Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Postcard from America

Land of the free

 Back in the USA and it doesn’t matter which side of the tracks you grew up on, everyone here seems to like Bruce Springsteen and he has just been touring to rave reviews. He sings a lot about struggles and battlers and working against the odds. Although The Boss is famous for keeping ticket prices down, rich people love him, with some paying thousands of dollars for corporate boxes at his concerts. And the words of his songs are on bumper stickers and tee-shirts and quoted by presidents and senators and connect with the rich and the poor like. Paradoxically some people become richer and more powerful by identifying with and telling the stories of people who are poor. How does that work? Is it that in our depths we all feel a poverty and through vehicles like Springsteen’s songs we somehow feel known, feel the essence of love somewhere in ourselves and for a time, maybe just a moment, something feels true and timeless. And there is a preciousness about this and maybe it is the song or maybe it pries an opening in our hearts, but whatever it is, it touches us. I guess that is what an artist does, connects us to ourselves and frees us to sense more, who we are.

 Speaking of free, songbird Beyoncé does a heartfelt version of Lee Greenwood, “Proud To Be An American”. A couple of lines that stand out for me are:

And I’m proud to be an American,
where at least I know I’m free.
And I won’t forget the men who died,
who gave that right to me.

I am not sure which men died to give America its freedom, maybe Beyoncé is thinking of the slaves who died so that by 1965 when national voting legislation was passed, there would still be some African Americans left to vote, not that many young black men, one in three of whom can expect to spend time in a prison during their lives, would sense that much freedom as they abseil up America’s level playing field. Maybe Beyoncé is singing about the young Americans who are sitting in a drone flight centre in New Mexico, killing people whose families adhere to an old testament religion that says if a family member is killed by an aggressor they must never, ever, ever leave that death unavenged.

 "Did we just kill a kid?" asked the man sitting next to the drone pilot.

"Yeah, I guess that was a kid," the pilot replied.

"Was that a kid?" they wrote into a chat window on the monitor.

Then, someone they didn't know answered, someone sitting in a military command center somewhere in the world who had observed their attack. "No. That was a dog," the person wrote.

They reviewed the scene on video. A dog on two legs?[1]

 So I guess young men will be fighting for Beyoncé’s freedom until infinity. Go figure that. But the irony for me is that the USA is one of the most unfree places I visit and almost everything done in the name of freedom seems to end up as one more way to be unfree.
For me this is evident from the minute you land at the airport to the moment you leave.

“Remove everything from your pockets sir and enter the x-ray booth and place your feet on the designated area”

“What’s that in your pocket sir?”

“Oh.... ah..... that’s a handkerchief”

“I said remove everything from your pockets sir......remove the handkerchief from your pocket sir and hold it above your head”

I remove my dirty hanky, hold it above my head like I am a hostage and the x-ray circles and whirrs around me.

“What’s that on your wrist sir?”

“That’s a wrist watch officer”

“Kowalski, check the man’s watch!”

Kowalski inspects the plastic watch as though it was a piece of dog turd strapped to my wrist. “Okay sir you are clear to go.”

 In how many free countries of the world does the freedom to own handguns that can blow a hole in a person as big as a football or assault rifles that can pass right through a car, result in so many people getting killed for just waking up? Where else do rich people have arguments about the freedom people who are poor have to  bad health care? I guess it’s a kind of freedom that can be traded as a commodity. How is it that having more rules to protect the weak, more government support and higher taxes to fund more health care, education and freedom of choice for a greater number of people can be seen as a lack of freedom?
 My colleague Steve is from Arizona, he has the square jaw and youthful good looks of a comic book superhero and he makes lots of "awl " sounds when he talks  guess that is why they call it a drawl. Steve tells me that the USA is the greatest country in the history of the world. He is serious. I asked him about the Roman Empire that lasted 1000 years more or less and covered most of what is now Europe, and he looked at me blankly in a kind of George Bush 9/11 moment. So I say, what about the British Empire that was around 300 years and covered more than one third of the world and produced unsurpassed riches from the Commonwealth? And that I think America’s time as a great power will be lucky to last for a hundred years before they go bankrupt and lumber around the world like one of those 60's Chevy Belair’s, faux luxury, expensive, high maintenance, best in a straight line,  hard to park but kind of stylish in a nostalgic way. And then I am thinking of the cars of Cuba.

