Laura Reynolds

From Unite for Sight: Big Development’s Raw Consequences in ’Good Fortune’

Editor’s Note: The following is another in a series of guest post on the Unite for Sight Global Health and Innovation Conference, which took place earlier this month.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. government alone spends around $25 billion per year on foreign aid. Private organizations may spend as much or more. But is this money doing any good? The recent allegations surrounding Greg Mortensen’s claims in his book, Three Cups of Tea and his charity have brought this question into sharp focus in a very public way. Some presenters at Unite for Sight Global Health & Innovation conference asked another question: Is this money doing harm?

The conference opened with a screening of film presenting stark cases of aid gone wrong, profiled in producer/editor Jeremy Levine and director/producer Landon VanSoest’s award-winning documentary, “Good Fortune”. The film follows two Kenyans whose lives collide with outsiders’ projects. One is Silva, a midwife and community leader who lives in Kibera, Nairobi’s largest slum. Silva left the rural Yala Swamp region fifteen years before to find a better life and opportunities for her family in the capital city. Today, her home, and therefore business, is only days away from being bulldozed down by the United Nations HABITAT program because of the “deplorable conditions of the squatter settlement”. The experimental slum-upgrading project led by the Kenyan Government and the UN promises to reshape and improve the lives of Kibera’s approximately 170,000 residents by building cement block apartment-style housing where the aluminum -roofed, dirt floor shacks once stood. UN-HABITAT’s Project Director realizes that the project faces nearly impossible odds, but states, “It is absolutely unacceptable that Kibera exists,” she is quoted as saying in the film. Though she does not know exactly where all of the residents of Kibera will move while the promised new cement block apartment-style housing is built, she reiterates her belief that the project will completely transform the community.

But Silva has her doubts. “They say we will be able to come back when the project is finished,” she says, “but I think it’s a lie.” One thing she is certain of is that she will not be able to afford the rent in the new apartments. According to the UN estimates, the rent will be over four times what she currently pays, and she has also been promised improved housing by the government before. Ten years earlier, the Kenyan government set out to renovate Kibera’s housing situation and build apartments for its residents from public funds. Soon after construction, however, these apartments were given away as luxury condos to wealthy government officials. “The government claimed they were for the needy,” Silva says, “but the poor were left with nothing.”

On the other side of Kenya, Jackson is a farmer in the rural Yala Swamp region. His livelihood, and that of his family and community, is being threatened by the investment plans of an Oklahoma-based farming company that is planning on flooding the land for their rice paddies. Unfortunately for the communities that have been living on this land for generations, this means that over 1,100 acres of their grazing land, homes, schools, local markets and health clinics will soon be submerged by Dominion Farm’s water. The film quotes Calvin Burgess, the CEO of Dominion Farms Limited, who says he first visited Kenya on a mission trip and was inspired to build a commercial farm after seeing the area’s poverty and lack of business infrastructure. He says the farm will bring jobs, schools, stimulate the region’s economy, and help people help themselves out of poverty. Jackson disagrees entirely. “I am not poor,” he says, standing amidst his cows, sheep, and crops. “This man, he is trying to make me poor.”

As I watched Burgess state that his project will, with the help of God, bring “progress” to Kenya, I get a chilling sense of déjà vu to the rationalization of colonialist times. We know that good intentions are never enough in development; here, however, they are being used to rationalize the destruction of a community’s lands, the poisoning of a community’s primary water source with pesticides and herbicides, and the undoing of a community’s way of life and means of existence. “Is this development?” Jackson asks, “Or poverty creation?”

Check out clips from the film here.

So how can development ensure that it is meeting the needs and improving the lives of those it is intending to benefit? Good intentions without grassroots community-led input can clearly lead to harmful, misdirected, ineffective development projects. When asked what steps can be taken by development organizations to improve their projects, Jeremy Levine reiterated the need to turn first to existing local community groups as a basis for creating sustainable projects. In both of the locations highlighted in the film, there are many active community organizations that would have been ideal partners for an international development organization. By doing this, the development organization would insure both of the efficacy of their project by receiving community input as well as earning the trust and solidarity of the local community. In VanSoest and Levine’s recent project “Strides in Development“, Levine cites the examples of Wangari Maathai and the Green Belt Movement in Kenya, or the work of FXB International in Uganda as community-led and managed projects that are truly making a difference in the lives of the poor. Both of these organizations work alongside community members to develop projects to fit local needs. FXB International, for example, works in communities that have been affected by the detrimental effects of poverty and disease. They select communities to take part in a three-year program in which FXB’s counselors and nurses train local counselors and nurses to ultimately become “physically, financially, and socially independent.”

This grassroots, community-focused approach insures that projects will be appropriate to the community’s needs and will lead to lasting and positive change. As Levine states, “the real problem with imposing help or aid is that the programs are being developed from the top-down. Projects need to start from the grassroots and grow upwards.”

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