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The hippo in the room

The hippo in the room published on No Comments on The hippo in the room
Hippo in Zambia © Farhat Jah

I told you in the last post that there were some bits of must-watch video Want to help someone? Shut up and Listen that really made me think, and here is the first.

In the first part of his talk, Ernesto Sirolli tells us an anecdote about Lessons from an Agricultural Aid project in Zambia (this extract from topnonprofits’ synopsis)

[Ernesto Sirolli] Worked with an Italian NGO. Everyone had great intentions and truly wanted to help. Yet everything they touch failed.

For example, the came to part of Zambia near the Zambezi River and were amazed why the local people in such a fertile valley would have no agriculture. So they taught people to grow Italian tomatoes and zucchini.

But the people weren’t interested.

So they paid them to come learn…and sometimes they showed up.

Instead of asking why they weren’t growing anything [the donors] said, “Thank God we are here. Just in nick of time to save the Zambian people from starvation.”

Of course everything in Africa grew beautifully and they were telling the Zambians, “Look how easy agriculture is.”

Just when the tomatoes were nice and ripe, [two hundred] hippos came out of the river and ate everything.

And they said to the Zambians, “My God, the hippos!”

And the Zambians said, “Yes, that is why we have no agriculture here.”

“Why didn’t you tell us?!?”

You never asked.

This story truly struck a chord with me.

It is clear that before deciding agriculture was the answer, the Italian NGO ought first to have asked why it wasn’t already happening, rather than assuming it was because nobody had thought of it before. But from the way the story is presented, some people hearing this story might also think “but the local guys really ought to have given them a heads up about the hippos – poor communication goes both ways”.

This is understandable, but I want to explain why I don’t think it is reasonable to expect that.

I have found in my work that leaders and members of local organisations and groups too often do not feel empowered to challenge donors, even when what the donors are saying has major flaws. At first, like the Zambian donors, I found it baffling, enormously frustrating, even hurtful. But over time I have learned that frankly there are sometimes pretty good reasons for reticence.

Firstly, foreigners are presented, and present themselves, as experts. People with the answers. They come with an attitude that says ‘We are experts. We have many years of training and experience that we are here to share with you. You don’t know why you need this yet, but bear with us, trust us, and soon, you will see’.

More pragmatically, however, consultants that come in from large donors essentially have money in their pocket: inconceivably large sums of money in comparison with local wages. Projects are designed (and this is something for another post) to put money in local participants’ pockets (or give them T-shirts) for helping implement projects, and project success is measured by ticking boxes for having carried out activities and spent the money allocated in a timely fashion, rather than by actually making things better through less measurable metrics. Tell such a donor that their proposal is inadequately thought through, and the money (which is needed) might be taken away.

And, thanks to power arrangements and limitations of donor-funding, this is in fact true. There is seldom any flexibility built in to allow projects to be adaptive. Take this, or take nothing.

If you are an NGO that wants funding to carry out a project, you have to define (often months in advance) exactly what your outputs and outcomes and activities will be, how many workshops you will hold and on what dates, how many books you will print, and how much everything will cost (2-3 years from now). And don’t forget the T-shirts!

It is nigh-on impossible, I can assure you from experience, to secure funding for a project from conventional donors by honestly explaining, ‘We have lots of ideas that might work, but until we get out there, we don’t know what we’re going to do, so we’re going to ask the people we want to help how we can help, and what they need, tell them our ideas, and let them choose what we do together’. Incidentally, if you know of a donor who would accept such a proposal, please let me know!

So it is not really fair to surmise that the ‘beneficiary’ community in Zambia was at fault for not telling the aid agency about the hippos. After all, agriculture was not working for them, money and food were scarce, and they were being offered money to grow food (for the hippos as it happens, but they could at least use the money to buy food elsewhere). The donors had come in armed with seeds and tools. Tell them they are wasting their time, they will consider you uncooperative, and may go away and take their money with them.

And remember, too, that the donors come from rich countries and drive big cars. They clearly know how to make money and be successful and have come to share expertise. Perhaps they have some special varieties of tomato and zucchini that hippos don’t eat? It seems unlikely to us but they’re clearly very confident, and they are willing to pay us good money to grow them, so let’s bear with them and see what trick they’ve got up their sleeve. Perhaps they have got it wrong, but they’ll learn eventually – and at least we can eat today.

What’s more – and although I’ve had my own ‘hippo’ moments in project implementation I’ll admit – I have a particularly large amount of sympathy for the community in this case.

If you have ever been to place where there is a river with hippos in, do you not agree, that you knew the hippos were there?

They are not exactly shy and retiring animals. We’re not talking about insects that live hidden in the soil until one particular month of the year, or a parasitic fungus whose spores are borne invisibly in the wind. A hippopotamus is a rather conspicuous 2-3 tonnes of solid muscle (with big teeth) that rather commands attention, or in this case, two hundred hippos… With the best will in the world, I am afraid I find it rather hard to imagine they hadn’t made themselves known.

