You Think You Know, But You Don’t Know

budu

This is my contribution to Saundra Schimmelpfennig’s “A Day Without Dignity” campaign.

Dave Bidini is a Canadian musician and writer. In 2007, he traveled to a refugee camp in Ghana, home to tens of thousands of mostly Liberian refugees, Buduburam. (That camp happens to be a place where I spent many months working between 2007 and 2008.) While there, he was moved by the struggle of a young singer/musician, Samuel. For years, he kept in touch with Samuel, as the young man tried to pursue a musical career, first in Ghana and then in Liberia. Bidini was in touch with Samuel and Samuel’s uncle Jake, and was speaking on the phone with his protege on a regular basis. Excerpt from his story (worth reading the whole thing, really):

Jake also fled the war, barely surviving on foot as he left Monrovia for peace in Ghana. Jake said that if Samuel was back in Monrovia, he’d probably be a big name. “Dave,” the young singer told me one early morning on the phone. “If only I could get home, I know I could do it. I know this for certain.”

Samuel sent me his record. A demo. Endless tracks of highlife electronica mixed with ebullient female backing singers and Samuel riffing, singing and shouting overtop.

“Dave, can you help me make this record?” he asked me one day. Samuel has been calling me every week for about three years. He used the number I’d given him on my last day at the camp. Uncle Jake also had my number, but he never called. Instead, we emailed back and forth, staying in touch about his organization — the Liberian Dance Troupe — which he hoped to continue despite relocating to Monrovia in 2009, which was when everyone in camp was supposed to return to Liberia, part of the Accra mayor’s initiative to close the settlement and declare it a success on his watch. Some left, but some didn’t. Some stayed, squatting on the grounds. Samuel was one of those who couldn’t go home, at least not yet.

“I have no family,” he told me. “No mother, no father. All of my family was killed in the war. When I left for Accra, the boat was crowded and there were people drowning in the water at my feet. When I return, I want to return with a CD. I want to have a purpose.”

After writing about Samuel and Jake a few years ago, I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders. It made me a little suspicious of Samuel, but I figured that if even a fraction of what he’d described to me was true, it was enough to help him out. Then the phone calls started. One after another, relentlessly. In the middle of the night. Before I knew it, I was making his CD for him.

Ah yes. The White in Shining Armor. Sweeping in to make the African boy’s dreams come true, to lift him out of his misery. Except, it’s not so easy. In spite of having visited the refugee camp for himself, in spite of having met and talked and exchanged with the people he was trying to help, it’s clear to me that Bidini didn’t quite understand what he was getting himself into. For starters, in the quote above, Bidini talks about the “mayor of Accra” wanting to shut down the camp. While I’m sure the mayor of Accra supported the idea of getting rid of the thousands of refugees at Buduburam, he never spearheaded the effort. What lead to a massive repatriation of Liberian refugees in 2008/9 was a crisis between the UNHCR, the Ghanain government (in particular, the Ministry of the Interior) and the Liberian community in Buduburam. Anyway, the point is that Bidini, for all his good intentions and kind-heartedness, and for all his musical talent and knowledge, was not prepared for how this would eventually play out. Another excerpt:

I sent out a message on Facebook, and through it, I met Chris Parsons, who designed the record. He created four or five beautiful images, which I sent to Samuel. But Samuel said they weren’t right. Instead, he wanted an image of himself singing on the cover.

“No one in Liberia will buy a record without a picture of the singer on it,” he told me. I was in no position to argue with him.

Mark Logan of Busted Flat Records in Kitchener, Ont., pressed the CD. Five-hundred of them, for free. When they were done, they looked and sounded beautiful. Samuel now had a record, and, each time he called, I told him, “We’re getting the package ready. You’re going to love it.” Samuel sent us one address, then another, then another. While all of this was going on, Jake told me about his troupe, how they couldn’t afford studio space, which would double as a classroom where kids would learn about art and history and music. He asked for nothing, but it wasn’t long before Facebook yielded another donor, an old friend, Steve Dengler. Steve sent Jake the money, and he wrote to say thanks. Then Jake got on with the business of keeping Liberian culture alive. No phone calls. No requests for more, and more still.

