Tuesday, September 14, 2010

On Aid and Development

Since I've been home, I've listened to two "Speaking of Faith" episodes that reflect heavily my feelings about aid in the developing world. One thing that Peace Corps Volunteers learn really quickly is that there is good aid and there is bad aid. Good aid is helping people in developing countries to make sustainable progress towards their development goals For example, what we do, bringing in a native English speaker to teach and to help teachers to improve over a 6 year time period. Bad aid is the quick fix, where money is thrown at a problem, buildings are built, and the aid is finished. For example, Project Play Africa, who raised funds to bring a shipping can full of soccer balls to Benin, not assessing need, and with no long-term goals or implications. Sure, people loved getting free soccer balls, who wouldn't, but as soon as Project Play left, the volunteers on the ground to teach English, help businesses, and improve health and sanitation, were fielding more requests for free balls than for help in any of our own work. Who doesn't want a free ball? By helping students and teachers, we are hopefully encouraging improvement in English education. By dumping balls in Africa, they're getting lots of smiles, warm fuzzy feelings, and wasting hundreds of dollars.

In the episode, "A Different Kind of Capitalism," Krista Tippet interviews Jacqueline Novograts about her Acumen Fund, which encourages donors to invest money into projects. Investors don't get returns, but rather, returns are reinvested. Ms. Novograts very aptly point out that if a present is given to someone, they'll fuss over it, even if they don't like it. They'll bring it out and put it on the mantel when you come by, and put it back into storage when you're not around. I see a lot of presents in Africa, things that say "From the American People," the Danes, the EU, and others, that are not in use. This could be something as simple as a broken water pump or a locked up and unused outhouse. Surely, when the donors come to see their work, they spruce things up, and make a big scene, but as soon as they leave, these things go back into disuse.

This was especially present at the Catholic Mission in my village. The church had received money to construct a library and formation houses from Italy. They built beautiful buildings and neither of them are really used. The Italians get a warm feeling, and the local Catholics, a sense of pride that things were built, but for what?

Novograts invests money in companies and then sends international consultants to help them to develop plans, and they end up being more successful and even creating jobs. In my time in Benin I've seen various international projects come and go. People get jobs with NGOs, but as soon as these projects are finished, they're out of a job again. Meanwhile telecommunication companies and transportation companies are managing to grow quickly in West-Africa and bringing a lot of jobs along to accompany them. Capitalism is really not a bad thing for Benin. Anyway, listen to this conversation at Speaking of Faith

The second speaking of faith episode was called the Ethics of Aid. It was an interview with a rather pretentious Kenyan, Binyayanga Wainaina. He's a well known author and columnist. He talked a lot about the face of Africa presented in America. He comments that NGOs find pictures of the poorest, hungriest, dirtiest children to help raise money for their projects. In his satirical essay, "How to Write About Africa," he advises:
And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the 'real Africa', and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West.
I think this really runs in tandem with the Novograts episode. Africans don't really need pity money, they need investment and good, sustainable aid. Aid that comes from honest, dedicated, and long term relationships between the developed and developing worlds. He talks about how, contrary to the previous paragraphs that I've written, the Catholic Church does a lot better job than other organisations because they are more permanent and on the ground. They have a strong sense of the needs of the community, because they live in the community. If we really want to help we need to be on the ground, living every day life with the host country, and constantly reassessing needs.

Anyway, both of these programs are worth a listen. They're very reflective of my view of development. Check it out.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Some Videos

Some of my favourite students talking about life in Benin. Ignore my atrocious villegoise accent.

Bariba Dancers