Monday, March 19, 2012

The Development of Ghana

It's not surprising I think about development constantly - I live in the developing world, work in the development field; I come face to face with the problems of development work on the daily (and I've grappled with their elusive solutions for the better part of two years). One would think it easy - it often sounds easy enough to accomplish, but that's from the perspective of an office with a view - on the ground it's a mine field, sometimes literally.

We all agree there must be balance, a middle ground on which to meet. Time and again I see the results of skewed, unbalanced relationships - well-meaning companies, groups, and individuals want to help the only way they know how: money, gifts and things in an abundance most communities have never seen. Lines are drawn and roles are accepted: the victim & the savior; the unable & the equipped; the ignorant & the enlightened; the giver, the taker, the charity & the help.

The legacy of these interractions create any number of things, from apathy to expectation. It's happened in many places for many reasons - we have a saying about the 'best laid plans' for a reason ... So what do we do? We change the way we give, sometimes we change the fact that we give, and we change what's given.

Peace Corps requires a community contribution of some kind; in fact, most organizations do. It impresses importance upon a community, implies responsibility, requires a committment; but this, too, isn't as easy as it sounds. Most communities need help for a reason - what if they can't provide the contribution, or cultural differences surround how a contribution is given? What if there isn't adequate infrastructure to fulfill the requirement (hence the need for aid)?
The plot thickens.

And sometimes the community lies; sometimes they don't understanding the concept; sometimes the entirety of the idea is lost on them. Back to square one.

In relation to what's given, more organizations are turning to a more Peace Corps-like model. We, first and foremost, use our skills to build capacity. We facilitate - teach people to do, rather than doing. It's much more relevant, but harder to accomplish (at least in ways that can be seen). It still almost always includes 'giving' (because someone, somewhere, will always need something or we'd all be out of a job; it's the way the world works).

We aren't always the first 'here,' however. Some people spend two years trying to correct the outcome of actions and behaviors before them. Visitors are often associated with one another, leaving behind them myths, prejudices and long-standing beliefs about the entire culture they come from. Short-term volunteers often underestimate the smallest action or spoken word - a gift given, a custom ignored (whether intentional or not) can upset the balance so quickly (and for so long) it will affect development in certain communities for years.

Development work is surprisingly delicate. Without the proper foundation, introducing something like plastic bags can have resounding affects, layers deep, that span generations and sectors. Similarly, handing out something as insignificant as candy, unprovoked and frequently, will affect the way a community views development work and volunteers completely; it may even affect their success.

The solution seems easy, right? Train volunteers. But how? And how well? When it comes to volunteers, there are several different types. How does one control quality in benevolence? And what's the role of benevolence in long-term development?

More than naught, volunteers are short-term, untrained, and largely uneducated about where they end up. Not many organizations have the time or money to prepare volunteers like the Peace Corps does. Many of them are young and inexperienced; some come to fulfill requirements for school or national service - the organizations they come with are largely privatized, unorganized, and spread very thin. Can you start to see a problem? It's not that their intent and motivation are wrong - altruism and volunteerism have a very significant place in the world - but good intentions often fall short in the face of such daunting social problems.

Trained individuals exist, but they exist behind a desk somewhere else, it's why volunteers are necessary. And when trained, long-term volunteers run into problems anyway, how can short-term programs expect anything different? It's probably why so many of us end up in development work - we keep trying to fix the problems we experienced on the ground.

This is what makes my job rewarding and difficult (and difficult to explain). It's not necessarily pessimism, but the inability to find the 'right answer' to long-standing problems; they solidify like a pile of collective trash - burn the top layers, sure, but until you dig down to the bottom there's no telling what problems hide underneath.

Would you believe this is only the start of problem, a tiny part of it? It already seems so convoluted, but this is only what I see from a community level - nevermind state politics, regional politics, or international politics; forget corruption or the short-comings of basic governmental structures in communities so far removed. What about economics, the world market, the willingness and ability of businesses to take advantage of a population without the proper knowledge or representation? And then we have culture wars, ethnic conflicts, social constraints and inequalities ...

It becomes clear why so many difficulties face developing nations, why they simultaneously need and desperately need to be rid of outside help (of benevolence and guilt). Take into account a history of exploitation and broken promises, of leading by example, and suddenly it's like putting a shattered egg shell back together. The solution is multifaceted and always far from perfect, always needing improvement, always needing time and attention. In my case, I feel like I understand less about development than I did coming into it (writing lengthy blogs and muttering to myself in secret).

And still, after all this thought, the answers elude me. I sit up worrying at night that the time I've spent on building a sustainable project will find some reason to fall short. I can't help but wonder, all the time, about the complexities of this life I've found and the path I've chosen to follow after I leave it. How does it work? How can it work better?

... and here you just thought I sat around holding adorable babies.
(to be continued?)


Thursday, March 15, 2012

Ghana: A Love Affair

The most valuable lesson I've learned in Ghana has been in my continued love affair with life. The smallest thing strikes me as profoundly important with increasing regularity.

It's not as though my curiosity, my childlike naivity, did not exist before Ghana, but it is most certainly magnified. And I like it. It enables me to whole-heartedly, with all of my being, enjoy everything as though it were new. The color of powders lined side by side, bowl by bowl at market is intellectually stimulating; the textures of the world come to me through a camera lense; the beauty of pattern and fabric against smooth, dark skin is like a canvas in front of me just waiting to be painted.

In my love affair I appreciate other things, too, small things with no seeming significance; the fact that something as simple as dried flowers and leaves dyes the color of my tea in varying degrees - orange to green to blue - or that the pattern it makes before resting at the bottom of the mug is as intricate as any cloud I've ever seen in the sky.

I find beauty in a lot of things I didn't give much attention to before. A small ant, the triumph of bread crumbs heaved atop its shoulders, is whispered encouragements by me; he is as important to the whole as I am. I hold no disdain for him and he, making his way over my toes, doesn't even realize I'm here. Just he and a breadcrumb.

I lose minutes, hours, of my day to people watching. Sometimes I just close my eyes and listen to the sounds, clues to life. In the midday sun no other movement exists but the wind, squeezing around the chimes in my window, through the branches of the trees; leaves seem to whisper to each other as sun light weaves its way into spots along the shaded ground; laughter - a lilting sound carried up and into the sky, as if it would fly away and be as free as the child who made it, who uncaged it.

Vibrations come to me underfoot in the drumming and building and cooking; and I can feel the strength behind it, wrapping itself up and around my calves. It's a rythym like a pulse showing me Africa's heart, why the leaves and flowers and branches still find reason to plunge into the ground and take root; dryness in the air sets my hair alive like the rubbing of two balloons.

It whispers at night when thousands up thousands of stars sparkle to life - just how vast this universe is and how I will never comprehend its fullness, not even if I were to dedicate my life to understanding the beauty to every piece.

And when I can't see it, I bend my ear to earth and listen; and if it can't be heard, I place my palm upon dirt like the ripe belly of a mother, and I find that life is going on all around me; that I should be naive and curious in its beauty is a truth I cannot deny. This is as relevant a lesson as any. Perhaps it is the most important of all.
Ghana has become a kind of love affair.