’t want to be “extravagant” or risk negative consequences due to jealousy in the community, we decided to limit the aid to the newborn and (to a lesser degree) the mother, but that we would not give anything to the siblings even though their clothes were old and ragged – but not more so than those of some other refugee children in the community.

We bought baby clothes, washable diapers, a small plastic tub set and clothes pins for the baby. In addition, we bought a new dress, a blouse and one pair of slippers for the girl after our local staff had explained to us that in their culture the girl would need a new set of clothes because she is now a mother. Apparently, when a girl becomes a mother she is supposed to wear a different type of dress – in any case her slippers and clothes had been dirty and torn when we last saw her.

We were certain that surely nobody would object to a vulnerable teenage mother receiving things for her baby. We were wrong.



Two weeks after we gave the girl the items, we got a call from one of our volunteers who is living in that community. He informed us, that the woman with whom the girl was living, had denied her food for the last couple of days and then kicked her out. According to him, the caretaker was angry that we had given things to the girl but nothing to her. Now, the girl and her siblings were without shelter and staying with our volunteer. He had tried to reason with the caretaker, but without success.

Our well intentioned donation had made a bad situation even worse. I felt absolutely horrible.

I mentioned this to a friend and colleague of mine who exclaimed “This is Aid 101!” Yes, it is. But we really felt that it was the right thing to do in this situation and we thought we were on top of it.

Emergency intervention

Fortunately, the story had a positive outcome. We informed the child protection agency operation in the area and fortunately they had a foster family in a nearby who was willing to take the children. Besides, we have been able to find the children’s family in Ivory Coast and we will take them back as soon as the logistics are in place.

The two things that bother me most about this are:

–          God knows what would have happened with these six children if the volunteer hadn’t had the presence of mind to call us (which involved leaving his village because there is no mobile phone coverage in his area).

–          I’m not sure what I would do differently next time, I’m in the same situation. I’ll definitely spend more time talking to the caretaker, explaining to her why we are giving aid to the girl and not to her, but I don’t think that can really prevent a situation from this occurring.

What do you think?


One Response

  1. melp November 21, 2011