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Canada’s development aid: will Trudeau make a difference?

15 Feb

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So maybe they weren’t the unequivocally happiest people in Canada when the Tories lost the elections last October.

But they had to be among the most relieved.

As Liam Swiss, a sociology professor at Memorial University who studies Canada’s development assistance, put it, many international aid people “had been waiting with bated breath” for a new government. And while he preferred the New Democratic Party’s aid-policy platform, it didn’t even matter who won in the end. “The notion was that things couldn’t get worse than they had been in the recent years under Harper,” he said.

Now the development community is cautiously optimistic that, with Justin Trudeau in power, things will change. While it is still early days, “the mandate letter that the Prime Minister sent to [Marie-Claude Bibeau] the Minister of International Development is very encouraging,” said Ian Smillie of the McLeod Group, “because it starts with poverty eradication, poverty alleviation, as being the basis for her mandate. And that is as it should be.”

But for the Conservative government it wasn’t. And while this was taxpayers’ money they were spending, their blatant attempts to win back benefits for Canadian corporations with money meant for the poor didn’t get much play in the press.

Yet the new policies, practices and funding cuts created havoc within the international charity sector. Every NGO had to make do with less but small- and medium-sized organizations were adversely affected, losing out in favour of the bigger players. Support for social justice advocacy disappeared pretty much completely.

“If you look at some of the organizations that were defunded, or have ceased to exist as a result of the collateral damage of that decision,” said Swiss, “it’s a really sad story.”

Then, in what used to be called the Partnership Branch, there was “ a move,” said Chantal Havard, spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, “from responsive, predictable, long-term funding mechanisms to a call for proposals, a competitive process, more in line with priorities identified by the government. There were fewer opportunities for organizations to make proposals and the bureaucracy was quite heavy as well.”

Indeed as one anonymous respondent to a survey carried out by the CCIC described it, “this new system has been a colossal failure in every way for the development sector in Canada, and has devastated partnerships with civil society overseas.”

Harper also had the Canada Revenue Agency carry out tax audits, questioning whether what organizations were doing actually even amounted to “charity.” “There was a trend where organizations that were more critical of government policies were targeted,” said Havard, (a trend I wrote about last August).

So now that sorry picture is improving. Last month the government announced that the tax audits would be stopped. And at December’s climate change conference in Paris, it pledged $2.65 billion to help developing countries with adaptation and mitigation. For Smillie, “This is certainly part of the long-term development perspective. It’s not very clear how much of that money will go through normal machinery, or how much would go some other way – I don’t think they’ve figured that out yet either,” he added. “But I think that is a promising sign.”

But aside from revitalizing the agency the Tories re-christened with the anodyne name ‘Global Affairs Canada,’ will more be done to make our collective response to the global poor more useful? Isn’t it time to think about why its help, along with that of most wealthy countries, has done so little to really fight poverty?

Ian Smillie thinks so. “In addition to supporting NGOs for the good work they do overseas, I think government should also pay attention to the kind of work they do in Canada,” he said. “And this business of showing fly-blown children sitting in the dirt and tugging at heartstrings is not really about development. It is not a good way, it’s not an adult way, of portraying the challenge to Canadians.”

It is practically the default image to appeal for donations, “almost like a drug,” he said, but does a huge disservice to the people of the developing world and simplifies a complex problem.

“It is almost counterintuitive to promote good development overseas through NGOs and ignore this retrograde message they are putting out in Canada,” he said. “Diaspora communities in Canada hate it. African Canadians hate that kind of message. I’m sure governments of African countries don’t like it either.”

So while, as Havard and others have pointed out, the aid community has high hopes that the Trudeau government will stick to a promise made by the previous minister, Christian Paradis (who, in fairness, was somewhat more sensible and approachable than his Tory predecessors) maybe those consultations should take on this aspect as well.

