So many conversations, so many stories, so many observations in the past few months have led to this question… Why are you here? What exactly are you doing here?
When I write here, I’m talking about all the countries that you’ve listed on your website… The countries that you say you work in. The countries represented with pictures of poor dirty children with runny noses and flies on their faces… Countries in Africa, South America, Asia… The global south…
Recently while talking to a community leader from a local informal settlement, I asked her how she felt about all the organisations and the researchers that visit the community… I asked her whether there had been any difference after the organisations that had come to ‘help’ or ‘build the capacity’ of the community, left. She said that many people come and go. A majority come with promises or train the community on things that the organisations find important… Another large number mostly made up of researchers come and collect information from the community then disappear. At some point it seemed like a trend that these organisations would give ‘monetary tips’ to the community so it has become the norm, that to get any information, the researcher has to part with some money.
The communities are tired. They are over researched with no change to show for it. I have experienced this numerous times when out in the field. The first question I’m asked is, ‘You’ll benefit from this information, how will I benefit?‘. After a brief explanation, I’m asked, ‘ How is your organisation any different from all the others that have been here? You all come seeking something, looking to achieve some sort of target, then you disappear’. Unfortunately I can’t speak for the previous researchers and organisations that have set a bad precedence… This has been experienced in both informal settlements and the rural areas. I have been fortunate that most of the people eventually allow me to talk to them, however I have also experienced hostility… I remember that once my colleague and I were literally chased away by a fisherman after we said that we didn’t have ‘chai‘ for him.
Then you wonder why your projects aren’t working out…
i. You come in with assumptions of what the community wants. You are here to achieve an organisational objective. You simply want to meet a target and burn the money allocated to some activity within the required timelines. So, you go to some informal settlement, have a one day event, take photos, send to your donor and voila! Target achieved.
ii. You have zero focus. That’s a polite way of saying that your intention never really was to help the people. You are here to make money and you don’t really care about the people…which may be considered okay, but thing is, you work for a ‘humanitarian’ organisation. So you are supposed to have a heart for the people.
I’m told of many expats who come here, saying that they live in an insecure hardship location i.e. Nairobi. Yet, they live in high walled gated communities, drive big cars, enjoy the vibrant night life in the city, shop in only the best malls… the only interactions they ever have with the locals, is giving instructions to their house helps and greetings to their watchmen. Quite a number have turned from expats to immigrants because of the ‘nice’ life here.
iii. You hire locals only to show that there is diversity in the team… You only hire them when you have to, otherwise you’d rather get people from wherever you came from. You hire people who have absolutely no idea on what actually happens on the ground. You think that the locals may not have the necessary skills, qualifications or capacity required to fill in the position. Or maybe you hire them as your information machines on the local situation, which again, is rare because you feel that you know better.
You may ask, how do I read your thoughts on what you think of the locals?
I say, I know because its crystal clear in the actions. Locals are hired with remuneration that is waaaaay lower than what the international people are given for the same qualifications. Which would then make sense to hire or train locals but then in your eyes, what do the locals know?
i. How long have I been in this location and what are some of the changes and improvements that I have made?
ii. If I leave this country today, will the projects that I have started be sustainable? Will they last? Did the community embrace it and see the project as something worthy of being continued?
iii. Am I using the money allocated to this project, as it should be used?
Because, it doesn’t make sense that you would be saying that you work in an area, yet there barely is any change to show for the millions of dollars donors have invested in the project. However, there are organisations that work. The community leader mentioned a few organisations that work. One organisation built water kiosks for their community and the kiosks are still functioning to date.
iv. Do I really want to empower the people? Do I think that the people have knowledge on whatever I am doing in their community? How can I really work with the community to improve their situation?
v. What did I learn from this community? If there’s nothing you’re learning… you probably aren’t doing it right
To the locals who have given the foreigners the perception that we are clueless and cannot be trusted etc… Shame on you!
I’m looking forward to the day that we’ll have organisations say, ‘We are proud to have worked with communities in improving their lives and in the process, we have achieved our objectives. We are therefore leaving to find another location where we can uplift and transform more lives‘.