Sounding a bit like Mohamed Ali, Steve said “Of course America is the greatest country, they beat the British........... twice” and I said that didn't mean anything, and anyway who won in Vietnam and did that make the Vietnamese the greatest nation that had ever been? Steve looked at me and I could see the wheel was still spinning but the hamster had left in confusion  like Steve had just been told that he had won a million dollars but only had 60 seconds to live and in that moment I had deep compassion for Steve. 
I am in Washington DC for a conference, and on the first day attend a presentation on access to markets for poor producers which is facilitated by a white South African woman. The audience of about twenty-five is about one third Africans and a smattering of others from the Subcontinent and South America and the rest Caucasians. At one point the presenter was referring to a dynamic within communities called the ‘tall poppy syndrome”, which as we know in ‘Anglosphere’ refers to the tendency among some cultures to resent or attack and generally ‘cut down to size’ those who show talent or achievements.  In her broad South African accent she talked about this “tall puppy syndrome”......... I looked around the room and saw that this had the attention of even the sleepiest of the Africans, they may never have heard of a poppy, but they sure know what a puppy is. And then the presenter elaborated, saying that the people in some cultures “cut the heads off the tall puppies”; the Africans at the back shot up like meer cats. They had no idea how headless puppies and the alleviation of poverty fit together but she sure as hell had their attention now.
I am thinking that in a way we all need to have an environment in which to be tall poppies, to be free to flourish and flower, somehow to connect with that inner poverty that makes us strong, kind of like the lotus in its magnificence rising from the mud. And how we are bound together more out of our collective brokenness than through any competitive heroics.
Later I had dinner at Le Chaumiere in an expensive restaurant in Georgetown just up from my hotel. I didn't realise quite how expensive it was until it was too late. At the table just across from me sits independent Senator Joe Lieberman, formally a Democrat, stood for Vice President in 2000, supporter of gay rights in the military, outer of Bill Clinton during the Monica thing. And he is sitting right there almost next to me. His hair is amazing, not a strand out of place, like the fuzz on a grey pink tennis ball. He is with his wife, who is kind of loud and they seem to be hosted by a guy in his early 40s, who looks very Jewish and rich and has an attractive, slightly overweight Pamela Anderson wife. The Jewish guy has bad posture like he is keeping his head down so as not to be noticed, perhaps he too had heard about the tall puppy syndrome and was playing it safe. He is wearing beautiful soft black leather shoes and no socks. No socks in a restaurant like this, that has wine for $650.00 a bottle, means you are very rich or in the wrong place and risk finding yourself a&se up on the footpath. Anyway, the French red wine ordered by the guy with no socks is not  on the menu........ I looked but in the entire restaurant it was the only one that was decanted into a crystal carafe. Lieberman looks up at one point and at me directly, okay, I might have been staring. I nodded, he smiled, we were mates. I paid my $100 for a glass of sparkling water, two glasses of wine, a buffalo steak and piece of chocolate cake and left. Characteristically I trip on the sill at the door and explode onto the footpath outside. Might have been the wine but I am blaming my bad leg and I did the exaggerated limp thing to keep the world in its orbit for the foursome of silver-haired people who were just about to enter the restaurant but are now collecting themselves and their beating hearts. Ah it’s good to be alive.

[1] Nicola Abé,  Spiegel International, Dreams in Infrared (14/12/2012)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Aliens Christmas

Resident Aliens Christmas message.

I emptied the coffee grounds from my plunger in to the toilet turning the water a rich chocolate grainy brown, wondered what the cleaning staff would think about my health if I forgot to flush, swung to leave, clipped the Blackberry attached to my belt and I knew without question the plickplop that followed was my phone into the toilet.  Instinctively my hand in the bowl deep into the water, there it was. And I had what I imagine is a feeling similar to the onset of death, when we realise that this is actually happening to us, personally,  and that life as we know it is slipping away from us, how could this be happening to me....?  in the certain knowledge that it was.

Apparently like lives, Blackberry’s are incredibly resilient and a couple of hours in pieces on the dashboard of the Hilux in 35 degree heat dried it out a treat, and now  it works fine.  Except there is one small glitch and as hard as this is to fathom, after the dip in the toilet the “P” doesn’t work properly.   It is from such unfathomable mysteries that tribal religions arise.

I am staying in Nakuru township in Kenya’s Rift Valley, around two and a half hours north west of Nairobi. The road from Nairobi to Nakuru good now, when I first started working in this area the road  was so pockmarked and potholed that the Matatu’s that plying the route needed weekly repairs just to stay on the road. It was like a hell realm dream  in which you are riding one of those mechanical barroom bulls for an infinity of bucking ...and the Africans are sleeping through with their heads lolling around like they were dead. Then it used to take over 2 hours from Naivasha and how it is half that.

Naivasha town is now bypassed by the new freeway and the main business area is developing but it still has some old British buildings with low rusty wild-west sheet iron and wooden post verandas from when it was one of the main towns of Happy Valley.  Settlers  from Britain, many the black sheep adventurers from  wealthy families came, hunted game and mounted the  heads of dead animals on walls, drank whisky and gin, swapped wives and  displaced the Massai and Kikuyu peoples from their lands and they raped their women and shot their men for poaching.  God is on the side of the big battalions so we don’t know much of the Mau Mau rebellion that rose up in response and terrorised many of these settlers off their land by metering the same unspeakable violence in return, and the rebellion gave Kenya Jomo Kenyatta their first president, who came from nothing and ended up a multimillionaire and still now there is trouble because of this troubled national birth. Even in Naivasha if you go to a few blocks  behind the main area, where the roads are like river beds and many people don’t have power even thought KenGen the nation’s main ‘hot rocks’ power generator is only 30 km around Lake Naivasha. The water is delivered to houses by kids from the few working town taps that are controlled by the Mungiki  mafia and they  fill rusty blue 44gallon drums loaded onto small wooden carts mounted on fat car tires, pulled by a sad skinny donkey with ribs pronounced like one of those sad TV pictures of refugees  starving.  And in 2007 in the post election violence that was stirred up by politicians, who could do this because of issues still to do with land and injustice, Naivasha was one of the hot spots and people burned car tires in the streets, threw rocks and gangs of young men hacked at each other with pangas and hundreds died and hundreds more were wounded and thousands were displaced to camps and still to this day are not are resettled.

