Monthly Archives: August 2015

Are you happy now?

I’ve been posting much less frequently than I used to.  In part that’s because I’ve been in Burkina Faso for almost three months now, and I’ve fallen into a rhythm with my work, social life, and when I do my laundry (Saturday mornings when I’m around the house, so that I can pull it off the line when the rain hits).  Everything here is very different from the way things are back home, and there are interesting things that happen to me that don’t have enough substance to warrant a full blog post.  A week ago as I was riding the moto through traffic I passed a car on the left and almost got gored by a longhorned bull that was standing placidly facing oncoming traffic in the middle of the road.  This morning the heater worked and I took my first hot shower in three months.  My housekeeper washed all of my shoes in detergent and water and left them to dry in the sun, and now my boots are as stiff as wooden clogs.  I bought a DVD player to watch movies on rainy nights, but my TV is black and white and all of the DVDs I can find are bootleg films from Côte d’Ivoire that have been dubbed into French.  It’s a weird experience to watch Ed Norton or Matt Damon speaking badly synced French, in a format I associate with Charlie Chaplin movies.

Since I’ve been staying clear of the law and managing to keep all of the fuel that I buy INSIDE the motorcycle, I have no major incidents to report.  I will say that besides tooling around on my motorcycle and watching bootleg movies, I also go to work occasionally.  I am an economic development consultant for a graduation program NGO, which means that my organization offers comprehensive support to ultrapoor people in rural areas to help them “graduate” from poverty.  The support is multilateral, and all of our participants receive a cash transfer worth $90, are organized into communal savings groups, receive training sessions on agricultural and livestock husbandry practices, and are regularly visited in their homes for one-on-one sessions with a coach who assesses their progress and evaluates what specialized assistance they need.  I was hired to develop a coaching guide: a document that clearly lays out the objectives of coaching visits and the responsibilities of a coach, as well as describing activities that the coach can do to increase the self-confidence and business acumen of our participants.

I started writing this guide within two weeks of arriving in Burkina Faso, and I really tried my best to anticipate obstacles our participants would encounter and the best means of overcoming them.  Because participants receive a large lump sum of cash I developed an activity to help them resist the temptation to spend the money on luxury goods like alcohol or new clothes.  Because our participants tend to have low self -esteem I included an activity to guide them to visualize their long term personal goals and aspirations.  Because some of our participants feel a sense of fatalism that they are trapped in poverty and will always be desperately poor, I developed an exercise where they identified a successful person in their community and reflected on the habits that allowed that person to build their success.  I believe that self-confidence and belief in one’s own capacity to effect change are integral to the success of an economic development program, and so I asked the participants what made them happy and how that source of happiness could motivate them.

I ran this draft by my colleagues and they ripped it apart.  My carefully bulleted activities and exercises were half-baked solutions to secondary problems.  Did I know that sometimes older women were accused of being witches and denied participation in their own savings groups?  Had I considered that in polygamous households the participant would be expected to divide her grant money with the other spouses?  Was I aware that our participants didn’t succumb to temptation and blow their cash transfer on booze and chocolate, but rather walked the razors edge of destitution and dipped into their grants as an emergency fund to cover hospital visits and replenish empty grain silos?

There’s a big difference between good ideas and practical ideas.  I’m very far from an expert in the field of international development, but I can say with certitude that the way a program looks on paper is very different from the way things will function in the field.  I thought long and hard about motivational psychology and ideal frequency of home visits, and somehow the notion that participants could be perceived as witches never entered into my cogitation.  This is a challenge for everyone who develops core documents for field programs.  My NGO hired an agronomist consultant to create the technical training guides for livestock and poultry raising, and a sentence that jumped out at me was “a rule of thumb for evaluating the health of adult fowl is by taking their axillary temperature, which should be roughly 37*C.”  Imagine being the field agent who has to tell a Burkinabé farmer with an annual income of $200 that she should monitor her poultry by stuffing a thermometer into their armpits, and you see the distinction between Good Theory and Good Practice.

