Saturday, May 4, 2013

Do Handouts Actually Help?

My counterpart Amadou asked me the other night why I had [student loan] debt when my country spends so much money on education in other countries. I must say I was more troubled that an uneducated man in Senegal made this realization on his own than the fact that we can’t even get our own politicians on board with the notion of affordable secondary education. This question, and the fact that Peace Corps Senegal is celebrating 50 years in country this year, made me think about how valuable our money and time is being spent here in Africa. We are one of the longest standing programs in all of Peace Corps and we have a lot to show for it. Thousands of people around the world can say that they have made Senegal their home for a small period in their life, worked to improve development in the country and were given the opportunity to better understand and integrate with local culture. With all the projects the Peace Corps has been involved with there has been those that required no funding (or funding from our own stipends) and there have been those that benefited from grants, from not only American organizations but those all around the world. With all the money that we are seeing being pumped into Africa we are left with the question, do handouts actually help?
Handouts may be a strong word, though it is a synonym of aid according to the dictionary on my computer, but after working in Velingara for around nine months I feel that it is more than suitable. Right after you install they always say that work is slow but projects will come and I would have to agree. The first few months that I was in Velingara I had a little more on my plate than the average Jo because I had the project that my predecessor started, but it was by no means enough to fill my time. I went from working 50 hours plus a week in Minneapolis to about five hours a week in Senegal, if I was lucky, and it was a difficult adjustment. Though it sounds like a great time to sleep in, catch up on the news or read the latest books, any normal person would go crazy after about a week of this schedule. But there comes a time at site that everything just seems to come together, language is better, you have some sort of a routine and the projects are seemingly endless. With these endless projects comes endless questions and headaches concerning how exactly you are going to get these great ideas off the ground, also known as who is going to pay for it?
The approach to aid is different depending on the organization but here is a bit of information based on my experience with the Peace Corps. There are many options for funding projects depending on the project, who the beneficiaries are and the time of year. It is almost too easy to write a grant and submit it to Peace Corps to get help in funding through a few different donors requiring very little on the side of the local population. Sure the grants require a community contribution, usually 25%, but these donations can be in-kind so it usually ends up being lodging (people staying with family) or training rooms (grab the nearest empty classroom). The community contribution was meant to make the community accountable and provide for some of the project but as you can see it doesn’t really prove to be demanding on their part, financially or otherwise.
Though I have personally written a grant for a project I don’t necessarily believe in handing out money for things that the community should be able to pay for, it is just that I am already asking money from the Mayor’s Office and didn’t want my youth project to affect the chances of funding for my other projects. I have worked with the Mayor’s Office a lot recently trying to secure funding for our waste management project (which is officially broke and I just found out that we were not a registered business though everyone told me we were- remind me to blog about lying later) and I have seen plenty of room within the city budget, if it were managed properly, to allocate money to these small scale projects that benefit the community. One major reason why the city does not have as much funding as they desire is a simple concept that is usually a hit or miss with the audience, taxes. Though they are not fun to pay, nobody complains when primary education is free, a road is repaired, a park is built or a homeless family is fed. We as Peace Corps Volunteers work with securing funding for projects similar to those listed, things that the community members and governing parties should be responsible for paying for but don’t. As a result of poor management and lack of country revenue generated from the population, countries from all over the world not only help these suffering communities with projects but straight up give cash to governments having faith that they will then allocate the funds rightfully. As we see right here in Senegal 1) mainly the capital city, along with a few other cities few and far between, have paved roads, 2) every household is required to pay dues for their children to go to school to cover institutional costs and if the family is poor don’t count on their children being educated, 3) parks are nothing more than shaded areas of sand to be kept clean by community groups who are sick of looking at the trash and 4) families who are unable to eat are left with begging, or starving, as there are not many other options.
This anniversary of Peace Corps Senegal has left me with questions of how much of an impact are we actually having here? If we are in fact doing as much good as we think we are why have we been here for 50 years and why are we still needed for years to come? Why have basic systems, education and tax comes to mind first, not developed in a way to improve and help society? Why have we not created enough leaders or sustainable projects that we are forced to have volunteers year after year in the same villages? Why do people continue to think and use us as a financial crutch without any desire to become independent?
I have been researching the impact that aid is having in Africa and I must stay that though the results vary there is a big consensus that we are doing more harm than good, and I can’t agree more. Daniel Hannan wrote a blog post, Stop giving us aid, say Africans, where he interviewed a Nigerian man, Thompson Ayodele, concerning aid in Africa. “It discourages enterprise, fosters dependency and bolsters corrupt regimes” he explains, later stating that, “never mind that aid shields recipient governments from the consequences of their policy failures: the key thing, for Lefties, is to show that you're a caring person.” Hannan replies with a tangible argument, “the trouble is that if conservatives announced that they were going to cut overseas aid budgets, not everyone would believe that they were doing so as a result of Thompson's cogent philosophy. They would be accused, rather, of doing it because they were selfish or because they didn't care about people whose skins were darker than theirs. Hence, perhaps, my party's determination, at a time of general economic retrenchment, explicitly to guarantee the international development budget against future cuts.” His points in the article are spot on and proves that though we all have it in our hearts to want to help we need to decide what is actually helping, no matter what the critics say. Dambisa Moyo, a Zambian economist, states in the article Stop giving aid to Africa. It’s just not working on that “development aid simply doesn’t work…it is supposed to lead to sustainable economic growth and a reduction in poverty. Name one African country where this has happened.” When asked what are the consequences of aid she states that “first and foremost the widespread corruption. The people in power plunder the treasury and the treasury is filled with development aid money. The corruption has contaminated the whole society. Aid leads to bureaucracy and inflation, to laziness and inertia. Aid hurts exports. Thanks to foreign aid the people in power can afford not to care about their people. But the worst part of it is: aid undermines growth. The economies of those countries that are the most dependent on foreign aid have shrunk by an average of 0.2 percent per year ever since the seventies.” Moyo’s approach to the problem is to pull aid all together stating that, “only the elite will feel the pain. The poor won’t even notice the difference. It’s not like they ever saw any of that money anyway.”
Development is much more complex than giving money to fund projects in small villages. There must be sustainability within projects, knowledge learned and kept in the community, a sense of ownership for the project and financial involvement by local authorities. The research that I have done lately made me believe in what we are doing here but maybe we should be giving less money to governments to do with as they please and spend more of it on our own citizens. There are many more articles just like these ones and I challenge you to go out and do your own research on the topic.

*Repost this blog, email it to a friend, or mention it in social media if you want to help keep some of the money we send overseas in our own country, specifically working towards making education affordable.


Kari Cinker said...

How insightful. I've always heard of the point of view to stop giving aid to Africa as it does more harm than good (on the news every once in awhile, etc) but it's very interesting you are seeing it first hand. Amadou has brought up a very good point and 'good on you' (Kiwi expression) for doing the research. Loved the post.


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