Oddly enough, it wasn’t until I woke up this morning that I realized this past month has summed up the last nine months that I’ve spent in South Africa. Not sure how it popped in my head, but I had the epiphany nonetheless and I suppose the subconscious works in mysterious ways.
The majority of my June has been spent writing a document explaining all of the work that I’ve done in South Africa in regards to the Food Security program at my organization. In that time I’ve written down everything as I see it as well as suggestions that I would see fit if I were to continue to implement the projects. As I wrote this report I was able to see what worked and what didn’t, but more than anything it allowed me to step back a little and gain a better understanding of what I’ve been doing. What the report really helps with is to gain a better understanding of my work in International Development and points to consider in the future.
Subsistence vs. Salaried – That’s what makes all the difference in the world when working in agriculture. Granted there are a myriad of factors when comparing my work in Madagascar to South Africa (culture, crops, language, climate, resources, economy, etc.), but at the end of the day it all comes down to what you make and why you work. I’ve struggled with my work here and I’ve struggled with worker motivation. The political history and the income inequality in this country don’t exactly motivate those in the lower economic realms, but I had to think that there was something else to blame, something else at heart that was holding workers back from reaching their full potential. In Madagascar I did a lot of rice farming and as rice is the staple crop, households depend heavily on rice yields so that they can eat for six months. SO when you bring in the Peace Corps volunteer teaching improved rice farming methods the household is not only taking a huge gamble on the volunteer, but gambling on themselves. If the rice doesn’t produce then the household doesn’t eat or won’t eat. Forget looking foolish, you just need to survive. Depending on land owned they might not have any plan B and nobody wants to borrow rice or money, let alone be cooking green bananas and rationing out cassava leaves for consumption until the next harvest. Rice is life and everything they depend on. They were willing to work hard and take ownership for the work because if it failed it would be much more than a blow to their ego. Motivation was there because they depended on the success of the work as much as the work depended on them.
Conversely, here, people are paid each month. Whether they do well or they don’t they get their paycheck and life goes on. If the yields are good, they get a pat on the back, maybe some extra sales so some extra pocket money. If yields are poor, maybe pests attack, or theft, then maybe they are reprimanded, but they still get paid the same at the end of the month. There’s no reason to be motivated because the outcome of their work doesn’t change their circumstances. What’s more alarming is there appears no space for growth. They can’t necessarily climb up the management ladder or empower themselves in any way. If they owned land they could farm, but owning land is difficult and managing a farm and working, as a laborer would be near impossible. They don’t want to try harder because trying harder doesn’t do anything but make them tired and remind them that what they are doing hour by hour and day by day has no affect on what happens at the end of the month. Why kill yourself?
The Plan – I’m crazy and I’ve finally come to terms with that. I think when you grow up you like to think that you are normal and that everyone is like you. Then as you get older you start to realize that you’re kind of weird and not everyone’s brain works the same way as yours. Then you maybe get a job in International Development and think that it’s a cultural thing, but then realize most people from your home nation are just as bad and useless when it comes to making a plan and keeping times. And you wonder how the world works at all. Then you finish eating your peanut butter sandwich…this may or may not have happened.
But seriously, I don’t know why people don’t plan, but both Madagascar and South Africa showed resistance and I can’t help but wonder if this is why they are still receiving assistance. Not sure if making a plan is overwhelming or just neglected, but it just doesn’t make sense to some people. Just like running around frantically at the last moment makes no sense to me. But whether it is in Southern Africa or in the U.S. I think I’ll always want people to make a plan (or at least a better plan) and unfortunately for them I’ll most likely think that their plan sucks. But hey, you can’t have it all.
Regulations – Corruption. It’s pretty much everywhere, just depends on how savvy you are at hiding it or what resources are involved. I have to say that both Madagascar and South Africa have their fair share of corruption and there’s no way to compare the two only because the corruption is different and/or was experienced under different circumstances. However, I must note that corruption has helped me out in the past and although I’d give it a different name, bending the rules can help from time to time. It’s weird to think that corruption can be used for good, but I think that it’s true under some circumstances.
However, in South Africa they love their bureaucracy and I don’t think I’ll ever get quite used to all of the hoops, regulations, and customs that one has to jump through just to have the simplest of tasks completed. Definitely slows things down quite a bit and to say that it frustrates me is an understatement. I often feel as if the rules are in place to make everyone less productive. Makes me a little worried to ever get a job with the Government, but I guess as long as you’re at the top then you don’t have to do too much jumping.
As far as safety goes – in Madagascar I wore sandals (or no shoes), basketball shorts and a t-shirt while working outside. In South Africa – work boots, pants and work jacket. If you know anything about me then you’ll know which I prefer.
Need – In South Africa more than Madagascar, I’ve had people bring up the idea that I’m here to “Save Africa.” I always find this statement amusing because I never once say it, nor do I allude to it, and so I don’t quite understand how it could be my sentiment but rather their own. I know there is a lot of garbage in the media and a misinformed public, but what it comes down to is that many South Africans aren’t aware of what’s happening in their country and know very little about the aims of community development. Moreover, those who can benefit from the assistance sometimes resist because of their pride. Which, I guess makes sense, and is just another reason to quit funding them and find someone else who is okay with improving their knowledge, health, and economic circumstances. What really confuses them is how someone could do all of this without making buckets of money or exploiting someone for personal gain. I can’t possibly be doing this work because I enjoy it?!
Furthermore, in South Africa there’s this disconnect from knowledge and experience and more of a focus on titles and certificates. A volunteer, as I feel I’m perceived, is a person who hasn’t completed school and hasn’t qualified for a job – free labor trying to learn something. The whole idea of having skills and providing those skills is completely lost, at least in my experiences. However, in Madagascar, the people were much more willing to receive help from an outsider, regardless of his degree or placement, more willing to listen, to help, and to be helped.
But whether I’m accepted, not wanted, or disregarded, whether I’m saving or exploiting, the need is there and it’s why the job exists. When I look over the report I realized that I’ve been doing something for the past 9 months. It’s kind of cool to see all the projects and what they’re doing and the potential that these projects have to help the community. I wrote a negative blog post back in November asking whether I thought it would all is worth it and I think the answer is and will always be yes. The gratification that I get from my work in South Africa pales in comparison to the work gratification from Madagascar. Not only did I feel more useful, but also I felt more wanted, more appreciated. Working in development provides a lot of lows, and when I say a lot, I mean A LOT. However, there’s always a silver lining, always something that gives me a smile and makes me think – ok this was good. The moment might be brief, but it keeps me trucking along and it reminds me that there is meaning in the struggle.
In this line of work nobody saves anyone and I think that that mentality not only continues to misinform the West, but also builds resistance within those that the projects are trying to help. You can’t have it all, and unfortunately, Globalization is well…global. As nations develop others either fall farther behind or slowly creep closer to the front. I don’t anticipate International Development stopping in my lifetime, but I can hope that if enough people do it right it won’t be so long until the entire field needs a transformation because it is no longer applicable. If you were to ask me what I’ve done as a volunteer, either in South Africa or Madagascar, I’d say that I’m helping people reach their full potential. It’s up to them whether they actually want to do it or not, but the tools and the ideas are there. As for me, I’d like to think that the work is simply the paycheck at the end of the month and that I can disconnect regardless of project/personal successes or failures. Instead, I’ll forever be the subsistence farmer.