Development or Dependency?

"бутсы! бутсы!," they yell as they run down the narrow unpaved street toward me with arms waving in the air.  Skidding to a stop in front of me, the group of six boys proceed to ask for money, phones, cameras . . . and the ever-popular бутсы (soccer cleat).  When I decline, the boys proceed to tell me, "чй? дустиман." ("Why? You are my friend!").  This exchange goes on for the the entire remaining walk to my office.

The neighborhood boys posing with their new ball and jerseys.
Upon first glance, the causal observer might think me selfish.  Unknown to the casual observer, however, is that I had already bought the boys a soccer ball and jerseys, as their ball had multiple holes in it and they were unable to play.  I wanted these boys to be able to enjoy whatever short childhood they still had left and thought that this would give them the means to do so.  The best of intentions aside, I was misguided in my approach, for my gifts turned into a desire for more and a dependency on what they thought I could offer them . . .

. . . Not two weeks after I had bought the boys the new soccer ball, they came to me with the deflated ball asking for another one when before they had found ways to repair the old one.

Simplistic as this illustration may be, it got me thinking a lot about aid dependency.  For years, there has been a lot of discussion from scholars and practitioners who have questioned the effectiveness of international aid in its current form.  Does it create dependency?  Does it prop up undesirable governments?  Does the money actually get to the people for whom it is intended?  Books have been written about it, especially with regard to Africa.

In development, it is important to constantly be aware of the impact you are having on a community - both positive and negative.  Outright loans or grants to a government may be the easiest or the most politically viable option, but it also may be destructive in the end.  It is my hope that with all the talk of international aid reform in the United States, the new plans for the State Department and USAID include more of a focus on engaging local organizations with smaller grants, rather than large grants to governments and that there is a very purposeful review of every intervention that is implemented and its overall impact on the target community.

This is certainly not insightful or groundbreaking, but evidence in the field, such as the simple illustration above, certainly helps me to understand more concretely the challenges that the field of international development faces.  It is my hope that government aid and development agencies worldwide heed this evidence.

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свет нест

"свет нест" ("no light") is a phrase that has infiltrated every aspect of my life here.  It's a phrase that has redefined productivity/unproductivity and intimately taught me that sometimes there are more important things than electricity and internet connectivity.  Below are some notable events that have happened when the electricity has been on . . . and off.

Washing my clothes in scalding hot water.

Close Encounters of the Itchy Kind
It was 4:30am.  I was scheduled to go to the Dushanbe airport to fly up to Khujand in the north for two weeks of work on our projects in that region.  My driver arrived at 5am sharp and we drove through the dark, frigid streets of Dushanbe.  Completely unaware of the fact that there are two "terminals" at the airport, given that there is only one small building comprising its entirety, I first tried to enter the international departures door and was swiftly turned away.

After a few moments of confused queries, I was directed to a door outside on the side of the building.  Loitering with a few other passengers bound for Khujand, we waited for over an hour, our flight departure time come and gone, huddling as close together as possible for strangers.  As the first light of day began to appear, we were told that our flight had been delayed until 9am.

I searched for a warm tea house around the airport with futility.  Eventually sneaking into the "VIP lounge" that was filled with Russians anxiously awaiting their return to Mother Russia, I sleepily sat through three consecutive flight delays.  Finally leaving at 2pm, I was asleep before I sat in my seat, despite a growing itch around my ankles, knees and elbows.

Forty-five minutes later, I arrived in Khujand, was met by my driver there and proceeded to the field office.

Opening my computer, I was greeted with an Apple startup page that did not actually boot the computer despite a couple hours of effort from me.  One computer down, little sleep the night before and a full two weeks of fieldwork ahead of me, I was . . . concerned.

And still that itch . . .

I woke up the next morning to freezing rain and the most intense itch I have ever experienced over my entire body.  Showering and dressing for work, I entered the office and immediately asked for the nearest doctor.  A trip to the hospital later, I was diagnosed with Scabies.  It was to be a weekend of scrubbing, hot water and dousing my body in nose-hair-singing medication.

After spending a fortune on calling AppleCare, I was informed that my problem was likely due to the voltage fluctuations here in Tajikistan and that they would have to send me new software to fix the problem.

The trip to Khujand ended up being highly productive.  I visited most of our target communities in the region and completed most of what I had planned despite the invasion of parasites - human and computer alike.

Dividing the meat of the sacrificed sheep.
Blood On My Hands

Almost as soon as the morning prayer concluded, the steam rose from the blood that streamed from the sheep's throat and came in puffs as the animal took its last breaths in the chilled early morning air.  Holding the sheep's feet through its last convulsive attempts at life, my hands were warmed by the body that was soon to turn cold.  Proceeding to fillet and separate the meat,  the prized sheep's fat was scraped into a separate bowl to make the special Eid-i-Korbon dishes that would feed numerous neighbors and friends.

Eid-i-Qurbon (Eid-al-Adha in Arabic) is a religious holiday commemorating Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his eldest son as commanded by God.  The most symbolic act on this holiday is the sacrificing of a sheep and splitting its meat into three parts: one for the family, another for family and friends, the third for the poor.  Families visit each other throughout the day, enjoying abundant food and conversation, opening their own homes to anyone who wishes to eat.

The gang I rolled around with for Eid-i-Qurbon.
My day began with a rousing sacrifice of a sheep followed by visits to two funeral ceremonies and no less than eleven houses with twelve guys (men and women usually travel in single-sex groups and eat in separate rooms).  I ended the day bloated, my eyes swimming from countless cups of tea, ready for bed.  I will never forget the excitement on the streets or the bright eyes of the children who go door-to-door singing and asking for candy or money.  The sheep slaughtering will also leave an indelible imprint in my mind . . . and perhaps my clothes.

While the lack of electricity makes productivity impossible sometimes, it is the moments, both great and challenging, that happen despite свет нест that I will likely never forget.