Over the last four years, because of my work in Buduburam and my involvement with the community there, I have received countless emails from people trying to verify someone’s identity in the camp, trying to get a better sense of whether the person they met on a brief tour of the camp, or via an online chat room, was trustworthy. The only thing I’ve ever been able to do when I get these emails is reply with (usually long-winded) honest answers about the reality of life there. For many Liberians in the Buduburam camp, foreigners are seen as an opportunity for a better life. I’ve heard countless stories like Bidini’s (“I sent my work to Jake to make sure what I’d written was accurate. He said it was mostly fine, but that the parts about Samuel were wrong. The singer, he said, still had family back in Liberia, and had embellished his story for sympathetic purposes. Jake told me that some people, like Samuel, make themselves available whenever there are visitors to the camp, and try to make these connections with outsiders.”)

It just isn’t that easy to know who you’re helping, why you’re helping them, and if, in the end, you’re actually having a positive impact, or, on the contrary, contributing to perpetuating an insidious, counter-productive culture of dependency.

I made my share of mistakes at Buduburam, naively trusting the wrong people, so I can very much relate to Bidini’s story. In one particular instance, a teenage boy’s unemployed, depressed mother begged me to pay for her to attend a training program to learn baking. I relented, and agreed, and paid the (relatively) hefty fee for her to attend the program. I met with the director of the program, a fantastic lady named Agnes, a Liberian who had lived in the U.S. and come to Buduburam to be with her family members and help out. Agnes assured me that my friend would really benefit from the program, that this would be a huge boost for her, that I would be helping her become an independent woman. Music to my ears! Following months of training (and costs for me), my friend finished her training, got her diploma and immediately resumed sulking, sitting at home and being depressed about her situation. Years later, I know she has never made any use of her training. I wish so much I had thought this through at the time, and I wish someone could have told me that I was making a mistake.

At some point in my time at Buduburam, I also tried to help out a group of former child soldiers. This happened when the crisis between the Liberian community and the government was at its height, and many were worried (rightfully so) that they would be a target for deportation. These ex-combatants had organized themselves into a small organization, trying to learn skills and generate income to support their rehabilitation. By then, I was already more weary and careful, and I knew there really wasn’t much I could do. I could talk to them, and help them figure out logistics – how could they get a passport, or other form of travel document, putting them in touch with contacts in Togo (nearest border to Accra), etc. I remember sitting in my house at night with these guys, worrying so much that I was doing more harm than good, worrying that I’d make some kind of mistake that would get them in trouble, or worst. They didn’t *really* need me anyway – these guys were some of the most resourceful, cunning people I’ve ever encountered (I guess these are some of the qualities one needs in order to survive a brutal war.)

Back to Dave Bidini and Samuel’s story:

We sent Samuel the records. The phone calls stopped for awhile. After about a month, he called to say that he hadn’t received the records. I asked him why he’d waited so long to tell me, but he had no answer. I told him I’d check the post office, but there was no tracing the delivery. I became angry with Samuel. My wife told me that I was being a jerk for feeling mistreated through all of it. Then Samuel called to say, “Don’t worry about the records, Dave, I have to get back to Liberia. I need $200 for a plane ticket.”

I didn’t know what to think. Was Samuel fabricating a story to get more money out of me? Was a few hundred dollars too much to help a musician who lived in poverty, regardless of the details of his hardship?

I sent Samuel the money. The phone stopped ringing, but then it started again. At 4 a.m. Then 6 a.m. Samuel hadn’t received the money. Someone else, he said, had claimed it. I got angry again, then sad, and now, I’m just tired. Today, Samuel has neither his money nor his CDs. He asked me to send the money again, but I said that I could not. I didn’t have the cash to spare, and I no longer had the will. The phone stopped ringing. Then it started again. It was Samuel. At 4 a.m. Police had stormed Buduburum, he said, and they were running roughshod over the squatters. Samuel asked if could I hear them shouting in the background. It was early. I was exhausted. But yes, I told him, I thought I could.

I really liked Bidini’s column. I welcome his honesty and his willingness to admit failure, which are rare among would-be do-gooders. As an outsider, it’s very hard to know how best to help people. Going into an unknown community, unaware of the social and economic dynamics, one needs to bring along  a good dose of humility, curiosity, understanding and, I’d argue, skepticism. A place like Buduburam is complex. Yes, it’s a refugee camp. But it’s also a refugee camp in Ghana, a particularly dynamic country. Yes, Buduburam is home to thousands of refugees. But many of them were never officially registered with the UNHCR, for a variety of reasons, and cannot avail themselves of the rights in the refugee Conventions. Yes, people are struggling. But it’s also a place of incredible resourcefulness, dynamism and life.

