Tag Archives: volunteering

“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.

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.

Should We Be Here?

I worry that since we’ve had a discussion on ethics, the issue was opened and then closed.

Unfortunately, the more I learn about this program the more I question our presence here.  Many of our readings discussed the pitfall that service-learning is all about the learning, with service as a secondary concern, or rather an afterthought.  No one in this group denies this when it is phrased as, “but learning is the most important thing,” which they say often, but several people looked uncomfortable when I stated that service is less important to this program.

We are literally service-learning about service-learning.

I didn’t realize that until today when a group was presenting about service-learning, and the many disciplines it is in.  Sociology, human services, nursing, even math.  But there’s something odd about the recursive nature of this program.

We haven’t taken any courses on Benin—its culture, history or language.   We’ve had a few short readings, and one week of language classes.  The language classes were on the large side, had only two levels, and complied with the typically dismal expectations of Americans as language learners.

The American ambassador to Benin responded to a question on Monday about how to handle aid ethically in Benin.  He felt that the problem is not being able to give them enough, because the Beninois always want more aid and never complain about it having imperialist strings attached.  I think, sir, that’s rather not the point.  Everyone wants money, sure, but is it ethical to give it the way we do?

I don’t like that we’re ignorant when we talk to the Beninois students, and that until earlier this week it wasn’t clear what the adjective form of Benin is.  I hear Beninese, Bee-inese and  Beninois.  Isn’t that a little disgusting?  Shouldn’t we at least know what to CALL them before we go in and analyze them for a day or two?  Isn’s a few days too short to make decisions about what to do with funding?

What do you think?  Do we have an obligation to spend more time before we make an analysis, draw a conclusion?  Should we know more than the local language?  Should people know at least the language?  Does it not matter because American tourists “never know anything”?  Is that even acceptable?  Should we be in a different category from tourists?

And now, I wonder that I won’t be labeled as negative and counter-productive if I continue to raise such concerns within the group, especially since that’s something for which I can be docked points.  Not what matters in the grand scheme of things, I know, but it would be nice to talk these things through.  I don’t want to just pull a nutty and yell at all the Human Services majors, but everyone seems so reluctant to venture into much more analytical thought on the matter.

So what do you think, my intelligent, well-intentioned readers?

UPDATE: Since writing this post about a week ago, the issue of ethics has gone from a whispered concern to a major topic of conversation, for almost everyone on the trip.  It’s always nice to be proven wrong when it comes to ethics and analytical thinking.  I’m pleased to say that we (the group, leaders, and organizations we interact with) will be adressing the issue continually for the next two weeks.

Traveler or Traitor?

Damn! Are we traitors? Un-American Commie sympathizers? Freedom Fry-eating liberal whackadoos? Or just misguided college kids?

In our discussion today, many people mentioned that they had received negative reactions to our trip.  They were called un-American or traitors, and chided for not volunteering at home, or treated as stupid for “wasting money” to volunteer abroad.  Here are some of my thoughts on the matter:

  • Our trip is service-learning, and for credit.  It actually costs less than a regular summer semester at NU would, if you include housing, food and such.  I would also be taking classes regardless of whether I traveled this summer, so the argument that my program fees are better spent on aid/charity doesn’t quite work here.
  • Many of the people who say things like, “why aren’t you doing something about all the poverty at home?!” aren’t actually doing anything about it either
  • Service doesn’t have to be either/or.  Volunteering at home and abroad is not mutually exclusive
  • Experiences abroad can make us better volunteers/employees back home
  • Things will never be perfect at home, so by that logic we (as people, a community and a nation) should never help any other country, state, neighborhood or even family.  That sort of logic doesn’t help make the world a better place, and if you start applying it to the prioritization of issues it is a virtual spiral into inaction
  • It is no one else’s decision but my own to determine my priorities and my path in life.  In other words, buzz off!  This is my money, my credits, my scholarships, and my time.  I’ll put it where I think it can benefit me and others the most.

What do you think?  Are we wasting our time and our money by going abroad?  Should we be focusing on Roxbury, the Reading food pantry and other such local isssues?  Is it better to do something like go work on Katrina relief effort, or is that not okay until we’re done fixing Massachusetts?  Would my tuition money be better spent at some charity or relief organization while I stay at home?  Should we, as an imperialist nation (and human beings) feel obligated to help?  Is helping foreigners un-American?