Pictures from Senegal

Monday, July 19

Development Work

My experience with development work is extremely lacking, and probably a bit narrow in focus. I preface this piece by saying that everything I talk about has been observed only here in Senegal. But somehow, I get the feeling we (me and the inhabitants of Mboro) aren’t alone. I’ve mentioned the women’s group before, and I use them as my best example to describe the chaos:
The women, like most villages or groups, were initially partnered with this or that organization from some North American or European country. Things were kicked off with construction of a lovely building, installation of all the latest equipment, and the purchase of raw materials. At this point, the 1st world partners deem the project a success. They take pictures, hold ceremonies, report to people back home, and move on to the next project… but the work has only just begun.

I see time and time again, things get set up and left for the masses to prosper… except that everything given to them is new and foreign. Perhaps they never wanted it in the first place, so they ignore what was given. Westerners import our way of life and give it to the people to “make their lives better.” What we fail to see is that these are people who have their own way about things. One tiny example is the potato peeler I gave my mom. It’s faster for me to use because I’ve been doing it all my life. But she uses a paring knife, and is thus faster with that. Not to mention the fact that she thinks my peeler is a bit ridiculous because it has only one function. At least with her knife she can then cut the potatoes afterwards…

Another pit fall to the ‘set up and go’ style of development is that perhaps the people have no idea how to operate or maintain the project results, so at the first sign of problem nearly all is lost. I’ve heard stories of water towers rendered entirely useless (if not a hindering) to the whole town because no one knew the problem was a simple change in lever. This is more ludicrous in my mind than the potato peeler because if the developers had stuck around long enough to give the proper training, the women wouldn’t have to walk so much farther just to pull water from the well outside town… the closest point of water not connected to the useless tower.

Please, don’t be discouraged yet because the list of problems does continue. As an American I grew up with the idea that to grow requires investment. A business can’t get bigger unless you buy more machines to make more products to sell and earn more profit. I therefore figure that a developing country is somehow similar. You need to invest in the ability to produce what is needed. (Probably more important is the need to invest in education, but I’ll get to that). Unfortunately, the agencies that come in and do the investing do just that and nothing more. They don’t take the time to explain our mentality of ‘invest to grow,’ thus our third problem is the reinforced mentality that in order to rise above poverty the people need to be first given something. The people stand around with their hands out waiting for their chance because from their point of view it’s only the people that receive that make it in life. They fail to see what I do: that ‘invest to grow’ mentality where by which the bigger the initial investment the faster the elimination of poverty. It makes sense in our minds, I realize that, but it’s not translating properly.

The fastest feel good way to help a cause is to give money. Money goes a long way in developing countries… but there is a limit. If you only give money, the people only get a water tower. They don’t get the training to use and properly maintain the water tower. Education is the perhaps my biggest complaint with development as an industry. Educate the people in our philosophies; explain why investment leads to prosperity. Educate the people with the skills they don’t have. If you do something for someone once, whatever was needed will get done. The problem is technically solved. But you haven’t done anything to help that person long term. What happens when the same problem arises again after you’ve gone?

Does anyone remember that old ABC Warehouse commercial? The one where they used the quote “Give a man a fish, he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, he eats for a lifetime” and then went on to sell him an oven and he’ll eat better. Or something like that. The point is: my opinion of Peace Corps is just that. I’m happy to teach you how to do something. Here’s how to use a computer and create an email account… now you can keep in contact with business partners. Here’s how you make a promotional flyer… now you can market your products better. Here’s how to create a business (with a model or plan)… now you can open that boutique.

Unfortunately, I’m constantly battling the people with their hands out. I need to sift through the people with an arbitrary hand out to those who are truly motivated. I need to find people willing to put in the time and effort to learn a new skill, as opposed to those who just want something done for them. However, it needs to be said that sometimes, I do need to just bite the bullet and do it myself. Back to the women’s groups: they don’t understand what I mean when I say we should create a promotional flyer for their open house this week. They don’t know what one is. It would take way too long to explain marketing and promotional materials (and their benefits), more time than we have before the event. Therefore, I need to just do it myself. And then hopefully, they will see what I’m speaking of, get excited, and ask me to teach them more. “Hopefully” is quite a dangerous word here. Or maybe I’m confusing dangerous with open ended. I hope a lot of things happen… but if I can get just one good idea or project cranked out then perhaps my stint in Mboro will be that much more successful when compared to the above relayed stories of development. Hopefully.

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