Tag Archives: NGOs

A Vendre

We’ve learned in lecture that the NGO (non-governmental organization) sector is prevalent in Benin, but not always productive.  Many NGOs merely consist of a guy and a business card, while others have to spend all their time chasing the funding, to the extent that their original mission is neglected and they aren’t very specialized.  This funding often comes from governments or aid organizations in the west, various organs of the UN, and church groups within Benin.

For the purposes of this summer semester, each group can apply for a grant of up to 200 USD for a project to help build the capacity (increase the efficiency/productivity) of the organization with whom they are volunteering.  While that isn’t a lot of money, it’s a lot in the local currency of CFA—100,000.  It’s also difficult for many people we meet to understand that we are not a major aid organization, but rather a small student group.  As a result, people often treat us like the dollar signs they believe us to be.

Are we the new funding they’re chasing?

It’s irrelevant that we don’t have the deep pockets of the UN (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…) because so many people believe we do, and act accordingly.  And in a way, aren’t we already altering their activities and taking away from their specialty?  Most of the organizations we’re working with are altering schedules and modifying their way of doing things in order to accommodate our need to volunteer, and our odd time line.

The first day we met the women from the Group Mossava, the micro enterprise (NOT micro-lending) group I am working with, they said hello, informed us of the machines they would like us to buy them, and welcomed us to Benin.

This experience is not unique.

At the orphanage, students were taken around on a tour of the facilities, which turned out to be a tour of things the orphanage needed them to buy.

I worry that we are accidentally becoming like the detrimental aid organizations and aid packages we study.  If we disrupt them and take away from their work and specialization, how are we better than USAID blindly pouring money into the country?  Perhaps our detriment is not on such a grand scale, but if we go on believing that underdeveloped countries exist to fulfill our need for education and our need to volunteer, we will only perpetuate the harms of foreign aid, thereby taking away from the good it can serve.

We’ve learned in lecture that the NGO sector is prevalent in Benin, but not always productive.  Many NGOs consist of just a guy and a business card, while others have to spend all their time chasing the funding, to the extent that their original mission is neglected and they aren’t very specialized.

For the purposes of this summer semester, each group can apply for up to 200 USD for a project to help build the capacity (increase the efficiency/productivity) of their organization.  While that isn’t a lot of money, it’s a lot in CFA—100,000.  It’s also difficult for many people we meet to understand that we are not a major aid organization, but rather a small student group.  As a result, people often treat us like the dollar signs they believe us to be.

Are we the new funding they’re chasing?

It’s irrelevant that we don’t have the deep pockets of the UN (there’s a sentence I never thought I’d write…) because so many people believe we do, and act accordingly.  And in a way, aren’t we already altering their activities and taking away from their specialty?  Most of the organizations we’re working with are altering schedules and modifying their way of doing things in order to accommodate our need to volunteer, and our odd timeline.

The first day we met the women from the Group Massova, the micro enterprise (NOT micro-lending) group I am working with, they said hello, informed us of the machines they would like us to buy them, and welcomed us to Benin.

This experience is not unique.

At the orphanage, students were taken around on a tour of the facilities, which turned out to be a tour of things the orphanage needed them to buy.

Does my service learning count?

Many people sue the term micro-funding, micro-lending, micro-finance and micro-enterprise interchangeably, a la communism, socialism, dialectical materialism and Marxism-leninism.  I rather disagree.

What is Service-Learning

Sometimes I get so into what I’m doing that I put the horse WAY before the cart, and forget entirely about step one.  Sometimes even steps one through five, and I think I did that a wee bit with explaining this trip.  It wasn’t until I read a helpful e-mail from my confused father that I realized if he didn’t know what I was doing here, I don’t think anyone else could.  Most people are still wondering what the hell I’m doing in Africa, and where this Benin place is, anyhow, and what’s this service-learning I keep waxing philosophic about.

