Friday, April 27, 2012

Here I come East Africa!

Now that I have finished my volunteering placement and it is time to leave Zambia (well almost), I have started a new blog to track my adventures through East Africa.

My new blog is called “Postcards from East Africa” and follows on from the title of this blog.

Postcards from East Africa will follow the road trip that Mike and I are about to embark on in our Toyota Prado “Ruth”, starting in Zambia and finishing in Ethiopia, travelling through a total of eight countries from beginning to end.

It can be found at the link below:

Friday, April 20, 2012

Reflection: Volunteering and my time in Zambia

One year and six months in Zambia as a VSO volunteer; six months less than originally anticipated but the work I set out to do is more or less completed!

Before leaving Australia and starting out as a volunteer we are told about the ups and downs of volunteering and living in a developing country. And as much as you try to prepare for this, there are still moments when you wonder why you did it.

I’ve said before that volunteering in Zambia is like being on a giant rollercoaster and I have to say now, that it really is. There are some great highs such as meeting new people and forming friendships, visiting new and fabulous places, new experiences that you know you would never get at home and being challenged in a way you never thought possible. At the same time there are big lows. The obvious one, missing family and friends from home; really bad days at work when you question why you bother, the volunteer allowance which doesn’t allow you to do much at all and the unreliable services that come with being in a developing country (e.g. water, power).

Following on from my post on development aid, I must say that for many of my days in Zambia I have felt like I am exacerbating a problem just by being there; that being the reliance on foreign aid. I don’t believe that Zambia really has any excuse for the position it finds itself in given that it is one of the few countries not to have been impacted by civil war. It has plenty of resources such as copper, lots of fertile land, parks and animals, not to mention the beautiful Victoria Falls. It has been victim to poor government and public mismanagement as well as struggled with HIV and AIDS. Nonetheless, it is one of only a few countries to have actually gone backwards in the Human Development Index over the past 20 years with the other notable mentions being the Democratic Republic of Congo and Zimbabwe.

I’ve given my time as a volunteer in Zambia a lot of thought and decided that I would list the things I will miss about Zambia and volunteering and the ones I won’t.

What I will miss:
  • The terrific people I’ve met! The friends made in Livingstone as well as other VSO volunteers. And my two puppies, Rambo and Simba who were great guard dogs
  • The ΓΌber red, ripe tomatoes found in local markets; the avocados, bananas and mangos, all super cheap and tasty
  • Freedom to make decisions or better put as absence of the “nanny” state, meaning being able to have 3 instead of 2 beers and then being able to drive home; not having high fences around something as beautiful as Victoria Falls to stop stupid people from getting too close to the edge; and being able to drive in parks with really cool animals
  • Assisted pumps at the petrol station. I love this, I know I’m super lazy but I love being able to sit in the car on those wet or super-hot days while someone fills the car with petrol for me
  • Being only hours away from safari!

What I won’t miss:
  • NOT being able to drink water from the tap (we are so lucky in Australia)
  • Smelling the meat at the supermarket to make sure its ok for purchase, or even worse, blocking my nose as I walk through the meat section
  • Sporadic and unreliable water and electricity
  • Poor customer service. We complain a lot about this in Australia, but just try banking in Zambia after working for a bank in Australia! Me: “The ATM just returned my card and receipt without the cash”. Standard Chartered Bank Staff: “Why don’t you just come back tomorrow and check then to make sure you have the correct balance”. Me: “No, how about you fix this for me NOW”. Standard Chartered Bank Staff: Blank stare……
  • The vinegar tasting wine that South Africa exports to Zambia. I know South Africa has some great wines and that demand for it is probably still low in Zambia, but do they really need to send the garbage that they do?
  • NGOs and aid everywhere! For the reasons already mentioned

I’m not sure what will happen to Zambia or where it will be in 10 years’ time. I do feel sad for many of the people that sit at the bottom of the heap and are relying on those at the top to simply do their jobs to help improve their situation. Last year a new government took over the leadership of Zambia and although not off to a flying start, I hope they can start to bring around some of the much needed change that Zambia needs.

