Make Sure That What You Do Contributes to REAL Change
30.08.2014 - 30.08.2014 83 °F
I had hoped to do a series of articles focusing on the need for development and assistance in Africa. But I have discovered that the topic is immense, deep and complex. I still don't know enough to help me choose my path, but when my arm was broken, I experienced first-hand (or first-arm, ha ha!) that the medical services are seriously limited and I saw over and over the curtain of privilege that shields tourists from the realities of sanitation and water.
In Tanzania, the intelligent locals I met lamented the poor school system and yearned for better education opportunities. The educational programs are not free and the majority of Tanzanians are lucky to finish basic studies. High school is usually out of reach due to costs and entrance requirements. The quality of education in the schools whether in a village or in a city is generally very poor. Teachers who teach in English often do not have command of the language. Children usually start school without a command of Swahili as tribal affiliations and languages are still strong. In the end, many finish school being trilingual in English, Swahili and their tribal language, but unfortunately, their education has often suffered as a result. And perhaps more unfortunately, even those who succeed in obtaining a high school diploma or university degree will not find jobs that use their education...if they even get any job at all. Unemployment in all of Africa is zooming. Each country is unique in its circumstances, but Tanzania-- a safe, stable country in East Africa-- has been severely impacted by the terrorism in nearby Kenya and the Ebola in West Africa. Most people have so little knowledge of Africa, they do not realize that it is not a country-- it is a large continent with many countries and the differences and distances are great.
There are many groups and organizations trying to help break the cycle of poverty in Africa. Of the twenty poorest countries in the world, only two (Afghanistan and Haiti) are not in Africa. Most organizations have put a lot of thought into what they should focus on to address poverty in a way that would be most productive. Many NGO's concentrate on bringing in volunteers, but this system often does more harm as eager volunteers may be taking jobs away from locals and they may be straining local resources (food, water, etc.). A volunteer English teacher that will work for free (or more likely pay for the privilege of being a volunteer) may displace a local teacher. As one NGO that builds schools says on their website-- there are plenty of unskilled workers here to do this job; we need money not labor.
Clean water and sanitation is a big focus, as is education. But sometimes, there are more specific needs in an area...perhaps energy for production (solar panels are increasingly popular) or improved farming and agricultural methods, Other groups focus on the poorest (women with children) and provide micro-loans to develop cottage industries or other ways to assist in creating ways to earn an income. Some organizations already have a focus like WaterAid (water and sanitation) and just concentrate on that. Others try to focus on two to four of what they see as the most critical issues or evaluate individual locations for what they need most (or better yet, ask the locals to help identify what they see as their most critical areas of need). Other groups may be well-meaning, but due to lack of experience and expertise and an excess of desire to help or do something, they flounder around trying to do everything and accomplishing very little.
Many NGO's are created by individuals who came as tourists and were deeply affected by what they had seen. Some NGO's are created by locals in partnership with a foreigner that originally came as a tourist/traveler/employee to the country, but stayed due to a developing relationship often ending in marriage. These are usually money-making programs that support the couple and their family, but most have some component that promotes cross-cultural education and gives back to the community in someway by providing volunteers in schools/orphanages, building schools, digging wells, home-stay income for locals, etc. The best example of an NGO that I saw in Arusha was KATZ (www.katzvolunteeradventure.com). This is a partnership between a Tanzanian and an Australian who live in Arusha. The organization does not charge inflated prices for volunteer placement and is very transparent on their website as to where the money goes. They were located near my first garden apartment and had a steady stream of happy volunteers who also had access to the safari component of the partnership. Another type of NGO is developed by those who have left their country, but still have family and/or community there that they want to help.
I'll be leaving Africa soon and I have been pulled into many discussions about developing an NGO. It is an idea that is still floating around. I had an epiphany when I was in Nairobi being treated for my broken arm that perhaps my fate was to return to Arusha and develop heath services or a network that would share costly medical equipment. But my broken arm is almost healed, my Tanzanian visa is about to run out and I have an RTW that I would like to finish if possible before I take on a project.
But let me just encourage those that want to help to think very carefully in choosing a program. NGO's abound. Sometimes the NGO component is attached to a money making project that is the primary purpose. No problem with this as long as the money for the NGO is kept separate and used appropriately and efficiently for that purpose. In Arusha, many companies combine a money-making safari program with a non-profit volunteer program that supports education or health projects. But other volunteer and cultural experience programs are thinly veiled money-makers for the creators some of which don't even live in the country (so the money follows them rather than staying in Africa). Make sure the money and efforts are going where they are supposed to go. A good company is transparent and shows their annual budgets and where the money goes. Do your research before committing your money or your time. Try to choose a local run program that provides jobs to locals so all the money stays in the country.
One program I have been following is Mission Africa [full disclosure, I am friends with the Executive Director and founder]. Mission Africa is primarily focused on Nigeria, but more recently has partnered with other NGO's in Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda and Gambia. I personally don't usually support non-profits that involve religion, but after living in Tanzania for almost six months-- I have a different view when it comes to the work in Africa. Christianity is an integral part of people's lives in Tanzania in a way that is seldom seen in the United States. For more about this organization, you can view the website at www.missionafrica.us. The Executive Director, Ndudi Chuku recently did a TV interview with Rainmakers; watching it will give you more insight than reading something written by me. There's a link on the website's homepage for this YouTube clip titled "Nigerian Woman Helps Her Country".
Africa is poor in a way that most readers cannot imagine. Please read my blog "I Move to a New Garden Apartment" for a small glimpse and watch the interview with Ndudi-- maybe you will be motivated to help make a change too. In the meantime, I hope to figure out a way to help that is right for me.
Side Note/Update: Recently, while volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand, I took a tour of a nearby school. It was primarily a boarding school for children in distant mountain villages, but most of the children of the local mahouts (elephant attendants) who are Burmese attend there, too. It was such a contrast to the last school I had seen which was in Tanzania. This school was full of color from the floor (with shining clean green tiles) to the walls (covered with artwork and pictures) to the ceilings (electric lights and mobiles). There were covered walkways and a nice large patio/play area. In addition to the standard curriculum and English, all students were taught a job skill. Vocational choices included simple tourist related industries like piloting a boat, making drinks and cookies, making beaded jewelry, learning traditional dance and music, and massage. On visiting day at each 'business', guests could buy refreshments at the coffee shop, get a massage, buy a bracelet, etc. This money contributed to scholarships and resources for the school. The stark difference of this school with so many resources for poor children from the mountain villages caused me to suddenly burst into tears. My friend Valerie was shocked and tried to calm and comfort me. The students nearby became concerned...but I couldn't stop. It was just such a cruel contrast. Even as I write this weeks later, the tears in my eyes return.