Archive for category NGOs and Development

A Thousand Words…or so

          For the first time 3 out of 3 of my NGO respondents cancelled on me, leaving me with the entire day free to roam the really bustling town of Balaka, in Southern Malawi. I’d heard that there was a pretty nice view if I walked past all the NGO offices and headed towards the cotton gin that had been built during the colonial era (so the buildings are probably around 60-70 years old). Unfortunately it was pretty hard to take good pictures because of how flat the land is. It was stunning. But what really piqued my aesthetic interests were the people walking around me —it wasn’t like I had never seen kids chatting in fast Chichewa, which quickly switched to mock Chinese as I passed them by (the kids seem to think that all non Africans wearing square-rimmed glasses are Chinese). Nor was it really all that new to me that women were carrying huge suitcases on their heads or men carrying huge loads that towered above them on their bycicles. It still amazes me that they can do it. I want to take the picture to capture just how capable people are as an inspiration to me when my cold, my computer crashing, or the rain gets me down at home. But I know that if I post the pictures, let’s say on a blog or my facebook, without an adequate explanation both of what is going on AND why I took the photo, it will bring to people’s minds: poverty and hardship or stereotypes.
         I think a big portion of taking pictures when living abroad or even at home is novelty or uniqueness. We want to remember something that we don’t see everyday or we don’t feel everyday. We look for novelty in beauty, in landscape, in bikes carrying huge piles of mats, coals, or women carrying huge buckets and baskets of produce on their heads while also carrying a baby on their back, or young mischievous boys carrying rustic hoes across their shoulders, or the agogo (old man) watch guard sitting on the ground in the shade eating watery nsima (maize mill) with his grandson. Too often, however, what is novel to the outsider and for the photographer or journalist who wants to bring their experience back home, is the poverty or the story of “triumph over poverty” or “abuse by poverty”.  They say that a picture is worth a thousand words, but I’m pretty sure a huge percentage of those words depends not on the picture itself but on the preconceptions of the viewer and how the picture interacts with the viewer’s preconceptions.
         Perhaps that’s what makes poverty porn so easy. People in Balaka (a district in southern Malawi) or Chilumba (a village in Northern Malawi) are poor. And many if not most of them deserve a better life, whatever that means. But emphasizing their poverty will not make them wealthier and let’s face it, money to buy more necessities (like food, soap, school fees, uniforms, a house, capital for their business, the nice sets of clothes to impress the customer, a radio and newspaper to find out about jobs) and luxuries, (a tv, an extra set of clothes, chairs, an electric stove, a car, a motorbike to get to work faster and travel for more opportunities) is what will ultimately make the individual’s life better (Religion, faith, a better attitude may also do the same but its undoubtedly a much more difficult way to get you from feeling lacking to not feeling lacking), given the infrastructure around them. Of course, infrastructure like better health care, better awareness campaigns and dissemination of health and hygiene information, better roads, etc are necessary but to pay for those things — taxes —the people need to have jobs. And to have  jobs, outsiders and insiders alike need to begin to see the opportunities the novelties that can be capitalized on to make a profit, to hold a job, to support their families. And then the new novelty created from the original can then be capitalized upon to make a profit, to hold a job, to support a family, to pay taxes.