“I think it is definitely something the government could and should do,” said Smillie. “As far as matching grants are concerned, look at what value NGOs are adding to the development question, and the value added is not only overseas, it is here. We want Canadians to understand why development assistance and poverty eradication, why all of that is important to Canada. It isn’t just to get short-term contracts. It is to make the world safe for everybody in every way, healthier and better able to trade and all the rest of it.”

Past Liberal governments have also struggled with the purpose of Canadian aid, and used it for goals other than straightforward development.

Maybe this time they will be different. Maybe they will be open to better, more effective, approaches to aid.

“It shouldn’t be a question of going back to where we were before the Harper government came in,” said Smillie. “I think we can move forward in a more intelligent way.”

Anniversary of a Bad Day

13 Jan

 

4293703325_3868444d23(Photo: Colin Crowley)

I’m having some renovations done to my house these days.

Walls and ceilings have been taken down, heating ducts rerouted, and old carpet pulled up. I’ve had to turn my office into a pantry, dining room and sitting room. There is rubble and dust everywhere, and while I know it’s ridiculous, I keep thinking about the Haiti earthquake as I step on pebble-sized chunks of plaster (or worse, once, a nail) and battle the endless dust.

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Ridiculous because if it gives me a tiny glimpse of what it must be like to live in an environment where destruction has occurred , my circumstances are infinitely better than anything people had to deal with – and are still dealing with – after January 12, 2010.

Close to 60,000 homeless people woke up today to begin their seventh year in a tent in what is still a disaster zone. That alone is unbelievable in this day and age. Tens of thousands more live in utterly sub-standard housing, including the desert-scape of shacks outside of the Port au Prince called Canaan.

But everyone today woke up to a political situation that is distressingly same-old same-old. Hugely flawed elections continue to be the way a group of squabbling politicians divide up resources among themselves and their pals.

In eleven days, Haitians will go back to the polls, for the third time since August, to choose a new president. This final run-off is the last chapter in a sorry but repetitive tale of fraud, voter intimidation, and outside interference in the electoral process.

That horning in by outsiders has been taken care of by something the Core Group. Made up of representatives of some of Haiti’s biggest foreign assistance donors, it has, according to Prospere Charles of the 1804 Institute, “been pushing by all mean necessary to ensure the continuity of Haiti’s elections, no matter the flaws.”

So while the Provisional Electoral Council found that 47 per cent of the vote results it verified were questionable it is still going ahead with the January 24th vote with all the mechanisms of fraud in place. Despite their findings – and what many have simply observed – Council members seem to have been swayed by voices such as that of American ambassador Peter Mulrean, who said, “The world cannot wait for Haiti. There is no evidence of massive fraud in these elections.” After all, the country he represents put $30 million into making them happen.

What’s more, Mr. Charles summed up three big issues that neither aid nor history has resolved in Haiti. The first: “The abject failure of the international community to build and support effective public institutions after at least 30 years of unaccountable, astronomical spending and broken promises.” He also cited the complete inability of Haiti’s institutions to create a political system that is fair and free from local and foreign manipulations, as well the two-hundred year old “rift between the bourgeois elite and the mass poor in Haiti that is more pronounced than ever.”

To be honest, it is difficult to perceive much difference among or between Haiti’s presidential candidates. The whole ‘building back better’ theme failed to get through to them. They still couldn’t care less about making their nation better, or more about grasping power and money.

As I found while researching my newly published book, The Anatomy of Giving, there are many, many thousands of Haitians working hard to build a better nation, but they are being swamped by that “bourgeois elite”, the Core Group, and the deep trench of poverty in which most Haitians must try and survive.

My rubble will eventually be cleared away and my home rebuilt.

I wish I could say the same of Port-au-Prince, but that’s not on the cards – not while the same groups of unaccountable politicians continue to fight over their country’s resources and its future.

Book Review: The Idealist

13 Dec

9780385525817In April 2008 I visited a Millennium Village in Senegal called Potou with the idea of doing an article on what a bad idea the whole thing was.

