You Think You Know, But You Don’t Know

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

on entrepreneurship and NGOs

This post is in response to – or rather, a disgression on – Tom’s post a couple of weeks ago on his blog A View from the Cave. These are my thoughts, unadulterated, on the topic of whether “one person can create change.” I’m sure there are plenty of contradicting, conflicting ideas you’ll read below. This is a topic I care about and think about a lot, and my thoughts are still evolving. Please, please do comment and challenge me where you think I’m wrong.

***

Tom, over at A View From The Cave, recently wrote a post pondering why it seems (and sometimes is) so easy for aid industry outsiders to enter the aid world. This is part of a broader discussion which has been unfolding for a few months on Twitter (and elsewhere since forever), about the role of volunteers and non-professionals in humanitarian aid and development.

I generally agree with J. from Tales from the Hood that development and aid should be left to professionally trained and capable people. I also agree with nearly 100% of what is written on the superb “Good Intentions are Not Enough” blog. In Tom’s post, he wonders why it keeps happening – why do well-intentioned but untrained people think they can create change successfully?

It’s an excellent question, one worth asking in the age of E-Z charity. One thing that I find striking, though, when I peruse the reactions of aid professionals, is the general unwillingness to believe in the capacity of individuals to have not just good intentions, but also a valid framework for taking action.

As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out on whether small-scale, grassroots initiatives and NGO entrepreneurs are qualified or able to make a positive impact. I’m always taken aback by how aid professionals so easily write off these efforts. Particularly given the huge diversity that this field represents, and given that they are often the same people who are the most powerful critics of their own industry. If change is so slow to occur within the industry itself, what’s so wrong with working on the periphery of it?

***

There is a paradoxical aspect to aid workers criticizing outsiders, since they often are the first ones to pick apart faulty projects and obsolete mindsets in their own industry. Recent, select thoughts from industry insiders:

“INGOs may do many good things, but they are basically not structured to deliver effective aid to the poor. They are structured achieve and maintain their own existence. And while it is easy to want to point at the large household charities as examples, it is no less true of the smaller ones.”

“I don’t know of a major disaster where, six months later, commitments had been fulfilled and serious progress made. That alone should make it obvious that this is not a bug in the system, but a feature – and that feature is the persistent exclusion of affected communities even while the language of inclusion is spoken.”

Aid shares features with pretty much any other professional field of activity:

  • A powerful, resource-rich industrial complex exists at the center. It includes state actors (donor governments and development agencies) and non-state actors (large INGOs; the UN and its agencies). Together, they form the “establishment.”
  • The existence of a well-established industry inevitably give rise to reactionaries; people for who innovation and risk-taking outside the boundaries of their world are heresy because they threaten the status-quo.
  • People both within and outside the establishment are seeing cracks in the system’s architecture: whether it be ill-conceived projects, lack of transparency, mis-allocation of funds or outdated operating procedures. As a result, innovation (good and bad) occurs at the margins.
  • Interestingly, it is often the same people who are the harshest critics of their own industry who are also the ones who dismiss outsiders’ efforts to break free from the prevailing M.O.

***

I should be clear that I do not – at all, ever – condone amateurish work. Whether it be in aid or any other field, it’s difficult to think of instances where dilettantes are better equipped than trained professionals. I think we need large, well-established professional NGOs with the resources (financial, human, institutional and otherwise) to do things that no single person or entrepreneur can accomplish on their own. So, with this caveat, let’s talk about why I think entrepreneurship in aid is important and why efforts in that space should be encouraged.

Sure, no single person can create long-lasting change, and successfully developing an aid project or organization takes a special kind of person and a real commitment. But if we stifle the creativity and wherewithal of entrepreneurs before they even have the opportunity to try – and potentially fail – then change isn’t going to happen, at all.

***

I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that when a bunch of crazy French doctors decided to create Doctors without Borders during the Biafra war, everyone around them must have thought they were absolutely off their rockers.