The rooms  at the Merica hotel  in Nakuru have all been done up new flat screen TVs and the carpet that used to smell like a wet dog has been replaced, the threadbare blue spidery towels gone and in their place new thick fluffy white embodied  towels with the Merica crest of a water buck, which has a head something like a deer, embodied in gold thread.  I am not sure what Merica means, something tells me it has to do with a family of snails but I think the hotel name is rough Swahili for America. For me the highlight of staying at Merica has been the evening buffet and that night at the buffet,  I learned why the hotel has a new life. It is full of Chinese tourists. The waitress Mary says  these days their guests are mostly packaged  Chinese tourists,  the men packaged as baseball fans or faux  camouflage  and Safari  jackets and packaged  women in Mickey Mouse and panda bear jersey pyjamas at dinner. They shout loud across the dining in Mandarin, swarming on new plates of food so that by the time I get to it there are just leftovers.  The mystery that there are Kenyan translators who somehow learned fluent Mandarin knowing Chinese would be here one day and this moment are confidently moving among the guests solving problems, conveying the next day’s arrangements.  Gone are the things I am used to and I am no longer a  special  foreigner amongst these new colonisers. My comfort was among the stuffy African business men and politicians telling stories of common things that make laughter and back slapping as they pile their plates high with Nyama choma, ugali and African bitter greens. And of the groups of boisterous young church volunteers at a tables of twenty, saving the world in earnest self confident conversation and you sense they are bottled like home made ginger beer and that some of them will eventually pop and self destruct but here they are playful brothers and sisters in whatever and shepherded by proud and happy overweight church leaders or gaunt serious pastor types who nod knowingly as thought they hold all the answers and will always know more than you, from somewhere in the middle of the United States where life revolves around pigs and corn, and guns and God and it is so flat that you can watch a dog run away for three days.

This morning we drove about 2 hours out of Nakuru and are visiting the farms of some of the members of an economic empowerment group that I have known and love for five years.  We have helped the group over the years and they are wanting to show us the farms of some of their members. When we help it is mainly by discussions that end up with  people believing more in themselves than in us. And I am standing in on the edge of a corn plot in the hot sun, and I am feeling that hot sun nausea in spite of my hat, it is a kind of a daze and i don’t know if it is jet-lag from the plane or dizziness from knowing that I don’t have real answers but am supposed to, and the courage to shut up and trust that there will be an unfolding process that i can contribute to. Then Enoc from the committee, a guy of about fifty with only one giant tooth in his upper gum when he smiles, tugs the shirt on my arm and points to the ants running over my shoe. “fire ants, move!” and I look and they are brown and small and I nod and  move unhurriedly, like I knw more than he does about ants.

We gather in a nearby the farmers stick and mud walled store where there is dried maze stored and conversations about prices and middlemen.  And I get a sharp bee sting pain on my calf. Yahhhhh, I jump and to my leg and to the ant hanging on to my flesh as though its life depended on it, which it didnt. Wow fire ants are a wakeup call to clear the head like a blast ammonia.  Jim our business facilitator says matter of factly, “fire ant bite, there will be more”.  No sooner had he said that then  like a gunshot to breast another bite and I pulled the ant off and squeezed the life out of  it. We are still in the dusky half light of the store and I am now wired and awake like there is a snake in the room and then a third bite just under my testicles and truly I saw a flash of lightening then fireworks went off somewhere in my head and I lurched out of the door my gammy leg trying to keep up,  behind the mud hut but in view of giggling kids and chickens and who knows what else so that i could drop my pants and pinched the ant free of me, and its still smarting like a burn and I have tears in my eyes.

There is a lesson here somewhere about size and of foreign interventions and impact adn the arrogance of foreigners when they are given a sign, and i think i will think about this later when i am not so hot and dizzy but I don’t.

That day on our way back we  travel through undulating  scrub land, parched hard rocky red volcanic earth , along tracks so narrow that the thorn bushes scratch the paintwork of the landcruiser  like high pitched nails on a backboard.  

“Whats that?” I ask and point

“Where?” asks one of the staff

“There on the hill”

“Oh that’s an IDP camp.”

“How many? “I ask

“Around four thousand, you will see.. we are driving through very soon.”

And the road we are on goes through the camp and on the side of the hill amongst the thorn bushes and stunted trees of land so dry and hard it yields little and when the hard rain falls this ground is as hard a clay pot and the water runs of in destructive torrents that sweep away he the little top soil that may have been there  to leave just clean clay and rocks. The displaced people have been there a year and are living in make do tents that have UNDP tarpaulins as the cover, some supported by arches that turn them into a dome, I guess they came with the covers, and many others held up by branches and saplings so that there are no standard looking dwellings and none much bigger than the space of a double bed. There are no stores, no readily available water, no amenities, no gathering place. There is nothing except the shared humanity and the proximity of other little dwellings none stronger than a piece of cloth. I work out there are at least 800 of these dwellings on this stony hillside.

