Saturday, August 24, 2013

Money Dropping

There is a quarterly magazine published by The National Peace Corps Association, called WorldView. The National Peace Corps Association is a separate entity from the Peace Corps. The association is an NGO that works to bring current and returned Peace Corps Volunteers from all around the world to the same stage, to discuss global issues, and to build a network (kind of like an alumni association). As Peace Corps Volunteers we receive a copy of the WorldView Magazine in our mailbox every few months.. I believe for others it is part of NPCA membership (or maybe you just have to subscribe).

I would like to talk about an article that was in the Summer 2013 issue. The article was titled “Come to Africa for Business, Not Handouts” (Buckler and Jackson) and I think that it addresses some very real and very important issues. Issues that I see everyday here in Benin, but that I also believe very few Americans understand.

Before I start I would like to say that what I am about to write is  MY opinion based on my experience here in Benin. – I do make some blanket statements – but they are meant to be pertaining to my experience.

They put it more eloquently than I could ever hope to – but basically the article was written to point out the problems with newer American “Africa-Focused” business models such as TOMs and Goods for Good. The problem being the drop mentality. You buy from us and we are going to drop a bunch of free goods somewhere for the suffering children of Africa. The problem, according to Buckler and Jackson... and to Peace Corps Volunteers everywhere... is that this not only inhibits growth of business in the countries that are receiving “free gifts” (no one is going to buy something if they think that a westerner is going to come by and give it to them for free later) – it also perpetuates the idea that Africa is incapable of helping itself (therefore reducing the desire to invest in Africa). I am not going to talk about these exact same issues verbatim.. but the article is what inspired this weekends discussion, and if anyone gets their hands on a copy they should read it.

As Peace Corps Volunteers this is a topic constantly on our minds. Peace Corps is “not a financial institution” we are not here to give handouts, and we work towards projects that are sustainable and will continue to be sustainable after we leave. For example, instead of buying a food producer fancy western style ovens (that will be useless once they break anyway) we teach them how to make cost-efficient and energy efficient mud stoves, which cost nothing to build and can be built over and over again. We then watch as the people who have learned  go out on their own into the community and teach others how to build these same stoves. Teaching a new skill is sustainable. Giving handouts is not.

As current Peace Corps volunteers in Benin, there are two topics (I think) that come up the most.. pertaining to the “give away mentality” of most of the worlds volunteer force. Firstly, especially in the south, I have (and others have as well) run into issues where not only do the people we are trying to work with expect free handouts, they are almost unwilling to do work that would assume free handouts won't come in the future. Occasionally, people will not want to work with you once they realize you actually want to do work. Many  want the easy way of getting things done, and the easy way has become western handouts. Not only has the Western world become convinced of Africa’s need for assistance (and don't get me wrong there is some assistance – especially medical –  is in fact very important)– Africa in some ways has also become complacent to the idea. Not only do people expect free hand outs – they feel entitled. This is a problem. It perpetuates a laziness so to speak – a lack of desire to work towards a goal for yourself – to start at the bottom and build something on your own is such an American mentality. It is hard as an American, wishing that kind of happiness on to others, to see that not everyone wants to do it on their own. Some people really are happy just sitting around and letting someone else do it for them. Some people just don't think they can. If Africa is every going to reach sustainable development. It is that mentality that needs to be addressed first.

I am a volunteer. Requested by my host organization to come and work with them in my community. I cost them nothing. I work for free. – This hasn't stopped people in my own office from telling me that I should be paying them because they are letting me work there. I did not choose my location – they asked Peace Corps for me.  Still, because  I am a westerner even many educated host county nationals believe I was sent here to give them gifts. I know that some of this is cultural.. but it is disheartening to say the least. From my experience, there is a serious case of the gim-mes going on. Are HCNs requesting western volunteers only because they think that means free gifts and financial gain?

The second issue comes from Peace Corps itself. It is an issue that a lot of Peace Corps volunteers face, is one that effects us in reporting, and one that will also effect us when we get home (assuming anyone actually bothers to read our description of service reports) – it is the idea that TO BE A SUCCESSFUL VOLUNTEER – you have to be spending aid money. Although, as I said before, Peace Corps is not a financial institution we do receive grant money from outside sources.. and there is a big push to spend that money. Peace Corps is great about the idea that the community HAS TO be involved. They need to provide a certain percentage of the monetary value of the project themselves  (this can be obtained by the community through land donations, equipment donations, monetary donations and also from the actual labor costs) – this is what sets us apart form other volunteer programs. – We want the community to take ownership of the projects. Don't get me wrong – a lot of these projects are great – often they are for school buildings, latrine projects, irrigation systems – I plan on doing a latrine project myself, I am not against using grant money. What I am against is the idea that to be a “good volunteer” you should be using grant money. What about the projects that cost nothing – in my opinion these projects will be the most sustainable in the end. A volunteer's service should not be judged by the amount of money they were able to hand out. It should be judged by the success of a volunteer in addressing the issues that the volunteers community has brought to the table (no matter how aligned they really are with the project framework). If DC thinks this small village needs an Art Club (for example) in their school, that is all well and good, but the volunteer shouldn't be left feeling like a failure because the community perhaps really just does not want one and so the volunteer but their energy into a school funded garden club instead. On the other hand building a beautiful library that the community will never use shouldn't lead to accolades just because grant money was spent.

A farmer might want an irrigation system because it is expensive and having it is a status symbol – but will he actually use it? Will he pay for the up keep when it breaks? No. Not if he thinks that someone is going to come along and pay for a new one for him again in a few years.

We are on the ground helping the communities and serving as ambassadors. We see everyday what the past policies of free hand-outs has done to the countries where we work. We see many very capable and wonderful people who with the right motivation could be (and should be) great. Africa is worth investing in and as volunteers here in Benin we hope to teach them that, while we are here to help, it is only to give a push and get the ball rolling. They don't “need” us.. but I think they need to believe that almost as much as we do.

So what is the solution? I don't really know... the problem hasn't changed yet since the authors of the WorldView article were serving. I think it is going to take a long time to change. For starters though, I think we should stop looking at Africa as a charity and start looking at it as a place with potential.


Come to Africa for Business, Not Handouts was written by Micheal Buckler (Malawi 06-08) and Beau Jackson (Cape Verde 03-05) for the Summer 2013 issue of WorldView Magazine. 


  1. Thanks for sharing. Making a difference there sounds like a very challenging task, but I know you are patient and persistent and it will pay off. Maybe there is a way to make people value knowledge the way they value money. Or to show them that attaining the first may produce the second.

  2. This is a very interesting subject you presented here, Zoe, and I completely understand and agree... If only a person's mindset were easy to change, I could totally see Africa doing things for themselves. I'm sure it's possible, though, but it might take some times.