Instead, it surprised me by turning out to very different from everything I had read about Jeffrey Sachs’ anti-poverty enterprise: well thought out, collaborative with local government and NGOs, and, in particular, based in large part on gathering community opinions on the project, or what its director, Omar Diouf, called “awareness raising.” Individual peasant farmers and heads of rural unions told me how sure they were that  by the end of the project’s five-year life span, they would be able to go it on their own. In fact, Mr. Diouf told me that what he had seen in Sachs’ other villages convinced him to greatly alter the MVP modus operandi.

Hence, no article.

But as soon as I got wind of Nina Munk’s book on Sachs and the MVPs, The Idealist, I was immediately curious. While she concentrates on two villages, one in Kenya, called Dertu and another in Uganda, called Ruhiira, the whole MVP set up was already getting a poor marks on the report cards of external evaluators and experts in development. Their main cavil was that Sachs’ claims of massive improvements in the quality of life for people in the poor African communities it had targeted were a) greatly inflated, b) impossible to prove, and c) could not necessarily be attributed to his project. There was no way, they said, to compare what would have happened in those villages had the MVP not come along by without looking at other similar villages that had not received this influx of aid.

And indeed, Ms. Munk’s research only supports their doubts. There were many times when I was reading this fascinating and well-paced book, shaking my head and thinking, ‘No. I can’t believe they did that.’ She describes, for example, the building of a livestock market in the village of Dertu and, in Ruhiira,  the switch from the usual cultivation of matoke bananas to corn and beans, heavily doused with chemical fertilizers — both Sachs’ idea.

The market no one asked for remained largely ignored by the pastoralist community of Dertu, even though their old market was a two-day walk away. And the bumper corn crops in Ruhiira found no buyers, being too far away from anyone who wanted to buy them. Other business ventures — like pineapples and cardamom — ran into similar brick walls.

What stands out in this book, and in the philosophy behind Sachs’ projects, is the way it simply drops its theories and advice into the desperately poor communities that have been chosen. People are persuaded to do things that make sense to Sachs and the experts working at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, only to find that they bring with them too many downsides. Millions of dollars are spent on improving health clinics, schools, and other collective infrastructure, but there is nothing to sustain them. Neither the Ugandan or Kenyan government was exactly eager to take on the expense of running them, and no one was seeing enough growth in revenue to start paying user fees. Education ministries didn’t provide text books, ill-paid teachers still went AWOL, no one cared to clean out the MVP-built latrines, and all the Sony-donated laptops disappeared.

At the same time, Ms. Munk points out, the influx of money in Dertu started attracting new residents to its arid confines, pastoralists who decided to “abandon their nomadic way of life and settle in and around (it).” Trash began to fill the ditches between people’s houses while the money the MVP local director gave  a newly formed “Garbage Committee” to cart it away somewhere vanished. The little local businesses, like Sahlan Bath Hussein’s tea shop, which  sprouted up were inundated by more competitive newcomers.

Yet what we are seeing here, I believe, is not poor people’s unwillingness to embrace progress and think about the collective, but rather a super re-tread of the whole foreign aid paradigm. “That predominant paradigm,” says Gord Cunningham, assistant director of the Coady Institute in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, “has been around fixing what’s wrong with communities. Identifying needs. And then, how we can help fix those deficits.” And while it does represent “a positive and well-meaning evolution from communities not getting much help at all and being completely exploited, the bottom line is that there have been a number of unintended consequences of this approach. One is that leaders in communities really start to look for what can come from outside, versus what they can do for themselves. They also get judged on how many resources they can bring in. That seems to be a measure of success rather than on how good the community becomes dealing with its own issues.”

Aside from the holistic approach identified by Mr. Diouf, the only thing that is new about the MVPs is the concerted push of resources, millions of donor dollars, thrown at one particular micro-region. Like the Millennium Development Goals, as the Earth Institute PR guy told me last year they were “trying to accomplish,” the idea is to demonstrate what the London-based Institute for Environment and Development’s Tom Biggs called the “effectiveness of aid, setting up the hypothetical framework that aid is hugely significant in the delivery of change, when it can only ever be a catalyst, or a significant factor in only a limited number of very poor countries.”

