Category Archives: NGOs (Non-governmental Organization)

Domestic Servant

While in Benin, we discussed and even met some domestic servants. And by that I mean, adults who had worked as servants for a period of time to work off debt, and children who were “adopted” to help run the house.  It became easier over time to pick out these young girls, by their plain, short hair and extremely reserved demeanor.  They always referred to the women who essentially owned them as their mothers.  They were well-fed and pretty well dressed, but it was clear that they were always on duty: cooking, raising children just a few years younger than themselves, and cleaning.  These domestic servants were often orphans or in debt (or their parents were) and eventually they do attain freedom.  But their existence was highly disturbing and confusing for all of us.

Before going to Egypt, I talked with Phil about a similar conundrum with the carpet makers of Cairo.  Several students would refuse to enter the factories, on the grounds that children make the carpets.  But, as Phil pointed out, they were essentially apprentices, earning their room and board by making carpets.  Many of them had no parents, or had parents too poor to support them.  Compared to being street children, this path had a future.

Sometimes it’s hard to balance our idealism with realism.  We want every child to have a fulfilling life, complete with education, friendship, parental figures, good food, love and playtime. We want them to go on to work that they enjoy, or that at the very least can support them and their families, should they choose to have them.

But that’s not what life is like for most people in the world.  For many people, being an orphan or the child of people in debt means living on the street, begging and stealing, prostitution, jail.  Certainly no education, and few opportunities for lasting happiness.  In that sort of world, it is preferable to work as a child and be able to work your way out of extreme poverty, or to at least have food, clothes and shelter for a while.

I know human rights are immutable. They are all the time, for everyone, always and forever.  They cannot be lessened or taken away for any reason.  When someone or something lessens your rights, they do not take them away from you (you always have them)–they abuse your rights.  And that’s a world that I want, but not one that I live in.  In this world, working at a carpet factory can mean a career and a life off the streets.  It certainly means food and shelter.  Sometimes we have to turn off our western sensibilities of what’s right and wrong, and look for what’s best in the meantime, while we try to create a world where this is no longer an issue.

What is the point of having no child labor, if the child will starve if they don’t work?  In many places in the world, not working doesn’t mean you get to school.  In fact, in many cases, not working means your younger siblings now no longer get to go to school.

What do you think?  Is it okay to settle when it comes to human rights?  It obviously happens all the time, but is it okay for human rights workers to ever say such a thing?  Is our version of human rights really universal?  And, if children’s rights are so important in the US, why haven’t we ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child?

Competing Interests

Reading about employment, financial stimulation, sustainability, micro-credit and general best practices is making my brain dizzy.  And oddly enough, some of the best insight has come from (above) average women who blog about clothes.

The tailor where I had clothing made...and where children work. Stimulating the local economy, or supporting child labour?

We often encourage buying locally made or grown products in order to support local small business.  In the developing world, this means going to a local tailor or a farm like the Songhai Center because you get good, local products and help stimulate the local economy.  But what about the environmental side of things?  What about not being a consumer?  undoubtedly, a factory that produces clothing is more efficient and less detrimental to the environment than all the little sidewalk tailors I saw in Benin.  But what about the loss of culture, from the inevitable westernization of such products?  And what about the empowerment of owning your own business, of saving enough?  But then, they do employ child laborers…of course, in Benin child labour is normal, and not going to work can mean starvation.  The only way to change that is to change the system, not to simply fire all the children.

Sometimes, it just boggles my mind into sad, numb submission to try to balance all the competing concerns.  We all just want to help, but there are way too many ways to do it wrong.

PS why does local=good, anyway?  Is it because we don’t like the business practices of MNCs like Wal-Mart?  Well, these local business had pretty dodgy working conditions too.  The environmental thing?  They probably only have the worst numbers because they’re so darn big, and operating in bulk means that Wal-Mart is actually better for the environment than all those mom and pop shops.  Not that I like Wal-Mart, because I really don’t.  I’m just not so sure why anymore.

What is Service?

Is it okay to be giving service to an organization that is really just a group of women making money?  Yes, they’re not as well off as those in the US, or as our translator.  But they have clothes and food and look pretty healthy and happy.

I’m not going into a poor orphanage and helping them deal with an overwhelming amount of children.  I’m going to a small corporation and trying to tell them how to make more money.  In the US, I would call that consulting.  Does not getting paid for something automatically make it service?  Yes, it’s voluntary, but is it community service?  I came here to learn more about the non-profit world, and specifically to see the hands-on nitty-gritty of micro-finance in the field.  My first lesson?  Micro-credit hasn’t failed, it’s just been hijacked. This is a micro-enterprise, a small, locally-owned (what isn’t in Benin?) business.  This is not a lending organization; it’s not even one of their beneficiaries, since they don’t receive loans.