As for me, I’ve learnt a lot about myself over the past 18 months and from my observations and interactions with people in Zambia, an awful lot about human nature, all of which I hope will have made this experience worthwhile. 

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Reflection: Development aid and how it actually “works”

Note: This post is my views and my views only. They do not necessarily reflect the views or the work of any of the organisations I have worked for or represented.

A post that has been a long time in the works (at least in my head), but has been good to leave until the end of my latest volunteering stint.

I’d like to make the point here, that what I’m about to say refers to development aid only, and NOT humanitarian aid. The two are significantly different, the later responding to emergency situations only. I don’t know a lot about the inner workings of Humanitarian Aid; I have heard it has its own set of issues, but is also plays a very important role and I want to be clear that it is not the topic here.

So to the subject of development aid, the pros and cons, highs and lows of which have touched my life every day for the past 18 months. It has often been heartbreaking; to have believed in something so much and see it fail more often than not, so miserably.

I have to be honest; when I came to Zambia I thought that working in development aid may be something I’d be interested in. I thought it would be “rewarding”, working but working to make a difference. I wasn’t completely ignorant, I knew that there were problems with development aid, that money didn’t always get to where it was supposed to go, that it was slow, etc. However development aid, in Zambia at least, was nothing like I expected. Some of the issues are cultural; many I suspect are uniform across the world.
Targets and measures
Probably the biggest issue I’ve seen with development aid is how it is measured. There are the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) which most people are aware of, then there are the measures on the UN Human Development Index, the World Bank’s development indicators and country economic data, to name but a few. However on a day to day basis this is not really how things work.

The government targets that are set for Overseas Development Aid are a case in point. Once upon a time even I saw these as important, however I now view them as almost completely irrelevant. The success and need for aid should NEVER be based on some DOLLAR target (i.e. percentage of GDP). It doesn’t achieve outcomes and it doesn’t prove that aid is being successful. It is completely the wrong measure, referred to and relied upon far too much.

And it is the same at an organisational level; how much is given might sound nice, but it doesn’t mean that there has been any change to the people’s lives it is supposed to be benefiting. However and unfortunately, it is quite often the MAIN measure and to not spend 100% of one’s budget or close to, is regarded as some sort of failure. I have been told by aid practitioners in Zambia that their budget spend is one of their KEY performance measures. Of course when you apply for a grant and when you are lucky enough to receive it, you will get asked about the number of beneficiaries, changes to their situation, how many you have reached with communications, etc., which probably means that someone is thinking that these should be the outcomes. In reality however, as long as the money is spent according to how you said it would be, the outcomes really feel like a second thought.

Sub granting is a tough one as in theory it allows smaller, “grassroots” organisations to aid local communities. And I guess it does this a little. However having worked for this type of organisation I have seen just how little of the money actually makes it to the beneficiaries it was originally intended for. So what happens?

First a cut is taken from the money by the first agency (usually government, sometimes a large NGO) who are required to cover the cost of the process for deciding who to allocate the money to. Then often it goes to a medium- large organisation that works throughout a large region, whole country, etc., and needs help with “localising” projects. And so they take a cut for their administration costs and again the costs of allocating the funds before seeing that the remaining money gets distributed to smaller NGOs left to run the projects. These smaller organisations also need to pay staff and run their office, so by the time this all happens only a fraction of the original sum of the money can be used for the projects it was intended for.

An alternative that is applied and often suggested as the only way to apply aid efficiently is via direct aid to governments, allowing them to designate money to the area’s most in need (e.g education, health, etc.) I actually do prefer this idea, however finding trustworthy governments in developing countries is difficult and donors like to have control of where their money is going.

I have seen sub-granting be relatively efficient, especially if the administrative cuts are small. However, it often the small organisation at the very end of the chain that loses and is expected to run projects for “free”, i.e. no administration money is allocated to the organisation. But all in all, sub granting from what I have experienced is a very inefficient process! 

