Poverty – The Feel-Good Donation Journey

An Ethiopian toddler looking around as mass happens

“It didn’t matter what the villagers wanted, it only mattered what the donors wanted.”

“Care to donate money for all the poor kids in Africa?”

Two weeks before my trip to Ethiopia, one day I was casually walking down the street. Suddenly a guy in a blue vest holding a booklet stopped me. Before I could ask him what he wanted, he already shot out the words. “How would you like to give a roof and food to the starving kids in Ethiopia?” His vest said UNICEF. “Okay, he is going to tell me how important it is for me to donate monthly while he gets his commission share”. I thought to myself.

Rambling on for about 10 minute to tell me 50% of people were plagued by poverty in Ethiopia. Situations that make you want to cry your eyes out. Not entirely same as what I learnt from my Ethiopian professor, but I hadn’t been to Ethiopia to confirm this myself. I simply said, “I’m going there in two weeks. I’d be keen to see what it’s like there”

For me, it had always been the world vs. my professor. Everyone told me Ethiopia was poor, all those ads on TV asking you to donate…They couldn’t have been all fake. So many questions circling my mind when the plane took off.

My proud professor

My professor was a zealous, well-mannered gentleman in his 50s. Having lived in France and Canada most of his adult life for studies and work, taking on the path to educate students on African studies was’t that odd of a choice, given the misconceptions flying around about his motherland. To me, he had always been kind, never raised his voice, never got upset. One thing that bothered him the most was when every international organisation portrayed Ethiopia as the poor, undeveloped country.

While driving through the rural area in Bahir Dar, our guide told us a story. Several years ago an international organisation came to the village, telling them they needed proper sit-down toilets instead of squat toilets for hygiene purposes. Villagers refused as they deemed it unnecessary. Against the villagers’ will, the organisation built 12 toilets at the village and promised the villagers they will send in staff to “educate them”.

After the organisation left with all glory on social media over their achievement and got more fundings, villagers abandoned those toilets and went back to their squat toilets. Those toilets were still standing at the start of the village, completely abandoned and covered with dust and garbage.

What is a culture and what is a civilisation?

Our guide said something that got me thinking the whole way about what is a culture and what is a civilisation. He said,

“Would you say the President of China is ‘uneducated’ because he uses a squat toilet? Would you feel the need to ‘educate’ him? When rich and powerful people have a habit, it’s a culture. When poor people have the same habit, they are ‘uncultured’ and need to be ‘civilised’.”

Surprisingly, most Ethiopians we met, students and workers, shook their head on the donations coming in from foreign organisations. Undeniably, those organisations achieved some success in helping to eradicate diseases and poverty in those poor provinces. But in a lot of cases, they carried out useless projects to gain fundings and to show their achievements, disregarding people’s need. Sometimes as to go against villagers’ protest, telling them they didn’t know they needed but their staff will “educate” them.

Oh by the way, the poverty rate in Ethiopia wasn’t 50%. It was 24% in 2016, according to the World Bank. That’s a huge gap for UNICEF to explain. We went around a lot of areas in the northern part of the country. There were barely any homeless people. Now, unless the whole southern part of the country was ramped with homeless people and they didn’t have a single house over there, I would say it’s really hard to fathom how the 50% was calculated.

Who likes to see their country being the poster boy for “worst of all”?

It’s understandable why Ethiopians were upset. The organisations that are supposed to help them continue to spread misconceptions about their homeland so they could get donations and fundings.

Definitely those 24% needed help. Those battling Ebola needed help too. But would that justify using that to represent the whole country to get fundings? Instead of showing how developed most areas were? Instead of showing most people actually had access to water and electricity? Or even instead of showing most people actually didn’t need what the “advanced societies” wanted them to have? That’s how the world functions…

Nearly 60% of students attended university. That’s not a low percentage at all, even higher than a lot of advanced countries. What I learnt was that the truth wouldn’t get them the fundings they wanted.

“It didn’t matter what the villagers wanted, it only mattered what the donors wanted.”

Feeling their frustrations over the misconceptions people had for their country, mostly put forth by those supposedly helping them, there’s not much I could do except to pat them on the shoulder and say, “I will tell everyone what I saw with my eyes here.”

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