This post is a contribution in support of the Day Without Dignity counter-campaign proposed by Saundra S. at the blog Good Intentions Are Not Enough. Please read the post about the counter-campaign at the link above, and please see the post that showcases and summarizes all the Day Without Dignity posts here.
In the summer of 2008 I got a Foreign Language and Area Studies Fellowship to study Swahili with Yale in Mombasa. While there, I became friends with a shop owner who spent all of his spare time on the weekends administering a community based organization in his town about 45 minutes by matatu outside Old Town. He invited me up for a visit. The organization, Mbuyuni, works on a number of small-scale projects in the neighborhood, including clean up, trash collection, and recycling. They also run a tree nursery, make soap to sell from the arobaini trees in the neighborhood, and assist with the neighborhood’s school for children that can’t afford school fees or for whatever reason can’t go to the primary school just down the road.
Mbuyuni needed things. They needed work gloves, work boots, office supplies, and an mkokoteni (hand cart, seen in photo below, which they were only renting at the time). Without having been to visit them, however, I wouldn’t have been able to even guess about the things they needed. The next time I went with my Swahili professor to Nakumatt, the large supermarket in Mombasa, I picked up some of these things for them.
The photo above of one of Mbuyuni’s volunteers is pretty representative of the attitude and enthusiasm with which the group approaches their work. The area is pretty rural and “poor” in terms of cash income and capital, but people in the neighborhood were happy and generous, didn’t have mortgages and student loans to worry about, and were in need of administrative and technical skills more than anything else.
In the photo above, an Mbuyuni volunteer shows me his rubber sandals. This kind of footwear is very popular and very available in the region, and is perfectly suitable for walking around Mombasa and the neighboring villages. Plus they’re easy to wash. The group emphasized to me their need for work boots and work gloves, which would allow them to safely navigate the pieces of broken glass and other debris they sort through as part of the garbage collection and recycling work they do every weekend. At no point did they request or suggest that people from half-way across the world send worn out second hand boots or cheaply made cloth shoes liable to fall apart after a few days working in them. In fact, their primary interest in me was the following:
- My ability to draft prose in English, particularly grant proposals
- My computer skills and ability to assist them with typing and printing documents instead of, for example, trying to submit proposals on paper that were drafted in pencil
- Taking and printing photographs for them to use in showing potential donors what kind of work they do
- My leverage as an American to make contacts with companies and people in the US that might want to buy their soap, baby trees and plants, and jewelery they fashioned out of plastic debris and coconut shells from the garbage clean up.
I have been in touch with my friend from Mbuyuni since I got back, helping when and how I can. The current project is one in which I will be helping the organization set up a blog in which it can discuss its work and its members can hopefully discuss some of their ideas about international development aid. I’m currently in the process of exchanging ideas with the administrator of the organization and reviewing and translating materials they gave me written in Swahili.
I think the main point of all this is just to emphasize that you never know what people need unless they tell you– it’s not very constructive to send free things that are either unneeded or would take away from the local economy. And I think that’s what the Day Without Dignity counter-campaign is all about.
That doesn’t mean you have to drop everything and devote your life to aid work or African Studies or anything like that. But what would be good is if people– donors– would do some research and educate themselves about the organizations they give to and the people and places who are supposed to benefit.
Writing this on the 43rd anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. feels relevant to me as one of his quotes has come to encapsulate much of how I see international development aid: “On the one hand, we are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside, but that will be only an initial act… True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”
Lifting the Poverty Curtain’s post for A Day Without Dignity also emphasizes that aid and charity are not solutions in themselves and that dignity plays a central role in what poor people know to be key in poverty alleviation. (Please read the post, it is excellent.) I have written previously about the need to change the way we think about “development” on a broad scale.
The bottom line here is that people who want to help should not fall into the Whites in Shining Armor trap. On April 5, don’t go shoeless. And don’t buy shoes made by an American company so that profits go to that company and potentially hurt local businesses abroad when free shoes suddenly become available. Something you can do instead that would be more helpful is educate yourself about international assistance and afford the people you want to help a bit of dignity by acknowledging that they are not helpless, passive beneficiaries of your benevolence.