Category Archives: where is that large automobile?

Finding meaning in Africa

I was on the way to Rwanda. My seat mate turned out to be an attractive, obviously wealthy woman, in her mid 50s. Before she even took her seat I knew she was going to be a talker. “Your first time to Africa?” she asked. No no, I’ve spent quite a bit of time there actually. “Oh, I’m going through a really ugly divorce,” she said, getting settled in and buckling her seatbelt, emphasizing “ugly” by widening her eyes. “I’m on a spiritual journey with a group of women. We’re going to see the gorillas and visit projects in Rwanda and Kenya for women victims of rape and violence. I know my life seems hard, but I’m really so lucky to be where I am. I am going to help women in Africa as part of my own healing process. I really need to find meaning and purpose in my life.” I inwardly rolled my eyes, thinking this woman was in no mental or emotional place to help anyone, let alone women who had been battered, raped or otherwise gotten a bad rap in life. I wondered why it was “Africa” that she needed in order to find “meaning and purpose.”

We talked the entire flight, and she kind of grew on me, despite the concerns I had about her reasons for going to “Africa.”

I saw a beautiful woman who had been in an abusive and destructive marriage, had a self-admitted and externally-obvious low self-esteem, a series of plastic surgeries and that kind of wealth- and power-based bad relationship with her children and ex-husband that I’d only seen in movies about rich people. I felt bad for the women that she was going to “help.” I imagined them feeling obliged to be kind to her as she got teary-eyed, bringing her own drama into it, feeling sorry for them, hugging them, “bonding with them,” taking pictures with them and telling them that despite their differences, they had something in common simply because they were women. She wasn’t a bad person, just perhaps misguided. I actually did hope that somehow her trip to “Africa” would help her heal the damage that had been done to her as a beautiful, rich woman from the West Coast of the US. I didn’t agree with her motives, but if she was going to be there anyway, I hoped at least she would come out of it stronger and healthier somehow.

As we parted ways upon arriving to Kigali, we realized that strangely enough, we were on the same flight back to the US, so we arranged to meet in the airport pre-flight for a bite or a beer. I found her at the airport with a group of wealthy, new-agey, middle-aged US women who were, like herself, seeking spiritual healing from Africa. They’d been to see the gorillas. They’d visited Kibera, a large slum in Nairobi. They’d gone through some kind of 5 or 7 or 12-step program to strengthen their womanhood and heal the spiritual and emotional vacuum inside them, to address the emptiness that often comes along with the life of plenty, privilege and pressure that only the wealthy understand.

She gushed about her trip to see the gorillas, and a long discussion ensued with the rest of the women about whether the guide was Hutu or Tutsi, and what that meant, and how they couldn’t help but think he must be Hutu, and they secretly didn’t trust him, though he was actually very intelligent. They talked about how the whole country of Rwanda needed healing. One of the tour operators explained a program that she was running to help women who had been raped “shake.” This “shaking,” she said, cures them of the emotional scars associated with the horrible experiences of having been raped, watching family members killed or otherwise experiencing the terror of living through a genocide. She said a similar program had been very successful in the DRC. I politely smiled and nodded at the appropriate times, feeling uncomfortable.

My airplane friend pulled out her iPhone and started flipping through pictures of gorillas and their adorable babies. Then her eyes welled up. “We went to Kibera” she said. “It’s a terrible place. Oh, these women. You have no idea what they go through. Look at this….” she said. “This girl was raped 7 times.” “This girl, she has HIV and her older sister is all she has left to take care of her.” “This woman started a home for raped girls, she was raped too, 12 times.” She quickly flipped through a series of pictures of girls and women that she had met and who had sad, sad stories that she repeated as if reciting facts from a text-book. I wondered if she saw them as human, or if they were just more photos to document her own experience of seeing the horrors found in “Africa.”

She talked about all her goals of helping these women. She was going to start a charity in Kibera for them and she wanted me to help, since I knew a lot about this kind of thing. I was at a loss for words. I didn’t even know where to start so I smiled and said we’d talk once we got home. We didn’t.

Maybe @kiwanja‘s right, and there should be a “finding Africa gave my life meaning tax.”



Photo from Guebara Graphics photo stream

Here are a few paragraphs on neoliberalism taken from a great Egypt-focused article called “The Revolution against Neoliberalism” by Walter Ambrust:

“Although neoliberalism is now a commonly used term, it is still worth pausing a moment and think[ing] about what it means. In his Brief History of Neoliberalism[1] social geographer David Harvey outlined “a theory of political economic practices that proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms and skills within an institutional framework characterized by strong private property rights, free markets, and free trade.”

