After nearly two months of being back in the United States, I still find my heart and mind dwelling on the girls I met in Kenya. My experience living with the girls has seeped in to different aspects of my life. In classes, talking about development in the ‘third world’ takes on a whole new meaning after walking alongside the girls and seeing the struggles they face. On a broader scale, it has increased my awareness of inequality and made me consider the ways in which the global disparity of wealth is perpetuated. Though this was my second trip to Kenya, I came away with different lessons and was prompted to contemplate new questions.
One of the challenges I wrestled with during my trip was seeing well-intended assistance become harmful at times. The amount of foreign money that is put in to charity work in Kenya has the unfortunate side effect of creating an environment susceptible to corruption. I heard stories from different adults about how many ‘children’s homes’ do not actually care for children. Stories ranged from outright scams to selling off a few donations here and there rather than give them to the children.
For me, this was eye-opening and heartbreaking. Another woman from Sure 24 told me about the dependency syndrome that she has seen aid create over the years. She said that some micro-finance projects she had witnessed failed because of this dependency mindset. Another issue I noticed was the prevalence of corporal punishment in schools. Though I knew it was common practice, and many of the kids actually affirmed it as a good form of discipline, it twisted my gut. Would sponsors in the west feel as good about sending a child to school if they knew that child was beat at school? But then again the child was still receiving an education, so perhaps it comes down to picking battles. Again, I was struck with the complex consequences that foreign assistance can have.
Coming home, I wasn’t sure how to talk about this dissonance that I experienced. It was much easier to talk about the beautiful children I met, the stories they told me, and day-to-day life. The questions about the inequitable distribution of wealth and the complexity of foreign assistance in addressing this problem still distracted me. After a few weeks back, I was able to attend a lecture by Mary B. Anderson entitled “The Listening Project: How Recipients Judge International Assistance.” Through this project, her team has interviewed over 6,000 individuals in 15 countries over four years in order to investigate what recipients expected out of aid, and what they actually received. It was a nice reminder that I wasn’t the only one asking these questions.
She reflected on her findings and spoke about the dependency on aid that commonly develops, despite the fact that recipients did not anticipate nor desire this outcome. She attributed some of this to the business-model that aid agencies have adapted to, where pressure is placed on growing your program, rather than create programs where you will no longer be needed and therefore shrink your size. Anderson said that one of the most remarkable parts of her findings was that the overwhelmingly similar responses she heard from dissatisfied aid recipients regardless of the country they were from or the type of assistance they received. She noted only one exception to this rule: Women’s programs. She said that through her research she had found that women’s programs did enhance local appreciation more than any other type of aid.
Anderson’s lecture showed me the important role of taking a critical look at how international assistance is delivered and gave me hope. Anderson has been working in the aid community for fifty years. She sees the flaws and yet still believes it is something worth investing her entire career in. In concluding her lecture, Anderson spoke about the role that relationships play in international development. She explained that the new paradigm of aid should start with respectful collegial engagement in order to share perspectives and solve problems.
This helped me to see more of the beauty of my time in Kenya. I am so grateful for the relationships I was able to build with the girls there. Learning about the issues they have faced and what still lies ahead has inspired and challenged me. Most importantly, it has created a thirst in me for more: more learning, more understanding and more equality.