The first four paragraphs below are drawn from this blog’s About the author page. The thoughts in these paragraphs are poor orphans, abandoned on that page almost as soon as I started the blog, three years ago. But I hope that in three years I have matured enough as their father to go back to them in order to help them grow:
My wife, Marianne, and I lead volunteers to the Tanzanian village of Dareda Kati every year, with the intention of bringing its people improved education and healthcare and whatever else will be needed to lift them permanently out of poverty.
Unfortunately, we are hindered by ignorance and lack of resources—our own ignorance and lack of resources. Marianne and I can lay no claim to certain knowledge of how to end poverty, which seems to have eluded the entire development community. I received my academic training in Western philosophers like Plato, Hegel, and Nietzsche, while Marianne studied poets like Gerard Manley Hopkins, W.B. Yeats, and William Carlos Williams. Our training, as well as our inclinations, led to careers first in higher and then in secondary education.
Only when we were in our fifties did we blunder, by way of unexpected friendship with a few African villagers, onto the minefield of international development. Even the name we gave to the nonprofit that we established in 2008, the Karimu International Help Foundation, points to our ignorance: having had little or no prior involvement with the nonprofit world, we did not know that a foundation is supposed to have an endowment. But Karimu lives hand-to-mouth on the generosity of its donors, endowed only with respect and friendship for the people of Dareda Kati.
As confessed nonexperts, we have hazarded a guess that ending poverty might have something to do with spending money wisely. If one can justly accuse the global development community of spending foolishly, as many observers do, then at least Marianne and I and Karimu possess very little that we could misspend.
The previous four paragraphs differ only a little from what I’ve had on my About the author page ever since I created it. Although the modesty is genuine, I see now that it can come across as passive/aggressive: poor us, the down-at-the-heels amateurs, explaining to the trained, well-funded, slick professionals how they should do their jobs. Any international-development professionals who happened to read what I wrote three years ago could be forgiven for thinking that they detect a note of cheap anti-intellectualism.
But anti-intellectual is pretty close to the last thing I want to be. Study and reasoned discussion of what does and doesn’t succeed in development work are necessary, and they often inform Karimu’s choices. In 2010, we based our decision to give away mosquito nets, rather than to charge a small fee, on research inspired by Esther Duflo, of MIT. And our gradual movement into other kinds of development work in addition to building schools, which is what Karimu began with, was originally provoked by Jeffrey Sachs, of Columbia, who has argued that improvements in education, healthcare, physical infrastructure, agriculture, and access to clean water are mutually supporting, and stand or fall together.
The truth, however, is that Duflo and Sachs and their respective supporters and critics live in the world of international development in a way that Marianne and I, and the rest of us at Karimu, do not. For Duflo and Sachs and others like them, inhabiting the world of international development means examining countless models of poverty eradication, designing and applying models of their own, sifting through volumes of evidence, and arguing—sometimes not impersonally enough—with one another. Except for the arguing (also sometimes not impersonally enough), this does not look very much like what happens at Karimu.
Development professionals need to maintain a certain intellectual distance from the poor whom they study. They need to do this because there are, at least, many hundreds of millions of people who live in the kind of poverty that Karimu finds in Dareda Kati. Duflo and Sachs and the others want to end that kind of poverty for all of the millions. If they succeed, this will obviously be a good thing, so their goal justifies the intellectual distance that their studies require.
These studies might make it possible to help millions of people, or even billions. But it is not possible to be a friend to millions of people.
On the other hand—as Marianne and I, together, wrote in this space not long ago (https://dstoll49.wordpress.com/2013/04/21/exit-strategy/)—Karimu has friends in Dareda Kati. Dr. Susan Hughmanick, a Karimu Board member who will travel to the village for the third time in June and July, has friends there. So do Anne D’Zmura and Peggy Seltz, who will also make their third visits to Dareda Kati this summer, and Cassandra Babcock, who may need to pay down her student loans before she can go back for a fifth time. And so do dozens of other two-time and even one-time Karimu volunteers, who have found that enduring friendship, like a flower refreshed by the spring rain, only needs a few days to bloom.
Because Karimu’s work rests on a foundation of friendship, the “method” that guides our development projects is simple and intuitive: we trust our friends.
Many of our thank you letters to donors include some version of the following sentence: “Karimu’s volunteers are committed to making certain that all donations go toward completion of projects requested, and worked on, by the villagers themselves; we believe the people of Dareda Kati understand their own needs far better than any outsiders could.”
I’m not sure this is true in the strictest sense, because people frequently misunderstand their own needs. But we owe our friends a depth of trust that we would not extend to just any people, and which does not depend on the assumption that our friends are perfectly wise.
This doesn’t only mean that Karimu projects originate with the villagers. Trusting them also means not worrying when a given project isn’t finished when we are there, since we believe the villagers will finish it after we depart. Trust means wiring thousands of dollars to Joas Kahembe, the Tanzanian supervisor of most of our projects, or to Daniel Amma, the Ufani School teacher and also the treasurer of the village’s farming collective, months before we can visit their country. We do this because we believe they will spend the money just as intelligently as we would, or no more foolishly than we would.
What Karimu does should never be confused with the scientific development work that professionals like Esther Duflo are working so hard to refine, and which I greatly respect. But then, most of life is not science.