Posted by & filed under Aid Projects, Community Projects, Demonstration Sites, Eco-Villages, Education Centres, Ethical Investment, Financial Management, Village Development.

Imagine if we could help someone change their life for the better permanently, in under three years. Or imagine being in direct contact with the people on the ground, turning their semi-desert home back to an abundant food forest using permaculture, perhaps even going over and helping out…. Imagine being able to offer advice and expertise, or just encouragement and support, while a family solves their problems. No middlemen, no expenses taken out, no bureaucracy. If only!

After spending some years and a lot of money (to me) trying to set up a conventional non-profit to promote permaculture, I came across an alarming and incredible statistic, one which caused me to reappraise everything I was doing and start something else. According to statista.com, in the USA alone, non-profits reported expenses of 1.89 trillion U.S. dollars in 2009. I wanted to be sure, because sometimes a billion is a hundred million, instead of a thousand million (presumably to distinguish top millionaires from the riffraff). But that’s not the case here. A trillion is a one followed by 12 zeros, so in 2009, US non-profits’ expenses were 1,890,000,000,000 dollars.

And that’s just the USA. We could safely double it for worldwide non-profits, and still be well below the actual figure. To be conservative, let’s say 3 trillion of our dollars each year goes on the kinds of projects that non-profits are allowed to do (essentially, making the world a better place). Think what you could do with just one million dollars. Now think of that times three million! Or imagine if three million people went out into the world, each with a million dollars to spend on projects beneficial to the community. Every year!

Of course it wouldn’t work. Most of them would get a mansion, go on a cruise, buy a fancy car. I know. But that’s not the point. That’s how much money non-profits have. What the hell have they done with all our money? They sure didn’t make the world a better place in even one year, never mind the fact that they get this every year.

In most places where poverty and malnutrition is rife, two thousand dollars a year per family would be more than enough to enable people to sort out whatever problems they have and convert their local community to abundance over three years. Most people aren’t aware of this, but we permies are. Three trillion divided by two thousand is one and a half billion. There are about that many families on earth. And not all of them are poor. The big orgs are handling enough money to solve all the problems, but they aren’t doing it.

The people we allow to manage ‘aid’ for us are (to be polite) inept and we need to bypass them, urgently. DirectSponsor.org is like a proof of concept, and our aim is to prove that a better way is possible, by doing it.

I’ve written a lot (maybe too much) about it below, but if you like you can skip the rest and go to the Direct Sponsor Website. What we need is some clued-in permies to start the project in Kenya or Morocco off. The online system isn’t complete yet, so we need beta testers. The on the ground system is up and running, and a project has started in Kenya where Badilisha PRI center has identified 12 local families who will convert their land to permaculture with the help of Evans and his staff there. One family is already being sponsored.

In Morocco we have received 33,000 euros to build a school and permaculture center, and to start off the restoration of an arid valley. The rest will be done by directly sponsoring the local people to convert their land.

The online sign-up system has some kinks that need ironing out, but you could bypass that altogether and just contact me, so I can talk you through it. The main priority is to get the people sponsored and the project up and running. Then we will have something real on the website with which to attract others.

Permaculture Design in Systems

When we look at a piece of land with a view to making a permaculture design for it, we first look at what is there already. We take into account climate, local geography and geology, local communities, plants, water flows and so on. Then we consider what we need for ourselves; food, shelter, water, etc. The design we make is a fusion of those things, done in a way that enhances all of them rather than just trying to balance advantages against disadvantages. We leave behind all the bad habits we learned from conventional agriculture, and the end result is a robust system that can provide for all our needs indefinitely and independently.

We can apply the permaculture principles to anything. So I decided to apply them to fundraising, because that has been a major problem for me for years. How can I accept funding when the strings that are attached to it prevent me from following permaculture principles? (Incidentally, that isn’t a dogma; in the old days it was called common sense, but the sense isn’t so common any more so we have to re-learn it, and how many people would attend a course in common sense?)

