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Imagine potential aid recipients saying what THEY think

Twenty minutes outside the small town of Masindi, Uganda is a village called Kikuube…The local council member representing the village is none other than my Mum…I was surprised that she—as a village leader—had never heard of the MDGs. Yet she goes about her day fulfilling tasks meant to improve the welfare of her community; from educating her community about the use of bed nets, to regular home inspections enforcing sanitation codes, to empowering women with micro-loan programs. What does it say about the MDGs when the very people that are supposed to be beneficiaries don’t even know about them?

This quote comes from TMS (Teddy) Ruge, co-founder of Project Diaspora, an organization that involves Africans abroad in sustainable development initiatives in their home communities. His musings on his village leader Mum not knowing about the MDGs were inspired by this year’s United Nations MDG Week, a series of meetings and events in New York much more conducive to talking about all the good the West is doing for the Rest than hearing from the Rest.

(It also made us think about how the international aid orgs are now struggling to credibly include the voices of aid recipients—witness this cringe-inducing IMF video and website about how the IMF consulted with “civil society representatives” during their annual meetings. The carefully chosen quotes from the carefully chosen “representatives” in the video praised the IMF for its openness to dialogue with the ill-defined “civil society,” perhaps right after the IMF did some “capacity-building” on them.)

Teddy envisioned instead an event featuring just the voices of the potential aid recipients, a platform for people from his home village and others like it to share their experiences on getting by on $1 a day, and their successes in their own communities. Teddy first considered getting a TED license to build on their well-known brand, but decided to create his own model, which he is calling Villages in Action:

On Saturday, November 27, the microphone will be mounted stage center in this little quaint village. We welcome the world to join us in a frank discussion on the state of poor. We’ll discuss the MDGs and what our role is in achieving them by 2015 (and what we were already doing)…I want to challenge the notion that the sustainability of our communities depends on intervention from the West…

His idea to start public discussions about the development goals throughout villages in Africa is an intriguing one. He is looking for technical and financial support for this new project; find him here.

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12 Comments

  1. Andy wrote:

    “What does it say about the MDGs when the very people that are supposed to be beneficiaries don’t even know about them?”

    Considering this whole piece is based on the (lack of) knowledge of one leader, in one village, in one country, in a huge diverse continent, perhaps the answer is “very little”.

    But since it fits with the narrative of this blog, why not run with it!

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 3:08 am | Permalink
  2. Stefano B. wrote:

    This is interesting.
    But it’s worth noting that the article was written by an African who – if I am not wrong – was educated and actually runs a business in US.
    He may not be considered a total outsider, but he’s not even the quintessential citizen of the African continent.

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 4:30 am | Permalink
  3. TMS Ruge wrote:

    Thanks so much for writing about our project. I see the skeptics our there are already chiming in. It was to be expected.

    Stefano – I was educated in Uganda, Kenya and the US. I also run a business in the US as well as two for-profit social enterprises in Uganda. So I am curious which part of that disqualifies me as a “quintessential citizen” of Uganda.

    Thanks again, looking forward to

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  4. Marc Maxson wrote:

    Dear Stephano -

    True the initial bridge may not be a “quintissential African” but you have to start somewhere.

    Often the people who complain the most that we’re not reaching the “poorest of the poor” are the ones who haven’t successfully reached this group themselves yet (i.e. hypocrites). From my experience, people need to have some access to the world in order to influence it, and there’s little I could do with $50 for someone who is completely disconnected (i.e. the poorest of the poor with no cell phone, address, permanent home, foreigner friends, a job, a toilet, etc.).

    Telling stories on project diaspora can only lead to positive outcomes.

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  5. Yes, all good points.

    And also: Why frame that village discussion in the context of the MDGs? Is that a useful starting point, or would a different approach, maybe one that starts with what local people decide are their priorities, be more useful for this event and format?

    Also, looking for sponsorship? Will this be sponsorship from within Uganda? Because otherwise, you’ll probably get into that same conundrum that outsiders might want some say in how their donations are spent.

    Finally: I’m no fan of the MDG concept, but they are very top-level, and this is by no means exclusive to Africa that top-level policy is being made over the heads of the broad masses. No different in Germany or the UK or the US, I think. And it’s much easier to have direct engagement if it’s with a small (village) community – a lot less easy if you’re looking at country-wide public health policy and system.

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 11:33 am | Permalink
  6. Henk wrote:

    Stefano- “quintessential citizen of the African continent..”. What is that? We are diverse. We are many. We are African.

