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Climbing Jacob's Ladder

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Climbing Jacob's ladder
Is community development something that can be started and sustained from the outside? Graham Hancock looks at Action Aid’s contribution through Kenyan schools and finds that helping children up their educational ladder can have mixed results.

For the great majority of Kenyans, education looks like Jacob’s ladder. It seems to go up and up to a good job, a nice car, a brick house and a suit and tie. In fact, Jacob’s ladder goes to cloud cuckoo land. In 1982, out of 400,000 primary school leavers, well under 100,000 will get a secondary school place. Some of the rest will join the ranks of the unemployed in Kenya’s cities. Others will try to farm on small family plots or hire themselves out to bigger farmers at rock-bottom hourly rates.

Practically nothing that they will have learnt in primary school will be of any value to them. Indeed, if anything, their school experiences will disqualify them from finding happiness and moderate prosperity. These experiences will make them envious and restless and fill them with the poignant sorrow of paradise lost — a paradise that they will spend the rest of their days fruitlessly, pitifully, trying to regain. This is because the Kenyan school system exists solely to distil just one tiny drop of educational excellence — the 2.000 undergraduates at Nairobi university.

In the midst of this system Action Aid has 30,000 sponsored children, The agency’s Kenya programme, as well as being their biggest single operation, is also a model of their basic philosophy — summed up by Regional Director Anthony Ratter as: ‘involvement, involvement, involvement’. He does not deny that what he is talking about is involvement in a deeply imperfect educational system. But he argues that, to a limited extent, for a very small number of children and communities, Action Aid is able to do some good.

‘In a way we’re subversive to what the main aims of the Kenyan educational seem to be. Through our programmes we are trying to put back into the schools an emphasis on rural life — to show that it does have a value, that it should have a status, and that, with the proper techniques and methods, people who might otherwise be jobless can earn a decent living as small farmers.’

Certainly the majority of children sponsored by Action Aid in Kenya do live in the rural areas. I visited Mutomo in South Eastern Kenya, where Action Aid as an office responsible for administering the sponsorship of just over 9,000 children.

Mutomo is reached along a 40-mile murram track that branches off from the main Nairobi-Mombasa highway. The people here all belong to the Kamba tribe, which pulls little weight in Kenya’s political hierarchy.

They live in scattered, isolated settlements far from the main centres of population and their vote hardly counts at all in national elections. The central government has done little or nothing to channel development funds into the region.

The countryside is dusty with neglect. When I travelled through at the height of the dry season, the main, most visible, problem was shortage of water. Almost every human being I saw was carrying a container of some sort — a blue plastic jerrycan, an open bucket with its contents stabilised by fronds of floating shrubbery, a glass bottle plugged with a maize cob, a gourd, a wheelbarrow.

When I stopped to talk to these hunters and gatherers of water, their universal complaint was that the government did not care, that too few wells were being drilled and that old wells had been allowed to fall into disrepair. ‘Even the bees are thirsty,’ said one woman — and, true enough, around every container buzzed an angry brown halo.

One could be forgiven for thinking that the twentieth century had not penetrated here at all, were it not for the village schools. Uniformed children sit in orderly rows at makeshift desks in makeshift classrooms, where it is not unusual to come across children in their late teens still struggling to achieve the elusive primary-school leaving certificate.

Most buildings and all the fixtures are bought by the communities themselves; the government provides only the teaching staff. In the last seven years, however, Action Aid has pitched in as a major new partner in the Kambas’ efforts to get their children onto the first rung of Jacob’s ladder.

The problem in assessing Action Aid’s work is to separate the limitations that are imposed by sponsorship per se from the limitations inherent in the kind of education system that Kenya has adopted — since Action Aid works exclusively through schools.

If community development is communities getting what they want — and they thirst for education even more than they do for water — Action Aid’s work does have a strong and positive community-development role. It enables extremely poor children, who might otherwise not be able to afford it, to complete their primary education. It supports community efforts in erecting school buildings and helps to finance the basic equipment like desks, blackboards and chalk. And it has introduced a new bias towards agriculture which, one feels, can only enhance the life chances of the children concerned.

