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Kenya - Development Aid

'(Neil Alcock) believed in African farmers, and thought they were quite wise enough to devise solutions to their own problems. Such solutions, moreover, were the only ones that would work - African solutions, using African methods and African technologies. As Neil saw it, the role of a Western man, an educated man, was to place himself and his skills at the disposal of the peasantry - to stop dictating and to start advising. He also thought some patience was called for. A two-year tour of duty in some famine-stricken African hellhole clearly helped no one...'
My Traitor's Heart - Rian Malan

Development Aid
On my journey through the continent, approaching a year now through many of the poorest countries in Africa, the issue of development aid is still a cause of confusion for me. I see evidence of severe hardship from poverty, children given little opportunity nutritionally and educationally, difficulty in some places accessing basic needs such as drinking water and food, let alone a home. In contrast I also see, side by side, evidence of conspicuous spending (ostentatious 4x4's the most obvious), expensive Western style restaurants full with families dining, and $50-80 a night hotels thriving (in Luanda, capital of Angola, its impossible to find an hotel room for less than $120). I have to remind myself that wealth is not 'wrong', nor is spending it, but still there is the suspicion that much of this visible affluence would not be manifest without the huge sums of donor money coming from the West.

It's fashionable for some to dismiss the UN and NGO employees on their Western salaries, even the volunteer 'agents of virtue', as self-deceiving at best, avaricious at worst. But what is the alternative, particularly in the area of Health - to stand by (worse, continue to exploit the continent) in the presence of human suffering? I think back to the Billy Riordan Memorial Health Centre in Cape Maclear, Malawi staffed mainly with Irish volunteers. The local community had to travel some distance for very basic healthcare before the Health Centre's arrival. Is that kind of initiative misguided?

With billions of dollars poured into Africa over the past fifty years and the continent still unable to feed or look after itself without help, the controversial subject of 'Aid' is increasingly under the spotlight. What good has it done, how effective is it, and indeed to some - how desirable is it? Has writing a cheque for charity just been a salve to our conscience? 'Aid is not help' and 'Aid does not work' are two of the dismal conclusions reached by Graham Hancock in his
The Lords of Poverty: The Power, Prestige and Corruption of the International Aid Business (1989), an account of wasted money from someone who worked in the 'aid business' for many years. Much of Hancock's scorn is reserved for the dubious activities of the World Bank.

'Aid projects are an end in themselves,' Michael Maren, another disillusioned aid worker, writes in
The Road to Hell: The Ravaging Effects of Foreign Aid and International Charity (1997) asserting that all aid is self serving, large scale famines are welcomed as a 'growth opportunity' and the advertising to stimulate donations for charities is little more than 'hunger porn'. 'Here is a rule of thumb that you can safely apply anywhere you may wander in the Third World,' Hancock writes (bearing in mind it was written in the mid-eighties). 'If a project is funded by foreigners it will typically also be designed by foreigners and implemented by foreigners using foreign equipment procured in foreign markets.'

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Reading the travel writer and anti-Development Aid commentator Paul Theroux (at times irritating, pompous and arrogant in my opinion) did bring my attention to an Italian study, Guidelines for the Application of Labor-Intensive Technologies (1994), which takes a different - not popularly accepted - approach to the subject, advocating the use of African labour to solve African problems. After describing the many social and economic advantages of employing people themselves, working with their hands, to build dams, roads, sewer systems and watercourses, the authors, Sergio Polizzotti and Daniele Fanciu llacci, discuss constraints imposed by the donors. Donors specify that purchases of machinery have to be made in the donor country, or bids restricted to firms in the donor country, or that a time limit is placed on the scheme, which 'encourages the tendency towards large contracts and heavy spending on equipment.' The suggestion is that labour-intensive projects are few in Africa because so much donor aid is self-interested.

Self Help Development International (SHDI)
I am beginning to recognise a fundamental difference in approaches to development aid - those organisations that 'know how it could be done better' and for the most part committing serious resources to solving the problems in Africa; and those that accept that Africans are the only ones who can, indeed need, to solve their own problems, with the benefit of Western technical expertise and training. There is a saying in Swahili that translates as “Only the wearer knows where the shoe pinches.”

