Thursday, November 16, 2006

Riding a bike

Dorm in Rugira
Originally uploaded by tomgivemeaning.

Rugira - November 16th, driving

Yesterday, I visited a school in Musema which had been targeted by the rebels in 1996. The rebels, angry that the children attending the school didn't want to enlist in the fight, burned the dormitories and eating hall. The leader of the rebel group responsible for burning that school in 1996 is now the elected President of Burundi. No matter what rationale the President has for the then need for the war his rebel army fought, you would think that upon gaining control, the FIRST THING he would do when he gained control is to ensure that any infrastructure destroyed by his own rebel army be immediately repaired.

It infuriates me no end that it is now a full decade later and this school is still not repaired. The bunk beds that the kids sleep on were burned in the fire set by the rebels and have never been replaced. Bullet holes still pot-mark all the walls and the metal beds sag and threaten to give way any day now. The kids that sleep in the dormitories with these charred bunk-beds are considered the lucky ones! Other kids who came to the school later sleep on thin foam mattresses on the bare floor of another dormitory.

After visiting this school, the dormitories burned into my mind, I drive just up the road to the local hospital. This hospital is currently being serviced by MSF - Doctors Without Borders. I share offices with MSF in Vancouver and have always admired their work. I also really admired the fact that they were one of the only organizations that during the outpouring of donations for the Tsunami relief efforts, they announced that they had reached their budget and were not accepting any more donations. Truly admirable! MSF's mandate is to go into "theatres" where there are no other "actors" providing critical medical support, most often during active armed conflicts. They were here on the ground here in Burundi when the civil war was going on, had to leave for a while because fighting grew too intense and were one of the first organizations back on the ground as fighting receded.

But here's the rub: MSF is a relief organization. Their job is to set-up the hospital, operate it for a period of time and transition a new team of doctors and staff to take-over. This assumes of course that there will actually be a staff hired before MSF leaves. The likely reality is that when MSF leaves, the hospital - which is the only medical clinic in a 10 kilometer radius- will crumble and disintegrate into a state of disrepair. Let me be absolutely clear: I'm in no way faulting MSF. They have a clear mandate. They have done their job and cannot be responsible for operating this hospital ad infinitum. But then who will be responsible? At present time, there is no answer. And so this illustrates one of the most important points for me to communicate: That we as donors MUST understand the difference between relief and development. And as fundraisers and charities, we MUST find new ways to communicate that it's the development work that makes lasting change.

So here's the vicious circle that currently exists in international funding. A "hot spot" emerges caused by civil war, environmental disaster, whatever. The urgent need is evident everywhere expressed in images and video that can easily be captured and presented as news or fundraising appeals. Donors react because they are being told the stories and seeing the images of an entire community without any medical care. They fund MSF's appeal and MSF comes into the town, does what they do best, and more images and stories come back of the difference MSF has made, the surgeries performed, the lives saved. Job well done, the donor feels satisfied, and then literally and metaphorically the lights go out. The media is covering the next hot spot, MSF moves out of the hospital and the community is left to sort it out from there. Note, I only use MSF as name of an organization to make the point.

Putting this into perhaps a more relatable context, I remember being on my BMX bike at Vic High School with my parents, the first time my training wheels had been taken off. Learning to ride the bike, one of my parents would walk holding on to the bike, steadying me and encouraging me to pedal a little faster. Then they would let go and for a few meters, I would be doing great and then invariably fall off the bike. They were there to dust me off, put me back on and start again. Eventually, I got the hang of it, and well, my parents don't need to steady my bike anymore. Some might say that this analogy is trite and I feel a little silly even feeling compelled to include this schlock but something like this analogy is needed because intelligent smart donors continually fund relief efforts with no consideration or care for what happens next. Continuing the analogy for one more moment, had my parents turned their back at the first few meters, they wouldn't have known that seconds later I had fallen off the bike, scraped my knee and cried for help . Had they turned their back, the only image they would have known was of those first few meters. They would walk away, content that I had learnt what I needed. We all know the perils of prematurely declaring "Mission Accomplished."

So then, what's the answer? Well, ultimately and in the most ideal, the big relief organizations would be more responsible with their donor messaging and fundraising activities when responding to an urgent crisis. They would make it clear that this only covers relief efforts and either offer a separate fund to be allocated only to post-relief development (if their mandate included staying on the ground when development begins) or offer a link to a respected development organization that they intended to transition their work to, when the relief work was over. This kind of cooperation and messaging is unfortunately likely entirely unrealistic.

So then, what is the realistic answer? I'm pretty sure I've got it. I just don't want to share it yet. Not because of a fear that someone else will run with it (heck, I want every charity concerned with international development to run with it) but because I want to live with it a while and write about a few of the other issues that this potential solution should also seek to address. But this may be as big a revolution as GiveMeaning itself.

But I can tell you I'm excited. The problem is enormous and when you see the problem manifested it is saddening and maddening. But it is entirely solvable. This is not the delirium of my malaria pills talking. Community by community, solutions can be applied to make long-lasting change that is ultimately made and sustained by the community itself.

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