The Reality of Giving

Ariel Vardy - Senegal

March 12, 2013

“White person— give me money, give me presents,” the kids say in French.

Shameless, they repeat themselves in case I did not hear them scream from across the court yard that they wanted my money.

Then they grow up.

“Give me your bike, I don’t have one, you can buy another easily,” the older men say in Pulaar. In the rural villages, it’s a semi-serious joke that almost every new person I meet has to try on me.  Shameless, they go on to request that I buy them medicine for their cold or buy them lunch.

Well, they asked the wrong person. The white tourists that came before me saw frowning children living without electricity and running water and must have given presents and money out of an overwhelming amount of pity. The aid groups did the same; they have to divide their aid among so many different countries and cities, they just throw it at any place that looks a little rundown. Then they leave.

Well, I live here, and I know better. Just because the living conditions don’t live up to your standard, doesn’t mean that they are not standardized. They are proud of their culture, and many find they cannot trade it in for a city life when the opportunity arises. Their community and culture has a strong focus on making sure everyone is fed, and insulates for moral and physical support. They already know how to do all the work necessary to get food or money, and they know that if they just work hard enough, they will be rewarded with excess. With this attitude, it’s very corrupting to hear stories of the rare and magical white man, who comes with his oddly colored skin and gives money and food to all. Obviously this man has an absurd amount of excess money, and it’s in his duty to share his wealth; thinks the millions of people waiting to get a share of it.

And then suddenly they do— but sadly, both parties live too much in the moment to make a sustainable impact.  After receiving free money or grain, Villagers will buy themselves an extra share of onions for their dinners, or the new bike they always wanted, but never could afford (and was living without fine by burrowing from a neighbor). When they are given in this way, they do not feel the gravity of the transaction, and put very little responsibility on themselves to see the extra money being invest on the future.

Just as excited are the Aid Givers, who feel like they are making a difference, but don’t take the time to learn about their environment. I have yet to see a working Unicef Bathroom, they are all clogged beyond use due to kids being unaccustomed to flushing. I have seen two water towers in different villages, and both have been abandoned because villagers don’t see a problem with their well water, and don’t understand how to maintain the tower.

And then, of course, is the funny problem of choosing where to send the aid. It’s the villages that white people don’t want to go to that need it most. The ones that don’t have a functioning road or that are highly diseased, or desolate. As the “tourist indigenous villages” become richer, the ones with genuine problems can miss some important aid projects.

Aid is hard because often times when foreigners try to improve the living conditions, they are actually just changing them. It doesn’t quite work to just throw western fixes at them, even if they want it. In fact poverty and malnutrition and overall shock value of living standards gets a lot realer when you walk into an underdeveloped urban setting: Over population, jobs run out, lack of money or food, you might end up with slums or people sleeping on the street. Except now no one has the forest for snacking on, no one has community for support, no one has the river for bathing and cleaning, no hay for make shift beds, and no place to farm for easy makeshift work.

Successful aid will be a thoughtful and self-sustaining augmentation of what they already do, such as giving farmers fruit seeds to plant alongside their normal grains. Maybe he does not even like the fruits he plants, but he knows how to plant them, and you will tell him where to sell them when they grow. Aid will also be most successful if the village believes in the project, and you teach the villagers how to reproduce the results so it can grow and so they can take over responsibility for its growth. That means that if you want your project to work, you will live Out There and guide it until its completion, which few people outside Peace Corps want to do.

Really, I think aid can be a good thing, I was just previously unaware of how enormous of a task it was designing a successful aid package. Undeveloped communities who have and have not received aid live with extremely nuanced problems, and I openly question how dynamic and nuanced some of the foreign responses are.

Ariel Vardy