Africa's poor, left out of Millennium Development Goals summit, now have the stage

A conversation about September's Millennium Development Goals summit, which lacked the voice of those MDGs mean to help, led to an event to give voice to Africa's poor.

Back in September, I wrote a post about the absurdity and irony of the gathering of rich, mostly white people talking about ways to help poor people of color that was the Millennium Development Goals summit and related events. A conversation about this issue started on Twitter, where TMS Ruge (aka, Teddy, aka, the founder of Project Diaspora) launched the idea for an independently organized TEDx event around the idea of letting poor people talk about what they think their communities need, what works and doesn't work in aid, and new ideas the Whites in Shining Armor haven't even thought about. Appropriately enough, he planned to call it TEDxPoor.

Well. Long story short, the TED people (who charge $6,000 to attend one of their conferences) didn't take too kindly to the idea of their name being attached to "poor," and Teddy decided that another platform might be a more appropriate venue through which the voices of the poor could be heard. And Villages in Action was born:

We are excited to announce that on November 27, 2010, the first VIA conference will be held in Kikuube in Uganda; a small village with just over 260 homesteads and a population just over 1,000. My mother, one of our speakers, serves as the local chairperson, as well as pastor. I was surprised that she –a village leader – had never heard of the MDGs. She is, however, very excited that she will have a turn at the microphone to represent her village.

I am beyond excited about the chance to hear what people who've never heard of the MDG's think about community development. Villages in Action will feature speakers, panels, music, and all the other sorts of activities that one sees at a fancy summit. The only difference here is that the voices will be those of people who actually live in poverty, who know what it is like to live on $1 to $2 a day, and who some how figure out how to raise children and get by in the most difficult of circumstances. In other words, the experts.

Aren't there a lot of other venues in which the poor can speak? Well, kind of. Most big NGO's do regular "listening sessions" or focus groups in which Western experts sit in a circle with a group for a few hours, asking questions through a translator. But we don't get to be party to the unedited conversations there. We might get to see a write-up, or the exercise might be purely for internal measurement and evaluation purposes within the NGO. Plus there's the added problem that when people in the group know they are talking to an Important White Person from Save the OxPlan Vision, they might be hesitant to give their full and honest opinion out of fear of being impolite or losing access to resources. There just aren't many opportunities for the world's materially poor people to share their voices on a large platform without constraints. Which is why Villages in Action is so important.

Villages in Action takes place in just under two weeks, and there's a lot to be done. They could also use financial support - there are Bronze, Silver, and Gold Sponsor levels, as well as an option to give any amount as a supporter. If you believe that there's value in hearing from the people we purport to help, please consider supporting Villages in Action.

Laura Seay, a professor of political science at Morehouse College, blogs from Texas in Africa.

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