The shortcomings of foreign assistance, the potential of new technologies, and what the First World could learn from the Third.
The Price of Assistance
Even with the stopover in Switzerland, the ride from Dulles Intl. to Jomo Kenyatta was a long one. Somewhere over the Sahara I began to reflect on the project I was embarking upon. As a health worker, I was sent by an international NGO to teach better hygiene practices to those living in Kibera, an informal settlement located in Nairobi, Kenya. Last summer fuel prices were on the rise. The $2,300 price of the plane ticket was shocking. When I was told that the population I would be assisting lived off of a dollar a day I calculated that the same money the NGO spent on my travel could have sustained a Kibera resident for six years. Yes, I possess a few specialized skills. Yes, my experiences and education have given me some understanding about the field of international development. But how much of an impact would I truly make on the people I was so eager to help? I started to evaluate my effectiveness.
Kibera certainly has its share of problems, ranging from weak governance to crippling poverty, but it’s not completely destitute. One prominent feature of the slum is its bustling marketplace. Even though the government does not recognize the settlement, residents are able to live and work in Kibera by exchanging goods and services amongst each other and out of these transactions unofficial institutions are created. How does the informal economy drive indigenous innovation to keep its participants afloat? How effective is it compared to foreign assistance? The answers to these questions could help to define the murky underbelly of globalization. In addition, emerging new technologies have the potential to flattened traditional hierarchies and provide new opportunities that accelerate economic development in impoverished regions around the world. Continue reading →
A year later and I’m back in East Africa. This time I’m working on Water Sanitation and Hygiene research for my University in Kibera Slum, Nairobi.
Children relieving themselves along the banks of an already polluted river.
Kibera is one of the largest slums in the world. It’s estimated that 270,000 people live in a 1.5 square mile area of Nairobi that the government doesn’t even recognize. This lack of acknowledgement isn’t a libertarian’s wet dream, but a nightmare when it comes to refuge collection and access to water. Kibera is literally a shanty town built out of trash. The buildings are constructed out of scraps of tin and mud with pieces of plastic bags poking out. The narrow roads are layers of rubbish pounded down and cut through by sewage run-off. Flies buzz around children with open sores. Mangy dogs weakly bask on a bridge that crosses a river made of trash.
Junior surveying the neighborhood.
NGOs have poured millions of dollars into Kibera for the provision of essential, but absent social services. The logos of the NGOs are prominently displayed on everything from the sides of buildings to the t-shirts of the shanty dwellers. Residents receive all sorts of support from trainings to allotments of free food. However these interventions have yet to lift Kibera out of poverty. It is hard to say if or when the slum will be self-sustaining, but it doesn’t look like it will be anytime soon. Continue reading →