           Right now, Malawi makes much of its buck off of poverty. ‘Malawi is poor, let’s send aid’: Money for this NGO, this governance “issue”, this Malaria campaign, that NGO on lifeskills training (yes life skills training, as in a combination of sex education and confidence building). The taxes from which the government builds some of its own health, roads, and governance infrastructure (although a good proportion of it) come in a large part from the large NGO personnel class. They get taxed anywhere from 20 to 40%. Based upon a couple informal conversations here in Balaka, I know that taxes also come from business owners and renters who pay a land-fee, as well as from bike taxis who pay a right-to-do-business-in-Balaka-fee. But bike taxis make maybe 800 kwacha (at most) a day (this is based on informal conversations with a couple bike taxi guys who told me they give about 8-10 rides a day and usually charge between 40 and 100 kwacha) and while most of the taxed business people include small-medium sized market stall businesses (like tailors, produce stalls, and random necessity shops), the larger tax fees come from the larger NGO offices (around 37), the few large supermarkets (maybe 6-7 in Balaka),  the large restaurants that are affordable (6)  on a daily basis only to the upper tier NGO workers and azungus (foreigners). It’s no wonder that is was the NGO sector that led the recent protests in Malawi – NGOs not the labourers, not the business class, are the key financial stakeholders in the country.
           And to keep them going, they need to both play the “I’ll be nice to donors game” as well as the “hey, you know, Malawi is so poor” game. That’s why of the 40 or so conversations I’ve had in my 7 weeks here about what I think of Malawi–
(a fairly common exchange is:
Malawi Passerby: How are you?
Me: FIne and you?
MP: Fine, Where are you coming from?
Me: Home.
MP: WHere are you going?
Me: Work.
MP: WHat do you think of Malawi?
Me: It’s beautiful. ) 
                                 — of these conversations, they’ve all ended with my conversation partner saying emphatically, “You know you might think it is beautiful, but Malawi, it is so poor. There is so much poverty here.
            So back to pictures. As I was saying: to the individual spectator, the poverty is novel. It looks different than it does in the states. You know a kid carrying a hoe around probably looks poor because we think– o man this poor kid is so dirty looking. Well of course, what 7 year old who has been outside all morning doesn’t. We’d say, oh man this poor kid has to farm all morning. Well maybe it wouldn’t be so bad if our 7 year olds had a bit more responsibility. Sarcasm aside, maybe this kid is or isn’t all that bad off –but the picture only shows you a random (black) African kid carrying a hoe around. It doesn’t tell you if he’s a happy kid with some chores or a smiling child laborer. It doesn’t tell you if his farming because his parents have died of AIDS or his parents sent him in from Lilongwe as punishment for goofing off at school.  But what it does remind the outside is “oh, Africa is so poor—at least I think Malawi must be in Africa because it looks like Africa. Black, dusty, and poor. Oh and you can see the cool safari trees in the background.” And these pictures power the NGO industry. People see the pictures, they send more money. This incoming money becomes the only certain thing in an economic situation which really is volatile and uncertain. This safe haven of relative certainty often draws the most educated individuals into the NGO sector instead of the government, businesses, engineering or medical jobs, or research, or hotel management, or tourism, or construction oversight, or architecture, or creative art and design, or myriad of other things.
        Aid money for the time being is necessary as one of the faster ways to build needed health care, roads, and education systems (not because we know it works but because we know so many other avenues seem to not work or work too slowly or work with too much corruption). But perhaps we could juxtapose the calls for aid with some other novel thing Malawi (enter a has to offer. A lot of work has been done to build profitable enterprises (that obviously pay a living wage, allow for merit-based promotion, and does not threaten the dignity of the workers) outside of the NGO sector, like selling pretty tasty bread or great chips and chicken at more locally affordable prices, or great backpacking tourism around the lake for a wider range of tourists beyond voluntourists. Poverty is not the only novel thing on which to capitalize. Nothing sustainable can be made out of the perception that there is nothing and pictures playing upon our ingrained preconceptions of poverty and Africa will only contribute to the futile attempt.  So if you’d like to see my pictures of these amazing mamas carrying huge baskets of produce on their heads and share with me the type of amazement you’d have watching the Olympics or reading the Guinness Book of Records, then I’d be happy to share them. Otherwise, I’m only leaving my one thousand six hundred odd words for you to peer at instead and the wish that you could have as great a time in Malawi as I have.