Service

Service is volunteering one’s time at an organization, be it related to your church, school, workplace or other community.

Learning

Learning is your typical class room education, with objectives, goals, lectures and homework.  Pretty straightforward.

Service-Learning

Obviously, this is a combination of the two.  It’s a great example of Northeastern’s philosophy of Experiential Education.  The field of education and type of service are related, and as the French say, il y a un rapport entre les deux.  The service is supposed to inform the learning, and vice versa.  Classroom discussions are enriched with anecdotes from the field, and volunteering is more useful because of the knowledge gained in the clasroom.

While this has typicaly been used in hands-on, service-oriented fields like Human Services (which is similar to and includes social work), sociology, etc, it has also been used in the medical field and with engineers.

Why is this trip Unique?

Generally, service-learning is localized to one’s community–our international setting is out of the ordinary.  The idea is that a person is helping their own community, where they understand the language, culture, geography, et cetera.  Also, service learning typically lasts for a semester, with students volunteering at their placement for a few hours each week.

The Logistics

Our group is broken up into 5 smaller groups, each of which works for three hours a day (9am to noon) with a local Beninois organization.  The groups are the same every day, and each group sticks with its own organization the entire time.  One group is working at a music school/recording studio that also has an AIDS clinic, another is an orphanage, a third group is working at our very own residence, the Songhai Center, the fourth is at a vocational school for women ages 10-20, and finally I am at a micro-enterprise of a group of women who pool their resources (time, money, childcare) to create four products to sell in the market.

The Schooling

We fit lectures in during afternoons, as well as site visits (like to UNESCO or the US Ambassador to Benin).  In France we had a week of language classes in the morning from 9am to noon, and we have been receiving reading assignments throughout the trip.  We have started picking topics for a research paper due after our return to the states, and we were also graded on our presentations to the Universite d’Abomey students in the city of Cotonou.  Finally, there is the capacity building project, which synthesizes our classroom knowledge about aid, NGOs and evaluating efficiency with our experience in the field with our organization where we volunteer.

Conclusion

I hope this offers you all a little clarity on why I’m here and what the program is all about.  Feel free to leave any questions in the comments!

What About Benin?

I’ll be going to France on May 8, and after a week in Paris I’ll go to Benin until June 5.

Benny-what?

Benin. It’s a small country in West Africa.  It’s mostly known in history for its sad part in the slave trade as a major departure port.  I’ll be spending some time in Cotonou, as well as the capital of Porto-Novo

The Basics

Map courtesy of the UN website

I’m going through Northeastern University and the Dialogue of Civilizations program.  Instead of taking summer classes, I’m doing this.  I’ll get the normal summer credit for it (8 credits/two classes) and will be graded and such.  It’s like what I did in Egypt, except entirely different. 🙂

French is the official language of Benin, so I’ll be taking some lessons while in Paris and practicing my rather dormant French skills while there.  Many people also speak Fon, of which I know nothing, and Yoruba, a language that found its way to Cuba (and modern Cubañol) via the slave trade.  The country is considered very safe, but is severely lacking when it comes to infrastructure.

For our safety/for the sake of NU’s lawyers, we aren’t allowed to ride on motorbikes and will only be eating from a select few restaurants.  I have malaria pills and got my yellow fever vaccine, whose injection site still kinda hurts.  Blast, yellow fever, you’ve done it again!  I’m waiting with bated breath for my visa to come back (this seems to be a theme with me…) and already scoping out luggage and drawing up packing lists.  Here we go again!

Service-Learning

While in Benin, we’ll be meeting up with local NGOs (non-governmental organizations) to learn more about the country, such as development, culture and politics.  We will each be working with a local NGO for a few weeks, ranging from health care to orphanages to micro-enterprise(!) and lending a hand any way we can.  More on this later, since it’s most of the reason I chose this program.