Some reviewers have taken issue with The Idealist for seemingly concluding that foreign aid never does any good, and underline Ms. Munk’s lack of knowledge of development. But I don’t see this so much as yet another cautionary tale about the inevitable pitfalls of the way so much foreign aid works. Sometimes, as Potou would seem to indicate, yes, it can work. It can work when there are lots of existing actors on the ground, a stable government that already provides some limited services — like electricity —  local organizations that are able to take advantage of the money and training, and above all, MVP staffers who, as Mr. Diouf said, “re-visited and reworked the concept to adapt it to our reality.” This was not the situation in either Kenya or Uganda — or Mali, where one project had to be shut down after a coup.

But it won’t work when there has been no process of placing the reins of change in the hands of the communities themselves — a long process, no doubt about it, that requires a lot of listening and pondering and cooperation — and when there is no consideration given to the sustainability, to real growth, however modest, in incomes, to at least some kind of serious buy-in on the part of local governments. Indeed, aside from  the Coady Institute, says Mr. Cunningham, “there are a lot of people who are trying a more strength-based, or asset-based, approach, that essentially recognizes the power of a community building assets rather than just relying on outside solutions.”

At the end of the book, as we read about new problems, slashed budgets, and staff fired out of frustration, Ms. Munk interviews “a member of Sachs’ inner circle in New York,” who says, “In hindsight it was like we were set up to fail. It’s not that Jeff’s ideas are wrong– he’s a big, inspiring thinker. It’s that the project’s ambition moved more quickly than capacity.”

But more likely, its problems can be laid at the door of outmoded ways of thinking about aid, one that merely talks the talk of community participation and management. As one complaint went — out of a list of 14 compiled by the owner of Dertu’s drugstore — “The project is supposed to be bottom top approached but it is vice versa.”

Even so, Sachs managed to get enough fresh funding to continue his Millennium Village Project for another five years.

Aside from Potou, however, this book also reminded me of Haiti, where Cantave Jean-Baptiste, the director of Partners in Local Development, would be happy to have even a tenth of what the Earth Institute can afford to spend. When he would go to a poor village, he says, “They ask, ‘what are you bringing us?’ And I say, ‘We’re not bringing anything. We have come to understand where you live what are your challenges and together we will see if there is some means of helping you with some of the obstacles.’”

Figuring Out Amanda Lindhout

24 Sep

blue_sky_199297Amanda Lindhout has been in the news again lately and I am having a hard time knowing what to make of this young woman.

The details of her past few years are stark and dramatic. As a cocktail waitress from small-town Alberta, she saved her money and used it to travel to places where she could write the kind of exotic war correspondent articles that would make her a serious journalist. She went to Afghanistan, Ethiopia and Iraq, but never really managed to enact this transformation, the only publication anyone in North America would have seen her work being the Red Deer Advocate.

Then, 2008, she went to Somalia — where she and a friend were promptly kidnapped. Their parents managed to scrape together ransom money, the pair were freed, and upon returning to Canada, Ms. Lindhout did two things: establish a charity and write a book.

Now the latter, I can understand. Memoirs of appalling experiences and how they have been survived are popular, the best written of them garnering both acclaim and media attention.

But the former, the setting up a personal charity devoted to “empowering Somali women,” leaves me a bit uneasy.

Ms. Lindhout’s book, A House in the Sky, was co-written with a New York Times writer, an excerpt featured in its pages a couple of weeks ago. It has received positive reviews, and brought Ms. Lindhout, already a prolific public speaker, spreads in magazines like Elle and this month’s Vogue.

But she has also come in for a share of criticism. Opinionated columnists like Margaret Wente  and Andrew Cohen have called her everything from naive and reckless to narcissistic and self-indulgent. The not–so-latent subtext of their comments — that, in some way, Ms. Lindhout deserved what happened to her — are seriously disturbing.

