International aid and “development” can be confusing. Who are we “helping” and what are we trying to develop? Why do they need help? How much of its GDP does a country reserve for international aid? What is the rationale for which countries receive funding? Who are the beneficiaries and why are they selected? How do we measure if they actually benefit from the “aid”? How are both parties made accountable? How is the “change” achieved by the “development” sustained?

We can get lost in these questions and the terminology itself. Starting with “development”. Many people have a problem with this word because of the assumption that the communities and nations you are trying to “help” do not measure up to first-world standards. Yes, when it comes to infrastructure, you can apply this term without qualitative, assumptive judgments. A road has too many potholes? No sanitation facilities? Yes, that is not developed and they can be fixed. But when it comes to community relations, how do you go in and “help” and community to “develop?” Whose standards do you apply? What are you trying to achieve?

In the past decade or so, especially after the latest recession hit in 2008, both government and the development community, including Canada, have awakened to the need for increased accountability. Which means international donors (people who grant money to both government and civil society organizations) want to see numbers and budgets. How many people did you help? How do you know you helped them? As development efforts are not always tangible, like a skills training course (you can measure how many people graduate and become employed, versus a conflict resolution course- how can you measure direct benefits in that situation?) it can be challenging to measure these more qualitative efforts.

And more importantly, the reality is that the “help” usually manifests in “change” often only evident in tiny, incremental and less obvious, tangible ways.

To this end, since I arrived here, I have been collecting individual stories from people who have benefited from the non-governmental organization I work with- Youth Opportunities Unlimited (I am here via Cuso International) . YOU is primarily an NGO that provides mentoring to unattached, inner-city youth who come from violent and crime-ridden communities in which unemployment levels are often close to 75 per cent, at least among the youth. I have heard firsthand, however, how YOU has gone into these communities and provided mentoring services and other programs (for example, parenting and life skills workshops and conflict resolution courses) that have had real and lasting effects on troubled communities.

Youth Opportunities Unlimited has worked in Kingston’s inner-city communities for over two decades. It was founded in response to an outburst of gang activity in these communities and is based on the premise of mentoring. To be specific, YOU’s mission and vision focus on the relationship cultivated through the mentoring relationship. Through regular contact with adult role models, the youth build self-esteem and learn how to behave in a work environment. The ultimate goal is to mould youth to become productive, positive members of society. As YOU’s tagline goes, “Developing our youth, building our nation.”

To get a sense of what YOU has achieved, please read on and also visit our Youtube page, where there are testimonials from “beneficiaries.” YOU has changed lives and communities for the better. Let these people tell you about it in their own words.

Navada Smith: 
“The program helped me, taught me discipline and how to plan…I learned a lot of things, like how to be organized, how to plan and how to deal with children.”

Arlene Bailey:
“I garnered so much self-esteem…I was in a bad state. (YOU) allow mi fi blossom. Someone with a troubled past tends to be arrogant, but I have been polished a lot.”

Randy McLaren:
“The program gave me a strong platform to help people, to help others and share with others….I learned that we can make suggestions, but to this day, I never tell anyone what to do. It always boils down to the individual.”

Sheryl Hamilton:
“Before, I didn’t think I was being the parent that I ought to be…YOU is an excellent program, especially the parenting workshops. They send parenting skills in a whole new direction that is positive. And I have seen the youth look in positive directions, and this helps to stimulate other young persons in positive directions. YOU has had a lasting impact.”

Ann Marie Lynch, president of Mountain View Youth Group:

“YOU helped us come up with our parenting group and workshop training. A lot of things we are doing in the community now are based on the training we had. It has formed a strong bond in the community. It gets the people together in Mountain View. People can cross boundaries now that they couldn’t before. Jacques Road youth would never go to Bergher and Jarrett Lane. Since YOU came on board, the youth mixed together.

There has been a great change in violence and crime. There is a reduction. It’s because of the program. For the kids, the mentoring is the greatest thing that they have ever had. When YOU came aboard, there was a lot of violence and now there is less.

Mentors are greatest things in the kids lives, even this morning, people were asking about them, when they were coming back. They still go out with their mentors. Lashannette* went out with her mentor the other day for her birthday.

YOU has had a great impact. Especially for the young men, the mentors acted as a father figure or a big sister for the young women. One young woman’s mother died and she got a mentor who acted as mother figure for her.

YOU had a great impact on Mountain View. We are so sorry the program had to end. We have less teenage pregnancy since YOU was there. The youth looked forward to every Saturday, going to the workshop. They did not have anything to distract them so they did not get into trouble.”

Mentor Marcia Skervin:
“I have been a mentor for close to ten years, the opportunity to change one life has been a life changing experience for me, the wholesomeness that comes with mentoring and moulding young people to find their greatness is very rewarding for me.

The partnership and growth that I have experienced with YOU has also shaped my outlook on social responsibility, through that relationship the impact was phenomenal.

I would encourage more active participations in the mentoring programs if we can change one life, we would be well on our way to social change.”