What work are we doing here?  I ask

“We can’t do much right now, it is complicated, you see the government resettled the IDP’s without having a proper agreement with the owners of the land and now there is a dispute, and if we provide some services we are likely to be upsetting the people of the area that we have been working so hard to gain trust with over the last six years. “

I know this is an area that has been very prone to tribal violence. I know this is not simple and fraught with dangers, I know we have a thought through plan and that this influx of unexpected arrivals is not part of it and if we change the plan in a reactionary way we risk undoing so much of what we have gained.  And I know also that I know nothing. I know I look with western eyes and I am thinking “no room at the Inn”.... again.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Postcard From Dakar and beyond

Alone with others and two headed yellow dragons

'Keep away from people who try to belittle your ambitions. Small people always do that, but the really great make you feel that you too, can become great.' (Mark Twain)

I am back in Senegal, eight months since my last visit. I am still in the capital Dakar and again at the Cafe Sportif, this time with my friend Benedict. Benedict means blessed. Benedict was married to Belinda last year after an engagement of around seven years. Weddings here are not cheap and I think he must have been saving up. On Benedict’s office desk I noticed a fold to stand up calendar with his and Belinda’s wedding picture printed on it.

Last January, just six months after they were married, Belinda said she wanted a divorce. Benedict hadn’t seen any warning signs and felt sure they could work things out but he went reluctantly with Belinda to the magistrate. Belinda didn’t give any concrete reasons; she just said that she wanted a divorce. The judge told them to try to sort out their differences and come back in six months. So the six months has passed and all this last week Benedict has been tense but hopeful like waiting for medical results that you know may change your life, you have to wait and there is nowhere to go. He loves Belinda and to please her he set her up in a small business selling cloth. Yesterday they went back to the court; she said she still wanted to divorce; so the judge divorced them on the spot. Benedict came back to work in the afternoon, he looked at me, gave a slight side shake of his head eyes to the floor. He told me today that when he went home last night he found Belinda gone along with everything they had, not even a coffee cup remained.

Today is Saturday, we are here for lunch. Benedict chooses a small steel topped table overlooking the half moon bay not much bigger than a soccer field. On the sand between us and the water around twenty people are mirroring the exaggerated calisthenics of an instructor and to the left side of the bay on a small rocky cliff, blow the faded multi coloured awnings of a squeaky rusty run down amusement park.

Benedict says “God is good and everything will be fine, he will make everything good”

He smiles, his lips tremble and sad beagle eyes fill with tears. We focus on the pulling apart our chicken legs and Benedict begins to sob quietly. There seems nothing weak about this, nothing pathetic, just a man finding himself lost and in this moment all he can feel is something tight in his stomach and as he breathes out the breath catches in his throat, a sob and it bends him forward, his eyes water and he has lost any sense of identity beyond sadness. Only later does he name that feeling as betrayal but now he is spinning in confusion and alone and the breath keeps catching. And from this place of aloneness more than anything he feels helplessness and any action seems worthless. He can lash out, he can blame the other , reach to God or give up and he holds this all and it doesn’t matter who he is or who he is with he feels utterly alone. And now or a little later he feels his heart broken and then realises it was broken all along, long before now. Sooner or later all men come to know this and then they forget, again and again. I have been to this place before and I know there is nothing to say.

Together we look for answers out to the sea, to the bubbles in our beer and shiny sinews on messy chicken bones.

Benedict smiles, his face lights up, he shakes his head and says, “But God is good.... God is ALL ways good.............and everything is posseeble in Seneegaal” And the twinkle has returned to his eyes and he has sidestepped his sadness for now.

I am thinking there should have been more instructions for broken hearts. But then again instructions are not always that useful. Like the man who went into my friends pharmacy to buy “more of that anal deodorant”, he couldn’t remember the name but said it had instructions on the packet that read ‘push up bottom to use’ . Even good instructions can be confusing. My friend Michael Duncan once told me that the reason that God gave us the Ten Commandments is not that He wants us to behave, so much as He wants to give us a set of instructions to protect others from us. That sounds reasonable to me.

I look across at my friend and wonder who is really in control of what? Benedict definitely thinks that what he is going through is God’s will. I am less sure. It is the middle of the day, already prickly hot and a bead of sweat rolls down the centre of my back, Benedict and I agree that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. I order another cold beer that is so good I almost weep in gratitude.

I am here to provide the next round of mentoring and training for some of our staff who are carrying out a new program to stimulate small enterprise development in twelve of the regions we are working in. I made sure we weren’t going back to Velengara.

Two days later we are in a car with no air conditioner. To open the window is like a blast from a giant hairdryer; window closed and it feels like a sauna and smells like camembert cheese and vinegar. We pass huge Boabab trees, so impossibly big that you could raise a family in one. I think of childhood stories of the Far Away Tree. Some trees look like enormous pieces of broccoli. In places the scrub is clear and there are salt pans. Vlliagers let water flood shallow lakes and containments like rice paddies and then when the water evaporates they harvest the salt. Along the roads there are stacks of white 30kilo sacks lined up and owners waiting to bargain with middlemen.

We arrive in a small community somewhere out of Kaffrine. I am listening as various producers talk about their business challenges. A man stands, pale blue Caftan with a Muslim that looks like a mosque all on its own, he is middle aged, face dark, proud and sun beaten like an like an extra in a fifties Saladin movie. He says his business is harvesting salt, he bought some land and in the beginning things went well and he was getting a good income. But now things have changed and his business is encountering many problems. And for the last two years he has barely make enough to feed his family. I ask him what the main problem is.

He says : “ My difficulty is the yellow two headed dragon that lives my land”.

“How big is this dragon?”

“ it is very big and yellow and has two heads and very powerful and ziss is my problem”

I didn’t do the dragon module during my MBA and so quickly get a brief from my trusty field staff.

