I've been thinking about how to phrase this blog for months. I have told myself not to offend people and to be careful what I say to the (maybe) broad and opinionated audience reading my posts. But I think very recent events will serve as a great example for what needs to be said. A few weeks ago PCVs (Peace Corps Volunteers) in Senegal were contacted asking if they would like any soccer balls given to our country through some organization. My site mate and I said "yeah, sure" thinking there are plenty of schools here and plenty of kids who would like soccer balls. Fast forward a few weeks and I have 5 soccer balls and no idea what to do with them. I quickly realize how bad of an idea it is to just give these out. I want to do it in a way that does not look like I'm simply giving away free goods but I still need to take pictures of these kids with the soccer balls for the organization. So weeks go by and my little brother keeps asking me for one.
Finally one day my mom comes to me and asks if a group of boys could have a ball for some planned activity the following afternoon. I figure, that's a good way to do this, have kids share it. So they get a ball. I take pictures. They play with the ball. And thanks to this, every day, every time I pass a kid in the surrounding kilometer of my house I get asked for a ball. That is not an exaggeration. Now I can deal with the question. I get requests like that almost 10 times a day from grown men and kids alike. It's a product of this joking culture and me being perceived as a rich "Toubab." What I get furious about though is the attitude behind these requests. By giving out this soccer ball I have contributed to the barrier of good work here in Senegal: the idea that "Toubabs" will give you things and you do not need to pay for them.
I have had this conversation many times with Senegalese friends who understand my situation here. And I even got a sense of this before I came into the Peace Corps. But what I'm realizing more and more is that foreign aid that simply gives goods out is terrible for a community. I am not usually polarizing on issues like this but I now feel very strongly that way and want you all to know. So I'll repeat. Foreign aid that simply gives goods out is terrible for a community. To clarify what I mean exactly; 'foreign' in the fashion that it does not really know the country it's helping. It does not know the culture, language, or true needs. And like wise the host country does not know the donor or it's reasons for giving. 'Simply' means the gift is not accompanied by any knowledge or taught ability to get more of the good in the future. 'Goods' are finished products that have no ability to add capacity to a country. 'Terrible' is exactly what I mean to say. These communities end up worse off than if nothing happened at all. Not only does the good not last long but the community is left with the trash, the false perceptions, and the dependence. It is damaging in SO many ways. There is the attitude it leaves of dependence. That is harder to prove. But what I can prove is the awful prospect it creates for true investment. What legitimate company or entrepreneur can possibly thrive in a place where it's customers would rather wait out the next foreign giving session? None.
The last of the negative I have to say is that I am very guilty of this. Years ago I started The Running Exchange (which I still believe has potential for a few reasons. To be continued...). But the main purpose of that was to send used running shoes to Kenya and to relieve some of the personal guilt I had. I did not research where they were going. I did not learn if anything else would work better. It was ignorant. Like I said, Kenya ended up with shoes that won't last, thankfulness to this mystery kid from CT, and no increased capacity. And now I'm in Senegal and nothing is continued. So, failure.
But what can we do about this? Here's the good news. Help locally. Find an organization in your own community that has identified a need and solves it with local goods and local people power. This is the very best approach if you truly want to give to those who are in unfortunate positions. But if you really feel that you want to help Africa or developing countries on other continents, please do your research. If you are coming here please learn some local culture, language, and norms. And most importantly understand the needs of the community and assess the potential impacts of your work. If your option is monetary giving, the Peace Corps is a great option alongside host country-run NGOs, or American NGOs working in capacity building. This is why the bulk of my work here is in information sharing and market linkages. I will be helping some people in great financial need but only with the understanding that I work on useable skills with them afterwards. Because this is what lasts long and contributes to development. Knowledge and information get people ahead here. Not soccer balls and not used shoes.