Back in 2006 while planning and researching my motorbike journey, I was also investigating different charities in Ireland (and there are many). A friend of a friend, an academic involved in Development Studies, recommended the Carlow (soon to be relocating to Portlaoise) based charity SELF HELP, which, though not having the profile of the big hitters GOAL, Trocaire or Concern, commanded a respect in the business, with a reputation for making a difference on the ground.

I met Monica Gorman, Operations Manager of SELF HELP, in Carlow town one wet Tuesday afternoon for coffee, and was taken with this woman's conviction, genuineness and humour (humour - a great measure). Having worked ten years in Africa, and quite clearly having a fondness for the continent, her immediate response to hearing of my project was of excitement. I learnt a lot over the couple of hours and came away from the meeting encouraged by a few major points. First of all SELF HELP don't define themselves as a
Relief - or 'firefighting' - organisation: Famines, droughts, and other natural disasters, assistance for which there is obviously a need. Rather 'Development', or how to build a community's capacity to avoid, or cope with, those cycles.

What made an impression on me was their
integrated and more long term approach. You can't address one aspect without recognising the effect of others - it is short-sighted investing in education without addressing for example nutrition in the home (how can kids learn if they're not getting fed. Or are needed to work). Or improving agricultural practices and production without addressing access to markets. Or how useful are HIV/Aids awareness programs without addressing gender issues where women are still raised to be chattels.

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The point however that made the biggest impression on me was SELF HELP have no ex-pats working in Africa. All the staff are local, a core principle being that African problems can only be solved if owned, and dealt with, by Africans themselves.

Project visit
Lake Naivasha lay below in the Rift Valley, an intensively cultivated flower growing area for the markets in Europe, and a few hours after leaving Nairobi, I arrived at the dusty, nondescript town of Gilgil on the busy road west towards Uganda, location of the local offices of SELF HELP (www.selfhelp.ie). I was met by Duncan the country director and Rachel, Project manager for the area (both pictured left). After shaking hands with the various development officers there - agriculture, business development, gender and health, natural resources - we took off in a rugged 4x4 for the hour's drive across fairly rough terrain, to the Kiambogo area where Self Help have a number of projects.

A School
It appears Self Help Kenya's main efforts are directed towards Baraka College with their efforts at the revival of bee keeping, a traditional practice here beneficial for a number of nutritional as well as ecological reasons, that in the last couple of generations has fallen from favour. However my first stop today was at the Elementaita Primary school. The headmaster greeted us in front of a square of single story, concrete classrooms and led us into one of them, jammed with fifty or sixty expectant parents applauding our entrance. I wasn't expecting this (to what did I owe this honour?) but felt the need to act as though I was used to performing in the role of a dignitary. Of course the ceremony wasn't just for me, and Duncan and Rachel gave their speeches - translations whispered in my ear - acknowledging the enthusiasm of the parents in improving the education potential for their children, detailing various developments, and, turning to me, recognising the support from Ireland. Which was when I was introduced and asked to say a few words.
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What did I have to say to these people? Feeling humbled I kept it brief, thanking them for the welcome, that it was an honour to witness such strong community involvement in the school. I explained I was taking a motorbike around the continent of Africa and attempting to raise awareness of and funding for the charity SELF HELP, as I believed in their approach of helping communities help themselves. As this was translated sentence by sentence, it was gratifying to notice the interest, and I finished off with a few words in Swahili to impress, which met with grins, applause and even some ululating!

Outside we were given a tour of the school, admiring the well kept gardens and being impressed with the finish of the classrooms - from photos we could see the change from rough block rooms with no windows to plastered, windowed classrooms with blackboards. There were only six classrooms for the 400 students, evenly divided between boys and girls, so there were two shifts - younger ones attending in the morning, older ones the afternoon.