What about Henri Dunant, the idealistic businessman whose disgust with the horrors of Napoleonic wars lead to the creation of the Red Cross? (Did you catch that? Henry Dunant was a businessman with no experience in anything remotely connected to humanitarian aid)

There are several types of aid entrepreneurs; a fact that sometimes seems to get lost on critics and supporters of NGO entrepreneurs alike. Not everyone is an Henri Dunant, Bernard Kouchner or Greg Mortenson, obviously – there are also the Jasons of this world, the soles4souls and and one of my personal favorites, little pillow dresses. These are the types of initiative that are, essentially, purely fueled with good intentions. No research or real thought has gone into creating these initiatives. I have yet to see an aid professional be involved with one of these initiatives, and whenever they do chime in, aid workers are scolded for being elitist and belittling the pure motives of said initiative.

***

But then there are also many brilliant, creative, intelligent people who hail from various backgrounds and industries who have jumped into the fray. To name a few organizations who emerged from the efforts of non-aid workers but who distinguish themselves from the aforementioned amateurs by their quality:

  • Solar Sister: Founder Katherine Lucey was an investment banker for 20 years before starting to work on how to empower women through market based solutions
  • The GO Campaign: Founder Scott Fifer was a Hollywood TV and film screenwriter and former Wall Street attorney and U.S. Senate aide. The GO Campaign funds local, grassroots projects in Africa that have a direct impact in communities.
  • Forge: Founder Kjerstin Erickson started this NGO when she was a junior in Stanford. FORGE has implemented over 60 community development projects that have served more than 70,000 refugees in the four refugee camps in Zambia & Botwana. An official Operating Partner of the United Nations refugee agency (UNHCR), FORGE works in Zambia, hand-in-hand with refugees from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Angola, Rwanda, Burundi and Sudan.

***

This question of the value of NGO/non-profit entrepreneurs is something I think about every day and affects me personally. About three and half years ago, towards the end of my masters program, I spent two months volunteering in a refugee camp in Ghana (gasp! horror! are you still going to read the rest of this blog, or have I been catalogued as a poser?)

In spite of the fact that I had no training in community health, I was asked to create a health education curriculum for children ages 5 through 18 who were students at the Carolyn A. Miller school, the only tuition-free school in a refugee settlement of 40,000. I remember feeling ill equipped to handle the task I had been assigned, and that’s a real understatement, trust me. Thankfully, by relying on the expertise of local doctors, nurses, health workers and community members, I was able to develop a basic health curriculum that the school I was assigned to was able to implement. After two months living and working with this community, when I left, I felt compelled to continue being engaged with them.

The Niapele office in Liberia

I never set out to create an NGO; it wasn’t part of my plans. I wanted to find a way to continue working with a community that really touched me and I felt close to. I didn’t want to just give money and hand-outs; I wanted to avoid creating the situations of dependency which I kept coming across, over and over again, during my time there. Along with my friend Celina Guich, we set out to develop a model that would allow us to work with the community we had grown close to.

Fast forward three years, and I’m the director of a small international NGO, The Niapele Project. We partner with community-based organizations and local leaders in Liberia to help them implement programs that seek to improve the livelihoods of war-affected youth. You can learn more about our work here, here or here.

[It’s always interesting to see how people react to Niapele. A majority of regular civilians (read: non-aid/development crowd) are very supportive, and generally “impressed.” This is something which has been written about in Tales from the Hood before, but this feeling makes me a bit uncomfortable: I don’t feel like I’m a saint or really all that amazing or creative for doing this. There are tons of other people out there whose creativity, passion and talent exceed my own and are involved in some truly impressive projects on the periphery of the aid/humanitarian industrial complex (see the few examples mentioned above).]

***

What I’m asking for is that we, as the aid/development community, recognize that innovation outside or on the periphery of the established industry is a good thing. For every successful initiative, there will be ten really crappy ones. But that’s how it works – entrepreneurship is inherently risky, and it’s not because one thinks they have are a good entrepreneur that they actually are one. But we have to accept these negative dimensions to reap the benefits of change brought about by the entrepreneurs who know what they’re doing.

What’s the alternative?  Let it be known that even though the aid industry has profound flaws and is fundamentally unsustainable, innovation on the outside is discouraged?

Not every new idea is going to be a good idea, of course. There are plenty of duds out there, and stupid people with bad ideas aren’t going away any time soon. What’s apparent to me is that social entrepreneurship is a reflection of people’s desire to DO something, and do something more than write a check or send old shoes/blankets/books/etc. It’s also a product of (sometimes legitimate, but not always) frustration both within and outside the aid system. This is why we see ideas like 1 million shirts crop up. Well-intentioned people, but without the practical or theoretical knowledge needed to drive a successful initiative, will give it a go. This is inevitable.