On the negative side Action Aid offers — excepting its agricultural work — no real critique of the educational system and consequently no real alternative which might in the long run be of more value to Kenyan rural communities. In other words, to the extent that the education system is bad, Action Aid can only make it worse.

In addition, directly linking a group of African children to a group of European sponsors can be seen, in a number of subtle ways, to increase the gap between the expectations that pupils develop and the grim reality of a total lack of employment opportunities in the modern ‘Europeanised’ sector of the Kenyan economy.

One consequence of this — also negative — is that Action Aid staff in Kenya are obliged to spend a great deal of time and effort ensuring that the contact between the sponsors and the sponsored does not become too close. On my return from Mutomo to their headquarters in Nairobi I carried with me a huge batch of letters to sponsors written by sponsored children from the region. Before being posted on to their ultimate destinations, these letters would all be read to ensure that they contained just routine news and no appeals for extra help or requests for visits to England.

The corollary of this vetting is that letters from sponsors to children are all also opened and read at the Nairobi office. According to staff all letters of a sexuo-religious nature’ — and apparently quite a few are received — are destroyed on the spot. Letters with racist overtones are also spiked, as are letters promising children sumptuous presents. Presents themselves, when received, are almost always returned to the sponsor (although, during my visit to Mutomi, I saw a number of gifts that were going to be passed on: a Ping-Pong Pistol, with ‘new, rapid-fire action’: a tube of plastic pick-up sticks; a paperback copy of A.A. Milne’s Winnie The Pooh; and a 1982 ‘Beauty of Britain’ calendar featuring a colour photograph of the Guildhall Church at Much Wenlock in Shropshire).

Action Aid staff in Nairobi assured me that delivery of these presents was the exception rather than the rule: ‘A big part of our work,’ they said; is keeping sponsors and kids apart.’ While sound policy from the perspective of community development, this struck me as being unfair on the sponsors, many of whom, after all, are paying $150 a year precisely because they think that the handout brings them close to a child in the Third World. And it struck me as cockeyed in another way too — Action Aid has to allocate considerable sums of sponsors’ money not to development, but to the avoidance of problems that are inherent in sponsorship as a fund-raising method.

The issue, however, remains — to what extent is there a contradiction between sponsorship and development? Action Aid’s programme provides no incontrovertible answers. The programme breaks down into two parts — School-and-Child Assistance (including uniforms, fees and buildings) and Training-and-Employment. The latter has a number of components, such as support for agricultural training in young farmers’ clubs in all primary schools where there are sponsored children. Seeds are loaned to club members and planted according to the advice of the instructor. Each child in due course repays the initial seed loan out of the marketing proceeds of his or her first successful harvest.

The great bulk of all Action Aid activities here indisputably benefit first and foremost sponsored children and only secondly and tangentially the wider community. And because Action Aid has an obligation towards its sponsors to ensure that this is precisely the way in which their money is used, the charity has no choice but to adopt a high local profile. Its Mutomo-based staff are continually tearing around the murram tracks of South Kitui and Machakos on motorbikes ensuring that the sponsored children are, in fact, present at school, that they write regularly to their sponsors, that they are receiving — through the schools — the food that has been provided for them, that any construction materials donated are being used properly for the purposes intended, that the young farmers clubs are working properly and so on.

None of this is tremendously ‘developmental’ in any sense — community or otherwise. It makes the aid side of what is going on very obvious (since beneficiaries are at all times conscious that they are ‘answerable’ to their sponsors and dependent on their continuing good will). It plays up the role of Action Aid in any initiative, rather than the role of the community. And it clearly identifies the sponsored children as a group apart from the non-sponsored children.

If that were the whole story then there would be little doubt that, whatever business Action Aid is in, it is not the development business. It isn’t the whole story, however, if only because in and around Mutomo Action Aid has become very much the property of the local community.

For a start, 41 of Action Aid’s 43 Mutomo- based staff are Kambas (the other two are from different tribal groups within Kenya).

Secondly, almost all major decisions (which schools to sponsor, which individual children to sponsor within each school, which children should join young farmers clubs, which schools should receive general assistance for the construction of classrooms etc.) are made either directly by the communities concerned or by the communities in consultation with Action Aid’s staff.

