Upon the acceptance of my USAID SPA (Small Project Assistance) grant, I feel as though it’s an apt time to explore the loaded issue of money here in Burkina. As a concept, what does it mean? What can it do? What can’t it do? How do those who lack it manage their meager resources? And throughout, I will try to touch upon what damage the injection of capital into an unready, underperforming system can do.
The grant that I recently wrote is designed to help my local village group, Faso Djigui, start a 400-tree moringa orchard and powder-production business and service here in Koumbara. Although the motivation is there, lack of resources and education on how to manage an orchard and business necessitates a little help with getting the project off the ground. The key to SPA grants (and all development grants of this nature) is to set it up in such a way that convinces your community that the money they will be receiving is not a gift, yet merely help in accomplishing a large project with great future potential. When you ask Burkinabe (some very prominent figures, even) what “development” is, a great deal of them will say that it is, “people coming and bringing money.” This is not their fault—the past 50+ years of development work (especially in West Africa) is largely characterized by unwarranted gifts of money, unprepared communities, and rampant corruption on all levels, resulting in a slew of unfinished and unsuccessful projects.
With that in mind, how does one write a grant asking for large sums and at the same time break through the deeply engrained expectations of receiving unearned money? First, one must explain why a grant is needed for a particular project. I started by reiterating my purpose in Koumbara as a volunteer and how this project was their idea and based on their needs. Developing a sense of pride in their project is extremely helpful. If they see it as their own baby, they will be more inclined to do what is needed to do, as opposed to waiting around for money to miraculously appear—you get very good at waiting here in West Africa.
Second, one must identify what exactly the group needs money for. By separating the large expenditures from the small ones, we were able to identify that we simply didn’t have the money for 200 meters of high quality metal fence. However, we determined that there was labor we could do ourselves, and equipment we could build (such as field preparation, and building drying racks for the moringa leaves).
Third, with the SPA grants giving 75% of the project cost and the community needing to contribute 25% in money or labor, one must structure the grant to illustrate what the group will be getting and what the group will buy themselves. Since the metal fence took up such a huge portion of the grant, I was able to show my group that our money will be buying everything but the metal fence—hopefully giving them a stronger sense of ownership in the project. Some volunteers will work with the grant and search out possible labor the community could do in order to drive down the price tag on their 25% contribution. I shied away from that because I felt that would further perpetuate the idea that if they finagle with the system, they can get their gift of money without having to put much up themselves. It’s a tricky and time-consuming process, to say the least. Our project had a total cost of around 800 USD. The government will give us 600 USD and we will have to produce 200 USD—roughly 100,000 CFA. This is more than the one farmer’s annual income, yet through innovative approaches to pooling money, we will hopefully be able to get it together soon.
What does having money mean? Having money in Burkina can be everything to some people. If you look at the data, the highest levels of childhood malnutrition are not up in the Sahel (the northern tip of the country), but down in the southwest where the soil is the most fertile and abundant. How is this the case? As it turns out, farmers in the southwest sell and export everything, valuing the money and what they can do with it over the health of themselves and their families. Moreover, having money can mean the detachment from rural communities and their needs. This country is filled with those who have risen to prominent-enough positions that allow them to ignore the plights of those whom they have left behind. I say “prominent-enough” because you don’t need to make it that far to receive some nominal government posting. You can mention development and community health and education projects to these detached functionaries and they will feign interest and approval, yet it’s often easy to see when they’re not legitimately interested. This is most certainly not the case for all functionaries here, although it’s prominent-enough (see what I did there?) to warrant a mention. However, having money can mean, simply enough, elevation out of poverty. This is what we’re aiming for, yet changing attitudes about what wealth means is what takes time and energy—helping a group start a business will be work for me, but teaching them how to responsibly manage the money they will be receiving will be another challenge in itself.
What can money do? In the hands of those responsible and committed to the improvement of their communities, money can be a powerful tool. It can help spark projects, it can help fix broken projects, and it can build an excitement and a sense of purpose within the community. When Faso Djigui starts making money by selling their moringa powder, those profits will be stored in a bank account accessible only to the president, the treasurer, and my counterpart together. They will then use this money to help subsidize improved seed for the farmers of Koumbara, allowing them to provide an additional service that previously would have been impossible. Unfortunately, large sums of money in poor areas that lack accountability can lead to corruption, embezzlement, and infighting. I know one volunteer who works with a prominent group in a prominent town outside one of Burkina’s largest cities. He recently found out that over the two years of his service, his counterpart had been skimming money off the top and since nobody was watching (and if they were, they weren’t caring), he had gotten away with it. We’re not talking small amounts here; we’re talking millions of CFA. In all, when starting from scratch (like I am), creating stopgaps and checks in the system is crucial. My group has set up their bank account under the pretext that it is only for use on group projects, not for them personally. Hopefully that sentiment is as sustainable as I want to believe it is. However, it will all rely on the culture and attitudes of the members of the group as time progresses.