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First steps on the ladder

Tyler Cowen links to the story of a booming Peruvian town that faces labor shortages due to to its phenomenal success at industrializing modern agriculture:

Ica, in southern Peru, is known as a city of zero unemployment…Work is so plentiful that men with megaphones ply the city’s neighborhoods offering jobs. Thousands of mostly indigenous Peruvians from the central Andes have flooded the coastal community, attracted by radio ads and word of mouth, successfully joining the ranks of the employed.

International workers’ rights groups and globalization critics often suggest that while entering an upward spiral of increases in productivity and wages was the way all developed countries got wealthy, the mean multinational corporations will somehow keep their factory workers in poverty even while there is a shortage of labor. But supply and demand seem to hold at least in this Peruvian town, so that increased demand for labor raises the offered benefits for workers:

At Chlimper’s Ica farms, about 4,500 employees help grow and export 1.4 million 11-pound crates of asparagus and more than 8,000 tons of table grapes annually. Chlimper pays bonuses for extra production, and over the years his company has improved meals and transportation for employees…It’s all designed to keep workers happy and to attract more, Chlimper says.

Wow. This sounds like the self-interest of the capitalist and the use of modern technology lead to more jobs and higher wages – somehow the appeals to international charity and leftist critiques of globalization always get the signs of those effects wrong, claiming them to go in the opposite direction. Similarly, the author of the article can’t really let that kind of cold-hearted capitalist-led development stand and tries to find out what’s wrong with it:

In fact, there has paradoxically been an increase in disease and decline in education going hand in hand with the proliferation of jobs…Yet there is also an ugly side to Ica’s full employment. Although the city now has two huge shopping malls and a third is under construction, poverty remains a nagging problem, especially among those who have traveled from the Andean highland regions of Ayacucho, Huancavelica and others, areas devastated by political violence in the 1990s.

The paradox is probably just a consequence of migrants from more destitute areas moving in and thereby impacting the disease and education statistics of the area without actually lowering the living standard of previous residents. Even if education declined and disease levels increases due to the migration, the continued influx should be evidence enough that the quality of life for migrants is still higher in Ica than where they are coming from.

Let me try and understand the second part of the quote: These migrants used to live in abject poverty and threatened by violence in the highlands. Then they voluntarily moved to Ica, found work there, and now they earn more money than before, but there is inequality of wealth because some people benefited even more from the boom. That doesn’t sound ugly, but rather like the first chapters of a stunning development success story to me. What did the author expect? That they move from the slums straight into mansions with cars without any transitional period in between? One interviewed woman summarizes it well:

Nelida Mendoza, 20, joined her father in the fields picking onions after the family fled the desperation of Ayacucho. She lives under tarps and a bit of corrugated tin with her parents, a couple of siblings and her two small children, whom she must leave behind during the long days digging in the soil. The alternative would be worse, she says. “I wouldn’t have money for anything,” she said.

For a real paradox, consider what the policy change was that led to these improvements in the lives of the workers:

Agribusiness really took off in the Ica Valley after a law was enacted in 2000 encouraging outside investment and limiting workers’ rights.

To summarize figuratively, when poor people are taking the first steps on the ladder to prosperity, well-meaning rich people like us should refrain from kicking over their ladder while complaining that there is no express elevator available.

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What’s the effect of aid flows on people “on the ground”*?

I’ve re-delved into the twister world of thesis research and have decided to use this blog as a way to jot down my thoughts…without arrows and with minimal use of numerical orderings (although I read a great article somewhere about an efficient professor who writes all of his email correspondence with numerical ordering and no complete sentences unless absolutely necessary…which I will link as soon I as find it).

Three interesting reads: Aid Chain by Tina Wallace, Lisa Bornstein, and Jennifer Chapmant; “Teach a Man to Fish” by Susan Watkins and Ann Swidler; and More Than Good Intentions by Dean Karlan and Jake Appel

Aid Chain is a relatively short book on the process by which Ugandan and South African NGOs get funding from the UK, the rise and influence of “rational management” and “logframes” on development, and the resulting prioritization and time management problems NGOs face as they need to fill out more and more paperwork, in specific ways, and requiring actions that are at best, reinforce an oversimplified picture of development to donors and at worst, keep time, resources, and attention away from the true clients, the Ugandans and South Africans and their communities that are meant to be helped by the NGO programs.

Positive Feedback: The book provides a very clear story of what’s happening to aid flows by giving a great summary of the history of aid flows. It elucidates very clear linkages between the grant process, what has led to the current grant process from critical theory, economic, and managerial points of view, and what are the wide ranging effects of the current grant process. Most important chapters: 1, 2,3, 4, 6

The authors also clearly give credit where it’s due — telling, even as they’re not able to show (for reasons discussed below) the many years of work and many people heavily involved in the project.