One funding body I was investigating was into ‘Green Education’ in a big way. Discussions went well until I suggested that the school we were building could use food from the permaculture plot to make their school dinners. The children would grow and gather food, then make it into a meal, every day, cool!

“…Oh, no, that would constitute accounting fraud”, my green education friends said. (This really happened!)

At first I thought of a couple of ways to get around this, one of which was to have the permaculture plot pay the school to help grow the food, and then the school pay back the money for the dinners. But then I thought, what are we teaching the kids by doing this? And if I have to do this before we even start, is there really any point in cooperating with people who insist on stuff like this? I may as well work in a bank.

No, we need to look at funding in the same way as we look at the permaculture plot. What do we have in the idea of ‘charity’? We have people with money to spare in some places, and people who need some money to get them started in others. That’s all it is at the base level. In fact, further than that, below the money level, all we have is love. People see something bad happening to someone, somewhere in the world and they care, and they want to do something about it.

All the aid projects, no matter who appears to be funding them (UN, Oxfam, etc.) are funded by people, who allow it to happen through care. Big corporations take a percentage of our money when we buy their stuff, and spend it on ‘aid projects’ because they want their customers to think that they are ‘socially responsible’, i.e. care. Governments give a proportion of our tax money and are allowed to do so because we care. Charities are given money directly by individuals. Ultimately it is love that drives this, and that love rarely, if ever, makes it through the bureaucracy to the recipient. If they’re really lucky, they might get some money, but usually they get something like a community center and a lot of rules. An affluent and healthy community can build whatever they like, whenever they like, so the trick is to concentrate on what makes a healthy community, so that they can do what they want.

So how do we take the care of the donors and get the help — in the most efficient way possible — to the people who need it, without doing any harm to the recipients, and without losing the essential humanity? Like all truth, the answer is simple — not necessarily easy, but simple nonetheless. The first requirement is that the people sending the money can be directly in touch with their recipient. Not with some aggregated mass of recipients, a category of ‘poor people’ or ‘AIDS victims’, but with people. A real person, a real family. That’s what humans relate to. And they need to be able, if they wish, to take their involvement beyond just money. One flaw in the present system is that it’s not in the interests of those running it to encourage donors to get involved beyond the fundraising. If you’re paying someone to do something for you, the last thing they are likely to do is show you how to do it yourself.

We need a system whereby people can send money directly to those who need it, cutting out all the middlemen. The donors need to see that their money is getting to the recipient and is being used for what they said it would be used for, and the recipient needs to be able to do what they said they would do, and to communicate with their sponsors. Direct Sponsor fulfills those needs with the maximum efficiency, because it is in itself a permaculture design.

We have found the cheapest way to send the money over and can help sponsors to set that up. We provide a weblog with video for each recipient, which they update regularly to show progress. There is also a web forum for each recipient, in which the sponsors and recipients can discuss things. Sponsors can have direct contact via email, as well as phone and post if they want to. It’s quite possible that your next holiday could be the most interesting one you ever had. We’re no longer talking about charity here, just friends helping each other out.

Direct Sponsor keeps track of all the money, and the full accounts (not just the annual summary), down to the last detail, are available online, publicly. All that is missing is identities of sponsors, who are identified by their chosen username. We don’t even need to know your real name if you don’t want to give it.

Scalability

We’re also responsible for seeing that the recipients are part of, and benefit from, a wider project, such as a watershed restoration. It’s necessary that recipients are grouped together because this is the only way they can afford a permaculture teacher. Also the more permaculture is going on around them, the better it is for them. This project need not be small and insignificant. It can be a village area like Igourdane, our pilot project in Morocco, or it can be the whole of North Africa, or both and anything in between. The only difference is the number of people involved. The big charities have hundreds of thousands of members, maybe even millions. If we built up the number of donors to anything comparable to a big charity, we would have projects that far exceed the dubious successes claimed by those big orgs. The difference would be visible from space! Seriously, it would.