The point I’m trying to make is that even at the individual level, it can be very difficult to know what’s good and what works to help someone lift themselves out of poverty. Even though it may seem obvious, giving a pair of shoes to a shoeless person may not be the best way to help them.

H/T Glenna Gordon, for bringing Bidini’s story to my attention.

Photo credit: Chris Leombruno, Brown Lion Photos

Obama and Africa

Following a G8 meeting where leaders announced a $20 billion commitment to help alleviate hunger and improve food security in the developing world, and a short stop-over in the Vatican to exchange pleasantries with the Pope, Barack Obama traveled to Ghana for his first presidential trip to the African continent.

Obama’s visit generated a wave of enthusiasm across the region, and he was welcomed in Ghana by a huge government delegation, as well as throngs of electrified Ghanaians. Needless to say, the president’s choice of Ghana elicited feelings of national pride for its people and its government – as noted by Cadman Atta Mills, the Ghanaian president’s brother and chairman of the National Economic Advisory board, “Ghanaians have extremely high expectations for this visit. A lot of it is sentimental and personal.” Knowing Accra, I’m sure the vibe there must have been incredible.

In spite of the historical nature of the visit, the speech delivered by Obama didn’t represent any dramatic shifts in the American position toward Africa. Some critics were disappointed that it didn’t represent more of a “shakeup of U.S.-Africa policy”; others lamented that it did not address the tougher issues such as the protection of human rights or how to deal with the continuing tragedies in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Still, l believe that Obama’s speech sent the crucial message-in no uncertain terms-that good governance is key to solving the continent’s chronic underdevelopment issues.

While this position does not represent a departure from previous administrations, who also touted democracy and good governance as fundamental elements of peace and prosperity, I think it’s important to take note of the concrete implications of Obama’s speech and visit.

Obama sends a powerful message by choosing Ghana over Kenya (his father’s homeland), Namibia, Botswana (both stable, democratic countries), South Africa (arguably the continent’s most successful nation), or, most significantly, Nigeria, Ghana’s resource-rich neighbor and the world’s fourth largest nation (and, by the way, also America’s biggest trading partner in sub-Saharan Africa; the U.S. imports about 20 percent of its oil from Nigeria…)

Obama explained that he chose Ghana, a nation of 23 million that has had two peaceful democratic transitions, to “highlight” its adherence to democratic principles and institutions, ensuring the kind of stability that brings prosperity. Nigeria, in contrast, is notorious for its entrenched corruption and chronic lack of effective governance – indeed, in spite of tremendous oil wealth, poverty rates are still alarmingly high (70% of the population fell under the poverty line in 2007.)

His words were quite stern:

“This isn’t just some abstract notion that we’re trying to impose on Africa […] The African continent is a place of extraordinary promise as well as challenges. We’re not going to be able to fulfill those promises unless we see better governance”

“No country is going to create wealth if its leaders exploit the economy to enrich themselves, or police can be bought off by drug traffickers […] No business wants to invest in a place where the government skims 20 percent off the top, or the head of the port authority is corrupt. No person wants to live in a society where the rule of law gives way to the rule of brutality and bribery. That is not democracy, that is tyranny, and now is the time for it to end.”

By “snubbing” Nigeria and pointing to Ghana as an example of good governance in the region, Obama is probably also hoping to signal to the Ghanaian government that he is expecting them not to mismanage the profits from the country’s new-found offshore oil. A well-timed message, as large oil deposits were recently discovered off the coast of Ghana, with production slated to come online in the next couple of years – and along with it, a steep increase in government revenues. There is reason to hope that the country will be stepping up to its responsibilities. Ghana’s energy minister,Joe Oteng-Adjei, recently declared: “We are committed to doing the right thing for investors and for the country … our concern is that we bring in a third party to deliver the synergies that we expect.”

Human Rights Watch recently released a grim report on Equatorial Guinea, reminding us that the “resource curse” is still very much a reality to contend with in Africa:

“Since oil was discovered there in the early 1990s, Equatorial Guinea’s GDP has increased more than 5,000 percent, and the country has become the fourth-largest oil producer in sub-Saharan Africa. At the same time, living standards for the country’s 500,000 people have not substantially improved. Here is a country where people should have the per capita wealth of Spain or Italy, but instead they live in poverty worse than in Afghanistan or Chad.”

