As I’ve already said, I have met some absolutely incredible people here already, particularly some of my fellow residents of the Lusaka Backpackers hostel. The amount of brain power here is astonishing, as my friends seem to be particularly well-versed in world history, geography, current issues, foreign policy, and so on. And what’s even more impressive is that the majority of these people here are in their 20’s, still students that just have this fascination with the world that adds this un-describable energy to the place. It’s unbelievable how many different nations of the world are represented here. Some of my closer friends are from Germany, England, and San Fransisco, but there are many more people I’ve met here from the Netherlands, Chile, Iceland, and Ireland, just to name a few.
While a few of us were sitting around the table at the Backpackers after dinner last night, we began a very interesting conversation regarding NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) and their roles in these third world countries. This debate has been going on amongst economists, theorists, and pretty much the entire academic world as long as these organizations have existed. We are definitely not the first to touch on this topic nor will we be the last, but this particular talk really fascinated me because the viewpoints expressed were actually quite surprising to me, considering that the majority of us that were around this table are actually here working with NGOs or are volunteering or working in some manner or another.
It’s so hard to classify NGOs all together because there are so many different types and they all are managed differently and have different purposes and goals. For instance, the organization that I am working for right now is a very small NGO. There are only 6 employees on staff in the Lusaka office, all of which are native Zambians. The founder resides in California and only visits the office around once a year. They take the perspective that citizens of these afflicted countries are best able to fix their problems with a little help and direction. One of the main focuses for them is empowerment for these citizens and those AIDs afflicted victims they assist. It’s a very hands-off process in regards to the founders. It’s an inspiring goal, and one that many people agree with. I myself am here, working for two months alongside them in an effort to better understand the situation and help in any way I can.
However, with any approach, there are pros and cons. It’s my first week here in the office, and already there are some apparent flaws with this approach. I don’t want there to be any misunderstanding in what I’m about to say next. This experience has been and will continue to be one that I will forever value and I love the work I am doing and the people I am doing it with and whole-heartedly support this organization. I’m writing these thoughts because I think they are valid debate topics and not everyone will be able to experience what we are experiencing for themselves. I’m searching for both personal and academic growth, and this growth would never happen without truthful discussions and observations.
Office days are short here. The pace is much slower than what you would find in most US cities. Motivations aren’t incredibly high. It’s understandable. These workers, although they are good-hearted and believe in the cause, don’t have anything personally vested in this organization nor in the work they are doing. It’s a salary. Something that many in this country would love to have. It’s easy to go through the motions. But going through the motions doesn’t bring growth. The entrepreneurial spirit you may find in the United States or Europe or other developed nations does not exist here. The problem is that many of the NGO’s will never grow beyond a micro level. And many of these organizations are all trying to solve the same problems and often are unaware of each other’s existence. For instance, I asked one of the director’s at my organization about any competitors in the area, and they responded that they didn’t have any idea if there was or was not competitors in the area. If these NGO’s were to work together, it might actually reach a larger scale and they could learn from each other’s successes and failures without having to start fresh every time.
Microloans (which we do provide for many of our care givers of the children we help) give individuals the ability to bring in a little more money each week for food. But, as my brother brought up in our casual conversation around the table, these things don’t bring about the macroeconomic impact needed to really turn a nation around. The businesses that these microloans support are self-sustainable for however long the individual decides to continue, but it’s not a business that will be there for generations, making any sort of growth revenue. Not that we disagree with things like microloans, setting up free schools, or any sort of individual help. These organizations are giving people an opportunity to have a life they would not have had before. But when it comes down to it, have any NGOs that have coming over to African nations for decades offering assistance and aid made any macroeconomic difference? It’s hard to see it.
Money is being thrown into the system, but it’s not being allocated efficiently and many times doesn’t reach the people it really needs to. Also, half the time, the programs being run over here are doing it all wrong. They’re not seeing the results they need to in order to really create sustainable change, which is a topic I won’t go into in this blog post but I’m actually reading about at the moment, so look for future posts. Not that there is always a right answer. Many times different problems, different cultures, and different areas require different solutions. What people need to research and understand is the root causes and the best ways to deal with these problems, but oftentimes first world governments feel that it isn’t worth the investment to do this research and run these experiments and instead throw money blindly, without the education needed.
I look around and see this dismal place, with absolutely no infrastructure, and wonder what it would really take to turn a place like this around. There is rubble on each side of the street for miles. There is no trash disposal. People “shops” are made of scraps and trash. There are no construction crews, no money to buy materials to build an actual building. Children are wearing clothes that are so stained with dirt and grime they are brown. There is no soap to wash them. Schoolteachers haven’t been paid for a year, and there are no school lunches. There is no government assistance program. People at weekly markets are selling fresh fish that has been sitting out in the heat for days, covered in flies. There is no FDA to regulate food, nor any sort of refrigeration option for these poor people. There is not a single restaurant in this capital city of $1.7 million a middle-class American would deem as “upscale.” They wouldn’t have enough business. This is the grim truth of this place.
I’m not saying that we should just do nothing. Even if we aren’t helping on a worldwide scale, after meeting playing with the children whose lives my organization have saved, I could never imagine not taking the opportunity to get to know them and donate my little time and money to them. But I feel that many people get caught up in these little wins and don’t understand the full-scale problem of poverty. We need to set into place policies and structures that are truly sustainable on a large scale. We need to allocate our time and resources to solutions that are proven to be effective.
I want everyone to understand, this post isn’t meant to be negative. I have met some of the nicest people of my life here. They are some of the most welcoming community I’ve ever had the pleasure of meeting. The residents and workers at the Backpackers are the type of people I would love to surround myself with the rest of my life. I don’t think I’ve ever written this much without being forced to in my entire life, if that tells you how interested I am in this topic and these conversations. I just want to spark some thoughts and conversations. For those of you that made it all the way through this post, thanks for sticking with me. I’ll make the next post a little more light-hearted, promise!