What on earth are we doing here?

08-02-2011

We have been writing a blog and running a website from Rwanda for a little over a year and a half now. In between the stories of Kigali life and what is happening at the project, we thought it was worth putting up a post to remind people (as well as ourselves) of why we are here and what we are trying to achieve.

The 'why' question is the easiest. The answer is because there are people in the world, and in Rwanda as well, who live in a state of perpetual poverty. We knew this before we came. What we have learnt since is that this is normal for Africa and isn't likely to change materially any time soon. With perhaps a few isolated exceptions to the general rule, people in this continent survive despite their governments rather than because of them. Put simply, we want to help people that are hungry.

The 'what' question is almost as easy, though putting plans into action less so. We believe that much of the aid which passes into this part of the world from Europe and America is not as effective as it might be in dealing with the specific problem of poverty for three reasons:

Firstly, large amounts of money tend to be channelled into large-scale projects. This is not necessarily bad in itself. Large projects need to be funded by big budgets; there is a need for agricultural development and fresh water supplies among a long list of other desperate needs. Fresh water is desirable for lots of reasons, but doesn't create income. A child may no longer have dysentery but he is still hungry.

Secondly, a difficulty which has been recognised by western donors generally, is finding local agents who can receive and account for the money they are given. Is there corruption? It exists certainly, although not to the extent that common perception might suggest. A greater problem is a lack of even elementary accounting skills coupled with a culture of dependency on the white man's money. Western donors are very much seen as obliging paymasters with very deep pockets. Add to this the chaotic lifestyles of this part of the world and controlling how money is spent comes to require some extra effort.

Thirdly, and most significantly, we have come to recognise that the issue of poverty in Rwanda, or anywhere else for that matter, cannot be addressed simply by handing out money. Aside from feeding a dependency habit, a franc (or pound or dollar) can only be spent once. When the budget has been spent and the donor goes home, the poverty remains. We are convinced that the only way to reduce poverty is to help people earn their own income, not just tomorrow but into the future in a sustainable way. Behind all that we are doing is a will to help people help themselves.

So, our work isn't about handing out money. We are using what we know and what we have to help people feed themselves (and their children). That isn't easy in an economy where there a very few jobs. It becomes frustratingly difficult in the face of legal restrictions on trading and the prohibitive start-up costs of even the smallest micro-business. It is painfully slow working with people, some of whom cannot read or write. But progress is possible with imagination and a willingness to take time understanding people's needs.

Our street children's project has been running for a little over a year now. The kids have been put back into the homes they fell out of, and their mothers are starting to earn money. It is too early to say that they are self-sustaining, but that is our aim. Our longer term goal is to take the project, together with the lessons we have learnt along the road and replicate it in other places. What will make us happy is if we can walk away from this group of families and leave them better off than when we found them.