Monday, July 2, 2012

5 Simple Rules for Aid

Dear faithful readers,

Our apologies for the absence. We were without internet for most of last week and that is our excuse.

It's getting late here, almost one am, and we need to be up early, early for a community meeting we are hosting tomorrow morning and haven't really had time to plan yet... But I just wanted to send a brief message to let you all know how things are going. We are still happy though somewhat overwhelmed by the volume of things we are hoping to accomplish in the next three weeks.

Value-added farm products: Dried soya crunches made with salt, oil, and lemon juice. Pretty tasty.

We decided we needed to take at least one trip to a national park during our time here in Kenya so we went for a brief but wonderful holiday this Saturday to the Kakamega Forest (the most budget-conscious and least time-consuming option) and arrived back home on Sunday. I think Jacob is planning to write about our trip so I won't reveal any details but I will tempt you to return and read his post by saying that we saw a lot of exciting flora and fauna and have a few decent pictures to prove it!

Today I spent the day working with a group of farmer/retirees on learning to plant indigenous vegetables and make organic compost. Jacob spent the day working at home since he wasn't feeling well. We are pretty sure he just ate something funny and is not actually sick but any prayers or good thoughts his way would not go amiss I'm sure.

I think he may need some fattening up when we get home though. Our diet of fried breads, sugary drinks, avocados, goat meat, and corn seems to be having the opposite effect on each of us. Although it may also have something to do with the fact that people here are continually making remarks like "you need to become fat like a maragoli woman" and "you should eat more ugali to make your calves nice and big" as they heap more food onto my plate.

Some of the ROP staff thinking hard about agriculture!
Things are going well although we feeling constantly pulled in different directions as we try work on all the different projects that people want us to work on and visit with all their families and relatives as well. I think we could have spent every night here in a different home and never have needed to stay at the hostel. Which would definitely have saved us some money. And we would have eaten a lot of home-cooked meals. But we probably wouldn't have been able to accomplish much on our projects if that had been the case. 

And maybe that would have been just fine. We are still not sure what, if any, affect our being here will really have when all is said and done. And I have to admit that I am a little disappointed I haven't picked up more language skills, which probably would have happened if we hadn't been staying at the hostel. And maybe another time we'll be able to focus more on studying the language and just enjoying our time as visitors. I think we've felt a lot of pressure to try to do things while we've been here. And maybe that wasn't the best approach. But I still don't think we would have done it any other way...

Things move slowly here in Kenya and much of what we are doing is completely frustrated by any number of factors: ineffective political systems, lack of infrastructure, cultural and language barriers, corruption, etc etc. It really feels a lot like being a little kid and making so many mistakes that you don't realize you are making until later. But we have learned a lot. And hopefully the end result of that learning will be that we are better, more compassionate people. And not just more jaded.

I still feel optimistic about volunteer and aid work. I see that people back home are ready and willing, even enthusiastic, to put some of their personal resources towards improving life in developing countries. I am sure we will write more of a summary of our thoughts on volunteering and aid in Kenya later but I just want to say: please don't stop giving, don't stop volunteering, don't stop trying to make the world a better place in whatever way you can. 

Beans seeds produced by farmers in collaboration with KARI (the Kenyan Agricultural Research Institute). They are doing important research for farmers in Kenya. Keep up the good work, KARI. 
If you aren't now, consider spending a few dollars a week on something that you really believe in. It doesn't have to be development in Africa. It could be buying your hardware at the slightly more expensive family-owned shop or even attending a community meeting. But if you do choose to put your time or financial resources into development and charity projects in places like Kenya, please be thoughtful.

1.) Do put time into researching the project. Find out who is involved, what their objectives are and as much as you can about the actual end-results of their project. Talk to as many people as possible about the project and the group that manages it.

2.) Think critically. Does the project make sense? Does it seem well-organized? Is there a group supporting the project or is it just an individual (risky)? If it's a group, how is the leadership selected and do they include women, the elderly, young people, or other vulnerable groups?

Also, what will happen when this project stops being supported? Is there a way for the project to become self-sustainable or is it likely to collapse a few years down the line without continued financial support?

4.) Don't send stuff unless it is really unavailable in the area or prohibitively expensive to purchase in the developing country (in comparison to purchasing in the US and shipping it the country). There are a number of reasons for this: sending donated goods often depresses local industry, creates a culture of dependency, and generally does more harm than good.

[Disclaimer: Yes, we have been asking people for used children's books for the library project. Yes, there are children's books available in Kenya though not many in the area where we are working. But children's books here are relatively expensive and the range and scope of children's books in Kenya simply do not match what we can get through donations. We are, however, spending some of our library funds to purchase African-published books through local bookstores, mainly those by African authors and volumes in Kiswahili.]

5.) If you are planning to volunteer, do your best not engage in volunteer work that devalues or circumvents local professionals or institutions. Instead, make the effort to work with local institutions and groups whenever possible.

As far as I can tell in my brief time here, I think the most effective development programs are those that utilize local people and simply teach skills and provide practical education for local residents, enabling them to eventually bridge the gap between what they have now (or don't have) and what they need or want for the future. Instead of providing material things and brief services that reinforce the donor-donee roles, we need to do our best to come up with progressive ways to support local initiatives and projects. The best thing that people in developed countries can do (in my humble opinion) is just to try and find local people who have already started good, creative, and successful projects and support those as best we can.*

Over the next few posts, I hope we'll be able to highlight some of the very successful projects and programs that we've seen so far in Western Kenya. After Jacob talks about our trip to Kakamega, that is.

So thank you once again for humoring me by reading this unintentionally didactic post. And feel free to comment if you agree or disagree with any of the above reflections. We'd love to hear from some of you. We know you are out there. At least a few of you.

And you have our love and appreciation!


J+ J

The ROP staff, AGRA rep Rebe, and I visit farmers in Busia. No, I am not pictured. I was taking the photo...

*Of course this may not necessarily apply in cases like natural disasters, disease outbreaks etc. Sometimes you really just need to send in foreign experts to do the things they do. But in other circumstances, it's just plain better to train local people.

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