Pre-Departure Pitfalls #SWEDOW

Look, aid is complicated. Development is a complex web of interconnected issues that are difficult to itemise and act upon. I have two degrees, I’ve read books and reports and attended global conferences to try and understand it. I indulgently smile at 18 year old Rachael, proclaiming she understood the realities of poverty after gaining a Distinction in Intro to Development. All my knowledge seeking has left me with one sure fact: I know nothing. You, dear reader, know nothing. Tough break, hey?

I leave for Kisumu tomorrow, and I know that the world I’m heading for cannot be surmised by a CIA World Factbook page. Reading about HIV/AIDS prevalence, primary school enrolment rates and average income levels does not mean I have a single answer about the path to prosperity. I am no white saviour, marching into Kisumu with my malaria tablets and Kathmandu waterproof sandals. I have a set of skills (mostly theoretical) that those who know better (community leaders) will put to use. Claiming any shred of knowledge about the development challenges in the Obunga slum would be the height of ignorance and self involvement. I leave tomorrow, prepared to be a tool for and a student of David and Erick, the community leaders.

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The community leaders, whose visions Mama Hope supports

I recently read a book called The Bright Continent by Dayo Olopade. In one chapter, she spoke about SWEDOW – “stuff we don’t want”. It’s a nifty little acronym used to describe poorly reasoned development planning that has little or no use, or does actual harm.

But how can aid cause actual harm?, you may ask. Good question – and possibly one you’ve never considered before. Foreign aid has many benefits, but we in developed nations have been lulled into the idea that aid will administer the solutions “Africa” needs. While a comforting notion, this ignores the inherent complexity of development. (Also, Africa is a continent. New Zealanders don’t like being confused with Australians. I bet Egyptians feel the same when compared to 53 other nations).

EXAMPLE OF HARMFUL AID: sending used clothes to Africa. For sub-Saharan Africa, secondhand clothes has done incredible damage to local textile industries. The flood of clothes, given freely by good intentioned Western citizens, puts tailors and clothiers and labourers out of a job. This excerpt from Olopade, on page 53, sums it up;

“In 1997, Nigeria’s textile industry employed 137,000 workers. Six years later, the number had plummeted to 57,000, largely as a result of free clothing from fat economies. In the past decade, Malawi’s largest textile manufacturer has closed, and similar companies in Mozambique and in Uganda, where 81 percent of clothing sold is secondhand imports, are teetering towards bankruptcy. In Zambia, garment industry   workers have staged strikes in protest of this importation. Ethiopia and Eritrea have outright bans on worn and used clothes. Mali, one of the largest cotton producers in sub-Saharan Africa, has not itself produced a single T-shirt.”

That is absurd, and difficult to fully recognise. Importing secondhand clothes to African nations may come from a good intentioned place. But good intentions do not make an undesirable result suddenly desirable. This was a shift in perception I didn’t even realised I needed. My good intentions in Kisumu may mean nothing, if all I intend to do is import my version of what a community needs.

It is comforting to think that African nations have a straight path to development. The complexity and interconnectedness of poverty is daunting. However, I’m keeping my lens focused on David and Erick’s vision for the girls of Akili.

 

The charity I work for, Mama Hope, puts the community at the centre of everything. Community leaders decide where funds should be spent, because they understand the complexities of their situation. Project staff (like the Akili Girl’s School teachers) direct my work, because in January I will leave. They are the ones who must live with my decisions.

So far, my greatest revelation is this: open mindedness allows us to see the beauty of worlds beyond our own. Your perspective is the smallest slice of the world. Broadening it means you get another piece.