Monday, February 28, 2011

Less Than Exciting

I'm in Bamako for a few days to get some paperwork done and to do a one day training module on hand-drilling boreholes for water wells. So far I've used my time effectively by going to the bar, paying the PC medical officer a visit to poop in a cup, having a conversation with a staff person in which I failed to find any logic, and watching two documentaries that recently came out. "Gasland" and "Restrepo". The first is about the terrible detrimental effects gas exploration is having on the environment in the US. The second is about a platoon of US soldiers that were deployed in the Korengal Valley in Afghanistan, said to be one of the most deadly places on earth.

As you can imagine, neither of these documentaries do much to create a mood of happiness and joy. Rather, they are much the opposite, and present a message of how ridiculous and terrible humanity can be sometimes. It got me to thinking about my present situation and the world in general.

Let's start with sugar. It's something most people in the past few hundred years have come to enjoy, and the story is no different in Mali. In fact, sugar is actually produced in Mali. You can take a drive a little over an hour north of my village and find yourself in massive sugar cane fields, which is a little weird when you first see it after seeing much of the rest of the region. Anyways, the point I'm trying to make is that up until fairly recently, even though sugar was literally produced just up the road from me, all the sugar sold in my village (a lot btw) actually came from other African countries or continents (Brazil mostly). This was because the imported sugar was actually selling at a lower price, and this would still probably be the case if merchants and other interests in Mali hadn't finally sat down and discussed that it might make sense for the country to consume something it was producing itself rather than have it shipped over from South America. Something about that just doesn't seem right. I know it all comes down to economics, etc., but still... And the thing is stuff like this is happening all over the world with lots of different things (mostly commodities).

Moving on... how about foreign aid. I have to be honest, but as an aid worker myself, I'm really starting to loose faith in the system. We in the West are so caught up with having measurable results and concrete examples of work done that I think we've lost focus. We now go for what looks good, not what is actually doing any good. What do I mean? Every project funding proposal or report I've had to fill out here always asks in meticulous detail how many kids, women, men, community leaders, goats, etc. that my work is engaging. Yes, it's good to have statistics and keep track of things, but I think all aid organizations really care about saying these days is things like, "We've distributed 100,000 mosquito nets in the past 5 years" or "We've educated over 50,000 women on the importance of early childhood nutrition". Yeah, they want to help people, but it's also about who has the biggest bragging rights. I'd like to know how many of those mosquito nets are actually being used and how many mothers actually make any serious attempt to provide their children with more nutritious meals. It seems that once the aid is distributed, the organization responsible feels their work is done, and doesn't pay much attention to the aid's actual effectiveness or retention.

A perfect example... A major NGO in my area recently built a new road to connect several villages in order to improve transportation of goods and to link up several health clinics that they've built in recent years. At several points along the road there are culverts or paved depressions for water to cross over or under the road during rainy season to prevent the road from washing away. They also planted thousands of trees along the road so that eventually they will provide shade and a wind break. Since then several people have thought it would be a good idea to intentionally drive their ox carts over all the trees, repeatedly, which are now obviously destroyed. And, no one uses the culverts or paved depressions. They literally drive off the road and go around them. I find that fabulous. And as a side note icing on the cake... all the health clinics are supplied with a product called Plumpy Nut, which is intended to be distributed for free as a dietary supplement for severely malnourished children, but at least in my village the doctors don't distribute it and eat it themselves... but I'm willing to guess the clinic's supply inventory simply shows that the product is being consumed, which of course to the funding agency means that they've just helped X number of malnourished children.

I'll even take a turn to be critical of myself. I was recently talking with one of my sisters who inquired what exactly I was up to these days in village. I explained that I am building several wells and two dozen latrines, both of which are lined with concrete bricks to keep them from collapsing. My sister then asked if this is work that will be continued once I am gone. I unfortunately had to admit that I don't think so. It's not because the villagers I am working with don't see the merit of lining a latrine or well with concrete so it doesn't collapse on them... they just don't see any value in prioritizing how they spend, or more importantly save what little money they are able to earn. The result is that most likely no one in village will utilize the construction techniques I am introducing simply because they will never save up enough money to do it themselves. I am essentially teaching people how to fish who never have any intention of buying a fishing pole. But at least the kinds of structures I am building will have a significant impact on the community for the next decade or so, which is a bit of a consolation.

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