Additionally, many countries in Africa face a common challenge of having to address the creation or strengthening of institutions that guarantee the rule of law and enforce respect for the constitutional rights of citizens. Ghana has done well on that front, especially relative to most other countries in the region, and it’s clear to all of Ghana’s neighbors (particularly Nigeria) that to win the favor of the U.S. and its charismatic president, a proactive stance on good governance is necessary.

In spite of Obama’s strong and meaningful message, I don’t think this is a watershed moment in the U.S.-Africa relationship. First off, for all the verbal commitments to being “a friend and a partner every step of the way,” let’s get real about what the current recession implies: a bit of turning inwards for rich countries who will again not deliver the necessary policy changes to really make a difference; the lowering of tariffs for African products; a complete overhaul of agricultural subsidies – these are among some of the critical areas for policy intervention. In this climate of fiscal constraint and tightening credit across the globe, access to finance is also a key issue for African development. Despite their significance for the continent, Obama failed to speak about the aforementioned issues.

Probably because he knows that in one brief (albeit historical) visit, and one speech, one can only deliver so much.

Bono’s assessment is that “presidential attention would be a shot in the arm for these [anti-corruption, rule of law improvement] efforts — an infusion of moral and political amino acids that, by the way, will make aid dollars go further.”

I’d like to believe that a one-day visit to West Africa and a speech before the Ghanaian parliament could truly galvanize country-level efforts in promoting effective democracy. But, at the risk of stretching Bill Easterly’s Man in Charge argument, I think we need to have a humbler understanding of what this speech means for America’s relationship with Africa. Efficiently dealing with issues as varied as corruption, nonexistent infrastructure, protracted conflicts or subpar education, will require significant – if not dramatic – shifts in policy and attitudes. While Bono seems to believe that Obama’s words inevitably produce change, African commentators are (surprisingly?) far more sober in their assessments. An editorial in the South African Daily News notes that “even the most devoted Obama fans are aware of the fact that the first black American president – whom they love to call a ‘son of Africa’ – cannot solve the continent’s many problems.”

I agree with David Rothkopf, who discusses the natural limitations of presidential influence and power: “It’s time recognize that it really does take a big team of empowered leaders to make the complex foreign policy of the U.S. work and evolve in the right directions. It’s time to recognize that it does not reflect badly on the president if we all agree he cannot transform the world single handedly, that however different he may be from his predecessors, that alone is not enough.”

Thinking Back

I miss thisI DO NOT miss this

I’m having some serious computer issues these days, and as I was cleaning up my hard drive, I stumbled upon something I wrote nearly two years ago, after my stint as a volunteer in Buduburam. At the time, I had no idea that CG and I were going to create The Niapele Project and that I would return there soon afterwards.

It’s interesting to see how my perception and understanding of the Liberian community has evolved – my little spiel on religion still holds true, although I’ve come to realize that while religious faith is essential to their “social contract”, it can also act as a hindrance… It’s very complicated to explain without sounding condescending – I’m not sure I can sound anything but – however, I really do believe that blind faith makes people hope and believe in unreal and unsustainable ideas. For instance, relying on God to “provide” sometimes leads to situations where individuals will not proactively seek to better their circumstances, leaving their fate in the hands of a merciful God… who, in the end, may or may not provide.

Karrus Hayes, the founder of Vision Awake Africa for Development, asked me to write this. I’m not sure if he ever ended up using it for anything… Anyway, here are some unfiltered thoughts about the Buduburam refugee camp and its community, from Feb 07:

Simply put, I am humbled by my experience at the Buduburam refugee camp. I have always cared about the fate of those less privileged than myself – that is why, throughout my life, I have tried to give back, share my knowledge and help, as best I could, people less fortunate than I am. My academic studies have been focused on international affairs, and African issues and the fate of that continent have always grabbed my attention. In 2003, I did spend 6 months studying, living and working with the disenfranchised in Cape Town, South Africa. I have also traveled extensively in the developing world, and thought I was mentally, emotionally and intellectually prepared to face the realities of a refugee settlement in Ghana. But none of my experiences prepared me for my time at Buduburam.