“ So are these dragons real?”

“They could be”

“No I mean are there real dragons?”

“It is posseeble”

“But Benedict (Benedict is a very devout Christian) it doesn’t mention dragons in the Bible, neither on the ark or as any other kind of being. “

“Well you can’t say zey exist or zey don’t exist but it is posseeble, yas?”

“Benedict do believe in Dragons?”

There is the distinct inaudible but very clear sound of shuffling

“Yas it is posseeble....everything is posseeble in Seneegaal ”

“No Benedict do you believe personally?”

“Yas it is posseeble”

“So what do these dragons do?”

“Zey cause de very bad luck, very very bad luck”

“So what can you do to get rid of them?”

“I am not sure, but we can pway, we can always pway” and Benedict lights up, as though delighted with such a simple and profound answer, as though it was his own unique discovery in that moment .

Every man has dragons and every man must slay his own, and I know I am still struggling with mine and this salt harvester is looking at me like I have an answer brought across the seas. But I have to lie, I tell him that I am sorry we don’t have dragons where I come from so I can’t advise him. Only the second part of this is true.

Oh, and the funny thing is that six months after all of this, Belinda returned to Benedict. Everything is fine, they are happy and Benedict tells me that he was always sure that God would work it out.

(November 2011)

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Fearless Hopelessness

Whenever there is a simple error that most laymen fall for, there is always a slightly more sophisticated version of the same problem that experts fall for”  Amos Nathan Tversky,

Many NGOs working in international development are finding that their revenues are falling, there is increased competition for funds and people who are poor are at risk like never before because of food and water shortages, climate change, natural disasters, rising energy and input costs, refugee influx, population growth or migration. This can lead to new organisational pushes that focus on making staff redundant, redoubling fundraising and marketing efforts and a new emphasis on risk management to protect the organisations Brand. As management and boards seek to try to have more control of their destinies , organisations that pride themselves in bottom up development and field effectiveness can themselves become increasingly hierarchal, struggle with issues of transparency and focus on growth and internal efficiencies with lessening apparent concern for the quality of outcomes for people who are poor.

International NGO’s generally have audacious visions such as “for every child, life in all its fullness”.......“A world in which every child attains the right to survival, protection, development and participation”........”A just world without poverty, in which people can influence decisions which affect their lives, enjoy their rights, and assume their responsibilities as full citizens of a world in which all human beings are valued and treated equally”. Each vision statement has at its core, hope within the hopelessness of a vision that can never become true. Some management along with marketers and fundraisers may well try to hold a world view that all development problems are solvable and the right strategy, focus, steady growth and clever marketing the organisation will sustain itself indefinitely.

I want to raise questions about what International Development NGOs really trying to sustain and why the promotion of hope and vision among each organisations staff is the most logical, effective and necessary approach to achieving each organisations Mission and Vision and sustainable future. And how an undue focus on size, the generation of funds and management of risks is in fact less likely to sustain the organisation in the long term than having fewer funds, more flexibility and focusing on which activities approaches and resources are most likely to achieve unsurpassed development outcomes.

In the hybrid causal loop/perspectives map (Fig1), I have attempted to depict linkages for how more funds, an aversion to risk, staffing whose fit is more important than abilities and systems that place predictability over need, are likely to undermine everything that might sustain an NGO into the future. A reading of the diagram suggests that the key element to NGO organisational sustainability is going to depend on how effectively impact and aspirations are achieved in the field, as well as how this impact is communicated to donors.

Some of the key conclusions that can be drawn from this Causal Loop Diagram are:

• There is potentially a non-virtuous spiral that means more funds and more programming exposes the organisation to greater risk, posting threats to the Brand, causing more focus on risk minimisation actions, which leads to poorer development outcomes, which makes funds generation more diffulut, or at least risky, which leads in turn to more risk minimisation and a redoubling of efforts to raise more money.

• The impact of an organisation wide “taboo” on discussing the true quality of the development work relative to the aspirations of donors and developing communities.

• How organisational and staffing structures negatively impact on community development aspirations and how these lead to decreased development effectiveness and thus increased risk to the Brand of the NGO to its donor communities.

So what is it a typical International Relief and Development NGO trying to sustain?

A Vision Statement is a way of articulating the dreams and hopes for the people who comprise and support the organisation. The reason donors give their money to NGOs is in the hope that a difference will be made. Most donors will never meet the beneficiaries of their generosity but they give in the ‘hope’ that through their sacrifice, the lives of some people who are poor will be changed for the better, in sustainable ways, that their donation of itself, has made a real difference.

Aid agencies have consistently found that donors are more inclined to give money to support relief efforts to a few people who are impoverished rather than tens of thousands. Apparently the larger numbers are overwhelming and donors lose the hope that their contribution can actually make a difference. Thus the donor perspective is most likely to be one where they are supporting the NGO to provide a solution to a poverty situation.

From the perspective of an NGO, in this time of rising prices of food, fossil fuels and agricultural inputs, population pressures, environmental degradation, climate change, wars, famine, migrations, natural disasters and water issues, the larger perspective cannot be one of solutions but rather of a predicament or “wicked problem ”, where outcomes are better or worse rather than solved. In this context an NGO can logically only maintain hope and a vision for the future for some beneficiaries that is better rather than worse. In this context “a solution” is a hopeless aspiration.