Permaculture doesn’t need wide-scale organization at a national level. If people are aware of the principles, and apply them locally, the next level up takes care of itself. Thus, if we had 12,000 sponsors, it would mean 1,000 families in a large area all doing permaculture, and being funded to the tune of €120,000 a month. This is a Big Project in anyone’s book, yet it requires no more bureaucracy, it’s simply a repetition of the smaller projects. People doing such work would not need an expert to understand the larger project they are part of, it would be obvious to them. In fact it would probably baffle most experts!

This system works at any level, it could be described as fractal. We can convert one small valley or a whole country like this, there is no need to have a different system when it gets over, say, 1,000 sponsors, to what we have with only 20 sponsors. Likewise, if we can do one watershed using permaculture, we can do the entire Sahara. It’s no more difficult, it’s just a matter of people, and there is no shortage of people in the world!

So what’s the problem? The people are too caught up in the current system to be able to switch to another one immediately. Most ‘aid’ is focussed on helping people to get by in the current system. If the current system wasn’t doomed, there might be some merit in that. No, the people need to be freed from their current harmful activities, which they depend on for survival, for a long enough time to enable them to learn and develop permaculture systems. Through Direct Sponsor you can make this happen. (You can make it happen without us, we just think it would be easier to use our system.) Your recipients move from survival to abundance in three years.

Fear Vs. Love

Conventional funding bodies using conventional methods of ‘aiding’ are accustomed to having a huge degree of control over the project. They see themselves as essential, and believe that if they did not enforce Organization Policies, chaos would ensue. Fraud and corruption would be rife. So they spend as much as 90% of the money on making sure. More would probably get through using the Mafia!

Offices, advertising, experts, overseers, insurance, accountants, executives, researchers, grant writers — a bewildering bureaucracy supposedly there to ensure the efficiency of the operation and to make sure the money gets to where it was intended to go. Any sane outside observer would see that these organizations are driven by fear. Fear of failure, fear of losing control, and most of all fear of the people they are supposedly helping. Freed from this kind of mental restriction we will be free to pursue our objectives without fear. Fear is the opposite of love and is what all bad things in our world are rooted in.

In the Direct Sponsor design, each individual recipient is answerable to their own 12 (or so) sponsors. It’s in their interest to cooperate with the others in their local project because if they do not, they won’t benefit from converting to permaculture. They will make no progress and their funders will stop funding them. This is just the way things are; there’s no need to make up a set of regulations for people to blindly follow. But that isn’t what it’s about. That’s fear-based thinking. We don’t want to restrict people.

By becoming a sponsor you open up boundless possibilities, not just for your recipient but for yourself as well. You are actively taking part in making a change happen. You’re transferring money (power) from a fear-based economy to a love-based one. Not entirely, but it’s a big first step. I tried to keep this in a left-brained perspective because that’s what people are used to, but really it isn’t something the left brain can fully grasp. (If you don’t get this paragraph, just ignore it and send money anyway, it will be fine!)

The normal way to herd the peasants is to impose a hierarchy on them. A local area would have a co-ordinator, and a region would have another, higher level officer. Then perhaps a national office above that. The money filters down the system, with each level exercising their influence and power, because they handle the money and pass it down the line. Each level up has more power and a wider vision of the scope of the project. At the bottom, the peasants just do as they are told to get the money (consultation with the local community!). More often than not, this power is abused. At best, the hierarchy is an enormous financial burden on the donors.

In our design, the people at the ‘bottom’ get the money, and they pay for any ‘services’ needed. Nobody knows better than them what they need. The coordinators’ normal power role is reversed. They are employed by the people. A teacher doesn’t run a permaculture center and get funding based on promises to do certain things, then hand out favors to the people; the teacher is directly paid by the people and is not superior to them.

In reality it will be a lot more cooperative than that, because the design of the system makes competitive behavior redundant. There is no prospect of ‘promotion’ for anyone. A recipient farmer might become a coordinator, but they will receive the same amount of money, and do the same amount of work. People who seek to gain power over others will not be attracted to the roles this design offers, just like ‘pests’ are not attracted to a well-designed permaculture plot. People will still be able to be local heroes, if they like, but they can do so only by virtue of what they actually do for their community, like in the traditional gift economy, and not by tapping into a flow of money and being good at strutting around looking important.