***

The real question, for me, is how do we support the kind of innovation that does create positive change, all the while weeding out all the useless and potentially harmful amateurish initiatives?

***

I completely understand why aid amateurs irk the professionals. I’m lucky to have a vantage point at both the micro level, outside the humanitarian/aid/development industrial complex, and within it. I’m constantly surprised by how often I come across seriously flawed ideas, shoddy implementation and pure self-interest and aggrandizement. And let it be known that all this happens with large, established NGOs and the smallest initiatives.

E-Z charity

In the last month since the earthquake struck the capital of Haiti, we’ve been bearing witness to an incredible outpouring of generosity: from individuals to corporations, from governments to celebrities, the world has been falling over itself in an attempt to lend a hand to Haiti. I’ve found some African examples interesting: for instance, Liberia – apparently – is giving $50,000 to Haiti, while the Democratic Republic of Congo has donated $2.5 million. Senegal, meanwhile, has offered to give land to Haitians wishing to resettle there.

As of February 3rd, the Chronicles of Philanthropy reported that contributions from Americans had already reached $644 million. Canadians contributed $113 million (CAD), with their federal government matching funds for every donation made until February 12th. Private contributions in France were less significant (64 million euros donated to charity in the last month), but given the fact that French people are typically reluctant to donate to charity because of the lack of tax incentive, it’s still relatively impressive (note that French people gave 95 million euros in the aftermath of the 2004 tsunami.) Check out this table, courtesy of @MoogieJo, for a breakdown of donations by country and a comprehensive overview of who gave to which organization and for what purpose.

The Clinton Bush Haiti Fund has thus far raised $30 million, which is a really impressive number, especially given the slump that all charitable organizations went through since the financial crisis began in earnest in September 2008. A person who works very closely with the Clinton Bush Fund told me recently that these funds were being donated to 23 reputable organizations in Haiti, including Partners in Health, Save the Children or Habitat for Humanity. He noted, however, that they were hoping to save a lot of these funds for long-term investments in health, education, and economic empowerment, and not allocate all $30 million to emergency needs. Indeed, while Haiti needs a lot of help right now, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, as many, many have observed, the real challenge will be to assist Haitians in (re)building their country’s infrastructure, improving social and basic services and expanding access to jobs and economic opportunities.

Going back to the spreadsheet linked above, it is easy to see that the more long-term concerns are the most difficult to fund. If we rank categories by amount of funding available, we see that food is by far the m0st-well endowed, with $117 million. (By comparison, human rights/rule of law activities only garnered $6 million.)

Meanwhile, however, some emerging trends in giving have caught my attention, and have caused wincing among many a development blogger. Or, more accurately, trends in giving that don’t always reach the MSM or the public consciousness have been given attention as of late. First, is all of the efforts to send used things to Haiti: used shoes, used yoga mats, breast milk, infant formula, blankets, used shoes, and more used shoes. I don’t understand why so many (well-intentioned, surely) people think that shoes are what people in Haiti need… I think part of the answer lies in the fact that people are far more likely to give when they can see (or think they see) a causal relationship between their donation and the need on the ground. So, for instance, giving a pair of shoes to someone who undoubtedly lost at least a pair of shoes seems like a good idea. Given that a huge majority of people do not work for humanitarian agencies, development organizations or aren’t privy to the intricacies of appropriate, relevant aid, it’s not very surprising to see so many misguided good intentions.

Also worth noting here is the desire to help Haiti’s “orphans”. I’m using quotation marks, because our concept of what an orphan is does not necessarily match the reality of what it means when a child loses his or her parents in other countries. From experience working with Liberian abandoned children and “orphans”, I know that determining who the best care taker is for a (seemingly) parentless child is no easy task. The story of the 10 American baptists charged with accusations of child trafficking in Haiti is a seething example of good intentions gone wrong. I really believe that this group – similarly to people donating shoes, blankets or breast milk – had the best of intentions.

