By Allison Moomey, KF16, Burkina Faso
I spent last weekend in a small village about 10km outside of Banfora (a small city about 6.5 hours from where I live in Ouagadougou) with some incredibly welcoming and generous Peace Corps volunteers. As often as I get annoyed by bugs, heat, and unreliable internet, I live a pretty charmed Burkinabé life in Ouaga. Staying in a village without electricity or running water was a wake-up call to the realities of life here. I didn’t do any of the hard work like getting water or biking products to market that most residents do each day. I lived like a pretty privileged guest. But I was still exhausted after just 48 hours. I can’t even begin to imagine what life would be like as a resident with only tôt (nutritionally empty starch) to eat, daily trips to the pump for water, and a dirt floor to sleep on every night. Although not as rural, these same challenges are a daily reality for many of Micro Start’s borrowers. The weekend was full of lessons, and recognizing my lack of hardcore-ness was only the beginning.
What made this village fascinating for me to see was the presence and failures of past aid. An NGO had built a rice co-op for the residents- the buildings, organizational structure, etc- about 30 years ago. According to past aid logic, one would think that 30 years later we would see significant progress. Instead, we see these buildings going unused, the co-op structure falling apart, and the residents still living on less than $1 a day. It’s a classic case of outsiders coming in and telling residents what they need instead of empowering the residents themselves.
Most understand now that this aid doesn’t work. But the question remains… what does? Is the key building infrastructure, education, economic development, culture, food aid, or political stability? While nobody has a perfect solution, I have had so many opportunities to refine my thoughts on this while in Burkina. After reading about the power of keeping girls in school, I thought that education alone would fix our development concerns. After learning about social entrepreneurship, I thought economic development would do the trick. Why is it that these things seem so promising yet in many cases inevitably fail to make sustainable progress?
Developing countries are not a vacuum. They, just like countries in any stage of development, are complex machines with many moving parts. We have to address these concerns comprehensively. Education without economic progress leads to frustratingly high unemployment (see Burkina!). Economic progress without equitable political policies leads to opportunity for a select few. A push for education without cultural adaption leads to low literacy rates.
I realize this doesn’t provide some really easy one size fits all solution. But that’s been the beauty of my fellowship. I have the opportunity to observe. Ask questions. See failures. See successes. And learn.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. I think we are learning. I see more and more solutions that are comprehensive. Seeing the connections between clients’ use of loan profits and children’s education is really inspiring. I met with ten clients this past week and almost every one said that the profit made from their loan helps to pay their children’s school fees. Microfinance, while not a panacea for all situations, is often a powerful tool to address development concerns on multiple fronts. There are great things happening here in Burkina, and I’m sure the same can be said for many other great Kiva countries!
Allison Moomey is a Kiva Fellow (KF 16) working with Micro Start in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso. To learn more, please visit Micro Start’s partner page, join the Friends of Micro Start/AFD lending team, and lend to Burkinabe borrowers.