The delicate balance between need and dependency is a pendulum that easily swings too far in one direction. Helping people pull themselves from the ravages of war, starvation, and poverty does not lend itself to platitudes about God helping those who help themselves. Babies die. Men are broken. Women weep…and in those moments they cannot help themselves…

In those moments.

Later, crisis mode averted by a day or a month, and the transition from crisis to development begins. The infestation of aid workers descend, taking over the roads in their shiny white land cruisers with interchangeable logos. The markets adjust, local items share space with foreign ones and prices shift to accommodate the influx of cash NGO workers have at their disposal.

And it is the irony and the contradiction of this work. To try to preserve what was here – what remains of it anyway; and at the same time dramatically changing it by nature of an outside presence.

The education system here is beyond crisis mode. The past 20 years of uncertainty in governing and funding, and the subsequent departure of those (often educated and/or moneyed) who could leave did. What resulted was a brain drain followed by a disruption in the normal schooling process. Fifteen years of actual conflict sent people fleeing from their homes, to border countries where they lived as refugees, and always in transition – from, to someplace. The children were scattered; some took up arms. Systems collapsed around them and were never resurrected and education was a casualty of the war. After all, war doesn’t make time for math and English.

The peaceful elections signaled a new start. And education, like healthcare, was at the top of the list. But where do you start? How do you rebuild when the whole country is suffering from a sort of arrested development.

Fancy, one of the other volunteers, was teaching a class at the local university. The papers she was grading, when not copied directly from the textbook, were written on a third of fourth grade level. Nonsensical sentences, inappropriate use of vocabulary, lack of comprehension for the subject at hand. And she was floored. What do you do when university level students can’t construct basic sentences or even understand the textbook they are reading?

You can do triage, repeat information until people seem to have a glimmer of understanding to work in whatever field they are pursuing. But those students won’t be truly equipped to do the work, and subsequently will be responsible for teaching the next generation. I saw this in South Africa in rural schools where the teachers were sometimes only marginally educated themselves, making it difficult for them to teach concepts like critical and creative thinking because they were unfamiliar to them.

You can start from scratch, count those in the system as lost and begin again. Import teachers and start with grade one, insuring a strong foundation. But how sustainable is that? What country with an 80% unemployment rate can justify outsourcing education – a major source of employment –to outsiders, and where would you get enough teachers? And what of this generation – what would they do?

I’ve been trying to wrap my head around the problem for a few weeks now – clearly I am new to the party and Liberians have been wrestling with this issue for years. And there is no answer yet.

The absence of an answer looms large because education touches everything…nurses that are ill trained, entrepreneurs without the skills to create, educators unable to properly educate. Another professor asked her students what they wanted to do after graduation from university and found the resounding response to be – to work for an international NGO.

But International NGOs are not meant to be the solution to unemployment or even long-term development of the countries they are aiding. At least on paper NGOs talk about building capacity to create sustainable change, restore infrastructure, repair damage to sectors like health and education…to work themselves out of a job. NGO careers, at least the way I understand them, are meant to be transient across multiple countries, not permanent sources of the only middle class income in a healing, and eventually healed, country.

International NGOs (INGO) are not known for staying forever. There are other crises to be averted or the aftermath aided. Here, MSF (Doctors Without Borders) has almost fully withdrawn and others are marking their benchmarks and creating their timelines. Even UNMIL, 10,000 troops strong, is expected to pare down to 8,000 in the next six months and withdraw completely pending a peaceful election and transition of power in 2011.

And it isn’t that I’m against an NGO presence. America has nonprofits. But they are made up of Americans who understand the nuance of living in America and where the services and support we have falls short. They create jobs in communities and can become viable institutions. If Liberian students were thinking in these terms I would be less troubled.

But the desire for an INGO job speaks to me of a bigger and more subversive one…the delicate balance between need and dependency. Need is accessing the help that is available, dependency is resisting the opportunity to help self. One of my Liberian colleagues recounted a story of a village she was working with through a non-profit. They needed to clear some brush between the road and the village and asked the community to do it. The people responded, “what will you pay us?”

She was distraught. The non-profit was brining services that the community needed and yet they were unwilling to help themselves receive those services – to participate in the process. The path of least resistance is human nature. If people are willing to pay you to do what you might otherwise do yourself – why not take the pay? And if there is a ready-made INGO “industry” that guarantees entrance into the fledgling middle class why be a civil servant or entrepreneur? Hell, why even stay in Liberia when getting out is so much easier?

Blue passport and visa stamp announcing how temporary I am here, it is easy to do the work that I can stop doing whenever the feeling strikes me and expect others to do the same. But it isn’t the same.

Maybe I’ll stay in Liberia when I’m done with PC or maybe I’ll move to some other country doing similar work – maybe I’ll even go home. Wherever I end up I will still be haunted by the swinging pendulum that is the nature of my career, at once rendering aid and simultaneously creating a dependency that external development can’t fix.

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1 Comment on donor pendulum

  1. DJ Hardy says:

    Powerful, Linnea. I know it was meant more to sort things out for yourself…but it certainly is a perspective that many of us need to pay attention too. As potentially one of the countries draining this area of “brains”, it’s sad that we can’t even get ourselves mobilized here.

    There certainly exists a global interdependency…but you bring light to the fact that it is not on equal terms for all. For some this interdependency represents opportunity…but for far too many it represents exploitation and voluntary imposition of influence in exchange for basic subsistence.


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