How a Facebook contest lead me to discover the dichotomies of Foreign Aid

Alex Webb
Foreign Aid

I won a Facebook contest

It’s true. I did.

I was the Canadian winner of a social media contest put on by a prominent Canadian company as both a marketing tool and a social outreach component of their recent partnership with the ME to WE international development organization. One could enter via Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, and it required answering in 200 words what going on this informal foreign aid trip would mean to you.

‘What on earth was in those 200 words?!’ you ask? Well, my response was heavily influenced by the fact that the contest was launched to highlight World Water Day which is March 22nd, and water resource management is a particular interest of mine. Another particular interest is women’s participation in leadership in business and politics. This is because access to clean water for rural communities has a major impact on how women spend their days. Instead of having to collect water for their families and communities, which removes them from their education when they are young, and prevents them from participating in their local governance or economy, clean water access frees their time to do anything and everything else.

When I answered the question, I spoke about the fundamental shift in a community that has access to clean water, simply because it frees the female population to participate more fully in the decision-making process. It also gives them the time to pursue studies or start businesses, which allows them to participate in their community’s economy, and gives them a voice there as well. Studies even show that when the women, specifically, in a developing economy are given loans or aid, the money is more likely to be invested in the community.

I spoke about how inspiring and empowering it would be to see and hear these impacts first hand, and as I’ll explain, it truly was – but not entirely without its drawbacks either.

I didn’t believe I’d actually won

When I initially got the email that I won, I 99.7% thought it was a scam because I mean, who wins facebook contests? Luckily that 0.3% of non-skepticism won out and I surreptitiously called the number in the email on my lunch break, only to hear someone answer on the other end and confirm it without a doubt.

I had actually won a trip to Kenya. OMG.

Preparations for the trip included vaccinations against a number of viruses from Polio to Meningitis, prescriptions for anti-malarial, and shopping for culturally appropriate clothing, and anything else we felt we might need on our trip.

All of this occurred almost mechanically, in an organized schedule of appointments. The trip finally started to really feel real when we got a call from Me-to-We stating that there was a risk of elevated violence in Nairobi and other areas in Kenya later in the summer due to the approaching August elections. They reiterated all of their safety precautions but offered us the chance to change our trip to another week if we were feeling nervous about it. After speaking to the Me-to-We representatives, and discussing with my mom, we decided to go forward with our travel plans to go at the beginning of July, but it nonetheless made the trip starkly more real and prompted me to look into the country further.

Some background on Kenya

Kenya has been settled over time by many different peoples, which has lead to a unique intersection of Muslim, Indian, and British traditions. For example, while Kenyans enjoy drinking their own version of Chai Masala (originally brought over with Indian traders), it is also common for Kenyans to have British first names like Beatrice or Winston. There is a largely Muslim population on the coast and many factions of Christianity throughout the interior.

However, even before its establishment as a Colony, and later independence as a nation-state in 1963 under Jomo Kenyatta’s leadership, it has always been a land of many tribes. Currently, over 42 tribes make up the social fabric of the country, as well as the nation’s political landscape to a large degree.

In the Great Rift Valley, along the Mara River (the Kenyan area of the semi-arid Serengeti lands), two tribes have co-existed for many years: the Kipsigis, and the Maasai. They are the two tribes we learned the most about, because we spent the majority of our trip in the Maasai Mara, a large nature reserve in southern Kenya that both of these tribes call home. Most of the Kenyan people that we worked with, learned from, and interacted with throughout our time in Kenya belonged to one of these two groups.

The Kipsigis are a mainly agrarian society, whereas, the Maasai are still traveling throughout the Great Rift Valley with their herds. In fact, they are able to cross freely into Tanzania’s Serengeti as their tribe’s territory straddles the colonial border. Being smaller and rural, these two tribes aren’t directly involved in the power struggle between the majority Kikuyu tribe, which the President belongs to, and the opposition party leads by members of the Luhya and Kamba tribes.

What is WE

A darling of Canadian international development history, the WE organization is nearing its 22nd year. It was initially founded in 1995 by 12- and 13-year old brothers, Marc and Craig Kielburger as ‘Free the Children’. It has since evolved into a multi-faceted organization, including WE Charity, ME to WE, WE Schools, WE Families, We Villages, WE day, ME to WE Social Enterprises, and WE Companies – which, combined, generated more than $45 million CAD in revenue in 2016, with over $44 million going to programs and the surplus revenue being re-integrated into the 2017 programming budget. The WE organization publishes its annual audit finding publicly, and proudly advertises that only approximately 10% of funds raised go to administrative costs.

In Kenya, the organization has been at work since the early 2000s, where it has been able to contribute by building wells, health clinics, and schools, and has facilitated micro-financing and income-generating activities in those communities. Their goal is to develop WE Villages through a 5 pillar approach. The Pillars – Water, Food, Education, Health, and Opportunity – having been identified as the basics of sustainable community development, and the intent of using them as a foundation is to have the village become self-sufficient within 5 years.

A “voluntourist trip”

The trip was designed to be a partial ‘voluntourist’ (aka humanitarian/ foreign aid), and partial tourist trip. As the week progressed, we alternated between tourist activities with our guides, learning activities and site visits where we gained insight into the philosophy and impact of the WE pillars of development, and getting down and dirty with shovels and trowels to help build walls of the newest school building at the Kisaruni school campus.

The tourist activities consisted of things such stereotypical safari drives, trips to the subsistence market, beading, and morning walks with different Maasai guides outside the tent compound. Encircled by morning mists which shrouded the gentle hills of rust-tinged rocks, dotted with spiky brush, we learned about local flora such as the white bush and candelabra trees, and their uses in Maasai medicine. On these daily walks, we also learned more about the Maasai culture and it’s more recent evolution to be more progressive, while still keeping many traditions alive.

