The village that Aid forgot

I have a niece who works for an international development organisation in Zimbabwe. She has recently been having conflicting emotions about her job, and for good reason. On a recent visit to one of the projects she noted that although the rainy season was near, there was no evidence of any preparation of the fields. So she asked the ladies from the project when they intend to plant – and they said ‘oh no, we don’t have to, they are fed by the World Food Program. Besides they are busy with other programs – there are four other NGO’s besides the one she represents. They sounded quite proud of all this attention the village is getting and they didn’t mind what appeared to her to be a ridiculous amount of paperwork they prepare for all these organisations (including her own). They felt it was a fair trade – they tell people what they need, it gets sent and they just need to write down a few things about it.

Not far away there is another village. It was the scene of a horrendous crime in 1987. Following Zimbabwe’s independence in 1980, a group of black and white Zimbabweans formed a ‘Community of reconciliation’ – living, farming and developing the area together. Tragically on the 25th of November 1987, the 16 white members of the community were massacred by black ‘liberation’ fighters. See the full story here.

For many years the village was the proverbial ‘black sheep’. Not many people visited, and certainly no foreign aid personnel went there. Until recently, a friend running a farming program did go there to encourage good farming practices. Being a white man, he was a bit apprehensive – and wasn’t sure whether he would be welcome. He worried too that many of the villagers tend to associate white donor looking types with freebies.

He need not have worried – it’s been many years since the tragedy happened and there appeared to be no issue with who he was. However, over time as his association with the village grew he noticed something unusual. While they were keen on what he had to say, unlike other villages, they had not assumed he would be helping in any other way than sharing information. Where there were practical requirements – like fertiliser for instance – they did not immediately assume he will provide it, in fact they sorted out among themselves who will contribute what to the requirements. The tell-tell signs of the dependency syndrome which other areas seemed to suffer from were strangely absent.

Isn’t it amazing what will happen when we leave people alone (hopefully for the right reasons – rather than from fear of being killed!) and not try to ‘develop them’? While the battle over whether aid is harmful (see: Aid Watch) or not rages on, I for one know which of the two villages above I have hope for. When villagers spend the productive part of their day filling forms instead of tilling their fields something has gone badly wrong. We need to relook at what we mean by ‘development’

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