July 23, 2007

Working in Zambia has been a bit of an eye-opener for me. In the UK I was involved in campaigning for ‘global justice’ with several organisations. These organisations portray the poverty in Africa and suggest how individuals can help either by campaigning for changes from governments and companies, or by donating to relief and development projects. While this simplified message is understandable given the short attention span of the public, the reality has left me a bit disillusioned. Most Zambians I know are not remotely interested in global justice. They want cars and iPods. But because of donor money available they do set up organisations which claim to fight poverty.

There are over 10,000 NGOs registered with the Zambian government. Almost all have a mission, vision, moto, logo, constitution and strategic plan. My experience is that only about 1 in 10 are implementing activities at any one time. In a country with over 50% unemployment, people seek the easiest route to employment. This is often starting a non-governmental organisation as Zambia is one of the countries which has received the most aid since independence.

In Chipata, the fourth largest town, the UN are represented by the World Food Programme and UNAIDS volunteers. There are several large international development NGOs, World Vision, Care International, Plan and Africare. There are perhaps 50 medium-sized organisations with staff, premises and activities, and several hundred smaller organisations. Most upwardly mobile young people I speak to are trying to set up NGOs not businesses because of the easy money that comes with it.

There is a great deal of learnt dependency. People are used to getting money from willing donors so have tired of coming up with ways in which they can work themselves out of poverty. Of course I am working in an urban setting, and many rural Zambians would never have even seen a white person, never mind accepted donations. And its wrong to suggest that Zambians are lazy. They work incredibly hard tilling fields and cycling the produce to market.

In a bid to avoid corruption, donors will often only fund projects, rather than overheads and staff. This is understandable given the lack activities carried out by organisations. However it also leads to organisations collapsing, reforming, and failing to develop over a number of years. Inactive organisations are labelled ‘briefcase’ organisations, and are usually characterised as being run by inexperienced people. But the problem I have run into is organisations run by ill-intentioned people who are very experienced in fiddling money from donors, what I call PreteNdGOs. Given the poverty levels, most people are not willing to volunteer. This coupled with the corruption is confusing coming for people coming from Britain where people who are not willing to volunteer are seen as selfish and those who steal from charities as the spawn of the devil. These concepts don’t hold here, which is a big reason why in my opinion aid doesn’t work as well as it could.

However I would not want to understate the poverty here. There are many people who do not eat enough, die unnecessarily and have few if any material possessions. But this is not because their is a lack of food, or a lack of money to solve these problems. Its because this food is not distributed fairly, and people do not have either the power or will to solve their problems. The lowest rank of Zambian society, often illiterate and malnourished, can not challenge the government because they do not know how. But the organisations that are supposed to help them do this are staffed by people who have managed to create a comfortable existence for themselves by Zambian standards and do not seem particularly intent on changing the status quo.

I don’t know if the solution is to cut all aid to Zambia as this would almost certainly make things worse, but cutting it a bit and making sure people have to work hard to gain it again wouldn’t hurt. One thing I am surer of is that if development is to happen it has to come from the people affected, or its likely to be pointless and misdirected.

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