So, in the circumstances, I can’t help the community should be given enormous credit for not responding to the donors’ questioning “Why didn’t you tell us?!?” with,

Tell you? Tell you about the hippos? Tell you what about them? We thought you knew! See? Look! Hippos! Big animals, hundreds of them, they live in the river all day splashing and grunting, come out at night to eat vegetation. How did you miss them? How on earth were we to know you hadn’t noticed them? You said you were experts and knew what you were doing! We thought you must have some other clever trick up your sleeves! It didn’t occur to us you didn’t know they were there!”

So – if you want to help – please, for the love of hippos, Shut up and listen! Don’t assume you have all the answers. You probably don’t even know the questions to ask, so ask open questions. Ask people what they need and be prepared to listen and respond to what they tell you.

And to my local partners and others I am collaborating with – if I ever get carried away and forget – please, remember I do not know everything, and I sometimes need you to point out the “hippo in the room”. I will thank you for it.

Using the Power of T-shirts for good

Using the Power of T-shirts for good published on No Comments on Using the Power of T-shirts for good

If the last post showed us anything, it’s that T-shirts are more powerful in Zanzibar than you might have imagined. But this power can be used for good as well as ill, and as little as $25 can have a huge impact if spent with a little imagination.

Let me explain.

Last October, students volunteering with Sustainable East Africa (the NGO I run) helped establish an Environment Club at a local charity school, PLCI – the Prospective Learning and Charitable Institution. The student-led club was very enthusiastic, and excited to start new projects.

Christmas was approaching, and I was finding it hard in Muslim Zanzibar to get into the Christmas spirit. Specifically, I was struggling to create the Christmas spirit in my flat, as there was an almost complete absence of anything remotely Christmassy available in the shops.

I had researched techniques of upcycling soda cans, and was inspired by this instructable to get creative. I figured I was probably not the only foreigner in Zanzibar looking for a bit of Christmas spirit, so I showed the idea to a group of artistic volunteers and we came up with some designs for making Christmas decorations from soda cans. Would the PLCI environment club be interested to see if they could raise a few shillings from ‘taka taka’ (trash)? They would indeed!

So now all they needed was a few pairs of heavy duty scissors, some empty soda cans, and their imagination. A $25 donation from the Rotary Club of Zanzibar, Stone Town supplied the scissors, and with guidance from World Unite! volunteers Sabrina, Anne-Sophie and Lucas, the students got started!

And my goodness it was a success! They worked rapidly and enthusiastically, and soon turned out designs. At first they just copied the models the volunteers had made, but once they got the hang of it, they started creating new designs based on traditional henna art patterns. We took them to sell at the Cultural Arts Centre, Zanzibar, another Sustainable East Africa partner (opposite the Hamamni Baths, if you’re in Stone Town) and they sold like hot cakes.

Christmas at the cultural arts centre

We were by now only a couple of weeks from Christmas – this year we will start earlier – but in that short time, the students managed to raise over 100,000 Tanzanian shillings (around $60) – more than doubling the investment.

Their pride was amazing. These students are almost all living in extreme poverty. The minimum wage was, at the time, 70,000 shillings a month, and that’s if you have a job: unemployment is around 50%. Family size is typically at least five children. Money is scarce, and livelihood options for young people bleak. For them suddenly to have money in their pocket that they had earned for themselves was beyond imagination.

So what did they decide to spend it on?  CDs? Sweets? Sodas?

No. Not PLCI. They decided to spend it on buying school T-shirts – their school uniform – for themselves and other students.

These T-shirts were a symbol of achievement, of pride, of hope, and of identity as members of a club that had shown them for the first time that earning themselves a living could be within their reach.

For $25 investment in scissors, this is priceless.

Cleaning the beach with T-shirts (and other unfortunate ideas)

Cleaning the beach with T-shirts (and other unfortunate ideas) published on 5 Comments on Cleaning the beach with T-shirts (and other unfortunate ideas)

Shortly after I arrived in Zanzibar three years ago, I coordinated a training workshop for members of a fantastic local NGO, JAMABECO. They were seriously motivated and had implemented a successful environmental awareness and clean-up programme in their village of Jambiani on the east coast of Unguja, Zanzibar. Our objective in the workshop was to plan beach clean-ups in ten new communities around southern Unguja. I was very excited and felt it was going well.

I asked the participants to tell me what equipment they would need to hold the clean-ups, expecting answers like ‘gloves’, ‘bags’, ‘rakes’.

The very first answer knocked me sideways:

‘We need T-shirts.’

T-shirts?

How? What? Had they misunderstood the question? The number one thing you need to clean a beach is a T-shirt? Why on earth?

