Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What is Development to me?

"You have a great placement"

This is what my friend Hans told me after spending a couple of days at my place since he was temporarily homeless in Lusaka because the house he was living in was sold and his landlord inconveniently forgot to inform him.

The word placement shocked me. I really don't think of it as a 'placement', to me its become my life, and I have to agree, I have a great life.

Why am I here?

I'm here because I care and I feel I have something to contribute to development. (and the thought of returning to Canada to engage in a job that doesn't directly contribute... sorta frightens me)

What is development to me?

Not exactly sure, but if I start with the basics - I feel that everyone wants friends, health, knowledge and a decent income. (friends are plentiful, so I figure its about having a job, healthcare & education) Problem is that not everyone has access to these, nor do they have the power to gain access.

So this results in two fundamental things. 1 - power, 2 - ability to get power. Since you can get number 1 if you have number 2, then I guess even more fundamentally, development is allowing people the ability to get power.

What gives you power? Of course this depends on the situation. It could be your wealth, or it could be your age, gender, education, language, good looks (or other characteristics like strength, athleticism, musical talent, etc), your nationality, race, religion, location, caste or even your friends. In Canada the amount by which any of these can empower a person is different than it is in Zambia. Race, religion and age in Canada mean relatively little compared to what they mean in Zambia. Many of these are things you are born with, others you can obtain, but to obtain them you often need to have access to health care, education or a good job. Back to square one.

Wealth is the usually the easiest to translate into power regardless of the situation.

(As an aside - I feel healthcare and education are critical to a good life and the basic levels are very much the role of government. But if your government isn’t capable of providing this, then development projects should fill this gap.)

A solution that actually works?

There are a few organizations here that are funded by Canadians/westerners and are hoping to address the issue of income generation. The magical formula which has worked in the past, goes something like this. Paul and his wife Samantha are farmers that live in a village, they have 2 hectares of land to grow corn, peanuts and vegetables along with a few chickens and cows. They don't have access to health care or good education for their kids, plus they have no savings. But, life is actually pretty good right now, there is food, shelter and you can hear laughter coming from the kids playing outside. This is the case until someone gets sick or there is a drought or a flood. They have very little capital to deal with problems.

Now for the magical part: all you have to do is introduce them to someone who wants to buy something they are producing, this will allow them to save some money (aka. connect them to a market). Or introduce them to someone selling seeds or fertilizer or vet services so they can produce more to save some money (aka. access to better inputs). Or even better, have Paul and Samantha create a cooperative with all their neighbours so they can save money by bulking their inputs or crops to save on transportation costs.

My impression is that there are hundreds of organizations across Africa trying to do one of or all of these things.

It is a bit like a dating service, the organization searches for sellers and looks for buyers and then introduces the two. Of course its not so simple, they also have to facilitate the process and remove some of the risk that exists on both sides so that in the event that it doesn't work out, they haven't actually made things worse. And to make it even more difficult, the organization is on a contract with a donor who has given just enough money to get it right in 2 or 3 seasons.

A common problem is that the organization ends up not only facilitating these relationships, they actually become an integral part of the the role of the telephone, without them, the buyer and seller don't communicate and so after 3 years with some successes, the donor feels good and the org. is happy but if you check in a year or two later you find that the relationships fell apart and it was all for not. Another common problem is the org. becomes the transportation from the field to town, which again is a critical function. Either way, there is pressure from the donor for results, and there is pressure to 'buy-down' the risks to the farmers, so the org. ends up stepping in and becoming part of the relationship and the whole thing becomes unsustainable.

1 year after the project ends, Samantha and Paul are no better off and the org. is out looking for more funding to start another project. Oh ya, and the donor feels good because they were told that the results were good.

Donor => pretty happy (seems to be good results, don't need to give any more money)
Org. => sorta happy (they had good paying jobs for 3 years)
Farmers => hardly happy (lot of effort into changing lives, few benefits seen)

Is there a way all three stakeholders can be really happy?


What can be sustainable?

It's only a theory, but I think more organizations should just accept that they will become part of the relationship and they should try to make money doing it. If they aren't able to make money at it, then how do they expect a business to make money at it? Whether its transportation, personal contacts, food processing, access to inputs...whatever it is, an organization that employs educated people and is able to invest some money in the activity, is much better suited to turn a profit than a business that is already strapped for time, labour and investment capital. If the organization is successful, they can use the profits for funding a new project or they can streamline the operation and put it up for sale, and maybe even one of the employees will see that they can make a living from it?

If a profit can be made, then everyone is really happy.


If not, then something different should be done, but at least there are no false impressions about sustainability.

The current system is blind, no one knows how to measure success accurately and therefore it makes learning very difficult.

Where I fit

My partner organization is called Forest Fruits. It is a private enterprise which provides training, inputs, transportation, communication, processing, exporting and soon bottling. As a whole, it is profitable and therefore sustainable. It is buying from 6000 farmers who earn about $1 a day and just maybe the extra income allows them to save up a little for their future.

In essence, the 6000 farmers use to have no choice in where to sell there goods. Now, every year, Forest Fruits shows up and offers to buy their products. ie. A business now wants what they have, and to me, this is empowerment.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Kickin it by the Lake

A couple weeks ago, I was pealed away from my work here in the capital city (Lusaka) to go on a 10 day excursion involving 2 countries, 20 Candians and 2 EWB retreats. After regretting the idea of being away from work for such a long time, I quickly got over it when we arrived at our destination on Lake Malawi.

The restaurant on Senga Bay is an old house without a roof!

A picture of the restaurant from 'outside'.

The EWB Longterm Volunteer Crew.

So then it was back to Zambia for the short term volunteer retreat. I thought there was no way it could get any better than Senga Bay in Malawi, but I was proven wrong. The location is right on a point that juts out into Lake Kariba, and is part of a town called Siavonga. The owner is an architect of some sort and has built a house for his wife and three kids which looks a bit like a castle. They run a children's inspirational camp here and is a development project.

The owner's house at the camp in Siavonga.

The fire pit sits right on the point and is beside an Amarula fruit tree.

Looking out at Lake Kariba from our "meeting room" in Siavonga.

Up and coming is the potential that I'll have a work visa in my hands within a week, and this Sunday me and some EWB folk will be having dinner with Ian Smillie.