To a certain extent I can identify because I have been a freelancer almost all my life. I financed may of my early forays with money from waitressing, and while I wonder at why Ms. Lindhout could pay for such expensive travel, including the guide and two body guards she hired in Mogadishu, with no one buying her articles, I totally get that impatient impulse to cut corners and just be there. To investigate and write about what others seem to be missing, seek out those voices that are not being heard and experience the thrill of seeing the results in print.

I also, however, remember being vigorously told off by the late Paul Ellman, the Observer correspondent in El Salvador in the early 1980s, when I said I was planning to go to the town of La Palma and make contact with FMLN guerillas. Paul was a big partier and a bit of a reprobate, but he was so deadly serious about the potential consequences — the sheer folly — of putting myself in such danger that I allowed myself to be dissuaded. Was it the right thing to do? Or was I just being chicken?

Just a few months later, I learned that Nick Blake, an affable young American freelancer I’d met briefly in San Salvador, had paid for his bold journalistic ambitions with his life. Nick had also gone off to meet guerillas, the Guerilla Army of the Poor, in Guatemala, and was captured and shot by the Guatemalan military. Back then, if you were in the wrong place at the wrong time, you were not kidnapped. You were killed.

Freelancers flocking to areas of danger and controversy is nothing new. But apparently, they are being increasingly relied on for material by news outlets that can no longer afford to send staff writers to such places. All of the costs associated with these assignments — safety training, insurance, fixers, security personnel — can be saved by agreeing to take ‘on spec’ something some enterprising young person manages to send in instead.

And it is also understandable, I realize, that Ms. Lindhout’s emotional solution to the devastation of 15 months of beating, rape, starvation and terror would be this turn towards good works. As she herself said in a television interview shortly after setting up the Global Enrichment Foundation, “Establishing this foundation is the first step towards making sense of what happened to me and using it to do something good in the world.” The psychological impulse, the need to counter something horrible by concentrating on altruistic acts, is probably quite normal.

But, does it also not raise some troubling issues? Should the motivation for offering to offset the horrors of poverty lie in the need for psychological salvation? Or because it is inherently wrong that such poverty exists? Are people donating to the Global Enrichment Foundation because of what happened to Ms. Lindhout, or because of what happens every day to people in war-torn and conflicted nations? Is there a danger that this charitable endeavour, however good its programs and intentions, is all about its founder rather than the situation of the destitute it wants to help?

Maybe I would not be writing about this if her humanitarian projects were anonymous, rather than being branded by her own personal tragedy. Maybe she is forging a vital and morally principled connection between her tragedy and those of others. Or maybe it’s an attempt to seek admiration and positive attention. In the end, these are questions probably only Amanda Lindhout herself can answer.

 

 

Book Review: Fault Lines

15 Aug

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The Haiti earthquake of 2010 has inspired rather a lot of books and articles describing  personal experiences of its extraordinarily destruction — or maybe it only appears that way to me as I do my own research on the effects of development aid and philanthropy in a nation that seems to lurch from one disaster to the next without much, if any, signs of progress.

Now author and activist Beverly Bell has added her voice to those of writers like Paul Farmer, Amy Wilentz, and Jonathan Katz with Fault Lines: Views Across Haiti’s Divide.

But it would be a mistake to think she is simply giving us another version of the same horrific scenes and tragic stories of injury and loss.

There are verbal pictures of sidewalks replaced by “ground concrete that looked as if it had been through a blender, and rebar bent like bread-wrapper twist ties,” and anecdotes of people finally making it home only to find that their entire family was dead.  What makes Fault Lines unique is that it is the only book I have come across which grounds the earthquake and its aftermath in the points of view of people who have been largely missing from the rest, those of Haiti’s many, usually ignored, grassroots social movements.

It is thanks to Bell that we learn, for example, of the relief project set up by the Association  for the Promotion of Integrated Family Health in the Carrefour-Feuilles section of Port au Prince to provide daily meals to people who had lost everything in the earthquake. With some international support money, APROSIFA contacted 60 neighbourhood street vendors and paid them to purchase food from Haitian farmers and cook meals for ten to fifteen specific homeless families. Officially, the project provided food for approximately 4800 people every day. In fact, that number was far higher, she writes, “because when the women finished serving those they were responsible for, they kept dishing out food to hungry folks who dropped by until their pots were empty.”