It would seem that while a donor may have some hope in specific solutions the collective hope needed by the NGO’s leadership would seem by necessity to be a different kind of hope, along the lines described by Czech playwright, essayist, poet, dissident and politician Vaclav Havel.

“Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out. In short, I think that the deepest and most important form of hope, the only one that can keep us above water and urge us to good works, and the only true source of the breathtaking dimension of the human spirit and its efforts, is something we get, as it were, from “elsewhere.” It is also this hope, above all, which gives us the strength to live and continually to try new things, even in conditions that seem hopeless as ours do, here and now.”

Here Havel seems to be talking about how hope can still reside in hopelessness, as being something beyond the hope of results and instead the hope to do the right thing even if the challenge seems to be overwhelming.

Thomas Merton, the late Christian mystic and writer also talks of hope, and the hope he seems to be referring to is not the hope from finding solutions rather than the hope that survives in doing what is right, regardless of the consequences.

"Do not depend on the hope of results. . . .you may have to face the fact that your work will be apparently worthless and even achieve no result at all, if not perhaps results opposite to what you expect. As you get used to this idea, you start more and more to concentrate not on the results, but on the value, the rightness, the truth of the work itself . . . ..you gradually struggle less and less for an idea and more and more for specific people . . . .In the end, it is the reality of personal relationship that saves everything

What both Merton and Havel seem to be pointing to is that strength, inspiration and action can all arise freely in spite of a seemingly hopeless situation and that as Merton says within the “truth of the work itself”.

The “opposite” of hope is therefore not hopelessness but fear, as it is fear; fear of failure, fear of loss, fear of utter powerless that leads to despair; it is fear that saps the strength from hopes wings.

Thus the question arises: What would it take for an organisation, as an entity, to hold a vision within hopelessness, to be working within an overwhelming predicament, free from fear and be supported by tens of thousands of donors most of whom believe the organisation is providing solutions?

It would seem logical that International Relief and Development NGOs will not be able to survive indefinitely if there is a disparity between their vision and what donors believe they are supporting. Could it be that fear arising from the size of the predicament also has a role in over energetic fundraising, growth for growths sake, bureaucracy and risk management as substitute actions for work arising from “the belief in the work itself” that Merton speaks of?

An organisation, of itself, cannot hold hope within hopelessness, organisations have systems, structures, policies, resources and so on. It is the people within the organisation who will or won’t carry the hope and vision of such an utterly outrageous proposition of “a just world without poverty” or “every child who is today in poverty will experience life in all its abundance”.

It is paradoxical that NGO’s may ask donors to believe in an audacious vision and ask people in communities to increase their lots though self determination and belief in their own power to make a difference, and yet in their actions as organisations appear to be driven by fear thus sacrificing their authenticity with donors and communities alike.

So to rephrase the sustainability question, what is it that the organisation needs to sustain in order to do its work and achieve the most it can with purpose, effectiveness and relevance into the future?

I believe there is a strong case to suggest what will sustain Relief and Development NGOs into the future is the vision and hope of the people who make up the organisation and that the expression of this hope will lead to actions that improve the lives of people who are poor and offer opportunities for impact that are greater than the other alternatives available to donors. My hypothesis is that the leadership of these NGOs will need to convey each organisations vision in such a way as to realign the staffs worldviews with Donors and Communities who have more hope for change than is generally true within the NGO and its partners.

To survive and maximise its potential for impacting on the lives of people who are poor, my belief is NGOs need to refocus their leadership towards seeking to sustain vision and hope in the midst of overwhelming challenges.

For Development NGOs to sustain vision and hope in the midst of overwhelming challenges there will need to be the emergence of new and innovative approaches and new ways of reframing the “solution” orientation to one of “predicament”.

The only Wicked Problem strategy intervention consistent with international (community) development theory is “Collaboration” (Roberts, 2000), to work with all stakeholders to find the best possible options for proceeding with development approaches that builds the hope and vision amongst donors, NGO staff and communities. And to be less engaged with providing solutions than we are with improving predicaments. With this orientation hope does exist that we can communicate in new ways with our donor community and that our authentic aspirations will drive change throughout the value chains that we are a part of, towards more meaningful engagement with our stakeholders and better quality outcomes that are based on comprehensive shared visions rather than parochial short term survival activities.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Postcard from Velingara

Meeting in the village of Foudou - The floor is earth and the sides are open, the essence of humility

Too dumb to keep but too hard to leave behind

It is March, I am in Dakar and have just been picked up from my hotel to go to the office. The Novotel is a better hotel than i am used to, modern French minimalist. I was upgraded to a room with a sea view but the room is dark, the sea view window is less than half a door in size, I suppose for some eco design reason, and at an angle so you can only see the sea if you stand right at it. I can make most things work and when I can’t it is apparently because i am not thinking enough like a Citroen mechanic. Some room features seem to work better when I try them backwards for example in the bathroom, up means on and down off and green means hot and blue means water flow and things of that nature. Some aspects remain a mystery, like the moulded plywood feature that covers the orange vinyl cushion on the stool under the desk. I arrived last night from Nairobi, the time is three hours behind, so bed was two a.m. and I am feeling it a bit this morning.

My drivers name is Aziz, his English is good and we make ‘morning in the traffic’ small talk.

“So how is the office?”

“The office is very fine”

“How is my friend Brett? “ Brett is originally from Canada and has been working in Senegal for a number of years.

“Brett is very fine.”

