To illustrate my point in this blog, we are going to do a little time-traveling and I’m going to tell some stories about myself. Here’s the point I intend to get across: Not all people deserve to be helped, and sometimes trying to help only makes things worse. Done incorrectly, efforts to make a difference create perverse incentives and corruption.
The EMW staff are faced with this problem every day in our work in Asia, and finding the right partners means the difference between program success and failure. With the right partners, anything is possible – -but you can also waste a lot of time and money if you don’t pay attention.
So here’s my story:
By the time I was a sophomore in college, I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to work in the field of international development, directly with the people. Not for me the life of an academic, or policy wonk, or administrator. I wanted to see real projects being built, get my hands dirty, and spend as much time as possible on site.
So I spent the last year of college working on a senior thesis comparing agricultural development efforts in Cuba and Tanzania (at the time I was enamored of collectivist efforts to rapidly develop the countryside), and as soon as I finished that I applied to the Peace Corps. By the time I was twenty-three I was launched on my first international trip. I took off on an old 747 from New York’s JFK, and landed in an entirely different world – Dakar, Senegal.
I immediately fell in love. That first night, I spent hours walking the streets, totally lost, incompetent in any local language, absorbing the sights and smells and laughingly trying to communicate in broken French to buy food in the market, ginger beer from a street vendor, and a couple of souvenirs. The memory of that night has never left me, and ten years later when my first daughter was born I gave her the middle name Dakar.
But Senegal was not my final destination; the next morning we packed up and headed north, to Mauritania. A few weeks of advanced language training, and suddenly I found myself deposited in a tiny African village not far from the Senegal River, the border between Mauritania and Senegal. This village, called Gorrel Boubou, was a long-time Peace Corps site, and had hosted many volunteers over the years for two years at a time. Actually, many if not most Peace Corps Volunteers in Mauritania didn’t make it for the full two years; illness and loneliness took their toll.
The village was nearly completely lacking in modern infrastructure – no roads, electricity, toilets, running water, refrigeration, medical care, media or schools. Located on the edge of the Sahel, the local trees were mostly Acacia thorn trees and Neem, and vast expanses of sand and bare earth surrounded us in all directions. Chickens and guinea fowl roamed freely, and most families had a few goats or, rarely, a cow.
The beverage of choice was green tea, and we ate millet, sorghum, and for a treat broken rice. Some men who had traveled around for work or trading spoke Wolof or Hassaniya (a dialect of Arabic) but for the most part these sturdy farmers were Halpulaar – peoples long ago conquered by the great Peul empire that stretched across North Africa and forced everyone to speak their language, Pulaar. After a time, having no choice, I became fluent in Pulaar as well.
I was under the impression that I had been sent to this village as an agricultural extension agent with the mission to help the village develop gardens as a nutritional supplement and for market. Being young, fresh out of college and with no real-world experience to speak of, I pretty much didn’t know a thing about agriculture in Africa, but as I always say, the good thing about Peace Corps is that the volunteers don’t have enough resources to do any real damage.
But that’s not quite true. As I quickly came to learn, the villagers of Gorel Boubou had long since figured out that Peace Corps volunteers, by comparison to their own standard of living, were quite wealthy. Nearly every family lived entirely at the subsistence level, with annual average cash incomes of probably no more than $100 (in 1983 dollars). Meanwhile, my monthly living allowance was somewhere around $120. Villagers knew that, like my predecessors, I would only be around for a maximum of two years, and would spend most of that time simply learning the language and trying to figure out what the heck was going on. In their view, my main functions were to entertain the kids, provide supplies of tea, sugar and other things as needed, and serve as the local ATM. Rare was the day when somebody didn’t come by asking for money or supplies.
This was true on the village level as well. Village leaders, both male and female, had no interest at all in working together. In their view, my job was to go to the capital, find money for projects, and bring it back to them. I was to hand it over, ask no questions, and leave them to implement. It didn’t take long to determine that nothing ever really got done, the money disappeared, and when I asked questions I was told that the funds were not enough, and I should go back and get more. I put up with this for about four or five months, and decided it was a waste of time and money.
So I took off. I went walking and riding my motorcycle around all the other villages in the area, sitting and talking with village elders and seeing if there wasn’t something more interesting and useful that I could do. I finally found a village called Wabunde, comprised of ex-slaves (slavery was prevalent among the Arab families in Mauritania at the time, but slaves could buy or marry their way out, and it wasn’t based on skin color. There were a couple of families in Wabunde not much darker-skinned than myself). Ex-slaves formed their own culture; they were known as the Harratin and spoke Hassaniya but followed African cultural and economic patterns, farming instead of herding camels like the Arabs and Bedouins.
Anyway, the farmers in Wabunde had never before gotten any help with their agriculture, and were ready and eager to work together. A severe drought had made traditional agriculture impossible, and most were living on US food aid, as was I. For the first six months of living there, most of what I ate was US-supplied surplus red sorghum and dried low-fat milk powder, along with what everyone called “Kennedy Oil,” since the first donated cooking oil to arrive in Mauritania came during the Kennedy administration.
We made a deal – if they would invest the time and labor to build a good irrigated rice field, I would raise the funds to buy the required diesel pump. And so they did. For four months, we dug all the trenches by hand, built a fence around the full 13 hectares, constructed a concrete catch basin to slow and direct the water, put in seed beds and vegetable gardens and so on. I was able to get some help from a German agronomist living nearby, and arranged to have the fields turned with a tractor, but other than that all the work was done by hand, by the villagers, right through Ramadan. We did all the surveying by sight with string levels and sticks.
Once I saw that the fields were going to be complete, I went to Nouakchott and raised the money to order and deliver a big Lister diesel pump, made in England and designed to last forever. The day we turned it on people were so happy they let the water run over their fields for hours, up to a depth of one meter or more, making me more than a little hysterical. Eventually we all calmed down and planted rice and vegetables.
The villagers made it a great project, and we grew a lot of rice, two harvests a year, at 3 to 4 tons per hectare, along with tomatoes, eggplant, cabbage, onions, carrots and so on. Wabunde, for the first time in its history, had enough food to eat and enough to sell. I’ve only been in intermittent touch since then, but apparently the village kept that pump running for years.