In Belair, another extremely poor part of the Haitian capital, an organization with a long history in the neighbourhood called Solidarite Ant Jen (Solidarity Among Youth) took over a damaged kindergarten and began offering shelter and meals to four hundred displaced, along with medical and psychological care.

And in the country’s Central Plateau, the Mouvman Peyizan Papay provided lodging, meals and clothing to several dozen of the estimated 600,000 earthquake victims that fled the damaged capital and thus received no international disaster aid at all. The movement took up a collection to help peasant families inundated by the sudden return of traumatized relatives and even slaughtered two cows so they could bring food to patients at the Partners in Health hospital in nearby Mirebalais.

It is not that international participation was entirely absent from these projects. In Belair, water was delivered by a Canadian non-profit and some funding came from a German company. But unlike the vast majority of well-meaning emergency aid efforts – often surrounded by foreign soldiers and in some cases throwing sacks of rice out of helicopters “as if we were dogs,” as many complain to Bell — these alternative programs were set up and directed by Haitians. In these few salient cases, our good intentions met their terms,  their requirements.

The difference is summed up by APROSIFA’s Rose Anne Auguste when she points out that local organizations like hers “have our own vision of reconstruction for our country. We have a philosophy that corresponds to our reality, not the reality of the international community. What we want is for the international community, the foundations and agencies, to hear our philosophy and our dream for our people, our country.”

But that indigenous vision was rarely taken into account as hundreds of international agencies, large and small, scrambled to deal with symptoms — the medical emergencies and the lack of housing, food and water. It was also largely ignored during the post-earthquake reconstruction phase as well. As the tide of cash that flowed into Haiti in the early months of 2010 receded again, what has been left littering the shore are hundreds of examples of foreign plans and initiatives that fail to meet the needs of Haiti’s vast majority of poor.

“Corporations with little or no knowledge  of Haiti,” Bell writes, “were brought in as volunteers to plan, kick off and even staff the Interim Haiti Recovery Commission, the actor with the single greatest operational influence over shaping the reconstruction model after the quake.”

Talk about Haiti with most people and they will inevitably ask what happened to all the money that was pledged and donated by governments, international lending institutions and regular folk like them. The short answer is: we just don’t know. A lot went back to donor governments, with the United States, for example, using half of its $1.3 billion relief funding to pay itself for its emergency efforts and security.

Of the just over $6 billion in financial aid from global donors, including Canada, almost 90 percent went to non-Haitian organizations. Less than ten percent — $580 million –went to the Haitian government, and less than  one percent — $36 million — to local Haitian NGOs and businesses. As a Canadian International Agency press release announcing an initial grant of $150 million put it, every dollar would go “to facilitate rapid action by trusted and experienced humanitarian agencies.”

But how those agencies spent, and on what, is considered proprietary information. While some of it may have been helpful, “the lack of transparency,” writes Bell, “has also empowered opportunists to disregard standards, quality and honesty.”

The justification used by the majority of big donors, many of which have been working in Haiti for decades, is that local institutions and government lack “absorptive capacity,”  the ability to use the money properly. Yet as Solidarity among Youth volunteer and psychology professor Lenz Jean-Francois tells Bell, “what will traumatize the Haitian people even more than the thirty-five seconds of the earthquake is finding themselves, from one day to the next, standing with bowls in their hands and waiting for someone to give them a sheet so they can sleep. This dependence is terrible for people’s identity. People need to know we can count on ourselves. We have the capacity.”