Neoliberal states guarantee, by force if necessary, the “proper functioning” of markets; where markets do not exist (for example, in the use of land, water, education, health care, social security, or environmental pollution), then the state should create them. Guaranteeing the sanctity of markets is supposed to be the limit of legitimate state functions, and state interventions should always be subordinate to markets. All human behavior, and not just the production of goods and services, can be reduced to market transactions.

The market becomes an end in an of itself, and since the only legitimate function of states is to defend markets and expand them into new spheres, democracy is a potential problem insofar as people might vote for political and economic choices that impede the unfettered operation of markets, or that reserve spheres of human endeavor (education, for example, or health care) from the logic of markets. Hence a pure neoliberal state would philosophically be empowered to defend markets even from its own citizens. As an ideology neoliberalism is as utopian as communism. The application of utopian neoliberalism in the real world leads to deformed societies as surely as the application of utopian communism did.”

So take a moment and ponder what neoliberalism means, what it implies, and what its effects have been. Apparently it’s not exactly working in a lot of places. I mean, look at Haiti, Central America. Egypt and its neighbors. Look at the United States.

When it comes to the world of aid and development, I get really nervous when I hear people talking about eliminating aid and allowing markets to take over, as if that will just solve everything.  This complete bowing down to the market in every way, shape and form is obviously not working. Aid in its present form is also not exactly working. And the two things are pretty intertwined, feeding off each other….

I don’t have any solutions, just a lot of questions. But what if instead of eliminating “aid”, we eliminated “neoliberalism”? Or we eliminated both and came up with something totally new; something that actually works for the majority.

Driving Development

I went to the supermarket one time with a local colleague in [a country in Africa]. He pointed to a shopping cart like the one in this picture. “That’s how we often do development work,” he said.

“We talk a lot about locally-driven development. We say the community is in the driver’s seat, that there is local ownership.

But if you look a bit more closely, the set-up is more like that shopping cart. You see, the communities may believe that they are driving and we may say the same, but it is often the NGO and the donors who are actually pushing the cart towards their own agendas.”

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That’s why it’s called an accident

I was reading AidWatcher’s post on “Living in Emergency” this morning. The post struck a chord.

One quote says:  Emergencies by definition are sudden, unexpected exceptions to the natural order of things. They are an aberration, a tear in the fabric of normalcy, a disease in an otherwise healthy body. As such they demand urgent action, a quick cure.

It reminded me of driving to work one morning several years ago. A car was coming up behind me really fast as I was leaving the on-ramp to get onto the freeway. I thought “man there’s a crazy person in that car.” Instinctively I let the woman pass me.

Within a few seconds she was head-to-head with a little red car in front of me and she lost control. She recklessly slammed into the car and they both veered to the left side of the freeway.  Then in the confusion she ended up on the other side of the same red car and she sideswiped it again. (And no, I don’t believe any mafia activity was involved!).

The two cars eventually slowed down and pulled over to the side of the road. As a witness, I did also, thinking how close I’d come to being the sideswipee.

The police showed up, a hard ass woman cop.  The woman in the aggressive car seemed to be under the influence of something. The girl who’d been sideswiped was standing there shaking and distraught.

“I don’t know what happened. I wasn’t expecting that at all. It was just so sudden!” she said, in a bit of shock.

The hard-ass woman cop stared at her for a minute and said in a raspy smoker’s voice: “Yeah, well that’s why it’s called an accident.”

I was at a loss for words. What an ass that cop was.

But, she was also totally right.

This is for my Corporates. Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout

This is Lesson 7 in the This is for my Corporates Series.

Click for Lesson 1: Watch your LanguageLesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?Lesson 3: What’s ‘The Field” Got to Do with It?Lesson 4: People are not Props, Lesson 5: How to Kill what your Non-Profit Had Going for It and Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage?.

If you happen to be a big manager at the head office of a big non-profit organization, and you’ve been brought in from the corporate sector to show those wishy-washy bleeding heart non-profit suckas how it’s done, this series* is for you.

Lesson 7: A handout is a handout is a handout.

OK, so you’ve lunched with the head of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) from Giant Corporation X (GCX) a few times now. You’ve attended their annual meeting of women employees and presented to their human resources director and discussed what an employee engagement program might look like. You have a pretty good idea how much you can get from GCX in cash and in kind, and pulling this deal off will bump you up to your personal yearly revenue goal and make your CEO quite happy. GCX normally does Toys for Tots and Support the Troops kind of stuff and you are the one who’s finally gotten them interested in doing something for the kids “over there”.