Practicalities

We are starting with two pilot projects. One in Kenya and one in Morocco. Between them they show some of the possibilities we could realize with the Direct Sponsor idea.

Kenya

In Kenya we have a PRI Center called Badilisha Eco-village. It’s run by a permaculture teacher called Evans Odula. Sponsors will sponsor a family near the center, and Evans will help them to make a permaculture design on their land, providing mentoring and support until they are self-sufficient. We estimate this will take two to three years. The sponsorship money will provide a subsidy to tide them over for losses in income during the conversion, as well as pay for Evans’ teaching and support. In turn, this income will help Evans to maintain the permaculture school and other things at Badilisha.

We have twelve local families ready and eager to start, one of whom is already sponsored. Not only are we solving the long-term security of those families, we’re helping Evans to spread permaculture in his local area and supporting the Eco-village project too. Each family can go on to teach others, so that thing grows organically.

Morocco

In Morocco we have an example of how small projects can make bigger ones. We have a plot of land in the mountains, close to a small valley which we will restore using permaculture design principles. The idea is that once we have that one valley done, we will spread the idea to neighboring valleys, and eventually to the entire Sahara. Initially we have a coordinator there to follow up on contacts we have made in Universities, local government forestry and agriculture departments, and others who can make it easier for the project to happen.

The co-ordinator is recruiting local families to be sponsored to convert to permaculture and to start tree nurseries prior to the main valley project. A school for local children who currently have to walk up to 8km each way, and a permaculture center which will be part of the PRI’s Permaculture Centers Worldwide initiative are both paid for and should be ready by the Spring.

We have a qualified Moroccan teacher available and ready to start the designs, and are planning a second PDC Certificate course there with an emphasis on earthworks. Sponsors of this project will benefit from being involved right at the start.

Using Direct Sponsor, you’ll be able to contribute ideas and energy if you want to , not just the money. Each recipient will know that they have a group of about 12 sponsors who care about the project they are embarking on, and the moral support from that will be huge. For those who don’t want to make a regular commitment we have one-off projects tied to the existing sponsored projects. For example there is a fund to make a borehole in Igourdane to provide clean drinking water until the permaculture project is complete. People can contribute to this and similar one-off projects whenever they like. You don’t support Direct Sponsor, instead you support your own recipient or project directly, using the Direct Sponsor System.

Einstein’s definition of stupidity is to keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting a different result. If you would like to do something different, visit directsponsor.org. If you have any questions, ideas or misgivings from the above, please use the comment section below.

Further Reading:

8 Responses to “Love Vs. Fear”

  1. Natasha Turner

    This sounds very promising. I was part of a direct-sponsor project in Haiti for a while, and it was really nice to get to have personal contact with (video/emails) with the person I was sponsoring. I really enjoyed that personal touch.

    Reply
  2. Gordon

    Andy, this is a fantastic idea.

    I have worked in international conservation development aid for 25 years with clients ranging from very small community NGOs to the World Bank and fully support your critique of foreign aid (whether from international NGOs or bilateral or multilateral aid agencies) – and could add a whole raft of additional drawbacks of the conventional approach.

    My “solution” to these issues has been to focus on working with / mentoring individuals and small organisations, even while being employed within larger projects; and, now that I’m retired, to work with individuals on their personal projects in fields where I can contribute meaningful and informed inputs. Your project seems to be providing opportunities for people to do pretty much just that.

    Only two things come to mind that I think you might not have addressed, so far as I can see from your description of the project:

    First, and pretty obvious, is language. How are the recipients going to communicate with the sponsors? In most non-English-speaking countries people who can speak English tend not to be those in rural communities who need aid. I’m saying English because I suspect most of your sponsor “audience” is English-speaking.

