20 July 2012
In 2009, a group of six Kenyan women in a local community dance troupe led by a sweet, kind-hearted lady lovingly called Mama Teresia, from a rural village outside of Mombasa, visited the United States. They had heard rumors about hardship in America, and decided to make a difference; they raised money to make the trip to America and to change the world.
Their first minutes in America were shocking. They noticed fast food chains at every highway exit. They also noticed something quite different about the people: everyone seemed to be overweight. But it was the children who really grabbed their attention. Fat, lumbering children seemed to be everywhere with their parents. Worse, they were choking down ice creams, hot dogs and hamburgers as if in a race. The women realized something should and could be done.
After settling in that evening, the troupe went to the drawing board to solve the problem of obesity in America. It was not long before one lady announced, “I have a solution!” The woman, Angie, told the group, “we can create a spice that tastes horrible and the children and their parents can put the disgusting flavors on their food before they take a bite. That will surely discourage overeating!”
The silliness of that idea captures the problem with international development for the past 60 years. Poorly conceived solutions from outsiders are more common than world aid advocates would like you to know or believe.
It stands to reason that we have our premise wrong on making change in the world. We seek to reduce pain (like the kids eating more fattening foods) rather than increase success, like encouraging healthy habits.
Indeed, in many parts of Africa, the choices around economic development have become all too familiar: receive top-down aid solutions or remain hopeless. The tragedy is how far this choice is from productive economic growth and development.
Rather than assume more aid is needed, or that aid through NGOs, governments, and multinationals is even a net positive, let’s discuss the most important component in any poverty reduction scheme: the people.
Each person has myriad skills and talents that can be brought to improve the quality of life in a community. A woman might be illiterate, but that does not define her capacity. She manages money. She cooks. She may even deliver babies. To truly understand the power and promise that an individual woman in a rural village in Africa has to offer we need to seek and build on the resources available in a community. Some refer to this as an asset-based approach. It looks at opportunity where others have traditionally highlighted deficiency.
One student, Kelly, on ThinkImpact’s Institute in rural Kenya learned this first-hand. Kelly noted, “[a local man], along with several other community members I met… told us point blank that they didn’t want handouts, as USAID and the traditional aid system has focused on doing, but rather that they wanted the training and knowledge so that they can pull themselves out of poverty.”
Why would anyone reject free money?
Simply put, receiving constant charity for basic needs treats everyone like they are homeless and helpless when in fact neither is correct. People in Africa spend less per day but they still spend. They have shelter, family, markets and plenty of community. The charity obsession that has become the trademark of international development is not about the recipients, it’s about the donors. Donors who want to save people and feel good about doing it.
Rather than throw money at problems, people can be engaged as equals at the table to develop their independence, their voice. Once we realize this fact globally, new markets will be truly unleashed—and hopefully the old way of doing work in Africa will be cut out—and we will stop undermining so much potential.
I am now convinced of a simple truth in the world: nobody is poor. As one Kenyan put it: “I see a lot of degrading the poor. I really hate that. As you know, we are all equal…What is the need of treating people in a tyrant [sic] way?”
Saul Garlick is the Founder & CEO of ThinkImpact, a social enterprise that operates in Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda, South Africa and the United States. He was also a 2011 Top 99 Young Professional in Foreign Policy under age 33.
This article was originally published in the July/August edition of the Diplomatic Courier.