I read a 120 page report by a sociologist at the University of Ouagadougou on the nature of extreme poverty in the Northern regions, to get a better sense of the context I’m working with.  I’ve enwisened myself to some important concepts.  Instead of worrying about temptations, I need to address social demands: how should a participant refuse to give the grant money to her husband for “safe keeping,” or decline a request to contribute money to a funeral?  I don’t need to play Santa Claus and ask participants what their long term goal or aspirations are—this one wants a bicycle, this one wants a metal roof on the house.  Consistently the participants respond that their primary concern is their children: feeding them during the dry season, paying their hospital bills when accidents happen, and being able to afford school fees.  Basically, I need to get out of the office and spend some more time in the field.

Right now is the rainy season, which is a rough time for fieldwork.  I don’t mean that you can get unpleasantly damp as you make excursions to see participants: I mean that roads disappear and houses collapse and our partner associations take into account that there are certain communities that will be inaccessible by motorcycle for six weeks.  I’m learning a lot.  It’s challenging to understand that my good ideas are someone else’s lousy ideas, and even harder to accept that the other person is 100% right.  The work goes on, the guide develops, and my shower is running cold again.

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Mr. Qaddafi’s Neighborhood

I live in a neighborhood seven kilometers south of centre ville called Ouaga 2000, whose futuristic name is matched by its futuristic reputation.   The neighborhood was laid out in one fell swoop when Burkina Faso hosted the France-Africa summit in 1996, and was mostly financed by Libyan cash.  The landmarks of the neighborhood are the presidential palace, called Kosyam after the village that was flattened to make space for it, the five star Hotel Libya, and oodles of embassies (US, Nigerian, Saudi, Egyptian…).  I’ve seen old satellite pictures of the area, and it’s amazing how all these broad roads and gleaming buildings just rose out of empty space in less than a decade.  The development of the neighborhood is thanks to a not-so-anonymous donor: every morning I ride across the massive Boulevard Muammar Qaddaffi, which runs directly and symbolically to the gate of the presidential palace.

I had some trepidation about living in Ouaga 2000, because it’s far from the city center and in my experience diplomatic neighborhoods are not much fun.  It’s true that there aren’t many good bars, restaurants, markets or movie theaters near where I live.  I’ve come to really enjoy the neighborhood though, because I love seeing the weird ways that a meticulously planned expansion has changed organically.

Most people who build houses here build imposing mansions on compounds, and a lot of my neighbors’ houses look like the lairs of Bond villains: satellite dishes and antennae on the roof, reflective windows, , ten foot high walls crowned with barbed wire, and gates that open to let tinted Land Rovers and BMWs in and out.  Because the neighborhood is so new there are also a lot of undeveloped parcels, which are enclosed by rough cinderblock walls sprouting rebar or totally open.  As soon as the Land Rovers drive out of the elegant compounds they hit unpaved roads that flood in the rainy season, and have to share the paths with donkeys pulling carts.  Lots of people plant on the undeveloped parcels, and from the second floor of my apartment I can see cornfields and embassies.  Early mornings my neighbors work on their small parcels growing the same corn and millet that people grow in the villages.  A neighbor of mine who lives in a large compound keeps a handsome white stallion in a paddock in front of the house, and at dusk the thoroughbred is turned loose to graze in the vacant lots with the neighborhood goats.  People still keep cattle around here, and often in the mornings as I ride to work I go right through herds of placid longhorned cows.

Buildings are constructed frantically.  An empty parcel across from my apartment is being developed now by a crew of about a dozen guys, and I see the progression like stop-motion photography when I get back from work every day.  It took them two days to dig all of the foundations, and two weeks to lay out all of the walls.  They’re now up to the second floor and it hasn’t even been a month yet.  The construction is done with rebar and cinderblocks, and masons make all of the bricks on site.  They slash open huge bags of cement mix, mix it with water, and then use shovels to pack the concrete into molds.  Two guys can make enough bricks in a morning to build a two car garage, and as soon as they’ve hardened sufficiently in the sun (more or less), they get mortared into the walls of the building.  The crew doesn’t use any bulldozers or backhoes that I’ve seen, and for scaffolding they just use saplings that have been stripped of their branches.  If they keep working at this rate the whole house will be done in three months.