The first few days were dizzying. First of all, the Harmattan season was in full swing, and it made it all the more difficult to situate myself, in the physical sense, in this foreign world. Situating myself on the metaphysical level was also incredibly difficult – all of my usual socio-cultural markers were obsolete in this new world, and, in order to be able to fulfill my mission at the school, I was under pressure to quickly adapt. On so many levels, I felt challenged by my surroundings, by the people. Trying to communicate with friends and family at home was difficult, and even when I did manage to speak with them, I knew that they could hardly understand, let alone relate to, the situation at Buduburam. Quickly, I realized that the best way to integrate, or at least to feel more at ease, was to strip away all the layers of difference between me “me” and “them”, and to simply relate on a very basic human level. As difficult as it was, I found that it was only by going beyond the differences that separated us, and focus on our common humanity, that I could create a space for myself in the community. Deep down, we all share the same basic aspirations, the same fears and desires – it is only the way we lead our life which is different. And it is so not by choice, but because of circumstances.

One of the most striking dimensions of the Liberian refugee community is their unwavering, genuine faith in God. Had I been through the traumatic experiences they had been through, I would have found it very difficult to reconcile the horror that the world imposed on me and a belief in an Almighty, profoundly good, God. It was truly an intellectual conundrum for me, as well as the other international volunteers I discussed this with. In my life, I rarely use religious explanations for what is happening to me, or around me. Everything seems mechanistic, guided purely by human desires, whether good or evil. Still now, I find it incredibly difficult to understand this type of religious fervor, but I do respect it. I suppose that, in many cases, it is precisely this religious fervor that allowed people to move on, to carry on with their lives, to look beyond the past and into the future, with hope. Had I been exposed to such trauma, I don’t know if I could have continued on with my life – I would not have had the motivation, the desire or the strength. So while the religiousness of the Liberian community was – and still is – baffling, it commends admiration. The strength and hope that people have acquired through their faith is essential to their survival, to their happiness and to their well – being. For me, a jaded Westerner, understanding this is very difficult – the world we live in is a godless one, and I have always believed in the importance of separating the religious, spiritual realm of life from the political, social realm. But living among Liberian refugees showed me the crucial importance that faith and God can have in human life, and I while I do not always understand it, I respect it.

While my work at the Carolyn A. Miller School was certainly one of my most fulfilling professional and personal experiences, it was the personal relationships I forged at Buduburam which really captured my heart and soul. I met men, women and children, who had suffered trauma beyond anything I can imagine. Torture, death, loss and separation is common experience for them, and the pain which they had endured is something most of us can barely understand. Yet, so many of the people I met were generous and kind, with open hearts and minds. This is not to say that every person I encountered had a heart of gold and pure intentions – there were plenty of stories about parents beating or torturing their children, men raping girls, as well as accounts of petty crime, jealousy and gratuitous violence. However, some people I met there really showed me what it means to be a genuinely GOOD person. Mr. Karrus Hayes, whose kindness, generosity and emotional intelligence cannot be captured with mere words, was – and will remain – somebody who I look up to. This man’s compassion and true desire to better the lives of others is poignant. There are few people I have met in my life who give themselves so wholly to their causes. His dedication is an inspiration, and while I will not have the arrogance of saying that I hope to emulate him in my own life, he certainly sets the bar very high for the rest of us who wish to do some good in this world.

There are so many people whose exemplary humanity I could discuss – Regina Krangar, mother of 3 biological children and 9 adopted ones – is devoting her entire life to raising these children. Besides the admiration I have for her, she also taught me the true meaning of Love, and how this concept, which we all think to have figured out, is in fact so much more than we think. She does not raise these children simply out of moral obligation, but because she truly cares and Loves them, and strongly believes that it is her duty to bring up these children that nobody wanted. I have met so many people whose outlook on life, whose attitude and whose work really humbled me, made me begin to understand the meaning of the word “sacrifice.” From the teachers of Carolyn A. Miller who devote themselves to educating the future generation for little or no money, to the admirable work performed by the staff of the UNHCR – subsidized Catholic clinic, the people of Buduburam had a huge impact on me. I left feeling inspired and strong, re-energized, with a desire – stronger than ever – to work as hard as I can to help those who need it.