Third, natural disasters are conducive to mobilizing public and private resources and generate sympathy, empathy or pity. As I mentioned above, when the need seems obvious (medicine, food, blankets, medicine, shoes (?)), people have an easier time loosening their purse strings than when they are asked to contribute to an effort which has a subjective dimension. Haiti is not a newly poor country – it’s been lagging behind every country in the Western hemisphere for decades, and the plight of its people is nothing new. However, prior to the earthquake, no one seemed to care too much about the future of Haiti. What’s interesting to me is that people across the world all of a sudden paid attention to Haitians – the same people they probably knew nothing about, or simply didn’t think about, until January 12th 2010.

Earthquakes, tsunamis, mud slides, hurricanes: these events have an objective quality about them which makes giving much easier than say, giving to an organization that works to help small holder farmers access new markets. To a certain extent, donors need to “buy in” to the notion that a) small holder farmers are a sector of the economy worth supporting, that b) assisting them in accessing new markets is the most effective way of helping them and that c) the organization they are donating to knows what they’re doing. That’s a far, far cry from the need for antibiotics and morphine for people wounded in the earthquake: there is no philosophical question here, just a very objective need for a very specific item.

The other dimension to this is that donors are much more likely to give after a natural disaster than after the end of a civil conflict, for example. In speaking with both aid and development professionals and non-industry people about this, it seems that it’s much more difficult to encourage generosity when the cause of a disaster is not natural. It’s very uncomfortable – for me, at least – to think that outside of natural disasters, there is a (seldom acknowledged but existing) belief that poor people brought poverty upon themselves, that they are guilty of their circumstances, while natural disasters are indiscriminate and are – truly – nobody’s fault. This means that contributing to emergency relief efforts in the aftermath of an earthquake is much easier, much less political of an issue than contributing to the same efforts in the aftermath of a violent conflict.

I like to think of these instances of “good intentions gone bad” as issues of “E-Z charity” – at the heart of the problem, is the well-meaning donor’s lack of understanding of people’s needs and the implicit notion that giving to a survivors of natural disasters are somehow more worthy of our resources than survivors of violence or conflict.

One of the reasons I was moved to blog about the issue of E-Z charity was after a trip to the grocery store the other day. At the check-out counter, while waiting for my transaction to process, I saw that there were two transparent plastic donation boxes, where people could drop loose change. One was for Haiti relief operations, and the other for an organization taking care of children with disabilities in Ontario. The former was full – to the brim – and the other stood with about three coins, or approximately 50 cents in change. I jokingly told the cashier: “I guess no one cares about the disabled kids anymore!”, and she told me that she put the three coins in there, because she felt badly that no one (not.a.single.person) gave to that cause. I mentioned survivors of violence and conflict above, as well as more subjective causes such as supporting small-holder farmers or other economic empowerment initiatives – however, I found it truly unsettling that a local organization working with children with disabilities (not a particularly controversial cause!)  didn’t generate as much empathy or generosity as Haiti.

It’s difficult to blame individuals, however, given that the mainstream media coverage of the aftermath of the earthquake was a 24/7 mishmash of confused, sensationalized images and stories. We rarely see 20 minute segments about disabled children on the evening news, and CNN’s Situation Room wonks usually don’t spend their time discussing the issues associated with  the world’s leading fatal illnesses for children: diarrhea, pneumonia and malaria.

People’s willingness to give and their generosity is, objectively, a good thing. It reminds me that we do care about one another, to a certain extent, that we do feel empathy for those less fortunate – if we only we could use this opportunity to create a new culture of giving. But as my two donation box example mentioned above shows, we’re a long way away from making text message donations and adding a dollar to your grocery bill mainstream, regular activities.

Wait… Who’s African?

A few friends who share articles on Google Reader landed on a photo campaign, produced by BHF magazine, entitled “I am African.”

From African Digital Arts:

I Am African is a project developed by BHF Magazine. This project is devoted to photographic work by various African photographers. Photographs are displayed in a gallery that documents and celebrates diversity through the lenses of African people worldwide. The photographs are selected based on originality, creativity, professional or semi-professional quality and of course, their power in reflecting the African diversity.

 

Picture-41
copyright BNF
Picture-211
copyright BNF

This immediately reminded me of an ad campaign you (fortunately) might have missed if you weren’t in NYC towards the end of 2006. I remember having heated conversations about the “Africans” below….

 

I-Am-African-Sarah-Jessica-Parker
Oh yeah.... right...!

