Tuesday, May 18, 2010


Hypothetical situation:
You have gone to nursing school for 2 years after completing high school, and have been stationed a day's journey away from friends and family in a rural village with no electricity, paved roads, or any type of modern convenience. You spend your days trying to help the uneducated population of this village with their myriad health woes, many of which amount to conditions as vague as "my body hurts." Your tools are limited and your training is limited, but you make do, and have become an accepted member of your new community, although you are still supporting a spouse and son back in your hometown. You work hard for that modest, but at least steady paycheck you receive every month. And with that paycheck, there comes the inevitable deluge of phone calls. Your brother - "I have been invited to a wedding ceremony and I need 500 dalasis to buy a gift large enough to impress the family. I am your brother, do you not love me? Do you only love your wife and son?" Your mother - "I am old and only have a few cows and a garden with which to make money. You, my son, are a civil servant. You have more money than you need. Send me 700 dalasis for new bowls and for a bag of rice." And so on. That monthly paycheck is soon divvied up and distributed among your relatives, leaving nothing left for you to save for the future.

I am sure this scenario seems ridiculous to the average American. If your brother asks for money and its not an emergency, you feel under no obligation to give him anything, and no one will judge you for not doing so. Sharing is all well and good, but there is a definite line between legitimate requests and begging. In much of West Africa, however, a request of anything from a relative or friend, if at all feasible, is something that must be given. If it is not, the person making the request will accuse you of being wicked, greedy, and uncaring--accusations that will be spread around the community and may stick. If they do, this will all but destroy your chances of getting any help in building a house, starting a business, or doing any other work that requires another set of hands.

Being a toubab, this aspect of the culture can be extremely frustrating, but at least I have an excuse for refusing most of the time, not being actually related to anyone. This doesn't stop every casual acquaintance from asking me for money for a loaf of bread or for green tea or medicine. Before you furrow your brow at that last statement, wondering why I would deny poor Africans food and medicine, let me explain the situation here and my feelings about hand-outs in the third world in general. Yes, the people here need help. But they have been getting help for decades. Western aid to African since the 60's amounts to more than a trillion dollars, and that has done little to lower poverty rates, improve governance, and generally make life better for Africans. (Check link at left for details) There are a number of probable reasons for this, but the one that is most evident to me on a daily basis is that aid decreases self reliance.

Many the charity or development organization that comes to The Gambia is staffed by people motivated by lofty ideas of building hospitals, saving children, and changing the world. While altruism is certainly something to be admired and encouraged, the main problem with this kind of attitude is that it can quickly turn to selfishness when things in the developing world are not what we expect. When projects fail because of disinterest, poor planning, harsh conditions, or a myriad of other reasons, many western donors and workers lose their patience and pull out. Westerners expect Africans to be humble, hardworking, and grateful for whatever scraps western countries are willing to give them. Often the case is just the opposite--many African leaders, especially men, are highly self-laudatory, lazy, and corrupt. International aid organizations in the Gambia routinely close down operations because of allegations of fraud and theft among Gambian staff members. It is often just too easy and too tempting for people of humble origin, when put in charge of large sums of money, to pocket some of it for themselves. This is especially true when so much financial support is expected of working men and women from their families. Since so much of this money gets siphoned off, more and more of it is needed to maintain projects, and since more of it keeps coming, it no longer becomes a leg up to poor but appreciative people, but an expected allowance that is viewed as an entitlement.

This problem of reliance on foreign aid starts at the top echelons of African societies--the government and educated Africans working in development-- but also trickles its way down to poorer people. NGO's sweep into a small village, do a short and inadequate needs assessment, and then build a school, well, garden, or other generic development project. This project either fails completely within a few years, as do most gardens and wells, or staggers on with little success, crippled by a lack of continued funding and an indigenous leadership without the proper training and/or motivation to run it. After the project fails or is no longer viewed as viable, rather than trying to revamp it or start a new project of their own design the community will sit on its thumbs, waiting for another NGO to come along and throw them some money. When one does, the whole process starts all ove again.

It is this viewing this process which has hardened my resolve to never give anything to anyone in the community that I do not have a strong relationship and understanding with--and even then only after a serious discussion about why its necessary. The old man who asks me for bread doesn't need it--it's a luxury item in Africa anyway. The woman who wants painkillers most likely doesn't have any real pain problems at present anyway--many times they just ask you because they hope to get some free medicine from the toubab. Even if they do have a real need, if I give them something they will be less likely to go through the established infrastructure to get what they need in the future. There is a Spanish NGO that comes yearly to a village near my own that, until recently, gave away medicine for free after a short medical examination given by med students and nurses. That sounds wonderful, until you realize that in the months leading up to the visit by the "Spanish Doctors," very few people go to the health centers unless they are at death's door. They would rather jeopardize their health and wait to get treatment for free in a two months instead of having to pay a nominal fee to get it now. The community nurse in my village had to have a somewhat heated meeting with the Spaniards to explain the system of medical treatment in the Gambia in order get them to help him instead of competing with him.

I realize that my tone up until this point has sounded relentlessly negative about the situation here, but let me just say that after 19 months in this country I still remain motivated and excited to be doing what I am doing. These are daunting challenges which we face if we want to improve the lot of people living in developing countries. Fortunately, I feel that the Peace Corps and a few other organizations are getting at least one thing right--working with people on their own terms as well as ours. Development organizations can not come in and dictate the "right" way for a country to improve itself. This is ignorant and arrogant on the part of western agencies, and will most likely alienate and insult the recipients of the proposed aid. At the same time, developing countries can not make demands on western nations and feel entitled to an unending stream of hand-outs. It is certainly true that European countries have exploited the developing world to a despicable degree in the past, but by hanging on to bitterness and demanding aid instead of building trading and diplomatic relationships the west and their neighbors, developing countries will never make themselves into strong, self-reliant nations.

What I value so far about my service to the Gambia and to The Peace Corps is that, despite a lot of frustrations, I have found people to work with who want to make things better by their own means. We spend two years here trying to build relationships with this type of people. This is may seem like a long time, and it is longer than the terms of most development workers, but it is still precious little time really become a part of a community. And once we find those people and decide together on a project they deem necessary, they are willing to work for it. Maybe they need a little leg up now and again with some training or a small grant, but on the whole, they want to do things for themselves. Working with such people on equal terms and with equal respect is the only type of work I see as worthwhile, and the only work that will have any type of sustainable effect. And hopefully those doing the work will find some way of keeping their relatives' hands off at least some of the benefits.

1 comment:

  1. Good insight. I'm currently reading a book about this phenomenon.

    It would be interesting to hear more about what the Peace Corps is doing differently (better?) than the NGOs.