Corruption and waste
Corruption or wasted funds is another area I can’t fathom in development aid. We all know it exists in aid, right? We’d be kidding ourselves to believe otherwise, however what is unforgivable is the extent of some of the corruption and misuse of aid. And what I struggle with probably the most is the “acceptable” forms of these; forms that are not considered corruption because aid agencies openly allow them to happen, hell, they even support them. What are they?

First is allowances; sums of money paid to people within the industry for coming to workshops and meetings, or basically to do an already paid job. These allowances are often broken up for different things. You will most definitely get an allowance for transport, or “transport refund” as it is referred to. This one I have less of an issue with, PROVIDING the person is actually out of pocket because of the trip. Going to an office one block away does not constitute being out of pocket in my view.

Then you have meal allowances. Sometimes meals are just provided, but if not attendees are provided with money for any meals that are included during the time they are “engaged”. No need to pack your own lunch.

My very personal favourite is the “sitting” allowance. This one is just for the person’s presence and even then you may not get that if the attendee shows up for only half the meeting, ultimately to collect their allowance. I’m sure the idea behind this is or was, to drive attendance because apparently doing something because it is your job is not enough. Nonetheless, this allowance can get quite expensive if you wish to run a meeting, not to mention it often takes people away from the job they should be doing. On many occasions I have come across people who don’t really need to be at a meeting but are there anyway, often with very little to contribute. These allowances completely fly in the face of productivity and improving the development situation.

An example I can use to explain this is for a project that required large scale training for staff of a government organisation here in Zambia. Staff all around Zambia were to be trained on a system that they would be using for their jobs. No problem there. The problem that occurred was when staff from the head office decided they needed to also ALL be a part of this training, “attending” all three training sessions (each being a repeat of the first) and ALL paying themselves the “standard head office” organisational allowance rates. I point out that the rate was “standard head office” because the rate was significantly higher than the rest of the attendees who would be doing the actual work. Furthermore, these head office staff were not even present for a majority of the sessions. And to top it off, the donors, both large and well known multilateral institutions were aware of the budget and the proportion going towards allowances, including for the head office staff who didn’t really need to be present (well certainly not all). Disgraceful really.

Now I should point out here that there are many within the industry who are not paid, or at least not regularly, and allowances are probably a key source of income for them. However, I stand by my thoughts on the premise that development aid is there to make a difference to the wider community and can only do that if its properly directed, rather than given as “handouts” to a few people.

Workshops and training
Workshops and training sessions are another large misuse of funds. The answer to every problem in development aid is to provide a workshop or training. It doesn’t matter if the attendees have already completed 4 other sessions on Monitoring and Evaluation (M&E) or project management, more than likely they will get another one. The workshop or training will offer incredible allowances and if it’s in another location, a cosy hotel room on top of everything else. It doesn’t matter that the person undergoing training will probably not use that fifth training session on M&E, because it’s unlikely that anyone will follow up or check. One of my own personal favourite stories is of the “capacity building” organisation that was almost 100% USAID funded, offering week long training sessions to my colleagues (including for subjects they’d already had trainings on) and putting them up in Lusaka’s finest hotels. Think just how much it costs for 20+ attendees in a five star hotel, all expenses paid, sitting and travelling allowances for a week? Imagine what it could do if used to assist a local community. And what’s funny is that when sending a proposal to USAID via email, my organisation was asked to print the hardcopy and courier it to them, using resources and money that a small organisation really doesn’t have. Where are the priorities here?

Use of organisational resources
Then there is the use of organisational resources, particularly vehicles, for personal needs. Again, a tricky one as making a quick trip in the organisational vehicle to the local market is probably not the end of the world. However these vehicles, which are provided by foreign donors, are often seen speeding around town on Saturday nights; or on weekends with a staff member’s family twice removed, in the back; or parked outside of the local hotel. I’ve seen it all and does it really matter? Well I think yes. Vehicles use fuel and even if the person “borrowing” the vehicle replaces the fuel, who pays for the maintenance of the vehicle, the tyres, the registration? If the vehicles become damaged or are not maintained and need to be replaced, who is going to replace the vehicle? Most likely foreign donors and the taxpayers that support them, that’s who!