As Fault Lines so clearly shows, the 2010 earthquake response only mirrors the inadequacies of decades of top-down development aid, with impoverished Haitians obliged to take whatever they can get rather than designing and implementing their own ideas for social and economic progress, supported by our collective solidarity. Well-intentioned as many non-profits may be, what they cannot do, says Bell is “alter the structural nonaccountability between  their employer, the government of their host country, and the people with whom they work. The agencies’ foreign funding, largely foreign staff and political relationship with Haiti dictate much about their effects in Haiti.”

More heartening news however can be seen in the continued combative response of dozens of organizations, which may have lost their offices, their only computer and even their own members in those fateful thirty-five seconds of devastation. Fault Lines describes how they have demonstrated against donations of Monsanto seeds, and for proper housing. They have forced the courts to bring criminal cases against men who raped girls and women in the IDP camps. Their relentless campaigning may seem modest, even puny, compared to big, publicity-grabbing schemes like five-star hotels and the Caracol Industrial Park, like a shout in a hurricane. But they are the best hope there is for solutions to the vast inequality that lies at the intersection of Haiti’s social and economic tectonic plates.

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

Injured Child in Port-au-Prince (Photo:American Red Cross)

(A slightly longer version of this review came out today in Rabble.ca)

Book Review: Behind the Beautiful Forevers

7 Jun

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Perhaps the true genius of this book by Katherine Boo becomes most apparent when you realize that the title is not a bit of poetry meant to attract literary kudos, but refers to a row of billboards lining the road advertising a brand of wall tiles.

Behind them lies Annawadi, the slice of undercity referenced in the book’s  subtitle, Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Slum.

The stories this book tells are real — although as dramatic as any Brazilian soap opera — and are those of the people living in that slum, its garbage pickers and dealers, its children, its ambitious kindergarten teacher yearning for political power – and young Abdul, a 17-year-old Muslim buyer and sorter of trash falsely accused of murder.

Boo’s writing brings us so intimately into his life and the life of this community that one can only wonder at the author’s patience and determination to pierce its wall of language, culture and vast economic disparity in order to do so.

These portraits also reveal the Byzantine complexity of a typical slum’s many power relationships — within families, within the slum itself, with the rest of the city and from there to the world beyond it. For indeed there are, behind the scenes, politicians hoping to win votes and foreigners hoping to do good. There is some cementing of footpaths and piping of water paid for either by government or NGOs.

Yet it becomes obvious, how very ineffectual these poverty alleviation attempts can be: the women’s self-help group that is manipulated by the less poor, the funding of so-called bridge schools for labouring children that ends up in the pockets of its organizers, the dreadful Sister Paulette who searches for orphans who are not orphans in order to draw foreigners’ money.

Designed as they may well be to try to deal with poverty and inequality, almost any scheme, it would seem, is easily gamed, and come to resemble the very recycling industry on which many in Annawadi depend for survival: bits of wire or an odd screw, left-overs picked up after those in power — the police, politicians, money lenders or even the less poor – have taken the lion’s share.

There are pretty clearly no “partnerships” here between aid agencies and the poor. As Boo writes, “(W)hen foreign journalists came to Mumbai to see whether self-help groups were empowering women, government officials sometimes took them to see Asha. Her job was to gather random female neighbours to smile demurely while the officials went on about how their collective had lifted them from poverty.”

This book reminds me of course of my experiences in Dharavi and Byculla  with members of the National Slum Dwellers Federation and its sister organization Mahila Milan. They are missing in this story – and sadly in Annawadi, as well.

For while many in Annawadi share their values and capabilities, the lack of organization means that  although the slum dwellers often got mad at their mistreatment, they “rarely got mad together.” And so, as Boo concludes, “the gates of the rich, occasionally rattled, remained unbreached.”

I feel a bit uncomfortable using this amazing book as a pulpit from which to expound the virtues of the grassroots movement I came to know and respect during my (brief) stay in Mumbai, instead of simply letting myself enjoy Boo’s luminous writing and wonderful true characters. But I can’t help it, really. As I made my way through it, I couldn’t help thinking about Sangira Ansari from Mahila Milan, who told me, “It is such a big thing to obtain a house of our own, that we feel this is our strength, and because of that we want to tell people to join. There are lots of people like us and we should support them.”

