Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Problem with Aid

Recently we were in the field, camping in a new location quite far from anything except one very small town. This is a very arid region, but we had been drawn to this location because there is a spring there that is the source of one of the rivers we study, and during a previous visit, we had noticed some interesting frogs in it. While we were camping there, a number of community members came to greet us and inquire about our work. Everyone was very friendly and interested in what we were doing. One of the elders, upon hearing that we study water quality, asked if we could help the community get a generator to pump water up from their borehole. He said the spring didn't provide enough water for the community, and while the government had drilled two boreholes in the past to allow access to abundant groundwater, the community couldn't access the water without a generator-run pump. This sounded like a perfect scenario where a small donation would make a big difference to a community, so I said that, while water supply work was out of my realm, I would do what I could to find out who might be able to provide them a generator.

A week or so later, the elder came to the big city and called me for a meeting. Over chai, we discussed the community's situation. He said that the government had come about 10 years ago and drilled a borehole (which is a VERY expensive operation). 
"Why anyone would drill a borehole but not provide the generator and pump needed to access the water?" I asked. 
They did provide a generator, but then one day they came and took it away. 
Why would they do that? Was it broken? 
No, it had never been hooked up. 
Why was it never hooked up? 
We were waiting for someone to come and do it. 
Who were you waiting for? 
The government. 
How long was the generator there? 
Ten years. 
So you waited for 10 years for someone to come hook up the generator, and they never did, and then finally they took it away, and now you want another one? 

OK, so I ask the fellow why this time things will be any different than the last 10 years. The community is different now, he says, and it will work together as it has done with the spring and the small pump that provides water for the town. OK, skeptical but optimistic, I tell the fellow that if the community forms a group, with a President and Treasurer, and they write a proposal for a generator, and they lay out a detailed plan of how they will install and maintain it, I will help them type it up and submit it somewhere. I can't promise them a generator, but surely with the millions of dollars of aid coming into Kenya, and various government programs designed to aid rural areas, there's someone who could provide a generator for this community.

In the weeks since, I have been asking around about where this proposal should be submitted. And I have been warned on two separate occasions, once by a Brit and once by a Kenyan, both of whom have devoted their lives to service and conservation in this country, to be very wary about these situations in the future. It is likely, they said, that the community now expects you to provide them a generator, and may even take you to court over your failed promise. One even warned me that the last conservation group who worked in this community was eventually chased out with spears! And I have yet to hear from the community with their proposal. 

This is one of many stories I have heard like this from people working in aid programs here in Kenya. So all of this just makes me wonder... why do these communities expect to be just given things? And why, once those things have been given, do they so often fail to maintain them properly? Aid programs now try to involve the communities in the cost and labor involved in projects, so they feel a greater sense of ownership, and this approach seems to work better. It also ensures that the community is getting something it really wants and needs rather than what some Western aid agency thinks it wants and needs. Remember, the community that wants the generator now never asked for the borehole in the first place and indeed was never informed of the arrival or departure of the first generator. Should they be held responsible for not hooking it up after it arrived on their doorstep? What would I do if a generator and borehole arrived in my arid yard, with no diesel fuel and no mechanical expertise? Well, in the US, I have never had to answer those questions. Turn on the tap-- get clean drinking water. Turn on the thermostat-- get heat or A/C. What it one of those stopped working one day? What if the tap and the pipes and the water treatment facilities just disappeared? Would I be able to make up for a failure of local government and infrastructure, or would I start walking 5 km every day to get river water to drink and start cutting down trees to get fuel for heat? How responsible are we for the things we depend on in this life? And how much do we rely on a functioning government for those things? And in a country in which government has generally failed to provide for the needs of its people, who should bear the responsibility? Aid organizations? Western governments? Or the people themselves? 

I have been noticing since my arrival that the shelves of Nairobi bookstores are full of books titled things like, "The Problem with Africa," and "How the West has Failed Africa," and "The Dirty Side of Aid in Africa." Self-searching tomes from disillusioned aid workers. But the irony is that the aid business provides an awful lot of jobs for folks... folks that are on the giving side, of course. Chris did an informal survey of the Nairobi Yellow Pages and found that the #1 business was safari companies, with ~8 pages of listings. A close second, with ~7 pages, was aid organizations. Aid is good business in a country that essentially guarantees job security. 

If I sound a bit cynical, I am. Chris and I are asked on a regular basis to help "promote" people, to invest in their business, to talk to people back home about funding some huge project. People look at your skin color and they assume you are rich and have plenty to give away. On one hand, you feel the weight of having lived an incredibly blessed life full of fortune. On another hand, you see that many of the people around you own several hundred head of cattle, and you wonder why they can't sell a few to buy their own damn generator. It makes for a lot of soul-searching. Maybe you'll see a book by me about it one day. Or maybe I'll be busy running from people with spears:)

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