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Paying for Attention

I sit at a table, hands beading sweat in nervousness, a white twenty-four-year-old American amongst mostly middle-aged African men. Many of the Malian women here bear small children wrapped tightly to their backs with bright West African fabric, most making themselves look small and unassuming at the periphery of this conference. I want to ask them a question that will undoubtedly elicit a response that makes my stomach knot. A white banner streams in the background, half-lit by the brutal sun under a canopy of mango trees, bearing the words “Espacement de Naissance et Planification Familiale” – Birth Spacing and Family Planning. To my right sits a thick-spectacled, weathered man – an Imam, or Muslim spiritual leader. On the other side, a female radio-journalist. Across from me is a traditional medicinal healer, next to him the mayor and a local doctor. I look at these men and women and want to ask:

“How many children have you lost in your lifetime?”

Many couples here would respond with a figure around two or three, all children who died in the first few years of their lives or during birth.

“How many of you have sisters, mothers, wives, friends who died during childbirth?”

According to Amnesty International, every ninety seconds a woman somewhere in the world dies giving birth.

But before I can ask these questions, I am met with a question of their own: “When do we get paid for being here?”

Every one of the more than 120 people assembled here will receive the equivalent of 10 US dollars per day to be asked these questions. We are paying for their attention, because otherwise, in this patronage-based, foreign aid- and colonialism-corrupted system we have helped to create, many would not be present.

Everyone here has a different price tag for their attention – a certain sum to permit them to think about the fact that many girls here give birth to their first child around the age of 14, that often they will become pregnant again soon after giving birth and may have well over five children in their lifetime, and that very few will do so at anything resembling a modern medical facility.

Later I will meet with a group of media representatives, and they will burst with excitement about radio programs on maternal health and family planning, only to have half of them refuse to return our phone calls when they learn we will not pay for their programs.

A few of the Muslim leaders will tense up and stop listening when they hear we will not pay them to meet with us.

Public officials and even midwives will stir up a frenzy when they learn that their per diem is no greater than that of those lower down the hierarchical ladder.

Too many will retract their attention when it is not paid for, and I fear their sisters and daughters will continue to suffer the consequences.

But then the eldest of the Muslim leaders stands up in his group, insisting that it is Allah's will to protect our wives and daughters. He will inspire the group to lead mass prayers on the importance of maternal nutrition and birth spacing.

A male radio-journalist scorns his colleagues for having their interests in their pockets, rather than in the public good. He will launch a 3-month media campaign on family planning, and others will follow.

A doctor will emerge from the mass of his resistant colleagues and offer to donate his time and effort to train village-based health workers.

A nonprofit will put on a film and theater sketch on contraceptive use to the public, free of charge.

And, one by one, we will reconstruct this system into one where we all freely and passionately pay attention to the lives of women. My hands no longer sweat anxiously, and I hope that some day, the knot in my stomach will be gone.

Comments

Nusrat Ara's picture

I loved the way u brought in

I loved the way u brought in hope after beginning with despair. We have to wrestle our way out of difficulties. There are always two sides to an issue. I could understand your plight being on the both sides of divide at diff times. you will always find people who will go out of their way to help. Keep up the good work.

You know I wrote for an org claiming to advocate develpoment issues. They said they will pay when any newspaper will pick up my write ups. A lot of mine were carried they said they don't pay. I let it go. Then one lady from the org convyed one newspaper will pay. She gave me good news. I received nothing. Just few days back she asked me to send a pic for a write up of mine for the same paper. I reminded her about the payment and said I didn't like to free sell my work as it gets in the way of writers esp young ones who are exploited. She convienently said they might have credited it directly to their account and she will check. I sent the pic and told her to decide on my behalf whether to send the write up or not.

Guess what I recived a mail wherein their CEO calls me arrogant and intructs her to tell me that they can do without my contribustions and categorically said they wont pay. He talked about my arrogance but forgot his ethics.

My friends had been angry about my association and they have been proved right. It makes we wary in future

Love

Nusrat

Liz4peace's picture

Blog you might like

Hi Sara,

Thanks for your post. I actually think all those people deserve to be paid! They're traveling, spending their money and time to be interviewed, giving of their expertise and experience, so why not? If I were in their shoes, I'd hold out for the $10 too. And I would love to read Nusrat's pieces as well. I guess the downside of the internet is that now everybody (i.e. websites, publishers) think they should be able to get content for free.

I happened upon a blog yesterday that I thought would be of interest to Pulsewire readers. It's by a woman called Jennifer Lentfer, and this post is entitled: Confessions of a recovering Neocolonialist. She talks about the difference in perception between int'l aid workers and the local staff and communities in the recipient countries. She also has several links to interesting articles about how aid is often counterproductive because donor agencies don't really "know their clients".

http://www.internationalpeaceandconflict.org/profiles/blog/list?user=1gp...

In my twenties I lived in DC and briefly in Kenya, and was around a lot of multi-lateral development agency folks. All of us had the best intentions for the developing world. I remember having endless discussions with people who worked for different government agencies, NGOs, etc. - we were all so passionate about making Africa (and the rest of the developing world) better. And yet, it seems the gap has grown. Examples of successes are rare. So it's interesting to read blogs like yours and the Jennifer's where the pitfalls and contradictions of "aid work" are brought into relief. There's also a new website that should be interesting: http://www.admittingfailure.com/ - that encourages aid and relief workers to examine and learn from their failures. I guess humility is the new name of the game.

Keep up the good work, ladies! Every little bit counts!