Outright corruption
There is of course straight forward corruption where someone intently steals money or resources from aid for their own gain and I’ve heard these stories too (fortunately I haven’t seen it first hand). And while the general population does not want to see offenders get away with it (which unfortunately they quite often do), many still think that this should not dissuade foreign donors from continuing to give. I was attending a workshop here in Zambia where all attendees were asked if a donor should stop giving money if their money is being stolen. The unbelievably strong response to this was that the donors should not. As the only person in the entire room (and non-Zambian) opposed to this view, I asked shouldn’t the money be re-directed somewhere else, to where it will be used properly? Isn’t the money not doing what it’s supposed to anyway? But no one saw it except me. I was simply told that “the poor people will suffer”. Hmm, and I thought they already were!

Crowding out private investment
Something I also believe is that aid, particularly from what I’ve seen in Zambia, is “crowding out” private investment and entrepreneurship. I have met many smart people, people who have ideas for businesses and good business instincts, but never go there, or only dabble, because they’re doing so well on the aid “gravy train”. And it does make sense. For reduced risk and effort you can make quite a good living off a job in aid; not everyone does, but many do. However, what if these same people were to go into business? They would be producing items and services for the local economy, probably using local materials and produce. And overtime many would start to hire workers, people from their country, providing them with employment and income to support both them and their families.

False Economy
Following on a little from my previous argument is the “false economy” that aid creates. In most cities in Zambia you can nearly guarantee some sort of lodge or hotel on nearly every street. And no, tourism in Zambia is not that busy!
These businesses exist purely to take advantage of aid and the many, many workshops, trainings, conferences, etc that take place here. And some of them charge ridiculous prices which they can charge because there is demand and organisations pay!
Aid in my mind has also contributed to the value of rents in Lusaka, Zambia’s capital. I can’t of course prove this, or at least not without doing further empirical work. All I know is that based on my own observations there are a lot of aid workers based in Lusaka, most live in pretty nice houses/ apartments and many organisations also use houses as their administrative offices and this time there is more than one to each street on average. Economics is all about supply and demand and there is large demand for housing from aid!
The impact of all this is that it pushes real businesses out to make way for those operating from aid; it also forces people with lower incomes to the outskirts of the city because they can’t afford to be in it.

What to make of all of this development aid “stuff”
I know that by writing this post that there are likely to be people who will use it as an excuse for not giving or volunteering for anyone. I guess that if that’s all someone gets out of all of this, then they were probably already in that frame of mind to begin with. However what my biggest learning from this whole volunteering and development aid experience is, is to do your research and ASK QUESTIONS!

There are some good organisations and projects working hard to make things better, that use talented, well intentioned people and try to ensure that as much money as possible makes it to the end beneficiary. But you have to find them and then you have to ask questions: What are they doing? What are they trying to change? How are they making change? Where are they making change? Who are they working with? What evidence do they have of change? Are they audited by an external party? Do they sub-grant? Where does most of their funding come from? You get the point! Some sites go a long way to doing this for you; a couple I know of are Charity Navigator and Givewell, but still ask questions!

Sadly I can’t see development aid changing any time soon. Many of the people in the industry, as well as intentioned as they are, are not business people driving outcomes. Too many see small changes for only a few as enough evidence that aid is working, despite the large sums of money going into it.

My time in Zambia has in many ways made me extremely cynical, however I know in time I will again prioritise the positives of development aid over the negatives and learn to focus again on the people it should be benefiting, but ALWAYS guarded on the outcomes presented to me.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

Lusaka: Nearing the End

Only a week to go till I officially finish my VSO placement!

