Meandering again

It’s been a while…. Lots of things happening professionally, personally, all across the board, it’s been a rather eventful Spring. Except it’s not *really* Spring here in Vancouver – the weather gods have been particularly ungenerous, save for the few nice days that they kindly (and I’m pretty sure begrudgingly) bestowed upon us. 

In any case, my Google Reader is finally under control – reading (or skimming through…) the 1000+ articles that have been accumulating in there, in addition to catching up on all the reading and informing myself I have failed to do in recent times was a bit daunting, but here I am again, ready to contribute. 

Before diving back into my favorite topics, I think a Niapele update is in order. 

For the past 9 months or so – basically since the financial crisis and the resulting meltdown occured – we have seen a sharp drop in donations. Truth be told, this also coincided with Celina, my co-director, and myself getting full time jobs (girl’s gotta eat!), and we weren’t fully prepared to cope with dwindling spontaneous donations. In spite of our success as a small start-up organization (feeding 100s of kids for a school year… providing for 20+ abandoned children for nearly 2 years….. supporting a small organization for handicapped children…), we have been struggling to mobilize the funding that we would need to make all of the aforementioned projects true successes.

For instance, the School Nutrition Initiative which we ran during the 2007-2008 school year – we served daily meals to over 600 kids and 30 staff and teachers at the only tuition free school in the Buduburam refugee camp. [Note: After more than 2 years being involved in this project, I have yet to wrap my mind around the concept of private, costly education in a refugee camp as the “best” alternative for schooling for refugee children.] The program cost about $2,000 per month, including salaries of kitchen staff, and had start up costs of about the same amount (pots, utensils, stoves, renovations to the cafeteria space which we rented….). Over the course of the school year, we worked in close cooperation with the Carolyn A. Miller School, its donors and supporters, as well as with an incredible, dedicated Ghanaian nutritionist, Adam Sandow, to develop, implement and continually refine the School Nutrition Initiative. The program delivered positive results, which you can read about here.

Now, we are trying to recreate this same initiative in Liberia, where our partner, the Carolyn Miller School, is now operating out of. While a refugee camp setting was a challenging environment for us to succeed in, Liberia is a whole different story – essentially demolished by the war, Liberia is still reeling. And despite advances on many fronts, there are still some core challenges that need to be seriously taken on. Our very own – and very brave – Megan Sullivan just arrived in Monrovia to act as our Country Director, and assist our Program Manger, Henry Snyder. We are really hopeful that, with her presence, we’ll be making strides towards improving the sustainability of our partner organizations – as well as our own. 

Raising funds for the School Nutrition Initiative in Monrovia is a priority for us at this point. We’ve carried out a needs assessment exercice at the school, and we drew up a budget with them – for $2500, we can restart the program. That’s probably something we can achieve in the next couple of months – however, what’s much, much more difficult is to secure the funding to actually run the program every day of every week…. We feel that starting up the program without the guarantee of funding to make it last would be suboptimal – that goes against our principle of sustainability, and would be devastating for the school, and its students. 

So Megan is initiating a series of meetings with donor organizations and agencies at the country level – hopefully, we will be able to secure the support of a reliable funding partner for our activities. The model is simple and replicable, and by cutting costs and having a lean operation, you can feed A LOT of children, all the while stimulating the local economy by purchasing from local food producers, by employing staff for to run the program. That’s really the beauty of working at the grassroots level, with community-based organizations – with relatively small amounts of money, you can have a significant impact. 

One of my favorite new blogs, Aid Watch, ran a piece (a post?) about aid effectiveness in Nepal – excerpt:

Doing an inventory of small NGOs working in the various districts, then giving out small amounts of funding ($10,000-$20,000 a year) probably gets the most done. Skip the audits and heavy-duty report writing and verify with a small team equipped with a camera. A picture is worth a thousand words (or reports) it’s there or it isn’t and the camera tells you. NGOs with barely enough budget to survive have little motivation and opportunity to corrupt the process. They are community members themselves and the community can police its own quite effectively. Nearly anyone living in a small community in Nepal can tell you in short order who is working for the good of the community and who is lining their own pockets. Snap photos, ask the locals and you’ll know for sure that your aid dollars did something.

I feel confident about Niapele’s ability to make a difference – with Megan in Liberia, I have a renewed sense of optimism. Celina and I are also going to continue finding new ways to raise funds, and, in an effort to be transparent, I’ll be posting updates about our progress. In fact, this is part of our broader attempt to revive our online presence as an organization – new Facebook public profile, new Twitter account, and a new resolve to make things happen.

 

For those who might have missed it, here is the video that Ayoka Productions made for us last year:

 

How to Make a Difference? First, Understand.

I am a firm believer that in order to be a truly effective advocate on any issue, it’s crucial to really understand the dynamics that you are contending with.

For The Niapele Project this means recognizing that we are in a constant state of learning – as we progress and deepen our involvement with the refugee community of West Africa, we are also attempting to truly understand what the issues are, at their core, so we can better serve the interests of the organizations we work with, and the children they serve.
We are continuously challenged in this extremely complex developing world environment – as a small NGO with limited resources, we try to position ourselves as open, flexible and willing to collaborate as knowledgeable partners.
In Liberia, we are beginning to collaborate with the UNHCR and the Liberian Refugee Repatriation and Resettlement Commission (the government agency in charge of coordinating refugee issues) – in spite of our differences with these institutions in the past regarding the way in which Liberian refugees in Ghana were treated, we strongly believe that it will take the collaboration of all key stakeholders to create sustainable strategies for the effective integration of displaced people in Liberia.
(I only wish I was there myself…. sigh… maybe some time down the line!)
In any case, in order to bring deep expertise to the table, The Niapele Project has been working with some of the world’s best universities to develop our research capacity – we just released this study produced by Masters candidates at Sciences Po (my alma mater in Paris), which provides a critical overview of policy options for protracted refugee situations, and we are currently working with the Yale Law School on another study which will outline the international and national legal framework with regards to returning refugee rights in Liberia.
We are really looking forward to 2009 – in spite of the arduous fundraising road ahead, I am full of confidence that The Niapele Project will continue to have a positive impact in the lives of vulnerable refugee children.


