Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Pennies from Heaven

I previously recounted a couple of anecdotes about Tourists and Missionaries in Swaziland – and here is another disturbing piece. In recounting this story I have to tread warily and not allow my own obvious prejudices to intrude . . .

I was recently introduced to an organisation, an NGO - actually more technically a FBO (Faith Based Organisation) that is involved with the feeding of OVC’s. OVC’s are incidentally “orphans and vulnerable children” which in Swaziland represent an inordinately high percentage of the population.

This organisation apparently sets up “feeding points” and provides meals for the OVC’s in the immediate vicinity. Quite how these points are set up in the first place I am not certain and the person explaining this to me (an expatriate) could not explain the relationship between the NGO and the local Traditional Authorities or for that matter Regional or Central Government. The organisation provides pre-schooling and some form of post high school skills training – although what these skills are I could not establish. They also run after-school activities such as bible classes. The NGO seems to be run by a preponderance of expatriates.

My defensive antennae immediately spring up when introduced to an organisation that has a heavy foreign presence, and that is providing sustenance and spiritual aid and little else of obvious sustainable substance, unless you count bible classes as substance, which you might – and it is here that I have to tiptoe lightly in my ecumenical ballet shoes across the eggshell stage of evangelistic philanthropy. The point of this piece is not to dissect the aid-for-spiritual-upliftment discourse – that is another vast and highly charged subject.

In this instance however my finely tuned antennae was assailed by the astonishing fact that the food that is being dispensed to the disadvantaged Swazi children is actually imported from the United States of America. Why should that be one may ask – and I did; and the answer was that it is cheaper than purchasing it locally. Apparently it is cheaper to import food from the USA by the container-load than it is to purchase food stuffs locally – and that is why food staples are being imported into a region that has the capacity to feed itself and have surplus.

There are a couple of issues here that are begging to be unpacked . . .

I cannot for one moment subscribe to the theory that, taking into account all the costs of freightage, demurrage, packaging, protecting and palleting, import duties and so on that it is cheaper – dollar for dollar as it were – to import foodstuffs from the USA to Southern Africa. And this is aside from all the other annoying “hidden” environmental costs such as embodied energy, carbon loading and green accounting. If this really were the case then surely some very serious and strident alarm bells should be ringing in the board rooms of charitable organisations let alone in the halls of economic academia. In fact the idea is so patently absurd that it both beggars belief or any further scrutiny.
Container shop laying off the Port of Durban, stacked to
the gunnels with pre-packed food parcels for Swazi
It may be that the charity “hook” is for legions of generous American office workers giving up their lunchtimes to parcel up ration-packs for the starving fly-blown children of Africa. In other words the only way that this particular form of largesse can be achieved is through donation of “kind” rather than cash. But again this doesn’t stand up to any serious scrutiny.

If you are a really serious donor you will want to donate in an appropriate fashion – taking into account local conditions and all other wider aspects of what we environmentalists refer to as the receiving environment. Meaningful and considered charity should surely be directed towards the recipients and not be some sort of a sop to the consciences or social mores of the givers. If the only way of raising aid is by getting the donors to physically package food-stuffs (which I really do doubt) then use it locally, and god knows if CNN is to be believed there are enough potential recipients in New Orleans alone. If locations on the African continent are the desired aid target then examine how interventions can be best directed and tailor efforts accordingly.
Productive Homestead in the Nkoyoyo/Hawane area
Oh, and by the way, these are “interventions”; an apt description which alludes to “coming between” and speaks of “interference.” Be of no illusion, however carefully planned it may be, “aid” is disruptive.

In fact it doesn’t take much imagination to see that far from being sustainable ill considered intervention is in danger of promoting even greater levels of food aid dependency than the country is already suffering. There are enough stories circulating about homesteads no longer engaging in subsistence farming because they know that food aid is in the offing, and I do not believe these tales to be apocryphal. The empathetic support and promotion of sustainable farming must be paramount, and the importation of basic food stuffs which can and should be sourced locally should be immediately stopped.

As an illuminating matter of interest the web page for this NGO extols mightily the virtues of its aid and sustenance to the “hurting” children of Africa and it does not hold back on its spiritual provenance or strength of beliefs. It gives a list of the personnel involved in its activities. Under the heading of “missionaries” there are thirteen American couples or individuals. Under the heading of “staff” there are fourteen expatriates (single or couples), and there are 11 Swazis. What is revealing is the fact that all the expatriates (missionaries or staff) are referred to by forename and surname, but the Swazi staff are, with one exception, referred to by forename only (oh, and one other has the appellation of “Make” which means “Madame” or “Mrs” and which in this context smacks of condescension). This, for me, speaks volumes about a web page that actually says very little and is another indicator of the depth of understanding and empathy that this organisation really has of the complex issues in which it is meddling.

Okay, it is not just daft misguided amateurs who are creating havoc in the rural areas of Swaziland and elsewhere in Africa. There are quite enough more formal organisations that are also operating this most sensitive of sociological fields. And I readily admit that neither the traditional nor the formal governmental structures are working well.

Ultimately the responsibility for these foolish interventions must lie with Governments who do not have the political will to say “thanks for the charity – but its got to go there, or there, and its got to be done like this; otherwise no thanks.” Only then will this level of aid make sense, and only then will the recipients actually start to truly benefit, rather than being pawns in a game that they cannot participate in.
Surpluses from subsistence farming activities

1 comment:

  1. Very, extremely and most well said indeed. I wish so that I could be involved at the actual and literal and real grass roots level. Is there anyone doing Market Gardening 101 in the rural areas? Like you, I am incredulous that it is cheaper to freight in food aid than it is to grow a field of veg - nonsense. Or as Rae would say "stuff and nonsense"......


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