Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Two Faces of Development

Posting by Jordan

Beloved friends,

Apologies in advance for the essay-style blog entry! Hope you have the patience to make it through. As always, would love to hear any comments or reflections.....

If only the staff at one of these giant international development organizations could spend a day in the life of Khadija, or Stella, Mr. Konyango or Nassir, Yussif or anyone here at A Wind of Hope. I think it would take only one day for them to completely change their attitude. That’s usually what it takes to begin to empathize; spending time in the other person’s shoes. Yet, alas, it seems the time will never come, and these international organizations will continue to impose their rigid standards, completely oblivious of the lives of the people they hope to serve, and the daily struggles they face to perform the mundane: connecting to electricity, printing a piece of paper or making a photo-copy.

I remember one day waking up early, eager to prepare for one of my first community-banking meetings. My needs were simple: print-out a few materials for a brief workshop. Unfortunately, I came with my Western expectations. My subconscious told me: "A task like this should take no more than half an hour." Well, I think expectations are our worst enemy, because when a half hour is up, we begin to become impatient; and when an hour hits irritation comes a knocking; after two or three hours we lose all hope and rationality and either suffer in silent fury or find a way to laugh if off (usually with a touch of hysteria).

That morning I began as I usually do: move the generator to its workplace, check for kerosene and pull the crank. As often happens, our little friend remained motionless. Usually a few prayers, curses or threats will get it going, but not this morning. The hour mark hit: irritation knocking. We decided it must be the spark plug so I rode off on the WOHA motorbike, begrudgingly attempting not to speed while I pass the frantically waving children, cross the sharp rocks and dirt mounds and weave through the apathetic herds of goats and cattle. Finally, I reached the internet café, one of two in Isiolo. I decided to try printing there before I bought a new plug.

The network is slow but reliable, when the power is on. Luckily, that morning we were blessed with electricity (another thing we take for granted in the west!). Unfortunately, after preparing everything, the printer wouldn’t work… Two hours have passed now and I feel the first inclination of hysteria….

Well, simple enough: I go to the local petrol station, buy a spark plug and head home, confidently telling myself that I can start the little red Honda and print from my laptop. Shortly after reassuring myself I feel an uneasy sensation, a gentle swaying, almost like driving through sand…. Flat tire… Almost exactly half-way between home and the petrol station! And believe it or not it was but one of three that I would have in the day. The same motorbike, the same tire…. Well, if nothing else, I made pretty good friends of the local mechanics. But, I had to quickly leave behind my expectations of half an hour as the sun began to near the horizon and I was only then ready to print my handful of pages.


I don’t mention this to complain (however much you may be thinking otherwise!). I mention this to bring to light some of the challenges that the devoted staff must deal with here. Truly, when these people are occupied in other activities, lives are lost. And I would guess that around 30 to 40% of the work here is spent on these types of remedial tasks--not because of lack of knowledge, skill or capacity, but simply because they don't have the resources we take for granted in the US.

Khadija and the staff of WOHA recently met with one of their main donors. The relationship is a difficult one, as is usually the case between a donor and a recipient. As much as the latter may wish to do things their own way, ultimately, they are dependent on the former. It is often a demeaning sort of relationship. You would be aghast at some of the stories of what these grassroots organizations are forced to do because their donor wanted something done in a particular way. But the donors have all of the cards, all of the bargaining power, with none of the liabilities. Most crucially, they do not have to face the people that their policies effect.

Khadija, on the other hand, and everyone at WOHA, must face these people on a daily basis. Indeed, they are these people; One with the community. So when a policy is changed, it is Khadija that must share the news. This was the case when a major donor recently decided that they needed more accountability. Now, anyone who eats their nutritional support has to not only sign a form with each meal, but provide passport photos as well. I wonder if this organization has ever visited the people they are supporting, most of who live in mud huts without running water or electricity. How can they sign their names if they are illiterate and can’t even afford pens and paper? Khadija brought this up with the elders from Malitano and they replied by saying that they would rather go without the food than deal with all of the hassle.

The problem with development, as I see it, is that you have two worlds: you have the world of the grassroots organizations, the roll-up your sleeves type of workers who come from the communities they hope to change. Then, you have the large international organizations and the expatriates, mostly from Western countries, who live by different standards, have very different lifestyles and carry many different expectations (as I have learned!). Unfortunately, the Western organizations use their standards to evaluate the grassroots organizations. And since they cannot be there to really monitor the situation, they create fanciful goals and unrealistic expectations. They use a western mode of evaluation, a western form of record-keeping, a western style of management. But when will we become humble enough to listen to these people—maybe even learn from them—and to simply help them to obtain the resources they need to continue doing what they do best: caring for and serving the people they love.

Until next time,

jordan


2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Jordan,

Eventhough I retired at the end of March, I finally found some time to read your blog and your wonderful and insightful descriptions of the incomprehensible challenges faced by so many on a dialy basis.

I know I speak not only for myself but for all your family back home in the States, that we are tremendously proud of you and admire what you are doing. You've certainly come a long way since our very meorable family picnic at Coyoti Point and playing frisbee golf with Joyceanne and Bethany.

We send you our love and wish you and your fellow workers all the best.

"Uncle" Paul and family

Rochelle said...

Well told, J. Such an important gap for development workers to truly understand. If only you were Secretary-General!