As we entered each class the nervous students all stood and answered our greetings with due respect, heads bowed in deference. At the last one, these older students were more fluent in English and after my initial “Good afternoon” (
“Good afternoon sir”) and a few pleasantries to give them an opportunity to engage in English with a native speaker, I got to the more important stuff, asking what football teams they supported.
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We started talking about the departure of Mourinho from Chelsea, who their favourite striker was (Man Utd seemed to be the team here), and did they get a chance to play. I had noticed a bare patch of land next to the school grounds that had the look of a playing field of sorts.

The library, newly finished, was furnished with some recently installed bookshelves (built by one of the parents) still empty. Chatting with some of the teachers, I was told that education is severely under resourced in Kenya, with the lack of funding for teachers meaning the parents of this school had to pay the income of three extra teachers to bring the pupil-teacher ratio down to 50:1. Most other schools had a much higher ratio.

A Small Farm
After a fifteen minute crawl down severely washed out red dirt tracks following Bonventure (pictured right), the impressive SELF HELP development officer for the region on his Yamaha 125cc, we got out at the small farm of Daudi Ng'ang'a. It was extraordinary what he and his wife have appeared to accomplish on their 5 acres. Traditionally farmers have just grown subsistence crops, mainly maize, to feed themselves, and what SELF HELP are attempting to encourage is diversification so farmers can earn an income from selling produce at local markets.

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Daudi's was what is known as a model farm. He had been given certain training and support - provision of drought resistance seeds and small loans for, for example, his drip irrigation system (a raised barrel gravity feeding water through plastic pipes, tiny holes allowing drips of water to irrigate each plant). Ten 'Follower Farmers' from the neighborhood learn from Daudi's efforts. In this way the training given to one farmer has a knock on effect in the community - if it is seen to benefit him. The range of crops he was experimenting with was impressive, particularly as himself and his wife are the only labour. Apart from the ubiquitous maize, he showed us the tidy rows of spinach, potatoes, millet, peppers, herbs, and bananas among others. He was also experimenting with artemesia (pictured below), a malaria antidote, increasingly seen as an effective, convenient and cheap treatment. Daudi's weekly walk to the local market with the produce loaded onto his bicycle netted him an extra income.
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The more I learned about SELF HELP's approach, the more I understood the sense in it. No money, or 'handouts', are involved. The principle followed is to avoid encouraging a culture of dependency by having the local communities 'own' their difficulties, providing support to help them help themselves. That is seen as the only long term way forward out of the poverty cycle. What I saw was a farmer (with impressive motivation it has to be said) exploiting his small piece of land to the full - without mechanization or expensive equipment - with the result that he earned an income selling his extra produce in the local market. His neighbors could see the benefits, how it was being done, that it was possible, and slowly practices are changing there. I couldn't see an argument against this approach to development aid.

Millennium Villages Project - Sauri
The Millennium Villages Project (MVP) is the creation of economist Jeffrey Sachs, responsible for the transition from state-owned to market economies in Poland and Russia. Those efforts - referred to by some as 'shock therapy' - met with mixed reactions but it gained him a high profile. (He became special advisor to the UN Secretary General.) His proposed solutions for achieving the Millennium Development Goals (MDG’s) - broadly the UN aspiration to eliminate extreme poverty by the year 2015 - are quite radical, requiring sudden and significant injections of capital into poor areas. Twelve areas throughout Africa have been earmarked. In Kenya the townland of Sauri will have $2.75 million invested over a period of five years, or $110 per person per year.

The city of Kisumu, Kenya's third largest after Nairobi and Mombassa, lies on the shore of Lake Victoria and it was here I found the MVP office where I arranged to join with some others to take a tour of the Sauri area about an hour's drive away. As the project has quite an international profile - Jeffrey Sachs is also well know for his popular book 'The End of Poverty' (the foreword written by a big fan, Bono) - guided tours are regular occurrences.

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What we were shown were children getting a daily balanced meal in school (below); a large warehouse used to store maize for sale in the leaner season when prices were higher; examples of water source protection (right); a clinic; hospital; and a visit to a local farmer.