What can’t money do? Money alone can’t solve problems. Those who are lazy with good intentions will try to convince you that if they could just get some money, they’d do some good with it. Or if they’re really lazy they’ll just try to convince you that they need money—period. The problem is that essentially for the past 50 years, that’s what’s been happening. And what exactly do we have to show for those billions and trillions of dollars pumped into this system? In fairness, yes there have been significant improvements, but for the amount of money given in the name of aid, most developing countries in Africa come up wanting. An elegant example of what money can’t do is the all-too-familiar problem with the local health center—the CSPS. These were built all over Africa and most villages and locales have one. It was a WHO program designed to deliver reliable healthcare to those in rural areas without access to hospitals. They were built by the host government, staffed with trained nurses, run by solar panels and battery banks if electricity isn’t available (like my village), and practically given medicines from foreign governments that they sell for pennies to their respective communities. True, the injection of large sums of foreign and domestic money made that happen, yet just having a CSPS doesn’t get people in the door. It costs 3500 CFA to give birth there (that’s 7 USD), yet most families forego the CSPS because they value keeping the money over the sanitary conditions and trained staff. Frustratingly, what the head of the family will often spend 3500 CFA on is usually something we would value less than a proper and safe birth. Money in the form of a functioning health center alone can’t change habits and attitudes, especially in such a risk-averse society that lacks basic safety nets that we take for granted. When someone is sick, they use the CSPS as a last resort, claiming that the medicine is too expensive (which is not true). This is a significant problem, and the delay in getting to the CSPS when something is actually gravely wrong has been the cause of two meningitis deaths in Koumbara this year.
How do those who lack money manage their resources? This is fascinating topic here in Burkina and further north. When you don’t have a bank account, animals are your bank account. A goat goes for 10,000 CFA. A sheep goes for 25,000 CFA. A cow goes for 100,000 CFA. A chicken goes for 2500 CFA. You get the point. The more animals you have, the more you have at your disposal—simple as that. Although this is a form of saving, what most people in villages lack is the notion of planning ahead. Here in the Sourou Valley, the Fulani, a quasi-nomadic ethnic group that lives all around our villages can be identified by their wealth of animals. They’re usually quite poor in terms of physical money, living in much simpler conditions than their Dafine or Samo counterparts. However, there are a few Peuls who have been able to capitalize on their animals and have been able to make a great deal of money, building houses and buying motorcycles. It is possible to use your animals as a source of income but most Burkinabe are wary of that activity.
I had a negative interaction with an older woman a few months ago, in which she wanted me to buy her a shirt. I politely refused, and after some playful back and forth (at least I thought it was), she told me I was a bad white person: tu es un mauvais blanc. I asked if she felt that the only good white people were the ones who gave her money and she said yes. Thankfully she wasn’t from Koumbara or I would have been more upset. People in my community tend to get why I’m here and don’t act this way. However, this underscores an important challenge we face here. Due to the preconceived notions described earlier, I’m constantly harassed when I travel. Kids will demand a soccer ball or money; women will demand that I buy things from them because I have money; men will simply ask what I’m going to give them. It can be insanely frustrating at times, yet we must remember that these are learned behaviors—and not just from the failures of the development community. At the Dedougou mask festival, wealthy Europeans flocked to the center of town to pay children to be their guides, or simply give them money thinking they’re helping out. That only teaches these kids that when they see a white person, there’s some possible money to be had. When you look at children’s drawings depicting the mask festival, they show white people with electronics hanging off of their person. This is where they learn it—and with no reliable notion of the problems of the Western world, they can confidently assume that white equals rich and rich equals gifts.
This post may come off as negative. Unfortunately, the problems of money in the developing world so often outweigh the good. However, I hope that I was able to illustrate the progress that is to be had with the proper allotment and usage of capital. In summary, to quote The Beatles, “you never give me your money.” That’s right, because we here in Koumbara earn our money, and we earn it ourselves.