“Brett just got married?”

“Yes maybe one month ago and his wife is very beautiful”

“Have you met his wife? “

“Yes she is very tall, she is like the Cooka Cola”

“The Coca Cola?”

“Yeeees, she is tall and has good shape and is very brown.......... like the Cooka Cola.........and she has very good teeth. Aziz said this laughing so that the words and the laughing were all one.

We wind through backstreets of an old part of town, its all an old part, we pass the Hotel Croix du Sud a fine old art Deco style hotel built around 1950 that apparently used to be the best in town. It reminds me the Bakelite radio that my father gave me as a child to listen to the Argonauts on the ABC. We cross Boulevard du General de Galle, and go around Independence Square, which is the size of several soccer fields and in it are low concrete retaining wall instalments painted and sun bleached, un-kept paths and several dry fountains. It has a mad broken garden gnome feel about it. There have recently been some pre-election protest riots around here. We take a road the goes near the old market in an area that translates to something like “Walk of Barrels” and hit the coast.

Now we follow the road from the edge of the city centre along the coast towards the airport, we swerve only to avoid those things that might do us damage. Like donkey carts, or aging yellow Peugeot taxis. Pedestrians run between speeding cars like a dare. The street sign says Route de la Comiche Quest – ‘Road to the Comic Quest’, and I remember Don Quixote and wonder if we all need to be a bit mad to make sense of what is going on around us, not only here but anywhere.

Last time I was in Dakar, Brett took me to dinner along this same road, a clutter of buildings behind a taxi stand in front of little Luna Park that is all painted up like a harlequin hat. The Cafe Sportif is perched on a small cliff overlooking the beach. We arrived at dusk and watched the water turn from aqua to mercury to ink. And we talked about work and Africa and he talked of his upcoming marriage and me of lost loves.

When it came time to came to go, there was a scramble of taxi drivers around us and under coloured light bulbs draped in a tree and somehow we ended up in one of the old beaten up black and yellow Peugeots with a Rastafarian driver , he was high on something, maybe herbs or drink or just on life. A crafts hawker stops me closing my back door desperate to sell me three carved ebony monkeys each about the size of a Russian doll, hear no evil, speak no evil , see no evil. And I didn’t want them but I buy them anyway and pay a quarter the price he started at and still feel I pay too much. We lurch off up the road , the old 505’s diff is wining, the tappets sound like shaking rocks in a tin and the springs and shocks are gone and with every bump we bottom out with a jarring thud and each time I close my eyes, it has an end of the world feeling about it. The driver is shouting at us in French, we make the first corner and both his and my doors fly wide open like it was something they were supposed to do on cue. I nearly fall out but grab the door and slam it back in but the same thing happens at the next right hand corner and I move to the middle of the back seat, holding the back of Brett’s’ passenger seat with one hand and the opening back door with the other. And the driver is grinning and shouting and laughing and I can’t understand a thing he is saying but I am getting him anyway. And when I get back to the hotel room in the light, I see that two of the little monkeys are see no evil, accompanied by one hear no evil. They are too good to throw away, and too dumb to keep, but I pack them anyway. So many things in life seem like this and I am thinking of all the things I hold on to that are no good for me or for others.

My task this trip is work with two new business councils in their rural villages. We have some new Business Facilitators and part of their job will be to form as many as twelve business councils and so I am here to do some training and mentoring while actually in the field working with community groups.

We are in the office I am sitting with my colleague Benedict who is originally from Mali. We are planning the logistics for the week ahead. When I have visited previously the projects are generally three or four hours from Dakar, so if we leave early we can schedule community work in the afternoon.

“So where are we going” I ask.


“Okay good, and how long will it take us to get there?”

“It is not so far” he says, but his eyes flicker

“Benedict” I say, “how far exactly is it?”

“It is a really beauuuutiful drive” Benedict says looking through me to the wall behind. “It is near the border with Ginea Bissau”

“Okay, how long will this beautiful drive take?” I ask

“Ten hours, but this is a very, very nice drive, a very beauuuutiful drive”

“Ten hours!”

“My broder “he says “everything is possible in Senegal”

And so now it is two days later and we are in a community meeting place in the middle of a small rural village about an hour out of Velingara. We are seated in a shelter that can hold about two hundred people, the roof is a thick grass thatch bound to rafters with rope like raffia held on tree trunks each with a natural fork at the top to hold the rafters. The floor is earth and the sides are open, the essence of humility. People filter in and several men whom I assume are village elders bring traditional chairs, that have the dimensions of a deck chair and made from two wide rough hewn planks that both have a notch taken out about one third of the way along, to half the width, and so fitted together they form an off centric cross with the short side forming the seat and the longer the longer the back rest.

After about half an hour we start the meeting and I gather that about ten years ago we bought a large plot of land along the bank of the passing river for some struggling farmers and helped them develop it into a communal banana plantation. We provided big diesel pumps to irrigate from the river, the banana plants, the fertiliser and training. And when fences were needed to keep livestock and wild donkeys out we provided the materials. And for a while apparently this was a model project. And then as one thing or another went wrong or broke we fixed it. Everyone’s intentions were good and the community became increasingly dependent on us and we on them for results that might justify our increasing investment. It was a pity that no one had sufficiently researched the demand for bananas and now the famers are struggling to find buyers willing to pay a fair price.