Muthue school is very typical. And what perhaps makes it different from non-sponsored schools is the considerable interest its pupils show in agriculture.

One instructor I spoke to, Joseph Mwanduka, told me that the most important part of his job is ‘keeping the kids on the land. A big problem around here is that very few of the children want to become farmers. They look at their parents, who are so poor and haven’t moved anywhere all their lives, and they decide they want to go to Nairobi and get a job, not to be farmers. So what I’m trying to do is show them ways to make more money from what they plant. The response has been very encouraging. Children have produced crops on their bit of the shamba and their parents have learnt from them. As a result, there’s more food in the area and a little more money; and the children are that much less likely to run away to Nairobi,’

Another difference between Muthue and non-sponsored schools is that here an identifiable group of children — the 166 who are sponsored — get a dole of maize and beans every lunch time. While the non-sponsored children sit under trees and eat food they have brought with them (or in some cases just sit, because they didn’t bring any food) the sponsored pupils gather in a long line outside a soup kitchen and get fed.

This stark segregation of sponsored and non-sponsored seems extremely unfair. But the children have been chosen for sponsorship by the school committee of teachers and parents — up to the number of sponsors that are available — on the basis of need: ‘We look for pupils who almost never bring a meal to school at lunchtime,’ said one committee member, ‘and children whose parents would never be able to get them a uniform. These are the ones who we try to sponsor.'

The children whom I spoke to in the lunch queue seemed to feel themselves neither particularly privileged nor underprivileged. Many of them did not know the names of their sponsors nor where their sponsors lived. My impression was contradicted however by a teacher at the school who told me:

‘Sponsorship does, of course, have an effect on their lives. They feel in a way honoured because they have friends outside. If they got a chance they would like to meet their sponsors or even go to Britain.’

At another school I visited — Mwala — there were 156 sponsored children out of a total of 320 pupils. The headmaster there, Noah Kanywa, insisted: ‘There’s no difference between the children. All that sponsorship has done is to bring the poorest up to the level of the others. But there’s nothing they can boast of’.

At Mwala I talked to Mwende Musingila, a l2-year old girl who has now been sponsored for three years. She took me to visit her family’s shamba, about five minutes’ walk through thick scrub vegetation from the school compound. She would, she said, show me her goats which she was rearing herself as an offshoot of her membership of the school’s young farmers club.

The shamba was a truly miserable example of human habitation. No-one who has lived all of or her life in the West can have any idea just how grim poverty in the African bush can be. Mwende’s shamba consisted of about four acres of rough cultivation and two rudimentary rondavels with earth floors, conical woven-stick roofs, and walls of compacted mud and stones. The family owned no beds, no cutlery, no plates and only one metal cooking pot. But, both Mwende and her mother insisted, life was getting ‘better’.

The main reason was Mwende’s membership of the young farmers club at Mwala school. In 1980, with seeds loaned to her by Action Aid, she grew a crop of greengrams that produced a harvest of 63 kilos which she sold for $20. She repaid the loan of seeds, gave some of the money to her mother and used the balance (about $7) to buy a goat. Since then the goat has kidded twice and there are now prospects for building up a small but worthwhile flock that will produce both milk and meat for the family.

For me, Mwende’s situation about summed up the Action Aid programme. It has helped to create some self-reliance that wasn’t there before: but it has created some dependency too; it has played a part in community development, but it has also individualised and institutionalised the community development process; it has added positive features to the local educational syllabus by giving agriculture its proper prominence; but at the same time, it has reinforced a status quo in which formal education is used as a ladder out of poverty by token individuals while the majority of the people never get past the first rung.

Graham Hancock is a former co-editor of New Internationalist magazine, He now lives in Nairobi where he is East Africa correspondent of The Economist and, in addition, runs his own small publishing business.


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Four out of every ten people in the developing world are of school-age (under fifteen).

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Out of every ten children in the developing world six will enrol in primary school…

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… and of these six, only three will reach the fourth grade…

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… and of these three, only one will go to secondary school.

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New Internationalist issue 111 magazine cover This article is from the May 1982 issue of New Internationalist.
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