Tuesday, March 13, 2012

hoping my help is helpful: pondering international development work and my time in Namibia

"Not only can you make a difference, you are ethically responsible to do so." -Romeo Dallaire, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children

This is my last week at work here, which means that this is my last "Workday Wednesday" in Windhoek. This seems like a good time to reflect on the work I've done here.

Shortly before I left for Africa, my friend Yoni passed on a fascinating thought-provoking article that took a heavily critical view of volunteering in Africa. The article poked fun at young people in their gap year facing identity dilemmas or middle-aged folks facing an empty nest and a mid-life crisis, all deciding that teaching English or building a house in Africa is going to fill the emptiness in their lives. Helping poor people would help them feel better about themselves.

but by the time the first bombs fell
we were already bored

-The Arcade Fire "The Suburbs"

Such an altruistic conclusion is fine if you're looking for something to pass the time, but the article then questions whether you are actually helping - that is, providing meaningful and sustainable assistance that will actually implement significant long-term change in the developing country. Are you actually doing good?

Obviously there are lots of people "doing good" in these countries. But there are many examples where "help" is not all that helpful. While we were training for our program in Ottawa before we were sent overseas, we learned about foreign aid projects that simply failed. For example, the installation of a water pipe system in a village was all very nice and useful until the water pipes broke down and nobody was around to fix it or maintain it. Now the system just sits there, broken and rusty, and the people in the village still have to walk long miles to fetch water from the next well.

I was told of another story at the Katutura after school program that I volunteered at, where one well-meaning guy offered to teach a few of the kids to play the guitar. He showed up a few times, let the kids play with the guitars (and break them), and then never showed up again. Now the centre has two broken guitars.

Another difficult question that the article posed was whether your help is actually needed. Sure, you can volunteer to help build a house in Namibia during your spring break, but surely it would be better to send money to pay a Namibian construction worker to build the house? After all, he needs a job. Also, he's kind of been trained to build houses, while you have a bachelor of arts (for the record, I have a bachelor of arts). Are you actually helping, or are you putting a local person out of a job by providing mediocre quality services in something you don't specialize in?

I would argue that there are certain services that a volunteer can provide that can be useful to a country. Skills development and capacity building, for example. One of my American friends working at the local Namibian university tells me that for every foreigner they hire, they make sure they also hire a local Namibian that will be trained to replace the foreigner once he leaves. This strikes me as a responsible and sustainable arrangement.

Also, if your services are something that is genuinely in shortage and in demand in the country, your help will probably be quite useful. My friend Heather, for example, is teaching law in the Gambia, a country that opened up its first law school only a few years ago. Its legal system is still being set up and the country welcomes the legal experts of other countries to offer their advice and experience. Heather is essentially training a new generation of young lawyers. When Namibia first gained independence, we had judges and lawyers come in from many other countries to help establish a new legal system.

There is the argument that volunteering overseas provides an important learning opportunity for volunteers themselves. They get to experience new cultures and learn about hardship in the world beyond the suburban angst expressed in the new Arcade Fire album. I think this is very important, and if that is the main reason for a person to travel to Africa, then that is great. But in international development terms, there are other things to consider. The thing is, Africa is not a just playground for people from North America to come and feel better about themselves. Many developing countries can definitely use assistance, but only if the assistance is practical, meaningful, and somewhat lasting. Otherwise, it might just be better to send money. The cost of your airfare to Africa, accommodation, and meals might go a much longer way as a monetary donation than your week's worth of physical labour. Not to mention there are people in your own neighbourhood who could use help - just check out your local soup kitchen or rape shelter.

sometimes i wonder if the world's so small
can we ever get away from the sprawl

-The Arcade Fire "Sprawl II"

These thoughts have remained in the back of my mind during my entire stay in Namibia. Have I contributed something useful to the country? I would really like to think that I fall on the "useful" side of the spectrum. After all, I was recruited into this program sponsored by the Canadian International Development Agency and the Canadian Bar Association for my specific skill and experience as a lawyer. My organization could not hire a Namibian lawyer to do the work that I was doing, and so by offering my services, I was able to provide something to the country that would not have otherwise been offered. I've been here for about seven months, which I hope was long enough to be able to provide meaningful significance. My particular skill is in legal research and most of the work that I did here involved conducting research, especially of the international and comparative nature, to guide the Namibian government in writing new laws.