The past month has felt rather long. I have been working mostly for an organisation called Room to Read, helping out their local Zambia office with fundraising research and putting together case studies for some of the programmes. It has been interesting and at times a tad stressful, but more than anything it has been good to see a clearly functioning organisation with actual beneficiaries and outcomes. The staff at Room to Read work hard and seem to always have the recipients of their programmes at front of mind. They are also one of the few organisations that I would be prepared to assist or give money to in future. The statistics for education in Zambia are appalling and I’ve heard stories of students in grades 8 and 9 that still can’t read! And then there’s the wide gender gap in education, something I’ve become super passionate about. Improving the situation for females in countries like Zambia is priority and will go a long way towards its development.

Room to Read in Zambia

Apart from Room to Read I’ve continued to support my Livingstone organisation and help out here and there with other VSO partners. It’s been challenging and great to learn about what others are doing, but also tiring. I’m really looking forward to finishing up and catching up on sleep!

And while I’ve been busy at it, Mike has been kicking goals on his National AIDS Council (NAC) project. For the past week and a half he and Rob, another VSO volunteer, have been delivering training for a new stakeholder mapping and data collection system to in excess of 100 NAC staff from all over Zambia. I’ve heard about the challenges they’ve encountered daily in the lead up to, and during the training which has made me tired (and frustrated) just hearing about it. However, the project and training has so far been a success and it is now really up to NAC staff to make the system a complete triumph by entering data and using it to its fullest potential.

At one of the training sessions for Mike's system

Learning and sharing

Lusaka has been a change of pace as well. Slightly crazy, horrendous traffic, rainy and dirty, I have really missed small and quiet Livingstone. And the begging is something I’m still not used to. There was a bit of that in Livingstone, but mostly people just left me alone and if they did ask, if was a half attempt and they’d walk away as soon as I said “no”. But not in Lusaka; they’re at the traffic lights, at the shops following me around and worse, at my house. I get begging when I take the rubbish out or walk down my driveway! And I do feel bad, but at the same time once you start giving money to random strangers, you would never stop. I know that begging is something I’m going to have to get used to as we travel through East Africa, as I’m sure it will get worse. Still, it’s just something else to have to manage on a daily basis in Lusaka.

Nonetheless, despite all of the downsides to being in Lusaka, there have been some good ones too. I have been absolutely loving the coffee shops, variety of cafes and restaurants (when we can afford them), the abundance of vegetables and I have been able to stock up on broccoli, a real treat; and we even discovered an Asian shop close to our house selling curry pastes, noddles, etc. Super exciting! The regular Wednesday dinners at Mahaks Indian restaurant are also a highlight, giving all Lusaka based volunteers the chance to catch up and vent over a beer (or two).

Mike & I at "Plates" restaurant in Lusaka

And in March Mike turned 30, so special treats were in store with a nice dinner at a restaurant called “Plates” and a bit of a gathering the following night with other VSOs. Not exactly the same as spending back in Oz, but a temporary escape from the norm.

Red wine and smiles for Mike's 30th Birthday

And dessert!

Cocktail hour

More birthday celebrations

Planning for our trip is coming along well, although slowly given we haven’t had much time to dedicate to it. But Gorilla viewing and our Kilimanjaro Climb are booked and we have a few fun trips planned in Zambia before we leave to Kaufe National Park, South Luangwa National Park and a return visit to Livingstone; I can’t wait!

The planning wall for our big trip

At the end of next week it’s the end of a topsy turvy 18 months and full steam ahead as we finally hit the road for the next stage of our Africa adventure.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

From Livingstone to Lusaka

Our return from South Africa brought us back to complete craziness in Zambia. For the last couple of months of 2011 there was talk of Mike and I moving to Lusaka so that Mike could work on the implementation of a national database for the National AIDS Council. Momentum gathered in December and we thought that by the time we returned from South Africa we would have some clarity around this. But Zambia being Zambia, of course this was not the case.

So the remainder of January was spent sorting our move out, only to have everything happen in the space of literally two weeks. A frantic two weeks! The car needed repairs, Selina (our cleaner) needed new work, Rambo needed a home, I had to work out a forward plan with my organisation and that was on top of packing and two trips to Lusaka (500km away) to move our stuff. Glad that’s all over!