I-Am-African-Elijah-Wood
I-Am-African-Tyson-Beckford

And, yes, the campaign was raising funds for a good cause, but it’s problematic to me that people who are probably comfortable dropping $10,000 on clothes for fancy parties have the balls to call themselves “African”. I don’t think it’s appropriate for non-African celebrities — no matter how big their heart is or how genuine their feeling of  “sharing a common bond” with Africans (…what about the rest of humanity?…) is — to call themselves African. What does that have to do with anything? Why is that even necessary to raise funds? Awareness? I’m still baffled.

I’d so much rather see initiatives like BHF Magazine’s series, where the individuals portrayed are – actually – Africans, and have something to share about their heritage.

 

 

Change (ing the world)?

Interesting exchange this past week with @transitionland on Twitter. She asked:

“Does *anyone* really say “I want to save the world”? I’ve never said that. Ever.”

What immediately came to mind is that probably only Bono wakes up every morning to that thought. Actually, he probably doesn’t just think about wanting to save the world, but likely believes he is already well on his way to accomplishing that goal (but that’s a different story/rant).

Bono - saving the world?
Bono - saving the world?

This spawned a discussion about the different perceptions of the possibility of change – what constrains it, what fuels it and why. Mind you, all in 140 character bites. It got me thinking a bit about change and political systems – how different cultures understand change and evolution at the macro level.

In 2008, Americans elected Barack Obama, whose main campaign rallying cry was : “Change we can believe in”. Let’s not talk about whether things have actually changed since his election – rather, I wanted to touch on the way in which Americans construe the possibility of change. 

The belief in the “American Dream” rests upon the assumption that social, political and economic mobility is not only possible, but within the reach of each individual. As Alain de Botton put it in a recent TED talk, in individualistic societies – such as the U.S. – people own their successes as well as their failures. Knowing that your situation can evolve, that hard work pays off, is only as liberating as it is anxiety-inducing: when you struggle to make ends meet, or are on the verge of bankruptcy, it is distressing to think and be told that your failure to succeed is your own fault. There seems to be a pervasive notion in the U.S. that the principles upon which institutions have been founded are not only absolute and timeless, but also designed to create the most advantageous environment for individuals to thrive in.  The fact that the U.S. emerged from the 20th century as the dominant world power, and that, at home, incredible wealth was derived from innovation and entrepreneurship, gives credence to this idea.

Interestingly, though, this fervent belief in the malleability of one’s life does not translate in the realm of institutions – at least not American ones. Indeed, Americans are extremely attached to the structures laid out in the Constitution, as well as to the institutions that have shaped American life for over two centuries now. Since the Constitution was adopted in 1787, there have been a total of 27 amendments to it – 10 of them, collectively known as the Bill of Rights, were ratified at the same time as the Constitution itself. The 17 amendments that followed mostly “expand individual civil or political liberties, while a few are concerned with modifying the basic governmental structure drafted in Philadelphia in 1787.”

(In contrast, France has known five Republics since 1789 – each with its own constitution. The last revision of the French constitution, in 2008, modified 39 of the 92 articles, created nine new ones, and repealed three constitutional provisions. Only 32 of the 92 articles have not been modified since 1958, when the Constitution was adopted. Compare this to the 27 changes the U.S. Constitution has known in 220 years of existence, and that gives you a sense of the trust Americans place in their system.)

I was an undergraduate during the time the U.S. launched wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and I remember discussing whether “Western-style democracy” could take root in those places, and what would make this more – or less – likely. Almost invariably, arguments about a country’s prior experience of democracy would come up, with the implication that nations with a history of democracy are more amenable to introducing and upholding the institutional changes necessary for democracy to flourish. 

I always thought this line of argument was short-sighted. Democracy – or, rather, the democratic/liberal model – only truly began to take root in Europe following centuries of authoritarianism. The last two and half centuries have profoundly changed the way in which Western societies function. Without retracing the complex and rich history of Western political thought, the Enlightenment, and what Nietzsche called the “death of God“, had a lot to do with shaping the intellectual and political framework for monumental changes to occur in Western societies. 

The transformation of the West from authoritarian, dogmatic, stratified societies to what we have today took place over long stretches of time. Indeed, it takes decades, if not centuries, for profound changes like the ones experienced by countries such as France, Germany, the UK or the U.S. to take root. Which is why, when it comes to development and democratization, we have to take the long view and recognize that while it is possible for nations and countries to experience and sustain systemic political, economic and social transformations – as exemplified by the evolution of Western societies over the last 250 years – these processes take time. 

