I haven’t talked about it in a while, but Gisele’s school in Burkina Faso is doing well, and I thought I would write a post about how it’s grown and some of the grassroots lessons I’ve learned about the hope-filled, but often hopeless act of giving aid.
When I got involved the school had about forty kids, three teachers, and part time cook, and one part time security guard all operating under the same small building which they partitioned into two classrooms. The picture below is the school today. They have six teachers, there are roughly one hundred and thirty kids enrolled, they have 24/7 security, a new playground, a new building for new classrooms, desks, and even uniforms.
When I first stumbled upon the school two years ago it did not require a lot of monetary aid as Gisele had a really well paying job as a translator and cook with the embassy, unfortunately due to some cut backs right as I was starting to get entrenched with the project she lost her job. The fate of cash flow into the school suddenly fell in my lap, so a few of us started pumping cash into the school just to keep it open. It would have been considered a small amount of money by our standards, just a couple hundred dollars a month, but that was a small fortune in West African monies. The issue back then was that the parents were not contributing as much as we thought they could. It was a frustrating condition that Gisele attempted to explain by stating that they just didn’t care, or wouldn’t care if they knew they were getting a hand out. I didn’t understand how to deal with this back then. So like most hope-filled hopeless aid we kept pumping money in, and the money worked. The school became “propped up”. It was enough cash flow to make sure Giselle could pay the staff, keep the doors open and still have extra money left over to invest in projects to better the grounds. As we were flooding the school with the money it needed we started to frantically come up with ways to make it self sustaining. It wasn’t hard to see that we had now adopted the burden of keeping a village school in Africa open, and we desperately needed some kind of long term goal (cough cough…exit). The contributions of the parents fell out of our mind as our focus was more about how to keep the external cash flow coming in. We searched for the best primordial bake sale between fund raisers, benefit concerts, and pleading for pocket change with facebook fundraising apps. To an extent this worked, but the effort did not justify the outcome in my opinion. Even if we raised enough money for a couple of months with a small fund raiser, the issue still remained. The school was non-sustainable without an external flow of cash. You might be reading this right now and thinking “Duh”! The school needs a way to sustain money internally and not rely on external Aid! But, this is not as obvious as you would think. The next time you buy magazines from the kid going door to door for some random charity or give a dollar to the random charity that is collecting at your local coffee shop think to yourself are you really helping those people fend for themselves, or are you just enabling an open hand willing to take, but not work for what they need!
There were a few ideas we were considering going with to get the school sustainable on it’s own two feet without the help of outside dollars. It came down to microeconomics. Why couldn’t the parents contribute? What was the real root cause? Did they have a good job? Could we set up micro loans and kickstarter fund raisers to help them start small businesses that would ultimately feed back income to the school? Unfortunately we never made it this far. On my second trip back to Burkina the infinite wisdom of the military command decided they didn’t want me to be involved with this project anymore. There were a variety of really lame reasons, the most ignorant of which was they didn’t want me to start something that could potentially fail, and that failure could look bad on the DOD. Probably should have thought of that a couple years ago guys! It was infuriating and something that was as involved as getting into the community to build small businesses for the parents was off the table.
The situation became depressing as we kept blindly sending money, and we weren’t sure where to go, and then we noticed something that was a shimmering beacon of hope. The parents were starting to contribute more and more each month. Our best guess, which we think is accurate is that the school started off as something small, and dilapidated. Now it was becoming a legit product. It had a name, it had gates, uniforms, books, burnt wooden structures had been turned to hardened steel. Basically we think the community was starting to take it serious. They saw one of there own building something that was working and they started to contribute more because I think they started respecting it. I also think a key element here was that we stayed relatively opaque in the background. If we had a more transparent image in the school, the parents may have thought, “Ah the Americans are paying for this, I’ll keep my money thank you very much”. Unfortunately even though the parents were stepping up, the school was growing and it wasn’t enough.
This is where I give thanks to Jack Nicholson for his role in The Departed, “no tiki, no laundry” became the solution. The parents needed to know that if no pay money then no school for kids! We pumped money into the school for a year and built a legitimate product for the community, now if we threatened to take it away they might listen, and to be honest if they let if fall, then that is their choice. The second lesson in all this is that we can’t give people something they don’t want. The community that is receiving whatever charity be it a school, roads, church, etc has to want it! You can’t force feed it to them.
Stepping away completely to test this theory was a bit to risky I thought, so we took a middle ground for a year. We started price matching the parents. Whatever they contributing I promised to match. This seemed to work well and we were able to cut contributions by roughly 75%. Something else happened over the last year as well. The embassy, peace corp, and outside NGOs started to take notice of the school. Giselle was sending me budget sheets and status updates every month. There were mysterious contributions coming in from outside sources, and random european teenagers were coming to work and volunteer at the school. It was gaining visibility.
Now, today, October 2013 we have stepped away. This will be the first year the school is running on it’s own. It has the attention and backing of the community and local NGOs, and department of state have taken notice. I made a one last contribution to Gisele to send her to college for a year to study English so that she might hopefully find a well paying job, but otherwise our Aid contribution has come down to a trickle. We still send some small money, really as a “feel good” donation for ourselves, but nothing that would sustain their operations. It will continue now as determined by the will of the locals, and in my opinion this is how it should be.