Upon saying good bye to my friend Regina, she left me with these profound and heartfelt words, which I hope you will find as beautiful as I did at the time: “A life without sacrifice is meaningless. True sacrifice requires courage and strength, it is not easy. But it is the only way to truly understand and penetrate human nature.”

Fix your Conflicts

You can listen to my first ever radio interview here – had I known this would be completely unedited, I would have probably been better prepared. Nonetheless, it was a great experience, and the host, Doug Noll, lawyer turned peacemaker, is a very interesting guy – I hope I get invited back!
In any case here it is: Penelope Chester on Fix your Conflicts, June 16th 2008

(scroll down the content library, it’s the first item in the archive)

On Justice

This article discusses the “snail’s pace” of Ghana’s judicial system, noting in particular that thousands of cases of domestic violence and rape have remained unpunished, leading to “mob justice”.

My only run-in with the judicial system of Ghana, earlier this month, when the case of undocumented refugees was brought to a High Court, actually lead me to believe that the country had a relatively well-functioning system (the word “relatively” is key in this sentence.) While I didn’t agree with the verdict and suspect that the judge was pressured from above, the trial seemed fair, and it took place in a speedy yet thorough fashion. Anyway, obviously, this one case does not provide perfect illustration for the judicial system of Ghana – I am merely trying to highlight the positive.

Billboard in Monrovia


Nonetheless, I’m not surprised that cases of gender-based violence aren’t dealt with appropriately in the Ghanaian courts. Besides the obvious structural problems (lack of capacity, funding, etc.), there is also a huge social taboo attached to rape and domestic abuse. Recently, we had to deal with our own case of rape within our organization… One of the members of the cooking team for the School Feeding Program, the assistant, G., raped a student from the elementary school. A 14 year old girl, in 1st grade. We were told about this only after the school principal asked him to resign – instead of firing him.
The girl lived with her grandmother, and was “moved” to Accra following the incident. The grandmother did not want to press charges against G. – and, in fact, the school discouraged her to do so. Which, to my Western sensibility, seemed quite ridiculous (for lack of a better word). But the principal explained to me that if the incident went “public”, then the school would acquire a bad reputation for harboring child rapists – I trust him on this, since he obviously knows how the community will react better than I ever will.

The point is, this reaction shows that the taboo on gender-based violence is misplaced, and that too often, perpetrators go unpunished. In fact, because G. resigned, he asked the school to pay him for the 2 weeks of work he had done that month – even though, mind you, he admitted to raping a child, the man actually had the guts to come and demand his salary. The school director and the principal disagreed on whether we should pay him – the director agreed with me that he essentially gave up his rights to ask for a salary when he raped the student… but the principal said that we owed him this money, and that if we didn’t pay him, then he may cause problems for the school. Which, again, I understand – but wow.

Is it possible that this child rapist can still make demands and basically blackmail the school? Yes it is! Because – as the aforementioned article illustrates – too often, cases of gender-based violence and rape go unpunished. How discouraging it must be for the families who do press charges, even though it will probably make their daughter/wife/sister exposed to social stigma, to not even obtain justice…

In Liberia, violence against women is still a huge problem – even UN peacekeepers have been found guilty of engaging in sex-for-food/security practices, which is incredibly worrying, even if it occurs on a small scale. The signals that it sends to the civilian population aren’t good – it makes it seem like a negligible offense.(In the interest of full disclosure, I should add that these incidents involving UN staff have been investigated and are being taken very seriously by the leadership.)

There are also all the instances of domestic violence where the woman feels pressured not to report to the authorities – this is not specific to West Africa, obviously, it’s a problem that affects women in every country and social class. But in places suffering from chronic poverty, this type of situation is particularly debilitating, and, in my mind, acts as a brake on development – if you consider justice to be a fundamental element of development, which I believe it is. I’ve linked to this article before, but I find it really compelling.

Of course, fast tracking such cases in court and increasing punishment for perpetrators is but one dimension of dealing with this issue – above all, it’s about a socio-psychological shift in perception. If a school employee rapes a child, it shouldn’t reflect badly on the school, but on the person who committed the crime. In war affected societies where rape and violence against women was used as a weapon, this is of particular importance – to move forward, these societies have to take these crimes extremely seriously. The responsibility for this does not solely fall on governments and court systems – civil society has an essential role to play in reversing this trend.

