NGO’s Helping in The Gambia
Thursday, May 10, 2012
Many Charities and NGOs operate in Africa - and The Gambia has its fair share. Billions of pounds have been pumped into this continent but, sadly, in many cases, there is little to show for the money spent. They arrive with good intentions but they have little knowledge of the country, its people or the way the system works.
I’m not saying that all Charities and NGOs are bad; some are very good with the projects well considered and they give benefit.
Let us now consider the damage that can be done by well-meaning people who have no idea how things work in Africa and who make promises that they cannot keep.
Water is probably the most important commodity in Africa. The Gambia has had various organisations that aimed to give residents of villages the prospect of fresh water from a stand pipe.
Under normal circumstances, it comes from shallow wells and it is brought up by rope and bucket – ensuring that not a drop is wasted. But there is a problem. The first water table is polluted by the people who use it, not their fault as they have little choice. Toilets are holes dug in the ground directly over the water table. The WHO suggests that a well should be at least 30 metres from a toilet, but most compounds are not that large, so faecal coliform is an added ingredient to the drinking water – and Abuko water resources can confirm that fact. A local village was promised a water supply, the villagers had to dig the trenches for the pipework. The NGO had a borehole sunk, supplied a water storage facility and built a secure enclosure for the borehole, pump and the generator used to run the system.
I questioned the need for a generator, their argument was that the villagers had to be taught to look after things and, if they paid for them to operate, it would make the project work. The generator ran for the time it took for the celebration lauding the generous people who had done this magnificent work for the village but it has sat silently for a year. Why? Because it’s impossible to get everybody to pay for the fuel! Who is going to apportion the costs, collect the money and buy the diesel? Quite apart from the fact that what each lady has grown, will not cover her bill – so much for help!
The Gambia has plenty of sunshine – even in the rainy season - and a solar system would have worked perfectly well and supplied water every day. Why introduce an unworkable pay-to-use system?
An NGO was set up to help farmers. In their wisdom, it was decided to use a donkey to draw water through a very elaborate system that involved counter-weights and pulleys – a design so well thought out that, had it been implemented, we would have dead donkeys lining the road as they would be taking the entire load to get this contraption moving. I suggested to the designer that he should take the place of the donkey to see what issues there were – he declined; I wonder why? I have always worked on the KISS principle – Keep it Short and Simple.
One NGO started a farming project and convinced the local farmers they were getting a poor deal on the crops they sold and told them they could do better. The people believed this and followed the advice they were given. Unfortunately, the project failed as the NGO could not deliver its promises and it left a community with a rotting crop that they could not sell and with no money to buy food.
There is a hospital up-country with a solar system that was not working correctly and I volunteered to try and identify the problem. When I arrived, I had some concerns; the panels were on a roof 15 metres high that could only be reached by a ladder standing on a rough dirt floor. Imagine climbing a ladder, carrying cleaning materials and a hose pipe. Then you run the water to clean the panels; some is going to go onto the metal roof and, suddenly, there is a potentially dangerous situation. Call me a killjoy but I do not believe we have the right to put someone’s life at risk on that basis.
There is a problem of duplication of effort. Take fuel efficient cooking stoves. I have heard of a number of NGO’s researching and testing stoves. Why reinvent the wheel? There is one very good company who has solved the stove and fuel problem here in The Gambia, Greentech, with their groundnut shell fuel stoves. All the NGO’s should collaborate and help them distribute their product.
By now you must be thinking that I am totally against Charities and NGOs, you are wrong. There are some extremely good organisations operating in The Gambia and other parts of Africa. A Charity that helps schools, called FROGS, Friends of Gambian Schools. has done sterling work assisting schools become more efficient by supplying books and teaching materials, building accommodation for staff in remote areas, BUT it is not all give. The recipient schools have to own the problem and then they become involved with what is happening – they now own the solution.
A charity that operates in several African countries, but sadly not here, is Self Help and that does exactly as it says. The people are the solution; if they do not become fully involved, the project does not happen. It does not employ highly paid managers who require expensive accommodation, fancy air-conditioned four-wheel drives and, of course, expensive offices. This charity trains local people to do the job, releasing money that would have been used for those luxuries, to do good.
So, how would I change things? I would require any NGO thinking of operating in a country to spend time in that country. They would have to live in local accommodation, eat the local produce, use the local transport and be given local salaries, for a minimum of three months. Then they would have an idea of the problems affecting the people that they planned to assist before wasting a lot of money on a potential dead-end project.
In many countries, there are people with vast experience and knowledge, the expats, who would be willing to help the communities in which they live. They could well have the skills required and become involved at much lower cost. Finally, every project should be believable and achievable. If it sounds too good to be true, it invariably is. Think about the benefits it may give but also consider the potential damage that can be done should it not work.
Author: David Beardsley