Friday, January 21, 2011

Mid-Year Report

Hi all, this is the half year report I sent to the Watson people. Am back in Dar after an awesome vacation (SAFARI!)with the family. It was so good to see everyone and we had an incredible time seeing all of the animals. This Monday I head south with a Peace Corps volunteer who happens to be a fellow Bowdoin Grad and a friend's brother... small world! Met with the Peace Corps Country Director which was interesting and I am excited to see and hear about some of the work the actual volunteers are doing. After returning from the trip south I plan to head west to meet up with some of the other in country volunteers. Should be an adventure! Will write more soon I am sure.

Hello again Watson HQ!

While I have experienced and repeatedly overcome the culturally induced panic known more commonly as “culture shock” in each of the countries I have traveled to nothing quite prepared me for my arrival in Tanzania. My first journal entry, written in a small restaurant in Dar Es Salaam reads, “WHERE AM I!? What was I thinking? Send me back to Peru… Dorothy is definitely not in Kansas any more.”

Towards the end of November, leaving what I had come to consider family in Peru, I made my way to Africa. Twenty hours of plane travel broken up by an overnight stint in Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport I arrived at 12:00 AM to a long unorganized visa process in a tiny poorly run airport, not exactly what I was expecting from the largest city in the country. Colliding with intense heat, I spent my first night in the heart of the ramshackle city center sweating under a mosquito net feeling VERY alone. I woke up, thanks to my jet lag, the next afternoon. While I obviously expected things to look different it was the sounds of the country that hit me most powerfully. Since that first day I have learned to love the whirr of fans, lament the rumbling of generators, listen longingly to the punctuated sounds of Kiswahili and assumed the Muslim call to prayer as my pre-morning wake up call. All sounds so shockingly different from any country I have visited, and each so reflective Tanzanian life.

While things have absolutely chanced since those first days of loneliness and discomfort my time here has been almost a constant flow of highs and lows. While I have met some incredible people doing amazing works I have also seen and heard about the ugly -or worse- the hopeless side of Aid in Tanzania. I have heard numerous stories and seen evidence of corruption, poorly conceived interventions, the impossible but essential works, the unsustainable role of the aid economy, and the divisive relationship between aid givers and aid receivers. In a country where 30% of the government budget is aid money these ugly aspects play a large role in the social lives of the country’s inhabitants.

If I didn’t already believe it, my own arrival experience and what I have since learned has really proven how different countries are; giving me the irrefutable evidence that any type of social intervention must emerge out of an understanding of and sensitivity toward local culture. In Tanzania there are complications, delays and challenges even in the most basic of daily functions. Unfathomable or difficult to understand if a person has no experience in country, I’ve been here for almost 2 months and I still struggle with Tanzanian reality. The most obvious example I can think of is the daily power rationing.

The result of corruption within the government owned power company TANESCO, power is cut anywhere from 6 to 48 hours at a time. Doing business in Tanzania is thus complicated as it means that at some point during most workdays offices are left without power. Unless the office has a generator, the productivity of workers obviously drops dramatically. Friends working in NGO offices with out generators talk about how when the power goes off they spend their day sitting, watching the minutes tick by. Even with a generator, offices that work with or are dependent on other organizations or government offices (perhaps without generators) are faced with further inefficiencies. The daily realities of life in Tanzania have enormous impacts. Unless you do local research, listen to local perspective or experience something of the local these routine difficulties go unplanned for as they are complications that simply do not exist in places like the US or even in many other developing countries, Guatemala or Peru for example. Even with prep work and local knowledge, Tanzania more than any other place has shown me that there are still never any guarantees.

(Almost as though to validate what I am saying, halfway through writing this quarterly report this internet cafĂ©, with a generator, experienced a power cut. The computer went off and if this hadn’t been saved my work would have been lost. I can only imagine if this was an official document or grant proposal how frustrating and challenging work could be.)

While there are numerous examples of how important it is to understand the realities of place I am coming to see the value of learning from and respecting the expertise of others either locally or globally. Too often I have been disappointed to see how organizations repeatedly fail to consult with each other. Locally, I believe this is partially the result of a broken grant system and partially the result of a dependence on NGOs as the only source of consistent employment. The system encourages organizations to branch out into fields they have no experience in so as to fit with the very specific demands of grant applications; essentially doing and promising anything to get that next chunk of money. This means for example, that an organization that works in community organizing will twist their mission statement and shift their focus to water purification if it means they can get some kind of funding to keep on their employees and offices.

This NGO with it expertise in community organizing is essentially encouraged by the aid system to spend its time trying to design and implement a water project rather than further developing their existing work. Making the situation more painful, there is most likely another NGO with the experience and technical know how to implement what would probably be a better project for half the price. With so many NGOs branching in to areas they have no experience in, it is no wonder so many projects end up half completed or marginally implemented. There exists an aid economy in which the motivators are all wrong and too much space is left for great inefficiency and money waste. It seems so obvious and essential to me that in search of a solution to these problems local NGOs and other Aid Organizations should engage in greater collaboration.

In terms of the global, I believe there is also space for greater collaboration. There are lessons that can be learned country to country regardless of cultural difference as many problems are the same regardless of place. For example, a friend of mine manages an organization here in Tanzania currently brings donated or bought books into Tanzania distributing them, with the help of the ministry of education, in local schools. His NGO wants to expand and has plans to implement a library program in some of these rural locations. In talking with him about the work he does and his plans for expansion, I began to think back to what I saw another organization doing in Guatemala.

The organization in Guatemala trained librarians so that they could make underutilized local libraries into important community centers where kids would be encouraged to read. While this NGO was giving the expertise needed to ensure libraries were used, the director told me they lamented the fact they didn’t have the funding to provide many of these same libraries with books.

I really believe that both the Tanzanian NGO and the Guatemalan NGO could learn from the model the other implements. One side has the book collection and distribution down while the other knows the best type of library and librarian education to provide. While both NGOs do their work in very different countries each has a basic model that could really help the other. Seeing these types of connections and the improvements that could be made by sharing expertise and experience I’m left wondering how such connectivity can be facilitated and encouraged.

These last few months have left me swaying from extremes. One day I think aid work is essential and other days I think it perpetuates a broken system and should be entirely scrapped. I think there should be big partnerships and shared expertise but at the same time I am seeing
that small fairly independent interventions work best. I have been so frustrated by what I have heard and seen but at the same time sucked in, wondering what I would do and how I could do things better. I have been swaying from one side to the other and I find my thoughts so often end up tangled. To me these contradictions and complications are so reflective of the area I find myself studying.

My journeys have been incredible. My time to reflect, think for myself and struggle with difficult questions and doubts, while challenging and often frustrating, has been transformative. I have learned so much about what I can cope with and what I am capable of and want to thank you all again for your support in all of this. We’ll see what the next six months bring!