Zack Nelson is an American YouTuber. On his channel JerryRigEverything, he posts videos of himself testing the durability of smartphones, whose glass screens almost always show “scratches at a level 6, with deeper grooves at a level 7.” He then tears them down to “review them from the inside.”
Aside from his regular technology videos, he also chronicles personal projects, like electrifying an old military Humvee, building an accessible self-watering garden, manufacturing affordable electric wheelchairs, and, most impressively, marrying and starting a family.
Over the past few years, Mr Nelson has also been involved in a few charity projects in Kenya, which are the subjects of some of his most wholesome videos. The first of these came about when fellow YouTuber Daniel Markham funded two classrooms of desks for a poor school on the Kenyan coast, as a wedding gift for Mr Nelson and his wife in mid-2019.
To advance the project, the newlyweds ran an online fundraiser to build sturdy classrooms at the same school and latrines at another one nearby. In early 2020, just before the pandemic shut down international travel, they accompanied the Markham family to Kenya to inaugurate the new buildings.
In 2022, after pandemic-related restrictions were lifted, Mr Nelson was back at it again. Using his YouTube earnings, he funded the construction of a library in western Kenya, and then collected over 34,000 books from his viewers to stock it. This time, his main collaborator was a Kenyan named Philip, a close family friend.
Now, two classrooms, a bunch of desks, pit latrines, and a library won’t educate all the children in Kenya. But for the hundreds, or thousands, who do benefit from these initiatives, they will make a big difference. It will matter to them that they had access to such amenities while growing up.
By his efforts, Mr Nelson has already done more to help the needy than most of us ever will, and he deserves gratitude and congratulations for this. Even more, he deserves emulation, for his initiatives also bear the marks of thoughtful and – I may be stretching things here – sustainable giving. Three aspects especially stand out.
The first is that he did something at all, as did all the people who donated to his projects. He could have rightly pointed out that his government has already sent off a portion of his tax dollars to countries like Kenya as official development aid and then refrained from doing anything himself.
But Mr Nelson knows that unless you work for your government, you don’t have much of a say in where your tax dollars are sent. What’s more, development aid is filtered through massive bureaucracies and diverted by corruption before it touches ground.
This isn’t to say that countries shouldn’t get such aid. For all the challenges, this kind of funding often takes care of crucial needs and has a real impact, as I pointed out, for instance, in my recent article about PEPFAR. Nevertheless, by donating directly to projects of your choosing, you can have a more immediate impact, and the satisfaction of seeing exactly what your contribution does.
Second, Mr Nelson seems to focus on projects that are likely to last a long time but require significant initial investments. A library, once built, will serve not just today’s children, but tomorrow’s as well. The same goes for a well-built classroom and solid wooden desks, which can last for decades with a minimum of maintenance.
Sure, food and other consumables are important. However, providing them to people requires continuous investment to have a meaningful impact. Additionally, they lend themselves most easily to the development of a handout mentality, on the part of both the donor and the recipient. Such expediencies are best left to governments and large non-governmental organisations.
Third, Mr Nelson’s efforts heavily involve local people. In the case of the coastal schools, all the materials and labour were sourced locally. The library, for its part, was handed over to the national library service, which already runs a network of easily accessible libraries across the country, to which it could distribute all the books that were left over as well.
By involving locals, these initiatives are more likely to garner local support, with the effect that they are better taken care of once the initial investment is made.
An extra impact of supporting local-run projects is that most of your money stays in the local economy, in the form of wages and material costs, rather than flowing right back out of the country in the form of expat allowances or laundered proceeds of corruption.
This is in no way a guide on how to support projects in developing countries. Only you can decide whether and how you donate, and there are a million other charitable causes around the world which deserve your attention.
Ultimately, what matters is that you help to the extent that you are able to, for, as a famous carpenter once said, “the poor you always have with you.”