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"I Want To Do Something To Help" - How Best To Help Africans Help Themselves
By Rita Rayman,
Co-Founder, The Guardian Project
“I want to do something to help.”
An oft heard phrase uttered in compassionate response to witnessing poverty and struggle.
But how, in fact, does one help...especially in Africa where decades of financial aid seem only to have stifled development, created a culture of corruption, as well as generations with their hands out, saying “give me money.”
Not long ago, Tony Wheeler, a leader in the travel guide industry questioned if, and I quote,"...it wouldn’t be even more efficient just to hand money out? Then the local recipients could decide... the best use ... for the dollars?"
Hmmm, how best to help Africans help themselves?
A question that has perplexed countless so-called experts for decades.
I have spoken to all manner of people from all strata of African life- bankers, farmers, merchants, artists, teachers, doctors, lawyers, service industry workers and even local aid workers, from 10 different African countries over the course of more than 15 months of immersion in African life over the last 6 years.
I cannot find anyone who thinks it would be more efficient just to hand out money.
In fact, it’s the exact opposite.
All seem to agree that a cash handout is mostly ineffective and problematic, often described as a quick fix for well-meaning but ignorant westerners to feel good for having 'done something to help’.
The overwhelming majority felt that the question is typical of the West's lack of insight or understanding of rural African culture.
Nassim Nicholas Taleb, in his 2012 book Antifragility, calls it ‘naive interventionism: an urge to help that results in doing more harm than good’.
Unfettered access to someone else’s cash is seen as a recipe for disappointment and even disaster.
Cash, most seem to agree, is the number 1 cause of corruption and exacerbates conflict at all levels.
Even micro-finance has a complicated history in Africa. And here too, corruption infiltrates.
Rural Africans are, like the rest of us, dreaming of a life beyond their present reality but without the credit cards or relative income security that we have to realize those dreams.
I’ve been told repeatedly that COMMUNITY is the cornerstone of agricultural life in Africa, by necessity.
Community members are quick to tell you that cash separates, isolates and creates conflict among community members.
The last thing I think we would want to do is create more of a problem than a solution. Handing out cash doesn’t promote a strengthened community. It will draw individuals like moths to a flame. And most Africans will tell you that the laziest will be first in line.
Having made no effort to earn it, the money is like a lottery win. Immediate gain = immediate reward. And we are all very familiar with the statistics of lottery winners in the West, who mostly waste the money in a surprisingly short time.
Men and women, young and old, tell me cash will most often be spent on immediate gratification, all too often with nothing more than a hangover for men to mark the fact that they’re exactly where they were when they started; perhaps wiser, but without the benefit of a "next time”. Even if a mother spends the money on this year’s school fees, or healthcare, a mattress or even a new roof, that’s it. It is money spent on immediate needs, rather than establishing a sustainable way to pay for those and future needs. Unless the expectation is that we continue the present Western aid model of merely returning with yet more cash.
And donations of goods, from toothbrushes to mosquito nets, farming tools and second- hand laptops, sent from the West through aid organizations or crammed into suitcases by well-meaning tourists, only stifle the development of a local economy, or worse, put local businesses out of business.
And I’m sure we all agree that hand-outs strip people of their dignity and independence and only reinforce western paternalism. Better to encourage a means to purchase those goods locally, thereby strengthening the economy and creating jobs.
We can best help by supporting initiatives geared toward the community’s continued development and with our redundancy built-in. Honourable Mr. Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda, continually encourages the Rwandan people to work for the day when they will see the last NGO leave the country.
But rural communities are the first to admit that any form of long-term planning is a difficult concept for people who live hand to mouth.
A need for SENSITIZATION TO SUSTAINABLE PRACTICE are the words we hear over and over again.
A shift from hand-to-mouth to long-term thinking, spear-headed by community leaders, is a perspective taking root, often, they say, thanks to the success of grassroots initiatives, kick-starting a move toward a sustainable, scalable end. For example, providing farmers with female goats and/or sheep and teaching them to compost the animal manure into free, sustainable, healthy, organic fertilizer to increase crop yield, along with the animal husbandry that results, all provide income security to pay for present and future needs, whatever the community members may decide those needs are, earned through their own hard work.
Having animals, they learn, is like having cash in the bank. And that income security allows for small entrepreneurial initiatives without risking all or continued need for someone else’s cash. And the eyes of the extended community are on initiatives like these, providing education and insight...and over-sight.
Building in a pay-forward component guarantees that their turn will come, and that people are helping their own community, not looking to foreigners to do so. Understanding this pay forward component, all these communities are ensured continued growth and expansion, lifting as they rise. Scalability without the need for continued cash injections.
How dignified and pride-inducing for one neighbour to be able to provide an opportunity to another, thus breaking the paternal ties with the West.
Freelance Writer & Travel Consultant
Co-Founder, The Shit Starts Here - A Guardian Project Initiative in East Africa Endorsed by Dr. Jane Goodall
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