Some of the stuff I have worked on while here have included:

  • a research project on statelessness in preparation for a United Nations High Commission for Refugee regional conference. Stateless people are people who, for some reason, do not have any claim to nationality. Think, perhaps, about the situation of Tom Hanks' character in The Terminal, who is stuck because his country Krakozhia no longer exists as a state, but he has no claim to the United States, where he resides. I analysed Namibian legislation to assess whether they complied with the international standards set out in the 1954 Convention relating to the Status of Stateless Persons and the 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, and I concluded with a set of recommendations on amendments that would need to be made to better comply with Namibia's international obligations.

  • The Namibian government has asked us to help draft a new Marriage Bill to address the specific issues that Namibia faces, including foreigners potentially exploiting Namibian women in a fraudulent marriage in order to gain residential status in Namibia. It's a bit of a twist on the usual sham marriages we're used to in the Western world, where mail-order brides immigrate to Canada or the United States and then face exploitation by their sponsoring partners. I helped out by doing research on what other countries have done to deal with these kinds of issues.

  • I attended a meeting with representatives of United Nations agencies and the Ministry of Gender Equality and Child Welfare with the aim of hammering out a draft National Plan of Action on Gender-based Violence. I assisted with finalizing the plan. It was pretty encouraging to see people in high places talk about prioritizing gender issues like domestic violence, rape, and trafficking. We'll see how the plan is implemented though.

  • One of the biggest things we've been working on is completing the domestic violence study report, which evaluates the relatively new Combating of Domestic Violence Act and its ability to address the major problem of domestic violence against women in Namibia. One of the more interesting projects that I coordinated with regards this report was running a photoshoot with a visiting photographer for photos to use for publicity about the report and its issues. Ah, running photoshoots and coordinating model...the life of a lawyer is hard.

  • In addition to the domestic violence report, my organization is in the process of publishing a report on Namibia’s child maintenance (child support) laws. Like many places around the world, Namibia is no stranger to deadbeat dads. The thing is, Namibia has a lot of single moms, so unless you want a lot of kids growing up in poverty, it's important to make sure that laws about child support payments are effective and efficient. I provided research support for the writing of this report.

  • My organization has been assisting the Ministry of Health with the writing of a new Mental Health Bill. I accompanied my colleague to one of these consultation meetings in order to provide our organization’s comments on the Bill. I then provided research support for this process, comparing the draft bill with the guidelines set out by the World Health Organization and similar legislation in other countries.

  • My organization has also been helping the Namibian government to re-write the Births, Marriages and Deaths Registration Act. The current one is left over from the apartheid era. Yep. Time for a new one. In order to do this, I conducted extensive research on the specific issue of how birth registration is tied to citizenship laws, and provided a comparative analysis on how countries around the world have dealt with this issue.

  • I provided research support regarding the impact of environmental degradation on women as well as women’s access to credit and loan repayment rates, for submissions that my organisation made regarding gender issues to the National Planning Commission for Namibia’s fourth National Development Plan. The research about loans, while absolutely interesting (especially stuff about the Grameen Bank projects), made me panic a little about my own student loans.

  • I also wrote several articles explaining the law to the public. I drafted a section of a booklet on the Ministry of Education’s new learner pregnancy policy, explaining what legal options a person has if she cannot afford to pay the school development fund contribution, according to the Education Act. I also wrote two articles for the Namibian magazine Young, Latest and Cool, put out by the youth arts group Ombetja Yehinga Organisation. One explained to young people the process under the new Child Care and Protection Act (CCPA) for removing a child from their home for child welfare and safety purposes. The other explained the difference between foster care and kinship care under the CCPA, and the procedures for both. Finally, I wrote an opinion editorial piece for the local newspaper on domestic violence.

Overall I feel pretty good about my work here in Namibia. But there is always that nagging feeling that remains. Maybe I could have been more useful if I had more experience. Maybe I should have stayed longer. And maybe the work I've done here will have no impact whatsoever because the Namibian government might not listen to our recommendations. But at this point of my stay in Namibia, I'd like to remain optimistic. I've worked hard while I was here, and hopefully it will pay off. And at the very least, I've introduced the country of Namibia to the girl-rocking musical wonders of Scary Bear Soundtrack.

"Peux ce que veux, allons-y." -Romeo Dallaire