Negative Feedback:  The authors, partially because of interviewee confidentiality constraints, rarely provide specific examples of the negative effects of the current papery, jargony, log-frame filled grant process (a description I’ve summed up from their book, which does not present the process quite so elegantly) and use often vague though effectively scathing critiques.  The book could ultimately be made stronger in its country context chapters on Uganda and South Africa if it could better describe its anonymous NGOs beyond small, medium, and large. Perhaps the fault is partially on the funding and time constraints for which the authors apologize  at the beginning of the book.  Nevertheless, it could have presented specific stories as examples that development workers and donors could recognize. Although the author does make use of the couple of organizations by name, it seems that the authors more successfully showcased their own opinions and agendas on the NGO’s issues than they did the problems of the grant process and aid flows.  For example, using an example of a HIV/AIDS NGO, the authors complain that donors forced condom usage on a village where condom usage clashed with cultural and religious traditions in conservative Uganda. Whether or not that’s true, the example instead of compelling readers, who are of the development workers and donor stock, might quickly the judge the book by their opinions on this contentious issue rather than the important and less controversial meat of the book. Examples speak, fortunately or unfortunately.

A book that uses examples well and is more appreciated by development bloggers than Kristof’s Half the Sky is More than Good Intentions. As Chris Blattman recommends, I will buy it for my mom (or at least lend her my university copy) so that she will finally know what I starting to do with my life. Reads as quickly and compellingly as Kristof’s Half the Sky with a fair bit of evidence for the good programs it highlights. I enjoyed it for the short humorous anecdotes of conversations with the authors’ friends in Africa such as on p 34-35 on Ghanaian women’s addresses (answer: directions by way of landmarks) as well as the conversation (can’t find the page number now) on how many people does a interviewed man live with –different depending on the question you ask him. The book does a wonderful job of showing different logics that are common to individuals from developing countries in a pragmatic and non Western/Eastern or Northern/Southern or Racial way (or any of the other common “excuses”/”explanations”).  And what I think will be especially appreciated by my co-blogger are the explanations of ways to test whether development interventions are working and how, introduction to behavioral economics, and the fun experiment on testing for “trust”. I think the book could have been published differently by having the harder evidence provided as an addendum at the end of each chapter.  The authors could have explained a bit further why some experiments adequately controlled for differences but I guess the book really is geared for the average educated but non research interested Joe (and perhaps I need to get cracking on the appendix).

Finally, Teach a Man to Fish is one of the most interesting, comprehensive and coherent articles I’ve read. (I’m even more psyched that I get to work with the authors this summer). It, like the other two pieces above, encapsulates a lot of the experiences I’ve had interning in South Africa and Tanzania and the authors present their argument in a easily and accessibly logical way. At the same time it manages to achieve a lot of things at once: spin and less radical/mono-disciplinary usage of Foucault, Ferguson and critical theory; makes the policy solution very obvious and provides a space for donors to come to the conclusion because argument stays away from labeling donors evil, neo- colonialist, etc and instead concentrates on side effects and labels them side effects; and it also neatly folds in issues like evidence-based projects, social stratum dynamics, the necessary and realistic uses of patron-clientelism and real (not judged negative) perpetuation of patron clientelism. I’m not really doing the article justice but I do recommend a read.

Basic argument: HIV/AIDS  programs and the goal of sustainable projects by way of local participatory self-reliant groups have failed to create the desired direct effects of sustained local groups that provide HIV/AIDS services because donors, in light of the international ideology of sustainability, pay for training and minimal materials in hopes that groups will rely on their own resources. The indirect effect are societal effects – for the lower classes, the authors show that the development industry and programs have been inserted into already existing expectations that things come and go like the weather. For the middle “interstitial elites”, training has provided language that reinforces their elitism and helps to justify their salary-lessness as they act as volunteers for the projects; training also provides the elites with networks that provide access to patrons. The ebb and flow, competition for NGO salaried positions reinforces the importance of patrons.  The authors even bring in an important and overlooked factor – the overstretched and fragmented work life of the urban elites as elites do not only their jobs, but also often are in charge of meeting with donors, showing off projects, etc making it increasingly difficult to do even one job well.

*”On the Ground” referring to Blood and Milk’s article on calling development areas “the field”, or “on the ground” etc. Good Article, sets up a fun challenge of alternative ways to present working in Malawi this summer.

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