**Edit**

Trusty MS has provided the following interesting links on the topic:

http://www.theirc.org/special-report/ending-violence-against-women.html
http://blog.theirc.org/2008/04/28/we-are-listening-how-to-help/
http://ga3.org/campaign/End_Violence_Against_Women

Give a Man a Line, Not a Fish (but what kind of line should you give him then?)


Fishing boats in Kokrobite, Ghana

It sometimes seems like the mantra “give a man a line, not a fish” summarizes the approach taken to development by most practitioners who wish to move away from hand outs and towards breeding sustainability. It makes perfect sense, right? If you give him the fish, he will eat now and be hungry tomorrow, and you’ll have to give him another, whereas if you give him a line, he’s going to start fishing for himself, and you can move to the next guy who needs help.

This trip to Ghana, I actually saw this motto written on some buildings, and it just kept popping up (both in my head, and in real life) – but thinking about it, I started to become slightly uncomfortable with it. Of course, it would be naive to say that this “line and fish” proverb is actually used as a strategy, but, for the sake of the argument, let’s extrapolate a bit. The whole idea behind this concept is that you want the beneficiary of your help to no longer have to extend his or her hand out for assistance, and that, instead, he or she will become self-reliant and empowered by this new found freedom.

While this is a laudable goal in theory, in practice, it seems to fall short all too often. When you give someone a “line” (could be a tractor to plow the earth, a sewing machine or oven to become more efficient, etc.), it’s not necessarily the “line” that he needs, or would have chosen freely. It’s not necessarily the most sustainable tool either – for instance, the sewing machine example : while the person you are giving it to may be ecstatic at the thought of having her own, the problem is that there 100 other people like you giving 100 other people like her a sewing machine. Which means that there will be insane competition between small scale sewers – and, unfortunately, if you haven’t given her (and the others) an effective marketing and sales strategy, you pretty much wasted your sewing machine.

This article discusses the preponderance of cooks in Monrovia – and the effects on the local economy:

NGO skills-training programmes that typically focus on skills such as soap-making, hair braiding, baking, tailoring and pastry-making have turned out far more people than there is demand for, the report found.

“The majority of [skills training] projects lack direct links to current or emerging market demand,” the report says. “Hairdressing, cosmetology, baking, tailoring, soap-making and tie-dye are offered in location after location.”

I’ve seen this in Buduburam – there are dozens of training programs for women that offer the aforementioned activities. The goal is to empower these women – the means to this end is to help them learn a trade that will enable them to generate income and sustain themselves. But when every one of your neighbors is getting the same “line”, you’re going to end up going after the same fish, right? The training skills programs don’t work together – in fact, they compete. In Buduburam, the Chrissetta Institute is where you want to be – they have the best reputation. Women of Glory churns out the most graduates, and is highly visible. It almost seems like the real point of these training programs is to empower the people who run them, rather than the people who benefit from them.

I made the mistake of sponsoring one lady’s training as a pastry chef – there are absolutely no jobs for her, and the women who already do this don’t want anyone to help them (because they can’t really scale up their activities, if they work with someone else, it will only marginally increase their productivity, while requiring them to share the profits).

So, yes, let’s give a “line”, and help people shift from dependency and inactivity to freedom and enterprise. But if we’re going to go down that road, we have to be ready to do more than just give the “line” – we also have to help them gain market access, help them develop a PLAN for the short term and the long term, give them the tools necessary to repair the “line” if it breaks or needs mending…. The “line” is just not enough, and while I admire and respect people who manage to break their own cycle of poverty with a simple “line”, if we want to create real, profound and lasting change, we have to do more than hand out these “lines”.

The word “holistic” always sounds a bit naive – so let’s say that we need to have multi-dimensional approaches to human development. The tools that we use in our own societies need to be made available – equalizing access to marketing and organizational resources, for example, is one of the ways in which this can be done. The “line”, in and of itself, can sometimes cause more harm than good, as people will harness all their hopes on it, even though the benefits it yields are marginal.

This video shows a group of village fishermen in Ghana – I watched them for over 2 hours, as they were manually reeling in their net. Involved in the process were not just the fishermen, but their pregnant wives, children… Essentially, the entire village participates in this.