Leaving Livingstone has been difficult. Although it is a small town, sometimes a bit too small, we had met lots of great people and made some wonderful friends. Fortunately we had the opportunity to see most of them before we left at a small gathering at the Royal Livingstone Hotel where we had sundowner drinks followed by a lovely meal at Olga’s. Very Livingstone!

Mike and I with beautiful Victoria Falls behind us

Livingstone Farewell Drinks:
The people who have made our time there so much more
enjoyable than it might otherwise have been

We also made one last quick trip to Victoria Falls, definitely a highlight from our time in Livingstone. Super wet and now a tad cold, it was great to see them one last time.

Pretty Victoria Falls- I will miss you!

On the edge of the falls

Trying not to get wet

I did manage to find a home for Rambo; he is staying with his dog friends and our landlord in Livingstone who will make sure he is fed. I felt particularly lucky that our house was receiving two new volunteers, two lovely girls, one who reported she loves dogs. They were also able to take on Selina as their cleaner, which gave us some piece of mind.

Late January and early February were also filled with football fever as the Africa Cup of Nations took place. Think World Cup but on a slightly smaller scale, but nonetheless exciting. Zambia did make it to the final against Ivory Coast and against all the odds won! The atmosphere was amazing with people dancing in the streets, car horns, whistles and vuvuzela’s everywhere.

Taken during the Zambia v Ghana semi-final at VJs in Livingstone.
Obviously Zambia won

Happy, happy Zambians

And now we are in Lusaka. Our new apartment is located in an area called Kabulonga, a nice area with a great coffee/ cake shop, handy supermarket, a few nice restaurants and bars. 

Am I still in Zambia????

The Tuesday Market: A highlight of being in Lusaka with lovely
fresh vegetables, fruit, herbs and even tofu!

One of Mike's favourite road rules, the four way stop sign
intersections; a case of first in, best dressed- SERIOUSLY, that is
the rule!

Our apartment hasn't been quite as nice; it probably could be if we were going to be here longer than April and willing to put money into it, but we’re not, so it’s ok for now. Our biggest beef has been the bath/ shower. We don’t have a shower as the water pressure is so lousy so a bath/ bucket bath it is! And to top it off, the bath tub had been painted just before we moved in, but with the wrong paint, so sometimes we come out worse off than when we got in. Not the ideal set up especially with long hair but I’m managing (just).

Our new apartment in Luaska, top floor

Our new lounge. Not super homely but loving our giraffe "mummies"
in the background

Dining area/ study

Our awesome bathtub.....

.....and the even more awesome paint job they did!

Mike’s project has finally taken off with funding and location issues sorted. When he is finished, Zambia will have a national online database of all organisations working in HIV/AIDS throughout the country, as well as a way of capturing data to monitor progress against the AIDS Council’s national targets in prevention, impact mitigation, etc.

My situation has taken a bit longer to sort out. I still continue to support my Livingstone organisation who seem to have finally gotten things together. Just before moving we’d received $5k of office equipment and had two donor field assessments, having passed the desk assessments, each for $100k (Still awaiting the result of these). In addition to supporting my Livingstone organisation I’m also supposed to be working with another VSO partner in Lusaka, the terms of this still being sorted as I write. I also managed to get the opportunity to work with a large NGO here in Lusaka that I’d had previous contact with in Australia. They work in the area of education, especially for girls, something I’m quite passionate about and looking forward to helping them with when I start next week.

The second of the two field assessments conducted at my
Livingstone organisation before I left. Only 6 representatives at this
one; the first had 8 people assessing us

My Livingstone colleagues; hopefully they've learnt something
during my time there!

And so the days to leaving Zambia are going down slowly. The planning for our East Africa trip is now in full swing along with the realisation that we need to get super fit pretty quick if we want to climb Mount Kilimanjaro in June.

Hurry up April!