Is it still volunteer work if you’re getting something in return?  If you’re getting a grant, soft power, induction to an honor society, brownie points for your sorority or college credits, it seems you are being paid–just not in cash.  Of course, reductum ad absurdum, and I’m reminded of that Friends episode when Joey tells Phoebe there’s no such thing as a truly selfless act—you always get recognition, gratitude, or at the very least a nice warm fuzzy feeling inside.

But who says service has to be special, sacred and selfless?  What’s so wrong with being selfish?  How come everyone else can be selfish in their career path, but not lawyers and aid workers?  Just because your life is about improving the world and helping others doesn’t mean you have to be a martyr to do it.  And if you do a good deed, does it really matter what your motives were?  If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, can’t the road to heaven be paved with bad ones?  It doesn’t matter why you helped a little boy learn to read, in the end he’s still farther along in his education for your help.

You Know You’re a Yovo if…

  • You think women should probably wear shirts, most of the time
  • You like your roads paved, and with potholes fewer than three feet wide
  • The only thing you knew about Vodoun before Benin came from movies
  • You wear sunscreen and bug spray, have a bug net and carry bottled water everywhere you go
  • You talk about showering more than you actually do it
  • You had never heard of Benin before you decided to go there
  • …but now you can’t wait to go back
  • You don’t wear heels to walk in the mud, but you DO carry your own bag
  • You don’t know how to successfuly carry things on your head
  • You’re afraid to cross the street, never mind get on a motorbike
  • You will probably never attempt to breast feed while carrying something on your head AND riding a motorbike
  • You’ve never authored a “Nigerian Prince” email
  • You refuse to swim in the standing water, and maybe even the ocean water too
  • You eat peanut butter
  • You point and yell (or perhaps whisper) every time you see a Yovo you don’t already know
  • You’ve been kidnapped (in a good-natured, well-meaning sort of way) at least once
  • You’re still annoyed by street harassment
  • You’re taken aback every time people ask if you’re a Christian
  • Your shirt and pants don’t match EXACTLY, and your family does not wear matching clothes
  • Your head has a maximum of two braids at any given time
  • You’re still a little surprised there’s never any cold beer–oh yeah, and you drink “Beninoise”, not “33”
  • People laugh when you eat with your hands
  • You don’t speak Fon, Yoruba, Goun or many of the other local tribal languages
  • When you go home, you’re confused by all the white people, and the fact that everyone speaks English
  • You have an awkward Mean Girls-style moment of assuming every black person you see speaks French
  • You don’t know the end of the yovo song, because no one ever finishes


In Santeria, my orisha is Chango, one of the guerreros or warriors.  His colours are red and white like Santa Barbara, he wields metal weapons and is often depicted with lightning.  He is often thought of as a virile–a Casanova and all that is mean.  Why are those synonymous in Cuba?  Or Anywhere?  But that’s not how I identify with him.  Each orisha has many paths  that they can take, and ways you can be like them.  I like that when syncretized with Catholicism, Chango has some gender–bending, and his tendency to mete out divine justice.

I have a strong sense of Justice.  Whatever is good and fair compels me, regardless of how it favors or whether it directly affects me, which sometimes confuses others.  It isn’t as noble as it seems, and can often be annoying, like a compulsion.  You see for me, the absence of truth, facts and fairness is offensive.  Facts and justice are my religion, so it effects me whether the disservice concerns me or not.

I greatly dislike situations like this one, where there is no right answer.  The writer in me thrives on ambiguity and grey area, but ethically it makes me uneasy in daily life.  There’s just so much we can’t make sense of, from child labour to servitude that borders on slavery, the attention we receive from men as well as our very presence here.

Even if there is no right answer for everyone, I like to at least have my own rules, my own personal sense of what’s best.  that’s the beauty of Chango–he delivers his own swift justice, not anyone else’s.  My fiery Chango is down to its embers when I can neither come to grips with a situation nor make it right.

“Useless” Day

Tuesday illustrated to me why we’re here, and for once I am excited about what we will be doing.  I think a lot of my

The women de-shell peanuts after they've been heated over an open fire, making the job easier.

group misunderstood the situation, which was unfortunate, because learning was lost there.

There have been days where we mostly sit and watch the women work, or play with the kids while the women work.  This was not one of those days.  Today, the majority of the women went to the market to sell products, while a smaller group and ourselves sat in the shade.  All day long.

We were sitting there because the women only own three large metal bowls, which are used for work, storage, transportation and sales.  When the women go to the market, they bring all the product they have to make it worth their while, meaning that there are no bowls back at the ranch to be used in production.