(I realize that there is a white woman’s butt in this video – she was just passed out on the beach during the whole process – right after I shot this, I did in fact wake her up…. )

Point is, these people spend HOURS every day reeling in this net – and their catch is hardly worth the effort. It’s common knowledge that West African coastal waters are overfished, and commercial trawling has made the problem worse. So in this net, they had a lot of garbage, seaweed, plastic bags, and some small fish, that they share amongst themselves. Now, this is the main economic activity in this village – and the benefits they reap are measly. I kept thinking that they would save so much time and energy if only they had a machine to reel in their net – this would allow them to engage in other activities, and make the enterprise worthwhile.

I’m not saying that development practitioners should jump in and give them a motor powered reel – in fact, it’s obviously up to this community to define the need and search for the solution. I’m not even sure that NGOs (local or international) operate in this village – the point is, the “line” these people are using is clearly not to their advantage, and a big difference could be made if the process was modernized, streamlined…

There is a real opportunity for progress here, and it’s not that complicated. I too often read about or see instances where development falls just short of actually helping – and this applies to both endogenous and exogenous initiatives. The skills training programs that are being replicated all over the Buduburam refugee settlement are an example of the inappropriate “lines”.

The lack of investment in “un-sexy” dimensions of development (a motor reel, the elaboration of a marketing strategy) also handicap the overall impact of initiatives who end up failing to completely address the problem they are trying to solve. In fact, these incomplete solutions can exacerbate the issue, by making it seem like things are progressing. But appearances can be deceptive, as the hundreds of women in their skills training center’s uniform have made me realize.

There are rights, and then there are refugee rights

I attended the court hearing for the case of the 23 detained Liberian women and children today. The 16 women and 7 children (ages 4 to 17 years) are being held by the National Immigration Service (NIS) of Ghana and are facing deportation. The claim by the government is that they are illegal immigrants, and pose a national security threat, and, as such, should be deported.

This is the 2nd hearing – apparently, according to a journalist present at the first one, the NIS had already chartered a plane to deport the detainees, confident that the first hearing would be the last and a judgment in their favor handed down. Fortunately, the judge called off any further deportation until the case was resolved – and that called for additional arguments from both sides.

Basically, the prosecution (human rights lawyers) are challenging the claim that the detainees are illegal immigrants – instead, they categorize them as “undocumented refugees”. People arrived in Buduburam in waves, and while most were either registered through the UNHCR or accepted on a prima facie basis, some applied for refugee status as asylum seekers, only to see their claim fall through the cracks, being neither rejected nor accepted. Furthermore, the prosecution argues that the undocumented refugees can derive refugee status from their family members if the latter are officially recognized as such. That, to me, is a crucial point.

Indeed, one of the challenges we are faced with, as organizations and individuals engaged with refugee communities, is the issue of how to offer protection and support to undocumented refugees. It seems unjust that because of some bureaucratic failure to process claims, groups of people should be left with absolutely no protection whatsoever. In fact, the defense counsel on the behalf of the Ghanaian gov. said : “If they are unregistered, then they have no status, and they have no rights“(emphasis added) She went on to say that “rights are not absolute” and that refugees “ought to go home”.

In any case, these people are the ones who are supposed to leave Ghana for their home country with zero assistance – keep in mind these people are barely able to sustain themselves on a daily basis, so expecting them to be able to move and re-establish in another country (which is 2 international borders away) is a big stretch. These are people who were already forced to abandon their lives and families during the war, and who managed to recreate some sort of normal life for themselves as refugees. To ask them to leave everything behind again…. ? I realize that people’s rights are trampled all over the world on a daily basis, but I am just shocked at the total lack of institutional or large scale support these people receive (none). For instance, there was no UNHCR representative at the court hearing today – even though the outcome of this trial is absolutely crucial for the refugee community in Ghana. UNHCR — Is it that hard to send a rep to a trial?? Even your intern could have gone!

Meanwhile, in the Buduburam settlement, those who are registered with the UNHCR are signing up for voluntary repatriation, worried about the conditions that they will face when returning to Liberia… Again, this community has no higher authority to turn to – not their own government, not the UNHCR, not the “international community”. Of course, large scale violence did not erupt, and no one died – I suppose if that had happened, you would have seen a lot more attention given to the issue. Why does it have to come to this to mobilize the world’s attention? All the lofty rhetoric about “prevention” rather than “intervention”…. Empty shells that make policy makers feel good about themselves, but seem to be rarely adopted in practice.

The verdict for the trial is April 24th – looking forward to it.