However, beyond touristing and the physical school building was the learning about the WE approach, and seeing its impact in the communities we visited. We were able to visit a newly sponsored WE village in addition to ones much further along the development path and the progress was substantial. The people in the more established WE village communities were healthier, cleaner, more educated, and could communicate with us easily in English to tell us their dreams of becoming doctors and scientists. It was inspiring to talk with the young women at the Kisaruni boarding school, and to understand how much opportunity the WE school – as well as the other infrastructure which allows them to attend – has given them.

My internal conflict -White Man’s Burden 

Despite all of the good, the great, and the truly inspirational we saw on this trip, I still can’t help but feel a distinct guilt at the hero-worship this kind of successful development creates as it builds the communities. It was the WE branding which separated the wealthier, healthier communities from their neighbors, it was the prayers thanking WE for what they have brought to the communities. The absolute gratitude for these foreign aid workers who have come to help.

Bouncing around in the safari truck as grateful children yelled their Jambos with joy brought me flashbacks of 9th grade history and learning about the ‘white man’s burden’. One can’t help but see the parallels to the 19th century ideals of doing one’s moral duty by bringing civilization to the wilds of the African continent – the very ideals which initially legitimized the continent’s colonization by the powers of the time.

This is a problem inherent in international development and foreign aid.  

How do we save lives in impoverished nations in real time, but also in a way which will endure once the external aid leaves? Additionally, how do we do this while still giving the community room and opportunity for self-determination? It is not a question that I have the answer to, but it is one that has preoccupied me since my trip.

Dichotomies in Foreign Aid

As Dr. Seth Kaplan of Johns Hopkins university outlines in his 2012 article How Foreign Aid Succeeds and Fails at the Same Time, the focus on the health and opportunity of individuals or individual communities, which is characteristic of most foreign aid programs, does not address the systemic economic and social shift which is required to bring a state out of poverty. There is no argument that the lives of the people who receive these tangible commodities such as lavatories, wells, food, and wealth through cows or economic structures the finance carousels, or cold storage for agricultural products.

The argument is that offering those things do not better the capacity of the state government to provide those things itself, or build the economic and social conditions required for its people to attain those milestones organically. Yet, an NGO risks wasting resources if the government they are meant to work with is inefficient (which is also the case if is it corrupt or oppressive) and is often the reason NGOs are offering aid in the first place. But in bypassing the governmental structure to work directly with people in the communities, the government has less pressure to become more efficient or govern better.

In Kenya, there is a democracy in place, however, it’s democracy is still decided almost entirely along tribal lines, and elections still require heavy UN involvement and influence. In many places around the world, the ruling government is corrupt, with poor governance and ‘kleptocratic’ tendencies, meaning that its interference would no doubt dilute efforts of aid organizations to alleviate poverty through improved government systems. In others, the ruling government is a dictatorship, or worse – a political or religious majority actively working to destroy a subset of their population. If that is the case, even with the best intentions, how could an aid organization work with such a government, or offer to fund to them?

All of these questions are further underscored by that nagging guilt. That feeling of imposing our western system and beliefs at the expense of allowing these states – the ones the west has weakened through colonialism and more recent resource and labour exploitation – to find their own path to prosperity.

So how do we approach foreign aid, when all of these layers of complexity and contradictions seem to swallow up or twist any efforts to help the people who are suffering most?

My current perspective

Foreign Aid

Mama Jane

Doing research for this article has helped me understand the ways that the WE organization is trying to be the best version of external aid that it can be – the most impactful, yes, but also the most empowering for the communities and the people which it is helping.

The questions persist. There are still no answers to them.

However, meeting one of the community women, Mama Jane, was incredible. With her coaching us, we performed the water walk that she used to do up to 30 times daily. (spoiler: it was REALLY hard) it consisted of carrying 50lbs of water on our backs, but held onto using a rope which we balanced across our foreheads. Hearing the pride and leadership in her voice as she described the 6-year process of building her 1-room cinderblock house (pictured) provided inimitable perspective on the impact of this individual focused foreign aid. Discussing the real empowerment given by the ‘loan carousel’ (women of the community all put a large portion of their income into a pool, and each year, a different woman from the group is given that pool to use to invest in income-generating things like livestock, or just in her families needs like a new roof for their house or school tuition) she leads in her community to fund income generating activities and community improvement initiatives with the other prominent women… was indescribably inspiring.

We can debate the long-term impacts of eroding a state’s legitimacy through this kind of structured foreign aid, of drowning a culture with the ‘right’ (western) way of doing things, but we cannot debate the impact that this organization is having on the ground in improving the length and quality of life, as well as the individual and collective potential in these communities.

Coming home and what’s next?

Coming home has been a strange experience. Of course, I have told many people about it, and had many conversations about these conflicting feelings about international development, but one has difficulty conveying feelings or images beyond words and pictures. It also fades so fast from the mind and the conversation as the routines of daily life take over.

What is next for me is to recommit my time and effort to social justice at home and abroad. That means wading back into the turbulent waters of politics and engaging our community leaders, continuing to be a volunteer in the community, and challenging people I meet to think about the impact they have now, or could have with a little more conscious effort.

ME to WE and other aid organizations have many areas to get involved, and many resources available to help you become more engaged in your local and global communities. If you aren’t quite ready to take that step yet, engaging your local politicians on community issues such as the environment, refugees, and aboriginal rights is one potential action you can take. Another is being more aware of the purchases you make as a consumer, and the impact those purchases may be having – either positive or negative – on the people who are making those items.