Thursday, July 10, 2008

The High Cost of Giving

We’ve found NGO presence high here in Guyana. Favoured by international organizations as a more direct route to people in need than sometimes corrupt or cumbersome governments, they tend to wield considerable power in terms of resources, manpower and skills. Unfortunately, the work done is not always unquestionably good, as we’ve discovered. Sometimes the results are tragic, as Tobago’s story shows.

Tobago is a local village that we kept hearing about when we got here. A child with pneumonia from there had died just before we got here, and that wasn’t the first case. We’d been asked by Annette Arjoon, who is the dynamic character involved in regenerating the Amerindian communities in the Northwest, to look in on the village if we got the chance. She told us they were a struggling community, but it took several months to piece together the full story, which goes something like this.

Back in 2005, Guyana was victim to high levels of flooding, which are attributed locally by many people to global warming. Whether or not this it true, what is certain is that the worst hit were the river dwelling Amerindians – known here as Riverain communities. These people mainly belong to the Warau tribe. There are nine Amerindian tribes in Guyana (as distinct from the African Guyanese and East Indian Guyanese who are the majority of the population): the Warau have been characterized as choosing remote lands to settle on, often swampy lands unlikely to cause conflicts over ownership as no-one else would think to live there. Historically, the Warau adapted to this environment, becoming skilled boatmakers and fisherman, cultivating cassava on land behind the river and building simple homes on stilts with palm roofs and often without external walls.

Many rainy seasons bring floods, but 2005 was worse than usual, the water level reaching into houses filling them with mud and crabs. Bouts of sickness followed as a result of the water, mud and poor sanitation.

The plight of the people living around Simoto creek in particular came to the attention of an American Christian NGO. Shocked by the conditions the people were living in, they funded a plan supported by the local government to re-house the whole village. (Apparently it was election time and seen as a vote winner). Land was identified for the new village about five miles from Mabaruma, between Hosororo and Wauna. 40 houses were built on the steep hill that was chosen, along with a community centre and a church. Water was pumped to standpipes in the village, and latrines were built well away from the dwellings.

It seemed like a great act of philanthropy – entire community rescued – yet just three years down the line it’s a very different story, and its sad to say that the NGO is nowhere to be seen.

On the surface, Tobago looks like a successful Amerindian village – the houses, 40 mint-green clap-board huts which stack prettily up the hillside look new and clean. The latrines line up next to (but not too close to) the narrow creek that runs below the hill and the villagers congregate there to wash clothes and socialize. The community centre is beautifully crafted from local wood. But the appearance of the people gives away the real issue. Adults have sores at the corners of their mouths. Children suffer from ‘white mouth’ (oral thrush) and have oversized bellies suggestive of protein malnutrition.

The sorry truth is that these people are poorer and sicker than they were before. Removed from their river environment, they have to make long journeys to catch crabs and fish, meaning less to go around for everyone – hence the protein malnutrition. It also means fewer surplus crabs to sell, so they are economically worse off, and less able to buy extras. So the previous diet, based on cassava and fish, which worked, is now largely a diet of cassava – which is not working. They don’t understand the connection between poor diet, malnutrition and sickness. The result is malnourished children, hospitalizations from simple illnesses such as diarrheoa and vomiting, coughs and colds as well as widespread TB, and several unnecessary deaths.

The atmosphere of the village is quite strange – just five miles from Mabaruma and down the hill from the leafy village Hososroro, it feels extremely isolated, with few visitors, and none of the basic amenities you’d see in a naturally evolved settlement – no-one is running a shop, for example, no-one has the money to buy a generator, so come nightfall there is no light, no noise. The NGO, having built the houses, latrines and a church, didn’t provide anything else – like improved roads, communication, or a shop or supply line – the villagers have to bring all supplies in themselves, and have no means of transportation to do so.

Most surprising is the lack of a school. In a village with 95 children, at a distance from other villages, it seems a pretty appalling oversight on the part of the planners to leave this out. Currently perhaps 10 of the children (the strongest ones) head up the gruelling hill to Hosororo each morning – where they get a lunchtime meal from the nuns there – but everyone else stays in the village.

Being geographically closer to Mabaruma, where the hospital is, hasn’t solved any access problems either. Before, the river trip was long but cheap and not too exhausting – now, for most people, the cost of the bus ride into Mabaruma is far too much except in emergencies. So no mothers attend the ante-natal clinics at Mabaruma - hence poor education about nutrition for small children. It also means that local women are denied their only opportunity to have an HIV test, which is offered as part of routine antenatal care.

Local people are getting involved piecemeal to try to sort things out, but here resources are scarce, and the difficulties in transport and communication mean even the simplest act, like running a clinic there – take on the proportions of an heroic act. What seems saddest of all is that these people’s lives have been uprooted, turned around, dropped again at a whim by an NGO whose aims are unquestionably positive (and certainly whose US funders wouldn’t condone this behaviour). The traditional skills of the Warau culture – boatbuilding, fishing – are in danger of being wiped out in a single generation. The Warau language itself, already in danger through exposure to mainstream Guyanese creole and standard English - still the primary language in the schools - could slip away with the culture, in their new and alien lives. Not to mention the immediate, unnecessary tragedy of malnourished babies dying of treatable sicknesses in hospital, through lack of education and resources. It’s a mess which could really have done without western intervention at all.