Hi Liz,

Thanks for your comments, I would love to look into the links you referenced.

Just to shed some more light on the context... The conference that we held was not to interview people or manipulate them into working for free. We did, in fact, reimburse travel expenses on top of the per diem they were recieving. Our goal was, rather, to facilitate the communication and collaboration between different actors working within (or implicated in) the health sector. There are women's associations, NGOs, health professionals, etc all working towards the same goals in public health, but they are often unaware of possibilities for collaboration, what resources are available, etc. Our goal was to help them work out collective and individual future plans, and to facilitate the realization of these goals.

As such, each group of people presented what work they were already involved in, what their goals were, who they would like to work with, and what resources they need in the future to achieve these goals. We were not asking them to do work they weren't already involved with; rather, we were trying to help coordinate and facilitate the plans they themselves proposed.

What bothers me about the tradition of per diem in Mali is that it is so engrained in the system that it is almost impossible to gather people without paying them. This, in turn, distorts people's perceptions of volition and purpose, and can cripple otherwise potentially extraordinary projects. People end up participating not because they're interested in the content, but just to make a buck. It is not uncommon to go to a meeting in Mali where the political authorities present are paid 10 times the amount of per diem than everyone else, and their participation amounts to not more than a dry introductory speech. Similarly, NGOs often pay villagers to come to day-long meetings that have no roots in community proposals, and they will twiddle their thumbs the whole time.

One of the most frustrating implications of this trend for this particular Family Planning project, in my opinion, was that salaried journalists were unwilling to collaborate on a health campaign (not a publicity stunt for any organization, but rather a public education program) without us shoving extra money into their pockets. This because they are so used to NGOs paying them on the side to do any programming outside the norm. They already had a certain period of radio time consacrated to programming on health, but because there was a couple of white development workers encouraging them to talk about birth spacing during their shows, they said they would have to be paid extra.

I agree that development efforts often fail because the organizations don't "know their clients", as you've said. This is exactly the problem I'm trying to point out. Money is thrown haphazardly at projects before the communities they're aimed at are even consulted. NGOs go to villages with their own agendas and implement projects rather than asking the villages what they want and need.

The Peace Corps has a slightly different (though not flawless) approach: we live in a community for 2 years and work on projects that are initiated by our communities themselves. A large emphasis is placed on empowerment of local people, with training and education, rather than funded projects, as the prefered means. The Peace Corps, too, has it's own faults, but I believe in this respect it is somewhat unique. Not because volunteers revolutionize their communities, but because we learn to listen, and we learn patience, which changes our perceptions of our role in the world.

I believe that if people are encouraged to work to better their communities because it is the right thing to do, out of benevolence and a will to help their brothers and sisters, rather than because a white person with a USAID badge is paying them to do so, true development will really take place. When I talk of reconstructing the system I mean not that people in developing countries should be expected to work without pay according to the agendas of western agencies, but rather that we should discontinue our support of this system of patronage that we ourselves have created, and empower and inspire local people to better their communities on their own terms. My ideal for the future of development is one in which the expats all go home, and the locals take over the reigns.

Thanks for the encouragement and for listening... la lutte continue!

Sara

Liz4peace's picture

La Lutte

Hi Sara,
Hi Sara,

Thanks for your insights. Really enjoyed reading them. What a conundrum!

I can imagine that part of the problem is that even local doctors, journalists and teachers have trouble making ends meet on their salaries, and when they know that foreign money is involved they figure they might as well get a piece of the action. It's really no different from government contractors here in the US, routinely padding their bills and expense accounts. Also, I think people need to feel a certain degree of financial security - at least have the ability to provide decently for their families - before they feel they can "donate" to the larger community. It probably also has a lot to do with the pervasive corruption - I mean, you just feel like you're being naive if you don't get a piece of the pie while everyone around you is diving in with both hands. And I suppose that part of that "corruption" is caused by the very aid these communities have received over the years. After a while you just expect that an NGO will step in to help solve your problem.

Is there any tradition there of businesses making donations. Or "giving circles" - where everybody contributes and then votes on where the money should go? I think you're right on the money (no pun intended) when you suggest that people need to have a personal or community stake in the project - then it becomes their cause, and not just something foisted upon them. Well, if you can figure that one out, I've got a Nobel Prize for you!

Shanti

Liz

I

Carrie Lee's picture

Thanks for this post

I enjoyed reading this, and was reminded at the end, when people stood up to offer ways that they could help..that what we give, we get. Everything we do affects the whole.

I also wanted to recommend a marvelous book called Monique and the Mango Rains: Two Years with a Midwife in Mali. It was written by a former peace corp volunteer and tells the story of her experience in a remote village in Mali. Reading it, I was reminded of the incredible strength of these women birthing their babies with such power. I know the MMR is high, but I also know these women are powerful! And hopefully with more education on contraception, child spacing, and pre-natal care, these women will claim that power in a new way.

Blessings,
Carrie

amymorros's picture

Small Steps

Great piece Sara! I was also a PCV in Mali in the Natural Resource Management sector in Diawarala, which is near Konobougou (1 hour from Segou). I wish you all the best (and am jealous that you have such great access to the internet-not so much in the 90's). This year is especially meaningful for the Peace Corps as we celebrate 50 years and mourn the recent loss of Sargent Shriver. I am helping to organize a celebratory event and many others are going on across the country. Thanks for your commitment and I look forward to reading more from you.

I ni baara!

Amy
(a.k.a. Mamou Kouyate)

Amy
@amyinstl

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