Ah yes

Yesterday, I mentioned the explosion in immigrant arrivals in Italy, but couldn’t remember where I read it – I don’t think I read it there for the first time, but here is a BBC link. It looks like almost one third of prisoners in Italy are foreigners – that’s how we treat illegal immigrants, we throw them in jail. Mmm… I do wonder if there would be a more efficient use of taxpayers’ money? I’d love to know what the jailed immigrants end up doing when they are released and/or deported – I know that a lot will attempt the trip again if they’ve been deported, while others will disappear into the masses of immigrants living in dire poverty all across Western Europe.

Frightening.

I also finished reading “The Wisdom of Whores” (I know, finally, but I read more than one book at a time, so this happens often). Elizabeth Pisani is my hero. She has managed to write a book that is both extremely informative and offers a candid, real view into the inner workings of the AIDS industry. A lot of the dynamics that animate the field of development are at work in the AIDS business – but the twist, with this incurable disease, is that people are dying literally every minute, and the sense of urgency is not the same as in, say, micro finance. But I was chuckling throughout, specifically in the chapter entitled “Ants in the Sugar Bowl”, which so accurately describes the crazy ways in which taxpayers’ money is thrown out the window.

Thankfully, as she mentions, a lot of people in “development” function with this sort of consciousness, with a critical and honest approach to their work. I will definitely write more about her book, which I think should be required reading for any young idealist who believes in “changing the world” (i.e. me)

Lastly, I found this nifty little gadget which counts down until the end of the Bush presidency. Seriously, are you not counting the days??

The Girl Effect

Great video, don’t you think?

Trusty MS alerted me about the existence of The Girl Effect and this video – I find this film to be really powerful, and, even though I’m tempted to say that it tends to oversimply/dramatize issues surrounding the empowerment of women, if I’ve learned anything in the past couple years about attracting the general public’s attention to these types of issues, it’s that you NEED to present facts simply and dramatically. So, the development practitioner in me says ” oversimplified”, takes away from seriousness and complexity of the issue….etc. The non profit manager in me says “Fabulous! what a powerful video!”.

To me, it seems that NGOs always have to toe the line between getting attention for their cause and keeping the integrity of their message, as well as of their work. It’s definitely a debate when it comes to celebrity endorsement of humanitarian causes – sure, you mobilize public opinion a lot easier and faster that way, but are you educating the public, or merely bringing the issue into the spotlight in a unidimensional fashion? Doctors without Borders (again) rejects celebrity endorsements, while others, like the Red Cross embrace it. Check out the (ridiculous??) video below…

They Come in the Name of Helping, reloaded

This article popped up in my Google Reader – 3 times.

The article itself, from The Washington Post, casts a critical eye on the affluence that foreigners live in while working in Liberia.

As this impoverished country climbs its way back from 13 years of civil war with the tiniest of steps, a boom is underway in the industries that cater to the rarified tastes of thousands of mostly European and U.S. expatriates who have come to help since peace arrived in 2003. The increasingly visible splendors available to this relatively wealthy group have left some Liberians wondering whether the foreigners are here to serve the nation or themselves.

I blogged about this topic a couple of months ago, after watching Peter Brock’s “They Come in the Name of Helping” – if you haven’t yet watched it, please do.

This story about sushi in Liberia popped up twice more in my reader – Chris Blattman and Rupert Simon both reacted to it (and, according to Blattman, it seems that a LOT of people picked up on this story)

Simon seems to side with the opinion expressed in the article:

… If only the sushi were made from local fish (fresh and delicious), I wouldn’t mind. But importing tuna and salmon to serve to aid workers, when the rest of the population can barely get enough rice (let alone fish), seems a little absurd.

Blattman, on the other hand, says – what’s the problem with a couple good restaurants?

My opinion is somewhere in the middle – I still believe that, in general, to have such a discrepancy between the way foreign aid workers and locals live is a problem – it distances the foreigners from the realities that they’re supposed to work on, and from the people they are supposed to assist. But that’s essentially the problem with development work that isn’t grassroots based.

On the other hand, I appreciate Blattman’s straight forwardness in the matter. Because when you work in difficult settings, far from your family and the comforts of home, sometimes, it’s nice to take a break. And that’s just the reality of it – aid workers are not super heros, they are human beings with needs and desires, and some people in Liberia know what those are, and are taking advantage of it – how entrepreneurial! (This is only half sarcastic)

In a lot of post-conflict settings and generally poor places where NGOs and IOs are active, aid workers always inject cash into the local economy. Some say it’s good (it boosts local economy, creates jobs, etc.), some say it’s bad (unsustainable). Whatever the case may be, it’s definitely a reality that needs to be contended with. Perhaps the negative effects of foreign affluence juxtaposed to local poverty can be mitigated by developing an approach where locals would benefit from in a sustainable manner – through job creation, using local resources (think local instead of imported fish for the now (in)famous Monrovia sushi restaurant mentioned above), etc.

If I end up traveling to Liberia this summer for The Niapele Project (fingers crossed), it will be interesting to see the reality of this juxtaposition.