We’ve seen a few other strange examples of NGO “do-gooding” gone wrong out here. Another US organization which ships foodstuffs from the US at great cost and effort frequently delivers pointless items – an electronic scrubbing brush in an unpowered village, anyone? In need of an emergency M&M? Its often like those harvest festival collections of oddments, when parents take advantage of donating food to clear out some of those peculiar purchases from the cupboard.

NGO’s aren’t always too well behaved towards their volunteers either. A British NGO, Project Trust recently responded to an 18 year old gap year student teacher’s plight with amazing indifference. Our friend Tom had been robbed at knifepoint by 2 of his students in his own home. He was distressed and a bit traumatized by the robbery. The culprits were arrested, and Guyanese justice being what it is, it was looking unlikely that the case would go to court or his belongings be returned to him, as he was due to leave the country this month (July). We got a barrister we’d met in Georgetown to intervene and give the police here a bit of a shakedown, and things looked more positive. Until Tom appealed to his NGO for direct support, in funding him to stay out here and fight his case. Without even consulting the barrister, they advised him against the case – it wasn’t worth the trouble. Not worth it to whom, we had to ask. It turns out, this had happened to the student placed at Wauna the previous year, when the NGO had also done nothing, and not felt honour-bound to tell Tom (or his parents) of the situation he was walking into. The lack of responsibility towards their young volunteers is pretty appalling, not to mention the lack of foresight. What will it take for this NGO to act?

As we are finding, being an NGO is very far from guaranteeing effective administration, ethical behaviour or even competence. In Georgetown we heard a number of stories, about NGO’s being set up explicitly to meet the funding criteria, then the funds disappearing along with the NGO. Many international bodies prefer funding NGO’s, as Governments in developing countries can be vulnerable to embezzlement, or even just deadly slow bureaucracy. But who are the NGO’s answerable to? Who regulates them? And in the case of Tobago – how can they be held responsible for the consequences of their interventions?

There’s clearly no simple answer. Some of the most fantastic work out here goes on through NGOs. At the same time, the crusading approach, storming in, making judgments based on your own cultural expectations, has to be discouraged, and genuine grass roots collaboration strived for. Respect for local culture, nurturing of local skills, encouraging independence and enterprise, has to be valued. And its very heartening to see that one of the most outstanding groups here is the UK’s own VSO. Collaborating with local and national government, appointing excellent practitioners, developing specific job specs the fulfillment of which will have led to greater national expertise – its an organisation worth working for and supporting.

The other impressive team here is, once again, the yellow plane run by the 7th Day Adventists – Wings for Humanity. The group has committed to a long-term presence here working alongside the government to provide a service that just couldn’t be provided by the government alone, but which saves ordinary people’s lives on a regular basis. Their commitment is humanitarian – there are no religious strings attached to the work that they do, and they are in it for the long haul, committing to the region for the next 10 years, so it’s a service policy makers and local people can rely on for a time to come.

And in case anyone’s wondering where the name “Tobago” came from – the administrator who named the place chose it, as he had fond memories of the idyllic Caribbean island of the same name. The gap between the original and its namesake couldn’t really be any wider.


Tim Colbourne said...

Fantastic post. Why not name and shame the NGO concerned? If google turned up your post when people searched for them... they'd have a powerful incentive to sort the situation out, or at least go back and build a school and other basic amenities.

Louise said...

I loved the blog. Very moving, funny and thought provoking.

I thought you had some very serious and pertinent observations and comments about NGOs. People dont need charity like that. As you said the only help that is worthwhile is the kind that works with the communities according to the communities priorities and which builds on and does not undermine traditional strengths. Why cant the villagers move back to the river - or nearer the river? I know there has been bad flooding recently but surely over the centuries or millenia that they have been there they have dealt with flooding before? They have survived that kind of thing before but cut off from their livelihoods and most importantly their source of protein, they cant survive.

I loved the baby turtle pics. Were you helping them get to the sea safely? I remember seeing a nature film and lots were picked off by sea birds on their journey across the sand.

Was Sam really flying a plane? You are having to make some very difficult decisions. What happened to the woman with the ectopic pregnancy?

I worry that you will find medical practice very dull once back in south London. But at least you wont have to save up patients to book into an ambulance.

Corinne Kennedy said...

There are lots of great NGOs out there, but its a sad realisation that just because an organisation is not-for-profit, it does not automatically mean they are on the side of the angels.

We do a great deal of due diligence before partnering with NGOs, and some of the findings make depressing reading. If you google the reports of the effectiveness of the way tsunami donations were spent, you get some great stories, but also examples of every mistake you can think of.

However, I do think there is an important difference between an organisation with good intentions but limited capacity, versus an organisation set up purely to get access to donor funds and then disappear.

By the way - if you want to help Tobago, building infrastructure is not the place to start. Who will teach in the school? Who will pay the teacher or maintain the building? Resettled communities need help to restore their previous livelihoods and to build alternative livelihoods in the new location. Its a commitment that can last decades. The most important principle is that everything you do must work towards the community becoming self-sustaining in the long term.