Songhai Center

I’ll be living in the Songhai Center in Cotonou.  There are several of these throughout the country, and they are used for training Beninese people about agriculture and such.  It’s also thoroughly Green with a capital G, with each part of the center helping to fuel another.  Which brings up another point: I’ll be taking chilly rain barrel showers for most of the summer.  Basically, I’m going to refer you to the video contained in the link below, courtesy of BoingBoingTV, because it does a far better job of explaining than me.

Songhai Video link

Alan Khazei for US Senator

Monday night, Alan Khazei (rhymes with “hazy”) spoke at a women’s forum.  There are only 47 days left until the special election for Teddy’s seat, and Khazei is running against AG Martha Coakley, Rep Mike Capuano, and that guy from the Celtics

I am ever the delegate, so of course I analyze his speeches and q&a the way I would any member of my team. 

 

What he got right:

  • Political lineage, AKA passing the torch.  He framed himself as a natural heir to such politicians as Lincoln, Teddy Kennedy, Tip O’Neill, Mayor Kevin White, Obama, and even (the relevent) Clinton
  • The trappings.  He had a cute little black girl sing the national anthem.  He let his daughter interupt him (adorably, after raising her hand) whenever she wanted.  He praised his wife endlessly, and let her have the last word. 
  • “Ask me about Alan.”  The constant use of his first name simultaneously makes him sound more friendly/approachable and less foreign/Middle Eastern.  I really dislike that he has to tread lightly around his Iranian heritage, but it’s a political reality and he has done it well.  He has played up the “son of immigrants/American Dream” narrative, and emphasized that his mother is Italian.  Whenever he mentions his father, he brings up that he is a doctor (read: respected, non-terrorist citizen) and that he raised him to love America, “the only country that accepted him with open arms.” 
  • His resume.  Co-founder of City Year, inspiration and protector of/for Americorps, founder of Be the Change.  This guy’s made a name for himself in social entrepreneurship.  How do you argue with that?
  • His treatment of Obama.  He showed how they are similar, but noted that he is also his own man.  He frames himself as a valuable member of Obama’s team who can play the role of the loyal dissident when the team needs him to, when Obama has to tow the line but needs to hear another perspective.  Well played, sir. 
  • His response to his competetors.  Coakley’s doing a great job as AG, we can’t afford to lose Capuano’s strength in the House, and after the Sox’ early elimination, we can’t afford not to have that guy running the C’s.  Entertaining, fairly truthful and it makes him seem like a helluva guy.  Whoever came up with it first deserves a raise. 

 

What I didn’t like:

  • Afghanistan.  This went over great with the crowd, but I’m hesitant about maintaining or declining troop levels.  That position is a response to domestic political pressure, but does not reflect the needs of the situation on the ground in Afghanistan.  I want them to come home, too, and I didn’t really want them over there to begin with, but I think we are dangerously close to seriously mishandling the Afghanistan question yet again. 
  • The lack of foreign policy discussion.  Aside from the one Afghanistan question from the audience, there was nothing.  His website is similarly lacking.  I know people like to think about what the senator from Massachusetts will do for Mass, but let’s not forget that the senate has things to say about place outside of the 128 belt.  Outside of the 495 belt, even. 
  • What about Gen X/Y/the millenials/anyone under 40?  I mentioned to Marisa how odd it was that Khazei referred to himself as the “younger generation,” the “new generation,” who was accepting the torch from the likes of Kennedy.  This dude is old.  MY generation is new and young.  Sadly, in politics, 40 is like a teenager or something.  Which could be why he only adressed babies, young children, the elderly, and people my parents age.  Right, because from ages 12-39 people cease to exist.  It’s cool, Alan.  We’re an unimportant demographic anyway. 
  • The softball from the woman down front.  Of course, if this were a conference and he were my guy I would throw him meatballs too, but I like to think I do a better job of crafting a positive, worthwhile question than that woman did.  Also, this was a group of Khazei supporters.  They’re ALL meatballs.  

 

Bottom line: I’m voting for him.