Joining the Dead Aid debate

May 15 2009

To say the cameras are a novelty would be something of an understatement

To say the cameras are a novelty would be something of an understatement

We’re back in Livingstone after a strangely uneventful bus ride, all things considered. Driving over the parts of the main Livingstone to Lusaka road that are just dirt tracks in a six wheel coach should, really, have felt more adventurous than it actually did. I guess National Express-style buses are the same the world over – no-one wants to talk, just sit uncomfortably silent next to the stranger on your left. I would say I prefer some of the more basic transport we’ve taken so far, but it beats walking and not being in fear of your life is never a bad thing.

Most striking thing about being back in the Jollyboys backpackers is how relative everything is. A week ago, Livingstone was far less developed than I’d expected: tonight it seems like a bastion of civilisation and Kalomo a strangely surreal dream.

One thing that’s taken me by surprise is the amount of NGO already here in Zambia. The office block over the road in Livingstone is a headquarters for several, and Kalomo appeared to have more aid agencies than shops.

The grade 1 classroom has this poster above one that explains how to spell banana

The next poster in the grade 1 classroom correctly identifies that 'b' is for banana.

It’s important because one of the reasons I came here was because I’d just finished reading a book called Dead Aid. It’s been all over the blogosphere and stoked lots of debate about the relevance of charity to Africa. After 50 years of World Banks and Live Aids, there are still kids walking 14km a day just to learn to read and write. Most of the money spent has been spent badly, the book says, and Africa would do better on its own.

In the book there is a proviso for projects like LearnAsOne, though. It says that money given directly to small scale projects like building a school will, inevitably, have to continue for longer. Just take out the politicians, rock stars and global organisations who spend the cash on ineffective projects which lock people into a cycle of dependence while pocketing huge, greedy salaries themselves.

Everyone I’ve spoken to here agrees. Today we’ve interviewed government officials and home grown NGO organisations. Response Network explicitly do not want donations of clothes or books for the pupils. What they want is to teach the people here enough that they can survive by themselves. Rather than shoes, they want to give the people the skills to build drip irrigation systems, so they can grow more crops to sell and buy shoes. Where are they going to teach these skills? In the school.

The kids put on a little show of singing, dancing and plays for us.

The kids put on a little show of singing, dancing and plays for us

It sounds simple – give a man a fish, you’ll feed him for a week, teach a man to fish he’ll feed himself for life. I didn’t understand until this week, though, how hard that is to deliver on. Simakakata is enormously spread out. There are no roads, no phonelines. Some of the larger villages have a mobile they share, but it’s for emergencies only. And this isn’t even a ‘remote’ place. We chose it as the site for LearnAsOne because it is close to Kalomo and we could get what we needed for the blog here.

The first guy I chat to in the bar tonight works on the river, taking tourists white water rafting. I tell him what I do for a living, and why we’re here. He says, without prompting, that he wants the big NGOs out of Zambia. His family is from Lusaka, politicians. He left because he hates the fact they’ve got rich off of the money sent for aid. Africa can find its own solutions, he says, they can’t be European ones. Trying to turn Africa into Europe has just brought AIDS.

He agrees with what we’re doing. Empowerment and respect is what people need. The chance to learn enough to make their own choices. Like him.

So far, though, I’m not sure I’m quite as convinced by Dead Aid as I was. There’s a lot of good come from the NGOs in Kalomo. Many people ride cycles donated by Bicycle Aid or USAID – including George. These make things like having a trained headmaster at Simakakata possible. I don’t know that that would have been achieved without a large, multinational organisation that can handle the logistics.

Right now everything is still very raw from the last few days, and it’s really hard watching an eight year old walk 14kms with no shoes without thinking ‘When I get home I’m going to send a parcel of shoes’. Aid may not be working, but it’s not entirely dead.

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