    Second, and I think much more important, is the question of whether you are going to address the problem that most of us in the richer countries have little idea of the issues and pressures faced by the people and communities who will be the recipients. If you are going to facilitate a meaningful dialogue between sponsors and recipients there needs to be quite some depth of appreciation of the social, economic and political situation within which recipients exist.

    One of the major factors behind the failure of conventional foreign aid is the extreme lack of understanding on the part of project planners, managers, advisors, and evaluators of the context within which the project is implemented. In my experience this is often the major factor, and is certainly the most unrecognised one – foreign “experts” are not going to admit (or even recognise) that they don’t have this understanding.

    Overcoming this would significantly enhance the benefits from your project in many ways, not least through the increased level of understanding of the context within which poor people in developing countries live. It will also enrich the discussion between recipients and sponsors, while at the same time avoid misunderstandings about the actions taken / not taken, and about the nature of outcomes achieved.

    I am interested to hear how you might address this in the interests of informed and non-judgmental dialogue?

    From what I’ve seen here I’m definitely keen to be involved in this.

    Much strength to you.

    Reply
  3. Andy

    Thanks for your comment Natasha. Could you tell me more about this project, it sounds like the kind of thing I should look into. I’ve been trying to find things like that!

    Reply
  4. Andy

    Hi Gordon

    Thanks for the questions. They’re things we definitely need to look into more as things go forward.

    At this stage we are just working with people who already speak english or we have people to help with communication who are from the place. In Kenya they speak english already. Our place in Morocco is in an area where few speak english, about 50% french, about 80% arabic and they all use tamazight. Using video makes it easier for it to still be somewhat direct for the sponsors as well. It will be a problem though, particularly because we want to focus more on remote communities.

    In some ways the Morocco thing might not be an ideal pilot project, because it is very remote and difficult, but on the other hand, it’s ideal for the same reason. A steep but worthwhile learning curve. Kenya is perfect because everything is already in place, so I’d recommend Kenya unless someone wants to be involved in something cutting-edge.

    Danger and opportunity are the same word in Chinese (or so I am told), and in this case I can see how that would apply. I think it’s a great opportunity for people to get as close as possible to a first-hand view.

    When I lived in Brighton there was an infoshop and fundraising place in the next street, called the Native American Educational Trust. Like all my friends I assumed it was raising money to educate native americans. Haha, no it was to educate us about them! I see the direct sponsorship as being a similar thing. It’s a way people can learn about other cultures without the filters that usually are in place. I’m not sure how it will go when it gets bigger, but for now we can be personally involved in all projects, and make sure the communication lines are good.

    By having normal people as sponsors, I think there is a better chance of an educational two-way exchange, and an entirely voluntary relationship. The downside (?) of distributing power is a lack of ability to control everything. Things can go wrong, but they go wrong anyway, no matter how much we try to control them, so the control thing is pointless anyway. The direct sponsor system (the online stuff) can help us to identify where things go wrong, and help to sort them out. Ultimately though, there are 12 people sponsoring a family, and all we are is a system for them to use. It’s not even an online community, it’s a real community using the internet. So people will have local coordinators and the web team and all the teachers to call on, as well as whatever skills and knowledge the sponsors bring in.

    As things are, we’re led to beieve that we’re incompetent to help out, all we can do is send money. All the work has to be done by experts. With direct sponsorship, each sponsor who wants to can find out what their own unique experience and background can contribute, and introduce their own ideas of how to do whatever it is.

    I was lucky in Morocco to get some really good friends early on. I learnt from that what kind of people to approach. Most people are quite capable of doing amazing things, all they need is the opportunity and support. We need people who genuinely want to make things better for their community, and it’s actually quite easy to find them, because they are in the majority. We often assume everyone is waiting to rip us off, because those are the kinds of people we attract by walking around with fancy computers and staying in hotels.

