Again this is part of my revised efforts to blog, which to be honest I’m really beginning to enjoy. Last week I was at a sector-wide meeting on Aid Effectiveness. In NGO terms this means sitting round in a room for two hours and trying to out-nerd each other. What I found most entertaining (and this is where I start to make enemies) is how many of the long-established NGOs were expressing bemusement and fear at the notion of actually having to demonstrate whether they’re being effective or actually achieving anything.
Where I come from in the Development sphere, and really the only thing I knew a lot about prior to joining Camara, is empowerment. It’s become a sanitised, dull, politically-correct term but at its core is one of the most concrete notions in human society. Essentially, when you strip away all the waffle it’s the process of acquiring power. Development (what everyone at the meeting does as a career), when you define it properly is just positive change. Development and power then are two sides of the same coin, since power is ‘the ability to do or act; capability of doing or accomplishing something’, essentially to effect change.
Some of the really great Development theorists point to increasing the power of poor people as being the key to real Development. Power can be exerted over oneself or over others. Power over others is obviously relative, since the more power you have over somebody else the less power they have over you. On this basis some of the theorists would say that you can’t really empower other people because by definition you have the ability to withdraw it so it’s pretty impotent and not really power. Also there’s the difficulty that (and this is where the current favoured ideology in Development circles really devours itself) it inevitably treats the NGO actor as the subject and the beneficiary as the object.
Camara isn’t about sending computers to schools. Infuriatingly we’ve all been telling people that for four years but as a way to spend our days that would be pretty banal. Nor do we provide education to kids in Africa; in fact we only really come into direct contact with them when we’re doing M&E. In reality we offer technology solutions to schools so they can do a better job of educating their students. We’re still trying to implement the model properly, but that’s the core of our business. It encompasses training, hardware provision, maintenance, mentoring, and curriculum design.
The thing is all of these things are available on the open market. Schools don’t have the money to invest in them but as tax payers and people who give to charity we could probably sort that out for them without NGOs to implement the project. Camara, like 95% of NGOs, is actually a basic service provider. We don’t directly empower kids in the slightest and it’s not our job. We support schools that are actually supposed to be bringing all of the higher deliverables like education and human development, but in many cases are awful at it.
What we’re supposed to be achieving is supporting an education system where kids go to school, get educated and get power. We provide the inputs that their schools need to get better at making their students powerful. All of the inputs have local market values. Either we do it better and cheaper than the market can, or we should just give them the money and go and do something else.