Meandering again

It’s been a while…. Lots of things happening professionally, personally, all across the board, it’s been a rather eventful Spring. Except it’s not *really* Spring here in Vancouver – the weather gods have been particularly ungenerous, save for the few nice days that they kindly (and I’m pretty sure begrudgingly) bestowed upon us. 

In any case, my Google Reader is finally under control – reading (or skimming through…) the 1000+ articles that have been accumulating in there, in addition to catching up on all the reading and informing myself I have failed to do in recent times was a bit daunting, but here I am again, ready to contribute. 

Before diving back into my favorite topics, I think a Niapele update is in order. 

For the past 9 months or so – basically since the financial crisis and the resulting meltdown occured – we have seen a sharp drop in donations. Truth be told, this also coincided with Celina, my co-director, and myself getting full time jobs (girl’s gotta eat!), and we weren’t fully prepared to cope with dwindling spontaneous donations. In spite of our success as a small start-up organization (feeding 100s of kids for a school year… providing for 20+ abandoned children for nearly 2 years….. supporting a small organization for handicapped children…), we have been struggling to mobilize the funding that we would need to make all of the aforementioned projects true successes.

For instance, the School Nutrition Initiative which we ran during the 2007-2008 school year – we served daily meals to over 600 kids and 30 staff and teachers at the only tuition free school in the Buduburam refugee camp. [Note: After more than 2 years being involved in this project, I have yet to wrap my mind around the concept of private, costly education in a refugee camp as the “best” alternative for schooling for refugee children.] The program cost about $2,000 per month, including salaries of kitchen staff, and had start up costs of about the same amount (pots, utensils, stoves, renovations to the cafeteria space which we rented….). Over the course of the school year, we worked in close cooperation with the Carolyn A. Miller School, its donors and supporters, as well as with an incredible, dedicated Ghanaian nutritionist, Adam Sandow, to develop, implement and continually refine the School Nutrition Initiative. The program delivered positive results, which you can read about here.

Now, we are trying to recreate this same initiative in Liberia, where our partner, the Carolyn Miller School, is now operating out of. While a refugee camp setting was a challenging environment for us to succeed in, Liberia is a whole different story – essentially demolished by the war, Liberia is still reeling. And despite advances on many fronts, there are still some core challenges that need to be seriously taken on. Our very own – and very brave – Megan Sullivan just arrived in Monrovia to act as our Country Director, and assist our Program Manger, Henry Snyder. We are really hopeful that, with her presence, we’ll be making strides towards improving the sustainability of our partner organizations – as well as our own. 

Raising funds for the School Nutrition Initiative in Monrovia is a priority for us at this point. We’ve carried out a needs assessment exercice at the school, and we drew up a budget with them – for $2500, we can restart the program. That’s probably something we can achieve in the next couple of months – however, what’s much, much more difficult is to secure the funding to actually run the program every day of every week…. We feel that starting up the program without the guarantee of funding to make it last would be suboptimal – that goes against our principle of sustainability, and would be devastating for the school, and its students. 

So Megan is initiating a series of meetings with donor organizations and agencies at the country level – hopefully, we will be able to secure the support of a reliable funding partner for our activities. The model is simple and replicable, and by cutting costs and having a lean operation, you can feed A LOT of children, all the while stimulating the local economy by purchasing from local food producers, by employing staff for to run the program. That’s really the beauty of working at the grassroots level, with community-based organizations – with relatively small amounts of money, you can have a significant impact. 

One of my favorite new blogs, Aid Watch, ran a piece (a post?) about aid effectiveness in Nepal – excerpt:


Doing an inventory of small NGOs working in the various districts, then giving out small amounts of funding ($10,000-$20,000 a year) probably gets the most done. Skip the audits and heavy-duty report writing and verify with a small team equipped with a camera. A picture is worth a thousand words (or reports) it’s there or it isn’t and the camera tells you. NGOs with barely enough budget to survive have little motivation and opportunity to corrupt the process. They are community members themselves and the community can police its own quite effectively. Nearly anyone living in a small community in Nepal can tell you in short order who is working for the good of the community and who is lining their own pockets. Snap photos, ask the locals and you’ll know for sure that your aid dollars did something.

I feel confident about Niapele’s ability to make a difference – with Megan in Liberia, I have a renewed sense of optimism. Celina and I are also going to continue finding new ways to raise funds, and, in an effort to be transparent, I’ll be posting updates about our progress. In fact, this is part of our broader attempt to revive our online presence as an organization – new Facebook public profile, new Twitter account, and a new resolve to make things happen.

 

For those who might have missed it, here is the video that Ayoka Productions made for us last year:

 

Random Thoughts

Riots in Senegal over food prices turn ugly – and in Cote d’Ivoire as well.

I just wrote about the potential unrest soaring food prices could cause… Funny how it works. I have to say, I think IRIN is particularly fond of this particular topic, and reports on it quite often. Nonetheless, I really do believe that food insecurity can cause tremendous damage – not just because of its obvious consequence (food is less affordable, particularly for the poorest), but also because, as we see in above examples, the tensions it can create between the authorities and civil society can be damaging. I’m curious to see how this issue will be addressed in months and years to come…. Anyway….

I’m leaving for Ghana tomorrow, and I’m really looking forward to being there. With all that’s being going on, I’m eager to see our friends and the people we work with, and get a better sense of the reality of the situation. I’m also looking forward to meeting all the new people I have been corresponding/working with over the past few weeks, and seeing what kind of long term strategy for engagement with the refugee community we can come up with.


I’ll write some posts from Buduburam – hopefully I will have not just bad or sad news to report. Meanwhile, please feel free to leave comments or write me an email with comments, feedback, ideas…. We’re going to be shooting a promo video for Niapele with my friend Val, who has just started her own organization, Ayoka Productions. We’ll try and get some footage that we can use for advocacy purposes as well – in light of recent events, it seems clear that we have a role to play in offering this community a voice, a channel to express themselves.


On this note, I’ll leave you with my favorite passage from the latest Secretary General’s Report on the United Nations Mission to Liberia (UNMIL), which was made public on March 19th:


54. Although the humanitarian situation in Liberia has continued to improve, the
country still faces serious challenges, particularly in the health, education, food, and
water and sanitation sectors. So far only 62 per cent of the $110 million needed to address the high priority humanitarian needs outlined in the Common Humanitarian Action Plan, including the delivery of basic social services, the provision of productive livelihoods for returnee communities and the strengthening of civil society and local authorities, has been received. During the reporting period, UNMIL organized a number of medical outreach activities, which provided medical treatment for some 24,000 patients.
55. During the period under review, UNHCR conducted a post-voluntary repatriation verification exercise, which revealed that 75,509 registered Liberian refugees are still residing in various countries in the subregion. There are also 10,327 refugees from Sierra Leone, Côte d’Ivoire and other countries residing in Liberia. The United Nations, in collaboration with the Economic Community of West African States and the Government of Liberia, is trying to find durable solutions for the integration of Sierra Leonean refugees in Liberia. The successful reintegration of returnees into communities continues to be a major challenge.

Sunset near the ARCH house, at the edge of Buduburam – August 2007