|Miriam (thanks to Danielle Jenson for photo)
It's a long time since I have blogged about what I do from day to day and that is because I'm working in an office now. The work may be interesting enough, but it is not something I could write about with enthusiasm on a daily basis. And it is not really relevant to my blog, which is about HIV, development and East Africa.
But I don't just spend my free time looking for articles about development and HIV that make me grumpy. I spend most evenings researching and weekends enjoying being in a place as beautiful as Northern Tanzania, which is friendly and secure, after the less friendly and less secure atmosphere of Nakuru, Kenya. I hang out with various people, some Tanzanians and some fellow ex-pats.
One of the best times of the working week is visiting a children's home that is in the same compound as my home and my work. It's called Cradle of Love and the 45 or so children are all under the age of three. The children can be as young as a few weeks. Most are in some way vulnerable or sick, some have been abandoned, some have no parents and some, we have no idea about their history.
Several people have said that they think the work I do and the things i involve myself with must be very depressing. Others have asked about the frustrations of working as a volunteer in situations that can involve making little or no noticeable progress most of the time. Some even ask if anything good can come of voluntary and development work, and shouldn't we all just mind our own business and stop thinking we know best.
I sympathise with such views, especially from people who have done voluntary work, and even from those who have considered it. But I never have to question whether any of the children I see in Cradle of Love or other similar homes are well off for being there. Their physical needs are looked after, but they also get constant emotional stimulation, from a combination of highly experienced nannies, devoted long term volunteers and shorter term volunteers.
The more time you spend with young children, the less you see development as being depressing or cynical or misguided. This is not to say there is nothing bad about NGOs, volunteering or development. But things are by no means all bad. There are plenty of things that can be done that are not currently being done everywhere. And seeing negative things in the development industry, and it is to a large extent an industry, is not a reason for dismissing everything done in the field.
I notice the New Internationalist has an article on how most volunteers work without any thoughts of a quid pro quo. It is particularly galling when fatcat banks and multinationals are the only ones who get the 'quid' and this is quite disincentivizing for volunteers. Some people spend their adult life enriching themselves at the expense of others, and some people don't.
I've noticed a tendency in development to compartmentalize parts of projects into short term consultancies and professionalized functions, which cost a lot for what you get and can be of very low quality. Often the same work can be done by indigenous people but the work usually goes to ex-pats, not volunteers; ex-pats who charge Western rates even though they live in a developing country.
Recently, I heard of a large sum of money, what the average Tanzanian would earn in two and a half years, being handed to someone for three days of work that could have been done, would willingly have been done, by a volunteer. Work done by volunteers can often be dismissed simply because they are not charging anything for it, and this too is disincentivizing.
Seeing large amounts of money being given out for goods and services that could be a lot cheaper, and could represent far greater gains for people in developing countries, is hard to stomach.
But, as I say, it is never a wast of time or effort when you are working with the right people, whether they are children or not, who show very clearly how they thrive, how they prosper as a result of your efforts. That is never depressing. It is always a pleasure.