Sunday, July 3, 2011

Development Work

Humble beginning of a tree nursery in our compound...

Before coming here to Mali, I thought about how exciting it would be to come to a developing country and about all of the big projects I could do to revolutionize a developing community.  Well, 5 months later, while I haven't figured it ALL out, I am here to tell you that was a little naive.

After a fantastic presentation by a third-year volunteer on development work in our final training, I feel compelled to explain our roles here as development workers in order to:
1. help you understand what we hope to accomplish in these two years
2. to weigh in on what I think development projects and charity organizations roles SHOULD BE in changing the world

Below are my thoughts on that presentation* with some observations we have made in our community.

There are many charity organisations from all over the world here with a strong presence in many areas of the country, including our town.  Many of these organisations have a reputation for driving around in white SUVs and providing big money projects to communities such as building health centers or buying tractors.  Some Peace Corps volunteers take this approach to community development, and use some of the fund-raising resources we can access in order to do big projects in their communities.

While these big projects are sometimes successful and can be done properly, they are often not sustainable, or worse, have negative impacts on a community.  Let me provide a few examples that we have seen thus far to illustrate:

1. Building a new village maternity center- A fellow volunteer in my training group returned from her village and told us this story: She arrived in her village for the first time and discovered a fairly new, beautiful maternity center.  The only problem was, nobody was using it.  With no supplies, not enough staff, and a lack of funds to run the center, it has stood vacant.  This building stands as a monument to failure in her village and nobody is healthier for it.   

2. Computer center- With my experience as a software application trainer I was very excited to hear that there would be a computer center in our town.  This center was built and funded for a time by a famous international organization that operates in our village.  When we arrived we found that the computer center had shut its doors.  While there is a great demand for computer literacy in the community, there is not regular or reliable electricity.  The computer center runs on a generator, which requires expensive gasoline; therefore it doesn't run and only was used for a little more than a year until the funds for gasoline ran out.  Another great idea in theory, but putting the cart before the horse without a longterm plan for affordable access to energy.

3. School supply drive- Many well-intentioned school, church, or other groups organize supply drives to send say notebooks (to use our presenter's example).  Consequently, families here can sometimes expect to recieve free handouts of these items, and not purchase them when there is a need or devalue the item in the eye of the recipient.  Also, for the community, whoever may expect to gain income from selling this item finds themself out of luck when a big shipment arrives.  Finally, when this shipment doesn't come on a regular basis, it is a setup for future letdown.

4. Big farm machinery- In my short time here, I have seen a handful of big tractors and other machines sitting dormant in stark contrast next to a mud house.  After many years of working with rudimentary tools, you can imagine what it might be like for a third world farmer to see some magical machine that can do the work of many people in a fraction of the time, in fact you probably would really want one.  Well, many people do- almost half of our group of 60+ trainees has been solicited to buy a tractor for their community already.  How do you go from using basic equipment to a tractor?  Who provides training to drive the vehicle, funding for gas and repairs, where do repairs get done, and so forth and so on.  This is a problem of scale and again sustainability.

(for the record: there ARE other success stories of all four of the above in the Peace Corps, and other big projects here in Mali and elsewhere in the developing world, but this is a message of proceeding with caution and doing the necessary homework)

In many conversations that we have had with Malians, they will immediately say that the solution to many of the local problems are all of the above projects, they want: buildings, supplies, machines, etc.  However, after digging deeper, one can see there is a need for more basic community improvements and knowledge.

If these don't work, then what does?  It starts with REAL understanding of the community.  It is difficult to know what a community really needs and wants without a deep understanding.  Luckily, living in a community for 2 years, speaking their language, and doing what the people do is a pretty good strategy (maybe I am a little biased toward the Peace Corps) for a deeper understanding. 

So for the forseeable future, you won't see any big projects in the works for us.  We are starting small.  We will be doing presentations on how to prevent illness, providing demonstrations on things like making soap or improving porridge to be more nutritious, talking to small organizations about budgets and basic accounting, and drinking a great deal of tea with our community.  We need to improve our language, get to know people better in the community, and ask many questions.

Longterm success means local buy-in to projects and community improvement.  There are so many local resources untapped here, both in people and things.  If we can connect one Malian with a good idea, or a better way of doing something with other Malians in the community we will have made a positive difference.  So much aid to Mali, and specifically to our community has done a great deal of good work, but it can also create a culture of waiting for handouts for some of the people we encounter, and this needs to change. Capacity building, small projects, and tapping existing community resources are the best work that we can hope to do.  This is our work.

*This is in no way a new idea, and there are various books on this approach to development, including one oldy-but-goody referenced in our presentation called Two Ears of Corn by Roland Bunch


  1. So eloquent and insightful. You are custom-made for your Peace Corps tour!!!

  2. Great post! There is a budding neo-classical economist in there...