    If I had done it the usual way I’d never have met the people I did meet, and none of these ideas would have come about. From this learned that failure and success are not opposites; failure’s a part of success, and the opposite of success is never having tried. What seemed like failure was actually crucial to move closer to the original goal, which we get diverted from by money. It’s not positive thinking, it’s something else…

    For the planning and advisors problem; I want to find ways to replace the usual solutions which involve control. It’s alleviated to some extent by having permaculture teachers who are employed by the local people. The people are in charge of their project, and work with the teacher, not the other way round. Everything else follows when a natural human relationship takes over. There isn’t a need for a lot of outside interference. The teacher is an intermediary as well, through whom the sponsors can be reassured that their money is being used effectively, backing up what’s seen in the videos and other communications.

    The main focus is on each family’s land, with the overall landscape in mind as well. The teacher just does the same as they do in any other design job they have. If the recipient is not happy they can go back to what they were doing before. The sponsors’ money is just to provide the opportunity. We don’t think anyone would go back after learning and doing permaculture for three years, but they might. When people send money to a big org they think they are seucre in the knowledge that it will produce success. They’re wrong, and if I try to give th eimpression that I can control the future, that’s wrong too.

    There really isn’t a way around this without going down the road of the mainstream organizations. If sponsors give up personal responsibility and hand it over to someone else, they also hand over their power to that person. History is a chronicle of what happens when people do that. If we never learn to work together without rulers we will never work together without rulers. It’s the only kind of working together I’m interested in. I reckon if I do what I can to put things into the system to help people overcome their own problems, then I’ve done all I can and it’s up to others.. Some may not overcome them, but that’s no reason to make a system where no-one ever gets that opportunity anywhere, just to preserve a corporate reputation. DS doesn’t matter, the sponsors and recipients matter.

    The really great thing for the teacher is that instead of having just one little plot of land to design for, they can go beyond it and heal things that normally would be ‘someone else’s land’ they can do nothing about. In Morocco, 12 families is the entire watershed. Another thing is that the teacher can focus entirely on permaculture design. No need to take into account any grant impositions, they can design for the land and people without any nonsense.

    That’s all I can think of for now, but these are things I’d love to discuss further, with anyone.

    Reply
  5. Gordon

    Andy, thanks for your long and thoughtful reply. I guess what you are saying is, in short, we’ll have to see how it works out in practice, but the possibilities are there for a two-way learning process. Sounds exciting.

    One thing I forgot to say in my first comment is that I see you are, through the sponsorships, covering the recipients economic risks while they try out and adapt the new methods. This is fantastic.

    Too often in aid projects farmers are characterised as being too conservative, too risk-averse, not entrepreneurial enough. For aid workers to voice such comments is plain stupidity. A moment’s short reflection on farmers’ “economic models” would make anyone aware that if they take risks with their farming techniques, what they are actually risking is the well being of themselves and their families. What responsible person would not be risk-averse in such a situation? But, as a result of this blindness on the part of aid workers, project activities are often re-directed to the most entrepreneurial and the richest of the farming community, leaving the people who most need the help to their own devices.

    Getting an aid project to provide funds to cover livelihood risk by those persuaded to adopt new techniques is like trying to get blood out of a stone. It is so rare that one could say it doesn’t happen.

    Good for you for seeing this aspect of the work and responding to it.

    Reply
  6. Andy

    You put it much better than I can. Shame you’re not in the local LETS then I could hire you as a writer! Originally I wanted to abandon all the new tactics and do a market stall locally, try to get people that way. Just to start it off. I think it would be best suited to word of mouth advertising than the ways commonly used now, but it needs a kick start without creating dependencies. That’s something I’m having trouble with.

    All I know is that when the road starts to get covered in crocodile crap I’m going the wrong way. Trouble is, we’ve got people waiting and into the idea in an ideal place (Badilisha) and so I have to push.

    As to being risk-averse, that’s it exactly. I don’t have vast ‘in-the-field’ experience, but the people I have met have mostly been victims of badly planned (I hope!) projects already, where millions were wasted. They don’t trust us anyway, unless they get to see the money this time. It’s entirely understandable. They saw a small number of people enriched but they got nothing.

    Reply

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