Thursday, December 25, 2008

Selling Eggs to Buy Bread

I’ve wanted to share a bit about the Development field for awhile – but as it currently represents everything I’m studying, it’s hard to know where to start. I can say that in most ways, my perception and understanding of Development is changing everyday, as it is truly a discipline that carries a multitude of dimensions and perspectives. Unfortunately, or fortunately, it’s also an industry here – so on top of the theoretical and historical aspects I’m studying, there is the practicum I see around me. The sad reality is that what in my perspective is a discipline that should be rooted in sustainability and the external focus of aiding nations in need, is often turned into a for-profit machine that employs loads (many foreigners), while directly contributing to some of the challenges facing local people. I met my friend Attem the other night and he was telling me about the high cost of living in Southern Sudan. After quoting some prices, I asked who was supporting that level of living – who could afford to pay those prices and thus enable the market to keep them that high? “Well, there are a lot of NGO’s there,” he said. So, you’ve got a lot of NGO’s on the ground with a variety of goals that we can assume boil down to HELP SUDAN, and their mere presence is making it hard for local people to afford basic needs.

In one of my first classes here, we were introducing ourselves and a classmate said he worked for a NGO that was focused on poverty alleviation. My professor asked, “So you get a job out of it, what do the people you’re helping get?” I come back to this question over and over as I reflect on my reason for being here and my long-term goals. Development work, in so many ways, can never truly be altruistic – the “developer” needs the country in need to advance for a number of reasons. On an international scale, we all benefit if others advance and become producers of goods we want/need, and consumers of goods we have. There do become reasons why certain countries advancement and development become problematic – it is infinitely easier to exploit natural resources from a country with no infrastructure or stable government. It has also become obvious that whatever developed nations’ goals are for aiding the developing world, the theory and political ideology that guides the assistance offered can have horrendous consequences on the natural course of development that might be taking place.

In post-colonial Kenya, the country was doing quite well in the 60’s and early 70’s – at one point 95% of children were enrolled in school, industrialization was in place and the country had a solid export industry and access to international markets for coffee, tea and other products. Following the oil crisis in ’73, progress was stymied and Kenya got swept up with the rest of Sub Saharan Africa in low-interest borrowing when the commodity market fell apart. When the global economy started to recover and the interest rates started to rise, Kenya and other SSA countries shifted their focus from industrialization and programs focused on bringing equity to their populace, to straight debt management. The U.S. and Britain guided the World Bank and IMF in providing public loans to relieve the private sector of this debt burden, but they came with contingencies that ultimately reversed years of growth in Kenya by requiring the government to pull out of the market and social programs completely in favor of Neo Liberal, market-driven economics. Close to thirty years after these structural adjustment programs were implemented, Kenya is just starting to see the same levels of children enrolled in school, carries somewhere between a 50-60% unemployment rate and as we saw last January, has a long way to go in terms of democracy. What started as a developing sprint has turned into a marathon, with what was intended to be a paved road turned to a fragmented cobblestone street with gaping potholes along the way.

My housemate Megan has been in Kenya for eight years and has worked on a variety of poverty alleviation programs. I trust her work more than many of the ex-pats I come across who know very few Kenyans, live in posh compounds and guide their work based on studies rather than interactions or involvement in the community they’re attempting to aid. After working with street children when she first came, Megan has a network of people who come to her for help, and we never know who we might find washing dishes or cleaning floors in our home in exchange for a day’s wage or some food staples. For the last month a young man named Labon has been here once a week or so, and I always appreciate his big smile and hard work. His family lives in Kibera and Megan has acknowledged that his mother and brother are not trustworthy (his brother’s not allowed in the house), but if Labon comes and works she will send him home with food. When she told me this I acknowledged that Labon just seems to have a good heart – and certainly a good work ethic. Then last week I noticed that a favorite necklace of mine that I “borrowed” from my mom last year wasn’t hanging in the downstairs bathroom where it usually is. It’s the only necklace I’ve kept out of my room because I know Megan likes to borrow it. It’s on a gold chain and it’s a large leaf that’s covered in gold plate. When I asked the staff about it, it became clear at some point that Labon had taken it and given it to his brother to sell. While it’s startling to have something taken from inside your own home, it’s more startling when someone who you’d personally assessed to be a good guy takes it. The whole thing got me thinking – here’s a kid who is at our house working because his family cannot afford food – but the glitter of gold overrode the good relationship he has with us in favor of a quick fix and the need for cold hard cash.

This feels like the state of development as a whole – there are entire countries whose populace face food insecurity and lack of basic needs, but their leaders succumb to the draw of wealth and quick fixes offered by exploitative industries or less-than altruistic government assistance. Rather than looking at the security and needs of the nation as a whole, or taking the time to establish policies that ensure all people benefit as growth occurs, Developing nations tend to follow the paths of those of us already industrialized – resulting in a wide gap between the haves and have-nots, and a massive contrast between the luxury car of a big city exec and the blistered feet of a rural farmer. When you think about it, who can blame them? It’s humanity acting as humanity does – so I suppose I come back to, how do we change these trends while we still have the chance? Being in Kenya right now I can see that there are opportunities all around to make choices that will benefit all of Kenya – not just those with the education, resources or connections to advance. I hope I continue to learn, and in someway contribute, to this as a goal.

1 comment:

Jamie said...

Hey Megan,
so great to read an intelligent blog post coming out of Kenya! most of the stuff I've tracked down has been about dribble and nonsense...I can definitely see Dr. Jama's teachings coming through your words (whether he directly teaches you or not...he certainly must influence the IDS). Everything you've written about I've been grappling with myself since I first came to Kenya and as I've had to look for work. I don't know if we'll ever feel comfortable in our skin anywhere we go or with anything we do anymore. If we pull out now claiming that our work only adds to the "development machine" (and I do believe it has become a machine), than we'll be miserable knowing and having seen too much to be content in a regular job...but if we continue...well you get the internal torment of "are my actions merely increasing the problem?"
i firmly believe the only business of development should be to put development out of business. when the time comes, i think i'd like to run a bookstore and b&b on a farm...but until i can ease my conscience that only by sheer dumb fate that i was born in one country with light skin with parents who were able to provide me with so much unearned privilege...well guess i'll be meeting u for many a tusker over in kenya for the foreseeable future

anyway hope you had a good Christmas and Boxing Day..can't believe the election and all its chaos began a year ago...

say hello to the boys for me, good luck with your work