The parallels with the approach of SELF HELP
are interesting - the integrated approach of addressing Health, and Food security, and Gender issues, and Education, and Enterprise Develpment, with the aim of, to use a favoured buzz word, ‘capacity building’. One of the MVP employees in Kisumu allowed that one thing Jeffrey Sachs is very effective at is fundraising, having persuaded Western governments, local governments, businesses, and private donors such as Hollywood stars and international financiers to foot the bill. Under the auspices of the Earth Institute, the project he heads at Columbia University, he has gathered specialists in fields from HIV/AIDS research to soil science to work out master plans for the MVP villages. Perhaps this more accelerated approach - backed by substantial donations - will work.

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The Jury is Still Out
It is difficult to gauge how successful this project is, three years on from its inception, when visitors are understandably just shown selected, successful parts of it. Any development project can bring temporary benefits. There was an obvious air of progress about all the sites we visited, as can be imagined with the support being received, and, I can believe, a sense of optimism in the region. After all, there is a lot of money being invested here in their future, and a lot of international attention.

In my research on the internet, I came across an article by a journalist, Sam Rich, who spent a few days meeting folks from the area. As can be expected, not everything is working as per the theory. However a few comments from participants, and
(not disinterested) bystanders, are worrying and bear repeating. There’s a lot at stake with this experiment.

In the early days of the project, one man said, Sachs had ceremoniously handed over the keys to a truck that was to be used to take goods to market and as an ambulance. But because of power struggles over it, the truck hadn’t been used or seen in the village since.
- After receiving free fertilizer and mosquito nets, some villagers promptly sold them. “If you give away tons of fertilizer, it’s predictable that much of it will end up on the open market,” a UN official is quoted. Efforts also need to be conducted on the ‘macro’, or national, level. “Farmers in Kenya don’t buy fertilizer because it costs three times as much as it does in Europe,” he said. “If the Kenyan government eased taxes and import duties on fertilizer, a lot more farmers would buy it.”
- “Lack of education, or ‘sensitization’, both within the committees and in the village generally, has caused problems,” observed a project coordinator. “Now the problem is [that] the project is moving so fast, the committees can’t keep up.”
- The village’s political framework is confused. Sauri now has two governments in conflict with each other: the committees and the existing local government. “At first, there was no consultation with government. Later, they realized we were a stakeholder and they needed our assistance,” according to the Town clerk of the nearest town, Yala.
he also wondered, "will pay for the clinic after the project ends?”

The question that did inform my visit to Sauri was - is this sustainable? To what degree will all of this be of benefit in two years time when MVP pull out? The idea behind their approach is that the massive investment and attention focussed on Sauri acts to ‘kick-start’ the local economy, boosting the community’s standard of living. The success of this remains to be seen.

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The history of Development Aid in Africa is littered with examples of failed projects, all I’m sure initiated with the best of intentions. SELF HELP, with over twenty years experience with an integrated approach, can provide a model to other organisations as to what works, and what doesn’t. The way to step off the poverty cycle is to increase people’s income, is what I understand to be a rationale. This means moving away from traditional subsistence farming i.e. growing what staples are needed to feed the family, which leaves the farmer totally dependent on outside forces such as the rains. When the seasons don’t perform as they should, catastrophes happen. If however the farmer diversifies, grows a range of vegetables, the income he gets from selling the surplus in the market can buy any extra staples needed, and provide extra cash to raise his living standards or take care of emergencies such as a bad season.

Talking through the subject with some SELF HELP staff at the local level, I learned a huge amount of care and preparation was taken
before starting a project. First, the initial request needs to come from the local community, before a team move into the area to assess the situation for about a year. If the project go ahead is given, a program is agreed with the local community for a five year period, the life of the project. The strategy appears to be a much slower one than that of the MVP - and probably less ambitious - but it can be assumed that the effect is that the more the local community is involved the more chance of success for the project. And that may mean committees, sub-committees, lots of discussion and perhaps dilution of the initial ambitions - but it seems to me all of that is necessary to get the community on board. When people feel they are involved, learning from their own mistakes, or see a neighbor through diversification raising his living standard, practices begin to change. Not because they’re told by some expert what to do. The major point is that the community need to own the situation and solution themselves for it to succeed. This is what they mean when they talk about empowerment.

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