The head of GCX’s CSR department comes up with a bright idea. Why don’t we send over some holiday gifts! They’ve read The Kristof. They know that girls need sanitary products to keep them in school and in addition, this is a perfect opportunity for GCX to break into the local BOP (Bottom of the Pyramid) market in 3 of their target countries. Maybe some branded tote bags filled with their sanitary products! Or perhaps some branded backpacks filled with a range of their low-end toiletries? Surely a win-win there. Not only will poor people get products to improve their hygiene (toothbrushes, soap, tooth paste) but they will also be exposed to GCX’s brand! Or perhaps a 1 for 1 campaign – for every blond plastic doll you buy, CGX will donate one to a poor girl and the gifter will get a jointly branded thank you letter back from the poor girl showing some gratitude. (GCX employees really don’t trust charities and this is a great way to both prove that the dolls are actually arriving into the hands of the impoverished girls and to make the gifters feel that warm glow of charity do-gooding.)

GCX will also send over their 3-member PR team and one lucky employee do-gooder (chosen through an employee sales contest or some other motivating internal initiative) to do some video and photo shoots for their monthly magazine, featuring your joint program to give gifts to the needy. It will be great PR. You’ll go to a “Development Lite” country (the Dominican Republic is always a good choice) for the trip —  small country with low crime rates, easy-to-reach extremely poor communities near the capital, beautiful hotels and nice beaches, and a quick flight from the US….

Sweet deal, and you are golden.

That is, until the program team gets wind of your success. Damn haters. They give you crap about the idea and you’re at a total loss as to why. Who could be so cold-hearted that they would refuse families hygiene products, or girls sanitary pads or children their Christmas gifts? And this arrangement is so clearly an entry level deal that can lead to so much more.

Well, let me tell you a secret – A handout is a handout is a handout.

And your program staff are pissed because they know that you will probably win out in the end. After all, your organization is struggling in this economy, and the branding and potential additional funds that this handout program can offer will be quite hard to ignore.

But we’ve known for a very long time that handouts are bad for development. They destroy community development work because they confirm the illusion that people from the outside will come in to give things away and resolve community problems. Read about halfway down in this article for one example of how Tom’s Shoes’ Buy-One-Give-One project has created a mythological idea that families don’t need to prioritize shoes for their children because outsiders will eventually come in and hand them out.

Handouts mean that people stop working to improve things for themselves, and they wait for someone to come in and do it for them. Handouts mean that communities don’t own their own development, and they are not finding sustainable solutions to their predicaments. Handouts don’t help, they hurt. Your colleagues in program are thinking long-term, not short-term, and they are trying to get communities to do the same.

Handouts not only spoil the hard work that your organization has been doing since the 1970s or 80s to move away from a method that set back communities around the world, but they ruin the chances of any other NGO, community based organization, government program or motivated local community member or group to get the community to move forward on its own.

Handouts don’t help people’s dignity and self-esteem, they reinforce the idea that people can’t help themselves.

Corporate handout programs might be a short-term gain for you and for recipients of the handouts, but they represent a long-term loss for community self-sufficiency, which is the ultimate goal of most development programs. Think about it. Is that what you really want to support?

In addition, handouts of products and openly pushing particular brands and products is ethically questionable. Especially if by accepting an agreement to work with GCX you are locked out of working with Giant Corporation Y (GCY) or with a local provider of the same products, or if your employees effectively become brand ambassadors for GCX or GCY, regardless of their products’ fit with the local context or the unfair competition that GCX or GCY might be giving to the local producers of such products.

Corporations are looking for short- medium- and long-term gain when they engage with non-profits. So why are non-profits often looking only at the short-term financial gain when they negotiate with corporations instead of thinking about the long-term impact that a corporate handout program can have on community development? Are corporations really that much smarter than non-profits? Come on, people.

Good development programs stopped doing handouts years ago and it’s been a long, slow struggle for communities to recover from them. Supporting handouts via a corporate partnership is no different than doing them via the normal budget.

So do successful and sustainable programs a favor. When you see the handout initiatives coming, redirect GCX and GCY to something else. Use your creativity to reorient their handout idea towards a different idea that will not set the work in the community back by 30 years.


More Lessons in the This is for my Corporates series:

Lesson 1: Watch your language

Lesson 2: Y’all really believe in that vision sh*t?

Lesson 3: What’s “the Field” got to do with it?

Lesson 4: People are not props

Lesson 5: How to kill what your non-profit had going for it

Lesson 6: Win-win or Forced Marriage?

*The Lessons here are based on carefully recorded participant/observation sessions among myself and subjects working in a variety of non-profit settings. In order to qualify as a “Lesson Topic” each conversation point must have been heard at least a dozen times per year over a 15 year period. New Lesson Topics are being compounded daily. If you would like to suggest a topic, hit me up.