    I am about to board a plane and can’t write my complete comment but I don’t understand this obsession with what a “typical African” should look like. Are all Italians loud and lazy? Are Spaniard pirates? Americans conservative? Muslims fundamental? Are all Europeans white and full of themselves?

    Come on… We are as diverse as any other continent. We are a continent… TMRuge is a African as you can get. He is also as diverse as we in Africa tend to be.

    Break the barriers of your preconceived ideas of who and what we are or what you want us to be. We are who we are – diverse but African.

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 11:40 am | Permalink
  7. Dan Kyba wrote:

    Interesting post, including the responses. First an anecdote:

    Back in the 70s when I was in PNG my sometime tennis partner told me what he had done to an earnest and politically correct volunteer from a British NGO. Joseph was the product of a mixed marriage and the volunteer was at his mother’s village. The volunteer told the villagers that they should maintain their traditional subsistence lifestyle, continue living in their traditional homes and continue wearing their traditional clothes. Any cash that they would earn would come from tourists, who would come to stay at the village and share the cultural experience. Joseph, who had a prosperous coffee business kicked the volunteer out saying: ‘We’re not going to live in a **** zoo!’

    Contrast this reaction by someone who had the independence to accept or reject consulting advice against the almost clone-like behaviour by so many CSO reps favoured by some NGOs and multilaterals.

    The point here is that too many recipients and supposed beneficiaries of foreign aid neither choose nor pay for the aid they receive. This being so, there is no direct feed back mechanism regarding which form of aid is needed or useful in the eyes of those recipients.

    In those cases, where the recipient ‘buys’, in whole or in part the aid, as one would when hiring a consultant, categorical issues regarding whether the aid agent is an ‘African’ or an ‘outsider’ become irrelevant. What matters is the professional knowledge and ability of that agent followed by the remediableness of the advice given.

    There are a number of proposals out to re-balance the principal-agent relationship in favour of the aid recipient rather than the aid provider. These include Cash on Delivery, coupons and sweat or cash equity. I tend to prefer the equity approach, since it is a direct investment by the aid recipient, who since he has equity to protect, will be more vigilant and demanding in terms of the efficiency of the programme and results expected.

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 12:00 pm | Permalink
  8. TMS Ruge wrote:

    Andrea, thanks for the comments. The conference was framed around the MDGs because the MDG summits in September birthed the idea… but really isn’t the premise of the platform necessarily. More to the point it is going to be about all the home-grown entrepreneurial activity that are inadvertently contributing to some of the goals.

    As far as funding is concerned, we will not accept any funding the attempts to dictate the agenda of the conference. It is a thin line to draw, especially when you are not operating with an adequate budget. But both international and local sponsorships are welcome. We have received great individual donations so far as well.

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 12:09 pm | Permalink
  9. Eric R. wrote:

    This whole idea of a ‘quintessential African’, while somewhat off-topic here, is absolutely ridiculous. It reminds me of a quote from noted Indigenous scholar Linda Smith when she says:

    “Questions of who is a ‘real indigenous’ person, what counts as a ‘real indigenous leader’, which person displays ‘real cultural values’ and the criteria used to assess the characteristics of authenticity are frequently the topic of conversation and political debate. These debates are designed to fragment and marginalize those who speak for, or in support of, indigenous issues. They frequently have the effect also of silencing and making invisible the presence of other groups within the indigenous society like women, the urban non-status tribal person and those whose ancestry or ‘blood quantum’ is ‘too white’…. At the heart of such a view of authenticity is a belief that indigenous cultures cannot change, cannot recreate themselves and still claim to be indigenous. Nor can they be complicated, internally diverse or contradictory. Only the West has that privilege.”

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 12:49 pm | Permalink
  10. I am surprised at Stephano’s comments. “quintessential citizen of Africa” speaking as an African, you have missed the whole point of what makes us who we are and that is the ideology of UBUNTU and for that reason nearly every African in the diaspora or to use your words non “quintessential citizen of Africa” remits nearly a third of their wages home.

    An unless we reach out and hand the microphone to the people on the ground no one else will.

    Posted November 5, 2010 at 3:25 pm | Permalink
  11. Emmanuel M wrote:

    Dear Stefano,

    I am b*-slapping you “virtually” right now. everybody else has already said what needs to be said. Stick to constructive arguments please.

    Posted November 9, 2010 at 11:36 am | Permalink
  12. JScarantino wrote:

    Bravo Teddy. Keep trucking forward with this idea. I like where it is going.

    Posted November 16, 2010 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

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