On Backpacks and Ballots

Charlotte Benishek - Senegal

February 7, 2012

One morning as I sat on the mat in the sand in Megan’s village, drinking my ataya, I watched Ibrahima, her six year old brother leaving for school, carrying his little backpack. This reminded me of how my little brother and all of the students in first grade in my village had recently received free backpacks distributed by the charitable arm of FIFA (Federation International de Football Association), ostensibly to encourage school attendance. This might seem like a great idea initially, but my little brother (and I suspect many of the other children who received backpacks) already had a perfectly good backpack, a backpack that was tossed aside when the new one entered the picture. Seeing Ibrahima and his backpack made me think that if relatively poor families can buy their child a backpack, then it’s definitely not a lack of backpacks that’s preventing Senegalese children from receiving a primary education.

From what I’ve observed, it is the frequent teacher strikes that are most disruptive to education here, not a lack of backpacks. The Senegalese government frequently does not honor the terms of the teachers’ contract, not paying them, and the teachers usually strike in response. Obviously, this is a complicated governmental problem, caused by disorganization and corruption, among other factors. There is not much a non-governmental organization can do to improve a governmental problem. Nevertheless, it seems as if donors and NGOs are just doing something easy and superficial so that they can feel like they’re doing “good” without bothering to ask whether the “good” they are doing is even responding to a need or fixing a problem.

In theory, foreign governments, including the United States, could withhold bilateral aid as an incentive for the Senegalese government to carry out the basic functions of a government, including providing education for its youth. However, it is not the role of United States’ to meddle in the internal affairs of another country. In a democracy such as Senegal, the country’s own citizens must become sufficiently incensed to create the change for themselves, demanding accountability from their government. However, even when people are passionate about creating change, there are many barriers that prevent them from doing so, even though they should have the power to do so in a democracy. It seems that is the crux of the problem of failed, failing and ineffective democracies in the third world.

Right now Senegal is an interesting case study in this idea, as presidential elections will occur here in less than a month. The Senegalese will have to choose whether they want to reelect Abdoulaye Wade, their 87 year old leader, who is widely considered to be corrupt, or inaugurate a new President. The fairness of the elections is already in doubt, and even if Senegal elects a new president, with such a culture of corruption already in place, there is no telling if the new president will be any more effective than the current administration. However, Senegal is a nation of young people. 42% of the population is under 14, and those young people want an education. It was just this week that a young man I met read my French-English dictionary for hours to learn English. We joke about reading the dictionary, but that is actually how badly this young man wanted to learn. Perhaps I am naïve, but it is my hope that the same passion I saw from that teenager reading the dictionary motivates Senegal’s young people to do what they can to make themselves heard, owning their democracy, however broken it is, to attempt to elect effective leaders, leaders who will create an accountable government. Ibrahima is ready for that change. I mean, he already has a backpack…

Charlotte Benishek