Looking out over the fields, women and boys are leading donkeys pulling hand ploughs worked by men in kaftans of sky blue, cloud white, and earth brown . And I am thinking this project is like an old Volvo station wagon I once had, first I needed to replace the gear box and I thought after this all would be well for the future but soon it was the electrics that blew, so I fixed them and was sure that the car would now be worry free. But then the dif went and I replaced that and so by the time the power steering stopped working, I was so committed I didn’t really make a decision and when the radiator blew beyond repair I had invested so much that I couldn’t walk away because I couldn’t even sell it for the price of the power steering repair. That question again, what do we hold dear and what do we leave behind?

So as usual, I have no idea what discussion is going to be helpful for us, for them for all of us. So I asked the gathered group what they wanted to achieve and they told me they wanted World Vision to give them more school classrooms and more teachers and to find a buyer who would pay more for their bananas.

I have found that following my instincts is generally better than ignoring them and also that stories are often a first step to something else. So the best thing I could think to do was to tell a story about the opportunities. I said that it sounded to me that they were like some farmers caught in a flood who had climbed onto their thatched roof even as the water was lapping at the edges of the grass thatch. And there was a murmur and several people looked anxiously at the thatch overhead. And I said that the farmers were good Muslims and they prayed to God to save them and they waited in hope. Then after some time some fishermen came by in a canoe and offered to take them to higher ground but it looked risky and they said no, they were waiting for God to save them. A little while later a large tree that had been dislodged from the bank , brushed by the roof and as the waters were rising the famers thought of clinging to the tree and it taking them to safety, but they remembered that they had faith in God and after all, wasn’t it Gods job to save them? Before long the flood swept the roof off the house and it sank and the farmers drowned. There was murmuring in the group and I could sense at this point they could all see themselves swept away in the a swirling muddy river. And I said, the farmers went to heaven and there was Allah, and they said “Blessed Allah, why did you not save us?” And Allah said to the farmers, “Sons and daughters, what do you mean? First I sent you some fishermen in a boat and then I sent you are huge tree to carry you to safety”. And one of the village elders stood up and through translation said that he understood the message and that he saw they needed to use what they had been given and to take some risks to save themselves. So I asked him to chat with the gathered group. I know from experience that nothing is easy, that words are just words particularly from visitor and also that worlds can have power. I have learned that I generally can’t tell the difference. That all of us there that day hold a part of the truth and that all I could do was to try to contribute something that in some way may be helpful.

We are so often afraid to lose what we have even when logically there is a real prospect of gaining something of much greater benefit. Believe it or not academics have spent lifetimes researching risk aversion and decision making theory. Loss aversion refers to people's strong preference to avoiding losses over acquiring potential gains. Some studies suggest that fear of losses is twice as powerful, psychologically, as the potential for gains.

I have noticed this when impoverished farmers have a strong reluctance to try new methods or even in some cases work together in new ways. They may recognize the theoretical logic of making a change but they are worried that deviating from their traditions poses a risk of losing the little they have. I have talked with farmers who would rather endure three or four hungry months than risk letting go of tradition trying something new that is likely to mean they will be better off. And it is not hard to see how in an evolutionary way this can make sense, at least they know with the old ways they will survive just like their parents and their parents before them. But there are always exceptions and risk aversion is not true apparently for gold rushes or martyrs.

It is not hard to see how the banana farmers quickly became dependent on World Vision and that when a problem arose they turned to us to fix them. A downward spiral where the more we invested the more we had to lose, the greater the community’s dependence, the less the project was successful the more we invested. And the question arises, “who is trying to sustain what for whom?” We believe in assisting communities increase their social capital and determine their own future and yet our fear of loss and failure can bind us into a spiral in which sustainable development is unlikely. And here that we repeated it for so long must have meant that we weren’t prepared to risk losing the little we had for in the hope that the community would and could find ways to do things themselves. And if we are not prepared to risk loss how can we expect the communities we work with to do the same? It is so seldom about the money and so often about our skills and abilities to take risks with others. And who is it that benefits from taking these stories back to our experts and our supporters.

I like the following quote from the late Amos Nathan Tversky who was one of the pioneers of decision making theory, he said:

“Whenever there is a simple error that most laymen fall for, there is always a slightly more sophisticated version of the same problem that experts fall for ”

Post Script

This was around a year ago and last month I saw part of a report and in it the following excerpt of a speech by one of the Elders from that village near Velingara:

“The village of Foudou exists by the will of World Vision; this is why we must not disappoint. World Vision has set up a banana with a major investment to develop the area economically. Therefore, I would like to return abroad about "Noble Jock" who came when starting the project with BDS Cisse (a new Business Advisor). If I remember correctly, he made us understand that we first had to rely on ourselves before seeking support from others. To return to the signing of this Memorandum of Understanding today between the partner and we Abdou Faye banana producers, I would simply say that we have an incredible opportunity to have World Vision as a "big ship" and Abdou Faye partner as "small ship" and if we are not careful we may lose these two ships if we do not redouble their efforts to succeed. If we fail, we are alone in the ocean and we risk drowning. Through these examples, I was merely a repeat explanations from abroad from World Vision Australia, to say we believe in and enjoy the opportunity we have today to move forward. "

I am not really sure what it means, but I hope it means something true, and if that is the case then that will be a mystery to marvel at and if I am there next year and I have twenty hours to drive to and from Velingara I may just try to find out how things are going.