It’s the little things

As Megan can attest to, working for Niapele in Liberia can sometimes feel daunting. So many fruitless meetings with large international NGOs or UN agencies, so many false starts. At the end of the day, writing my email updates to the rest of my Niapele ladies, I sometimes feel discouraged. However, it’s the little things that keep me going, inspire me and remind me – in a very powerful way – why we’re plugging away at this crazy mission.

The little thing today was to learn that Diamond, one of the young girls at HapFam, the center for children with disabilities, had made significant progress. Before she started coming to HapFam in September, she couldn’t brush her teeth by herself. Her family members would beat her with a switch to get her to comply, but to no avail. Now, she brushes her teeth on her own, without being asked. Moreover, she used to not be able to bathe on her own – with HapFam’s help, she now bathes herself every morning. Her aunt tells us that Diamond takes a bath in anticipation of coming to HapFam – for the first time in her life, going to school to learn.

Diamond

Andre, who has a rather severe case of cerebral palsy, is also making a lot of progress. His father, Del, who is also HapFam’s director, told me that Andre took it upon himself to clean the family’s basement, and that he apparently did a great job.

Andre

The Carolyn Miller School also had a parent-teacher meeting during the weekend, and I was told that a lot of the parents gave great feedback about the School Nutrition Initiative: how when the children come home instead of begging for food, they just go out and play, how they can see their children happy to go to school. For these parents, whose children attend tuition-free Carolyn Miller because they cannot otherwise afford to send their children to school, having their kids receive a daily meal alleviates some of their daily hardship.

These are the little things that keep me, that keep us going. I’m all smiles tonight.

Liberian meal for lunch at Carolyn Miller

Here we go

Sitting in a rooftop bar in central Monrovia, slowly realizing that I’m finally here, in Liberia, a country which I have thought about at least 10 times a day over the course of the last three years. It’s surreal. My last visit to West Africa was in April 2008, when Celina (The Niapele Project’s co-founder and director) and I spent a month in the Buduburam refugee settlement towards the tail end of a crisis pitting Liberian refugees against the government of Ghana. Since then, so much has changed for this community of displaced Liberians, and, consequently our work with them. I’m so glad to finally be able to experience Liberia, to finally wrap my mind around the realities of this fascinating country. As I write this, my senses are overwhelmed with sounds and smells – things which I know I will be getting used to in due time; there is always a short adaptation period when one comes from the comfort of a place like Vancouver.

The next 2 months will be dedicated to fine tuning The Niapele Project’s existing programs – the school nutrition initiative and the Happy Family center for disabled children – and exploring opportunities to collaborate with other organizations working at the grassroots. The Niapele Project is fairly unique in the NGO landscape in Liberia – we are a micro international NGO, which is unusual here. There are over 200 NGOs here, but most are significant players, like the International Rescue Committee, BRAC or Merlin. It’s interesting to be working alongside these organizations, particularly when it comes to developing working relationships with government agencies: Niapele is expected to have a solid financial backing, and our modus operandi is – apparently – unusual. Scaling up and improving the sustainability of community-based initiatives may seem a rather ordinary activity in development. However, we’ve found that there is little trust in the ability of community leaders and their organizations to bring about positive social change.

We, at Niapele, strongly believe in the effectiveness and importance of strengthening community processes – and it’s not just about “top down” versus “bottom up” approach, or “local ownership”. It’s about the fact that, everywhere in the world, civil society has a critical role to play in filling the gaps where the government cannot provide. This holds true in the United States, in Canada, in France, in the UK etc. – we recognize (quasi instinctively) that non-profit organizations, charities, non-governmental organizations, political action committees and the like are essential actors in society. Some provide direct services, others keep authorities accountable, while others are pushing for systemic change. Moreover, they contribute to the vitality of societies: this sector creates vocations, jobs, and contributes to the economy in a significant way.

Owen Barder, a development thinker with an impressive depth of knowledge of the industry, doesn’t think the proliferation of small community-based NGOs is beneficial. I see his point, but disagree. I think that there is a crucial role to play for these institutions in development, as demonstrated by Niapele’s focus on working with community-based organizations. I’ll explore this theme further – but for now, my friend Clem, a JSI fellow at the Ministry of Finance, just joined me for an over-priced pizza.