The Free Houses No One Wants

17 Feb
Santiago del Pinar, photo courtesy of SiPaz

Santiago del Pinar, photo courtesy of SiPaz

There’s a short video making the rounds of some websites that focus on development aid. It was made by the Institute for Development Studies and takes the viewer into a house in Chiapas, one of a few hundred, built by the state government in what their planners are calling a ‘Pueblo Rural Sustentable,’ or rural sustainable town.

This particular sustainable town was called Santiago El Pinar and, according to Proceso magazine, cost almost 400 million pesos — or about $27 million — to erect.  And in the words of the Chiapas government’s Institute of Rural Cities, the idea is “ to concentrate dispersed localities and faciltiate the provision of quality basic services and productive alternatives with dignified and paid jobs.”

The idea behind these towns is to bring indigenous peasant farmers, among the poorest in Mexico, out of their villages and into a central spot where there are proper roads, a school, a cooperative and a clinic. It’s not a terrible idea and the houses, painted in different colours, look nice perched on the ridge where they have been placed. The only problem is: they’re cheap and badly constructed, and the families who got them are leaving them in droves.

According to reports in the Mexican press, some families were willing to live in these houses despite the fact that they were still hauling water from a nearby stream and walking several miles to cultivate their bits of farmland.

I spent a fair amount of time in rural villages in 1994, the year the Zapatistas caught the world’s attention, and saw lots of rural houses. They were made with adobe, in general, or wood slats, with thatched roofs and were rather dark and basic. Sometimes a separate kitchen was built beside the house, which would be just a  thatched, open pavilion structure with an area to build a fire and cook. Chickens and pigs wandered around at will, and bathroom facilities, in other words a pit latrine, were rare indeed.

So  house with a corrugated metal roof, glass windows, a bathroom and a kitchen with a gas hook-up and running water would represent quite a change. But it’s a change that has proven to be ephemeral and raises some interesting issues.

Among them are: how can residents pay for gas and electricity if they are poor?  Why build them with cheap materials — like, in this case, plasterboard, when, in fact, adobe is perfectly good and durable? And if these peasants had money and these houses were offered for sale, instead of being free, would any of them  actually want to buy one? Would any of the city-bound planners in Tuxtla Gutierrez or Mexico City ever buy one, for example? And finally, what does the entire plan tell us abut how people with good intentions approach the whole notion of housing the poor?

I have lately been doing some research into the latter question, in the context of Haiti. It strikes me as interesting that organizations like Architects for Humanity have databases of useful and well-designed structures, created by professionals who are interested in innovation and at the same time recognize that the people who will use their structures need to have a say in what ends up getting built.  Or that organizations like the National Slum Dwellers Federation in India have designed apartments that were lofty, well-lit and inexpensive to build. And yet, when it comes to the majority of housing that is actually built for the poor, one tends to see the same thing: nicely painted (sometimes) shoe boxes, whether assembled into apartment buildings or laid out in rows, that become ramshackle in a matter of months. Or 25 square metre plywood huts that become ovens in the hot sun. The paint wears off, the material warps, the roofs leak, the drains don’t work, the electricity gets cut off and there’s nowhere to build a fire for cooking. In short, things begin to fall apart — sometimes in a matter of months. And then you have – tada! — what’s known as a slum.

If you are living in a tent, or a thatch-roofed adobe hut, these houses may look pretty nice. But if given a chance to specify what is needed and what is preferred, probably no one would want to live in one of them.

So in Chiapas, where two such Pueblos have been assembled, and five more are planned – all as part of the Millennium Development Goals apparently — a lot of money is going down the drain and the poor are no better off.

It’s not hard to set up a consultation process with poor communities, to give them the construction material  they want and get them to build themselves — after all, they have already built the houses they live in now — or to think about how they will pay for electricity. It just requires that governments and international bodies respect the poor, rather than seeking political gain — in the case of the former — or checking a box on a list — in the case of the latter.