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June 14, 2013 | Editorial

Development Versus Relief or My Mother Doesn't Like Shoes

Development Versus Relief or My Mother Doesn't Like Shoes

Continuing with the subject of sustainability, I have been thinking a lot about what plagues so many initiatives and inhibits them from achieving something truly sustainable in their operational communities. I think, often times, it's simply a matter of perspective. I saw a picture on Pinterest the other day of two Burkinabe children's feet covered in dust. Below the picture was a caption describing these dusty feet as a product of severe poverty. I immediately thought of my mother, who's feet often look the same after she's spent a day at farm or walking around the market. But, it's not because she's poor. It's because she doesn't like to wear shoes. One, because she finds them to be uncomfortable. Two, because Sub-Saharan Africa is hot. But would a foreign onlooker/ development worker see it this way? We know that the one who posted this picture to Pinterest did not. And the next thing you know, a black tinted SUV is rolling into that community filled with used, or even unused, shoes from outside of the country, giving them free-of-charge to each barefooted person they can find. I've seen a lot of "development" done this way in my lifetime, but I don't consider it to be such. That is relief work-- something entirely different in scope and nature than development work, but the two seem to get conflated quite a bit.

I think back on a school feeding program that used to be an existence when I was a child. An organization, who believed we children were severely undernourished and uneducated (which we may have been to somebody's standard), would drop "nutritious" food off at our schools to be given out to each of us come lunch time. It really was nutritious food. And delicious too. I looked forward to eating it everyday. But, did I need it? Was it helping me or my classmates or my community? Was it developing us? After decades of this organization dropping food off for us, the government banned the program, saying such feeding programs needed to be supported with local foodstuff-- not imports. This is a ruling I can't really contest; however, I will note that since the government has taken over the program, it has been far less reliable and consistently plagued with food shortages and spoilage. Such occurrences have led many of us to believe that much of the food continues to be imported, despite the government's initial stance on the issue.

So, here we are decades later, back at square one. Had the emphasis been less about hand-outs and more about training our families in farming and preparing nutritious foods, we might have something to show for this effort-- had it been more about developing our society and less about saving lives. Because, to be perfectly honest, very few of our lives were in danger. We weren't starving. We weren't experiencing famine or even severe drought. We simply knew very little about the food pyramid. We needed development-- not relief. There is a time and place for each.

Mankama Sulemana is an agriculturalist specializing in maize, roots, and tuber crops and animals rearing, a graduate of the University for Development Studies, and the co-founder of Clash International.

Clash International (www.clashinternational.org) is a non-profit organization concerned with cross-cultural understanding and partnership, seeking to find solutions to community-identified challenges through a development culture that is collaborative, self-sufficient, and sustainable.

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