Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Peanut Butter Jars

Back in the 1960s an aunt and uncle of mine were Peace Corps volunteers in a remote village in the Himalayas. This small village had no electricity, no manufacturing and no stores. My aunt and uncle had a garden plot, but other than that they had to carry all their food and other supplies in from the nearest town, which was a long hike.

Every once in a while they carried up a jar of peanut butter. When they finished the jar, they washed it out and gave it to one of their friends.

One day they came back to the village after being away to get supplies, and they found that their garden had been completely destroyed. When they asked their friends what happened, they were told to talk to the village elders.

The village elders told them that they had destroyed their garden as punishment for the peanut butter jars. They explained that the peanut butter jars were very precious in the village, and by handing them out to their friends they were disrupting the structure of the community. From now on, peanut butter jars would be distributed by the village elders, or my aunt and uncle would not be welcome in the village.

When I did aid work in Africa in the 1990s a lot of peanut butter jars were being handed out by foreigners and there was nobody to monitor the disruption at all.

For example, in villages nearly as remote as my aunt and uncle’s Himalayan one, all of a sudden one small interest group would get money, an office building, and a vehicle and driver. Talk about destroying the structure of the community.

In East Africa, it is the semi-nomadic cattle herding pastoralists who are the darling of leftist aid workers. (That's not terribly surprising, as the pastoralists are the coolest people I have ever met in the entire world.) These pastoralists, such as the Maasai and Barabaig, migrated into East Africa in the 1900s and so are by no means the indigenous peoples of the area, but western aid workers equate them with the indigenous North American Indians, so they treat them as indigenous. In Tanzania, the pastoralists even have an NGO called PINGO: Pastoralist Indigenous NGO.

The reason the bogus indigenous claim is so important is that pastoralists need lots of land, and pastoralist aid work is all about land claims. Pastoralists and their cattle migrate over large areas during the year, and their land needs butt up against other Africans---even poorer---who try to eke out a living farming. Aid workers have been trying for decades to displace the farmers.

In the same area as the Barabaig there is the Hadzabe tribe, which is related to the Kalahari Bushmen. Hadzabe are short in stature and speak a click-language, and are among the most primitive people left on the earth: they are hunter-gatherers not dissimilar (it is believed) to prehistoric man. The Hadzabe, who now number only about 200, are both the most exotic and the most vulnerable of people. Anthropologists love them.

I met an anthropologist who lived with the Hadzabe for a year, itemizing and measuring everything they ate. He didn’t want to take advantage of them so he handed out hunting knives as parting gifts---thereby forever changing the diet of the community. Of all people, you'd think an anthropologist might have realized the repercussions of such an act in a community that literally lives hand to mouth, surviving mostly on berries and roots. What if the use of knives causes the food sources to be deplenished, or leads to youngsters not learning traditional bow and arrow techniques? I think, sadly, that this is now moot, based on the number of tour operators advertising that tourists can now visit the "primitive bushmen".

Part of the reason there are so few Hadza left has to do with a meddling NGO who tried to help them out a couple of decades ago by building houses for the community. Traditionally, the Hadza sleep in the open. When they were made to sleep in houses, mysteriously and quickly many of them died. It was never understood why they died, unless it had to do with hygiene problems.

I met a Hadzabe man who had once been the leader of his community. Aid workers often believe that international conferences should include everyone who is affected by aid, so some NGO plucked him from his hunter-gatherer life and sent him to a conference in Geneva, from which he returned a dysfunctional alcoholic.

Call it politically correct insensitivity. Call it careless distribution of peanut butter jars. I left Africa feeling that aid was doing more harm than good.

There is noone to stop the mammoth presence of the Catholic church from telling people in an AIDS-racked country that they'll go to hell if they use condoms, or to stop Habitat for Humanity from demanding religious conversion from the destitute in exchange for a house for their children. There are foreigners at all levels---UN, governmental, NGO, religious, academic, and individual---all operating on their own agendas, all thinking up ways to help the poor Africans and in many cases buggering off before the results become clear.

Even when projects are good, the very presence of foreign aid often hinders local progress. I dread the current plan to ship massive quantities of $100 PCs to the third world because it may wipe out fledgling computer industries, alienate children from their culture, create unsustainable expectations, and who knows what else. It's another do-gooder plan that sounds wonderful till you start to think through the repercussions.

The head of AIDS in Tanzania for the World Health Organization told me that ten or more unemployed Tanzanian doctors could have been hired for his salary and would probably do as good a job. The counter-argument is that when local doctors administer programs there tend to be corruption problems. But maybe we focus too much on corruption; we ignore a ton of "profit taking" in our own society but deplore all "corruption" in the third world. On the other hand, there are lots of clinics where almost all of the medicine is stolen and sold privately, and they don't do much good.

I'll write more on one possible way to sort this out in my next entry.

The Wheat Field


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