Food for work: controversial development tool for Africa

The village of Debere is a dusty little collection of mud buildings and walls, engulfed in ponderous, forceful heat. Villagers here have had a rough year. Once again, rain did not fall and crops failed. Their situation echoes that of dozens of other small communities in this repeatedly drought-stricken region.

Representatives from two development agencies offered aid earlier this year to relieve the hunger and poverty of the village. After much discussion with 40 local men in the chief's courtyard, the volunteers offered to help the community construct a cement-lined well. The villagers responded, ``We will do the white man's project if you give us food.''

This initial response highlights a main problem that development agencies have faced since so-called ``food for work'' projects became popular in this region and elsewhere in Africa: confusion over whom the project is for.

Additionally, this approach to aid in some instances lures these people into projects they are not committed to and creates a ``handout'' mentality - which untimately cause projects to fail.

Richard Newberg of the United States Agency for International Development, says that food for work, like food aid, is ``a balancing act: You need to be careful to meet all real needs without creating a dependence on food from outside sources or discouraging'' local production.

According to Mr. Newberg: ``Food for work was conceived as a way to combine drought and famine relief with longer-term development needs.'' The Malian government endorsed the strategy in 1986, hoping it would stimulate internal productivity and gradually decrease dependency on external food.

Some relief officials think it was a bad idea.

Dory Billingsly, a Peace Corps volunteer stationed in Dire, believes food for work ``sets dangerous precedents. One village gets food to do a job and next thing you know all the others expect it, whether they need it or not.''

Javad Mushkuri, a colleague of Ms. Billingsly's is concerned that every time an agency provides food for work, it makes it more difficult for agencies that are aiming for grass-roots incentive and projects without payment. ``We go in to help a village build a barrage [dam]'' he explains, ``and the locals say, `The Germans paid us [with food] to work on the barrage we built with them.' Then we say, `With us the barrage is your payment.'''

Janine Rands of World Vision has run into several problems putting food-for-work programs into practice. In an effort to expand survival options for the Tuareg, who have been nomadic herders for centuries, she and her co-workers tried to encourage gardening.

Ms. Rands says, ``we paid the Tuareg a certain food ration for each meter of banco [mud] garden wall. ... But when it came time to till the soil, they told us, `We've no time to do gardens; we're busy building garden walls!'''

Billingsly says she has seen ``Tuareg building walls around garden plots they had no intention of cultivating.''

Both volunteers discovered that for many of these proud herding peoples, the very thought of becoming farmers is demeaning, unthinkable. In their eyes, the construction of garden walls is not a step toward cultivation; it is simply busy work that wins them food for their family.

Peace Corps volunteer Karl Dalla Rosa is based in Douentza and has worked for many years with the local Dogon tribe. He believes food payments make sense if villagers are being asked to try something new. But, if the projects are not even culturally appropriate, ``people get the idea the project is yours, not theirs, especially if you are providing food payments,'' Mr. Dalla Rosa says.

He also insists that the villagers be involved in the selection and planning process of each project.

``Say we have [$5,000] available for a project when we go to a village to talk with them about their needs,'' he explains. They will tell us, `We need millet.' My response is, `OK ... but if we buy [$3,000] worth of millet, what shall be done with the rest of the money? ... trying to get them to participate in the give and take of choosing the tool that will help them survive for six years versus just the millet that will help them survive for this year.''

All of this is part of the ``balancing act.''

At the end of the meeting between Debere villagers and foreign volunteers, it seemed that an balance between aid and self help was reached: World University Services of Canada promised to finance the purchase of supplies for the well project. The Peace Corps agreed to provide technical assistance. And the locals, encouraged by the volunteers to invest in their own future, decided to work on the well for the well's sake alone.

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