Today we literally lived through a lack of capacity, which left me completely convinced that our plan is the way to go.

Rolling the peanut paste (after the oil has been extracted) into sticks that will be fried in peanut oil.

The Request

The women have made it clear that they want machines to grind their raw materials so they can be made into products.  Buying one of these machines is costly, but would save them time and money, as well as bring in profit from those who live nearby and would pay for the use of the machine, they way they pay to use someone else’s now.

Buying the machine for the peanuts is the most logical because it also works with the soy.  Also, the machine they currently pay to use instead is significantly farther away.  Furthermore, peanuts are very cheap to buy and yield two products, one of which is rather lucrative.

The Reality

While it may be great to start with the flashy machine that would bring in the big bucks (2,000 CFA per batch of peanut or soy that someone pays them to have processed, plus a savings of two hours and 1,000 CFA a week to transport themselves via motorbike to the location of the machine they currently use), I don’t think it’s a sound decision.

You need to start from the ground up, and right now the women waste many hours and several days every week waiting for their equipment.  With very little money, we can double the number of bowls and tables they have, allowing for more production and storage.  We can also buy a proper storage container for the corn, freeing up the bowls to be used for work more often than storage.

Drying the galletas (peanut sticks) into a delicious frenzy.

The Linchpin

The piece of this plan that makes me actually proud is the last bit: financial planning.  We cannot give them the machine because we can’t afford it.  But honestly, their current business model cannot accommodate it right now, either.  Instead, we’re going to increase their production and productivity, capitalizing on the workforce that is often unused.  This will in turn build up their revenues, and allow them to continue to work while others make trips to the market and to use the machines.

For the long-term, we are going to work with the women on a better savings plan.  Right now they don’t have an accounting system.  While they do have a group savings, much of that goes to a party at the end of the year.  We plan to separate the party fund from the longterm savings fund, which will be available for the purpose of buying the machine for the peanuts and soy someday.  Additionally, an emergency fund would be beneficial.  We intend to divert the additional money they make from the additional equipment we’re giving them.  That money will go towards buying the machine—they didn’t have it before, so they won’t miss it, and reinvesting their capital will help far more in the long run.

The end result, which we happily munched on. All this could be accomplished quicker and on a grander scale, which is our aim with a few slight tweaks to the model.

Our Accidental Advantage

Sometimes we underestimate the consequential knowledge of which we are the unwitting beneficiaries.  The idea of long-term savings is something we were raised with, as well as the value of a surplus and reinvesting in yourself and your business.  Between our greater years of education and growing up in homes that save for retirement, college funds, vacations and small business, we have been exposed to much more sound financial advice than we realize, and much more than the average Beninoise.  We intend to pass along these ideas, as well as the basic materials that in the end, make a large long-term difference, so that the women don’t have more days like today: waiting in the hot sun for something to happen.


One of Tuesday’s adventures reminded me of our lecture on the rule of law and post-colonial Africa.  While I know it wasn’t exactly patronage, it was a shining example of why Benin is behind when it shouldn’t be.  Benin had the jump on many other African countries in that it transitioned peacefully (and rather without fanfare) from Marxism-Leninism to a democracy.  Benin was considered rather developed for its region as of 2000, but since has been eclipsed by other countries that started lower, but have a steeper trajectory of development.

The process of getting peanuts and soy crushed into their own respective pastes consumes valuable time and money for the women of the micro-enterprise I work with.  They take a large metal bowl of one of the products with them, and pay 1,000 CFA round-trip for a drive that’s about one hour each way.  Taking multiple batches at a time saves time and money with regard to transportation, but costs them in production by the women who remain on the premises.  This system is a great frustration for the women, who would like to own their own machine.

We were investigated buying them one, as it would save the two-hour, 1,000-CFA trip each week, plus 2,000 CFA per batch that is processed.  Additionally, neighbors would choose to come to them for their own processing needs, rather than traveling so far, bringing in untold additional revenue at 2,000 CFA per batch.  In order to price out the machine, we needed specifics or a picture.  Luckily, they knew that there was a machine nearby.

We set out on our walk for the machine, and arrived approximately sixty seconds later.

One Minute.  There is a machine that they could use that is one minute away.  Of course, the man who owns it simply refuses to use it for peanuts and soy, even though it’s also made for those products.  He only uses it for corn.

It reminded me of patronage and corruption in that a logical, easy solution was not possible for reasons that appear to be arbitrary and/or selfish.  Instead of walking a minute and putting those man-hours and the equipment (1/3 of their buckets) to use in production, they have to expend two hours or labour and equipment use plus 1,000 extra CFA a week.

If I were those women, I would be furious.