But the nodding heads around the room told me they were absolutely serious.

The problem, I came shortly to realise, was this.

Although they had carried out numerous beach clean-ups and other activities in the past – they had always had sponsorship from overseas donors to carry out the events. And donors need evidence to show how money was spent, and evidence of things done. They need visibility. Also pictures of happy African kids. Also the budget has to be spent by the end of the quarter. So let’s have a big flashy event! Lots of photos with the aid agency logo visible! What could be better than lots of people and cute happy kids in T-shirts splashed with your logo? And a clean beach! Fantastic! Everybody have a cookie!

But what happens next? Here we had a workshop full of people brimming with concern about environmental degradation, dedicated to taking action, giving up all their free time to the cause… but feeling completely unable to implement any activities to do something about it until someone would come along to pay for it.  They want nothing more than to organise clean-ups monthly, or even weekly, but they can’t afford T-shirts, so it can’t be done.

The thing is – a T-shirt is a shortcut. Poverty in Zanzibar means that people in rural villages typically subsist on less than a dollar a day. Keeping your family adequately clothed is a huge challenge, and one new t-shirt represents a few days’ income (if you even have a job). Giving out T-shirts amounts to a substantial incentive to participate. And this means no further encouragement of less tangible benefits is required, everyone will be there with bells on. Huge turnout! Job well done!

The reality is that in rural communities, people often tolerate litter and dirt because they have never been taught that there are costs. In addition (though it is slowly changing) there is essentially no waste collection service and nowhere to take it. Exactly what are people supposed to do with their rubbish except leave it on the beach?

A friend of mine who has a hotel in the same village told me a similar story. Adjacent to his beach hotel is a small patch of indigenous woodland. The community had been using it as a waste dump and causing both he and his guests some distress. To reach out to his neighbours he offered them a little money to clean the waste and take it away, and they did so with alacrity. The next day, however, he woke aghast to find the place full of rubbish again and the villagers knocking at the door, asking for money to clean it again.

It comes down to finding the right incentives. When people are poor, creating jobs seems an obvious solution. But when you examine it from an economic perspective, if you pay people (or give them T-shirts) to clean the beach, you are telling them that the resource they have which is worth something, that is valuable, is a dirty beach. Hold your big clean-up, give out T-shirts, or pay neighbours – whatever. There is no incentive whatsoever to actually keep it clean. Far better, surely, to ensure it gets dirty again quickly so people will come sooner with more T-shirts and more jobs.

And when you go away, the people like JAMABECO who do care, very much, about the state of the environment, are left feeling they can do nothing about it.

So how can we do better?

Back in my workshop, we spent the next days focussing on alternative motivation techniques. We had breakout sessions – Imagine you’re speaking to a mother, a teacher, a hotel owner – why should they care? What are the benefits of a clean beach? Forget about marine biodiversity or the baby birds starving on oceanic islands thousands of miles away. Those things matter of course, hugely, but to whom?

Keep it locally relevant. Talk to people about what actually matters to them, day-to-day.  Talk to mothers about the health of their children – if there are dirty nappies (diapers) on the beach where you are also collecting shellfish to feed your family, they’ll get sick. If fishing is your livelihood, and there is plastic in the ocean, fish will eat it, it blocks their guts and they will die. If you work in a hotel with a dirty beach, tourists will be disgusted and will leave, so support your community initiative to clean the beach, lend them wheelbarrows, buy gloves, let them wash their hands in your hotel afterwards. Breathing fumes from burning plastic increases risk of diseases like cancer and lung disease. Top tip: if you really want to pull the emotional heartstrings, stress links to impotence and infertility.

And do you know what? It worked.

The volunteer peer-to-peer educator team went out and spent the next few weeks introducing ideas of environment and sustainability into new communities, and, armed only with information about the locally-relevant dangers posed by pollution, motivated enormous participation in the clean-up events. Literally thousands of people turned out to participate, and collected several tonnes of waste, and were offered no incentive other than knowledge of why it would be worth it.

And it wasn’t a one-off: the new communities formed environment clubs, committees and NGOs themselves. Clean-ups became monthly and in one community even a weekly event.

And do you know what else happened?  A few months later JAMABECO invited me to attend a beach clean-up event in a community in the north of the island, outside the remit of our partnership and not in the budget. They were so fulfilled by the success of the new approach, so proud of themselves and empowered by their new-found skills, that they funded and organised it themselves.

Yes, this approach is more complicated, and yes, it takes longer and you’ve got all that cash that has to be spent by the end of the reporting period… But bribery-by-T-shirt as a sole-incentive fosters dependence, inhibits creativity, demotivates and disempowers. It misses the point.

As it happens, I have to admit that our project was donor-funded, so – though we kept it top secret till after our successful clean-up events – they got a T-shirt too.

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