In the age of globalization, where expectations of instant gratification (and of instant everything) are the norm, it is easy to become cynical about our ability to affect change and make a difference in the world’s less privileged places. For those working in international development/aid/human rights, it can be particularly disconcerting. The changes which are widely recognized as necessary (for example, the empowerment of women worldwide) cannot – and will not – happen overnight, no matter how many millions of dollars we throw at the problem. It can be very disconcerting for people in this field to spend years working on a project that depends on fickle funding cycles, while they themselves dependent on whether the project or initiative actually delivers quantifiable, measurable results. 

While I strongly believe that monitoring and evaluation is absolutely critical for ensuring accountability, there are often externalities created by a project that cannot be captured in a convenient Excel spreadsheet. While in recent years there have been more and more attempts at measuring social impact at the Bottom of the Pyramid, it is very hard to estimate the long term benefits (or negative impacts) of work that seeks to induce change. Ultimately, we are only able to measure incremental changes in development. The very notion of development rests on the assumption that there is a linear path to follow, from underdeveloped (or LDC, least developed countries), to developing (or middle income countries) to developed (or rich, industrialized nations).

Considering how long it took for Western societies to evolve, we should have a more humble approach to this – clearly, no one, not even Bill Gates and his billions, can create immediate, systemic change overnight. This isn’t to say that we should therefore be despondent and that efforts aimed at change are meaningless. Rather, I’m inviting readers – particularly the more cynical, jaded ones – to mull over the fact that initiatives aimed at change can (and most likely will) take generations to succeed. And that there is value even in very small, marginal changes. It is precisely these efforts that, over time, create the conditions necessary for social, political and economic evolution (revolution?) to occur. We needn’t be impatient, but we should be humble and acknowledge that initiatives carried out today may not have an immediate, game-changing impact. 

For the past half century or so, and through various channels, the democratic/liberal model has been pushed upon the parts of the world which have yet to adopt it. In the early 1990s, Western leaders seem to have all read and integrated the lessons from Francis Fukuyama’s “The End of History“, in which he writes that the defeat of the USSR in the Cold War signaled the victory of the liberal democratic model. The so-called Washington Consensus led the Bretton Woods institutions and Western aid donors to push the developing world to adopt politicies that create the environment necessary for unfettered progress: lower barriers to trade, privatize industry and an insistence on macro-economic stability – all at any cost.

Today this one-size-fits-all approach to development has all but been rejected. What’s interesting about the failed Washington Consensus is that it makes quite clear that a country’s political and economic model cannot be forced or expected to change through policy prescriptions, however comprehensive and far reaching they may be.

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:

 

How to Make a Difference? First, Understand.

I am a firm believer that in order to be a truly effective advocate on any issue, it’s crucial to really understand the dynamics that you are contending with.

For The Niapele Project this means recognizing that we are in a constant state of learning – as we progress and deepen our involvement with the refugee community of West Africa, we are also attempting to truly understand what the issues are, at their core, so we can better serve the interests of the organizations we work with, and the children they serve.
We are continuously challenged in this extremely complex developing world environment – as a small NGO with limited resources, we try to position ourselves as open, flexible and willing to collaborate as knowledgeable partners.
In Liberia, we are beginning to collaborate with the UNHCR and the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (the government agency in charge of coordinating refugee issues) – in spite of our differences with these institutions in the past regarding the way in which Liberian refugees in Ghana were treated, we strongly believe that it will take the collaboration of all key stakeholders to create sustainable strategies for the effective integration of displaced people in Liberia.
(I only wish I was there myself…. sigh… maybe some time down the line!)
In any case, in order to bring deep expertise to the table, The Niapele Project has been working with some of the world’s best universities to develop our research capacity – we just released this study produced by Masters candidates at Sciences Po (my alma mater in Paris), which provides a critical overview of policy options for protracted refugee situations, and we are currently working with the Yale Law School on another study which will outline the international and national legal framework with regards to returning refugee rights in Liberia.
We are really looking forward to 2009 – in spite of the arduous fundraising road ahead, I am full of confidence that The Niapele Project will continue to have a positive impact in the lives of vulnerable refugee children.