Sunday, March 15, 2009

Culture of Dependency

I’ve always been in favor of the redistribution of wealth, but so my experiences in Peace Corps are changing that attitude some.

Before I came here, the argument that aid and government charity was pernicious because it created a culture of dependency seemed like a lame excuse. I just didn’t get why it was a problem. Saying that people needed to ‘pick themselves up by their bootstraps’ seemed unrealistic and insensitive. But seeing aid in action puts a different spin on the issue.

As a Westerner in a developing country, I’m constantly asked to give things away. People assume that Peace Corps and I have lots of money and that I want to give it to them. From time to time I hear a reasonable proposal for a project, but mostly people suggest things that involve lots of money for something that they can take care of themselves.

Three examples: First, there are many old, military towers in town from the days of French colonization that are starting to fall down. Someone suggested to me that my association pay to have them restored. Although this sort of project is not priority, I asked the guy more about what he was thinking; what the village would need to do the project. Since the buildings are made of mud and straw and dirt, I asked what materials they would need. None. So what is the money for? The guy thought that my association would pay people in my village the cost of labor to repair the buildings. This is a project that the community could easily do themselves, but they want someone to pay them to do it. Second, people have suggested that I figure out a way to lower the cost of running water in our town. People in my town currently pay about 5 Dhs per month (less than a dollar) for water, which is affordable. If they really can’t afford it, there are several springs in close proximity where they can gather water. The cost of this project, to gather water from a far spring and pipe it to our water tower, would cost some where in the neighborhood of 30,000,000 Dhs. In order to recoup the cost of the project in money saved from the water bill, it would take some 8,000 years. So it’s not a great use of funds. Finally, having nearly completed a project involving money with a local community leader, he said to me, “Give some more money.” I said, “For what?” He said, “I don’t know.”

I’ve done toothbrush and toothpaste distribution in my community and other nearby communities and I always feel a little bad about it. The cost of the toothbrush and toothpaste is really small and if people felt that dental hygiene was a priority, they could afford it. Why should I be paying for healthiness of someone else’s teeth when they can afford it? Since I mostly give toothbrushes to kids, who actually can’t afford it, I justify the practice to myself. I hope that having toothbrushes (accompanied by dental hygiene education) helps them see the benefit of dental hygiene and encourages long-term behavior change.

Food aid is irregularly given to my community by a Moroccan governmental organization. A truck pulls up in the center of town and everyone lines up to get their share. The sad part to me is that people take a) what they can afford themselves and even b) what they don’t even like. My host family took a bunch of macaroni noodles on two separate occasions. Both times they realized they didn’t like them and gave them to me. People ask me why I don’t line up with the rest of the community to get my share of food aid. I say that I have no need for it, but this is not a convincing argument for them.

Having people constantly ask others and me for foreigners makes me wonder what this begging does to their dignity. How does your self image change when you are constantly asking others for handouts?

Beyond the question of dignity, this culture of dependency prevents people from making positive changes in their community that they have do have control over. The repair of old buildings in my community is one example. Another, more important problem is the environmental one that I have discussed in past posts. Protecting the land is something that the community is entirely capable of: they have been able to survive here for hundreds of years without stressing the land. It is the increase in wealth and population that has put stress on the land. The community has abandoned previous conservation methods in favor of getting the most out of the land in the short-term. Even with the Moroccan government offering to pay the community to reforest the land, it is not enough. The solutions that I’ve heard to the land problem all involve outside organizations giving massive amounts of money. They want someone else to fix their problems, even though they are capable of fixing those problems themselves.

It’s a tough question that doesn’t have an easy answer. Peace Corps’ solution is to build the capacity of the people and the institutions here to help themselves. To empower people and give them confidence. I guess that is really the only reasonable solution. I really like projects like the traditional birth attendant training that we did because they build capacity and help people be self-sufficient. I have doubts about projects like toothbrush distribution because they reinforce the expectation of handouts. There is no community contribution. The only positive is that, hopefully, the kids learn to brush their teeth.

This is a big question that I won’t be able to answer on this blog or anywhere else. Considering that I think about working for organizations like USAID as a job, it has important implications for my career.

Update

Every week spring becomes more apparent. The fields are green now and the trees are starting to bud. Thank God.

Having the date of my vacation to the United States (May 1) draw closer is making it hard not to count the days. I’m looking forward to it greatly.

My work is going pretty well, despite the above musings. I’ve gotten to a nice point in my service where my comfort level in my community has increased significantly. Before, I always looked forward to the days that I would leave my community and go to Tounfite, where there is Internet and Americans to talk to. I still look forward to that, but I no longer take any excuse to make the trip. I’m happy enough here and have developed enough of a routine that I can pass the time. Although I still have lots of free time, it has decreased and I wish I had more (earlier in my service I had far too much time). I’ve started staying up later because I can’t get everything that I want to done. I hear about excuses to take a big trip with other volunteers and realize that I would prefer to stay here. This weekend, a number of volunteers will be gathering for a St. Patrick’s Day party some 6 hours from here. It’s nice to realize that I would rather stay here in my community than make that trip.

3 comments:

maryellen said...

interesting: just this morning 3/17 on npr this:

Morning Edition, March 17, 2009 · Steve Inskeep talks with Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo about her book Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa. Moyo has been a consultant for the World Bank and an economic sub-Saharan Africa specialist for Goldman Sachs. She says American and European good intentions discourage innovation and breed corruption.

i'll order the book for you, love, ma

maryellen said...

sorry to be your only post-er...but have been thinking that you could still be in favor of redistribution of wealth but not necessarily cultivate dependency...and as i think you are coming around to seeing, environmental concerns and the ability to develop sustainably should be shaping policy as much as anything else.

the primary problem with the western approach to ... everythign ... is the assumption that growth is the measure of a prosperous economy. it's anti-ecological and ultimately unsustainable. sigh.

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