Endless Aid is good business for NGO’s, the UN agencies and charities. It means there is always a job, “helping the poor”.
Once a country, province, community or even an individual starts to receive aid it creates a dependency pathway that is hard to return from. Each organization is a generic system “working on the problems”, but it is the individuals in those systems that can make changes on the ground or just roll out the usual suspects. The problem with the long-term aid is people get aid for being poor. Poor people get extra food and other benefits. People struggling out of poverty get little or no assistance.
Subconsciously people try and stay poor to get the free goodies. This endless supply of seemly poor people creates the endless aid food chain. Its been going for 40 years here. Although I have frustration working for organizations, this one I’m working for have finally decided to come up with an “exit strategy”. Its strategic planning time.
I visit many project sites in a week. The soil is the best, the rains are constant, there is labour galore and its so easy to grow just about anything. Why aren’t the people wealthy? If a bunch of Australian farmers had land this good they’d be pumping money out of it. People sell food here to buy food. In other words they don’t store their food well so they sell it as quickly as they can to avoid spoilage. My boss asks me to design silos to overcome the storage problem.
I check out materials available, some villages have stone, some make bricks, everybody had dirt. Timber is scarce and termites eat anything made of wood in weeks. If we use bricks they will need half the forests in Karamoja as firewood to bake them. Not very sustainable…everybody has dirt. Dirt? I remember making bunkers in the army, out of bags filled with dirt. Ah ha! Earth-bag construction is the answer. With all that labour we can build earth-bag silos with few inputs. The construction method is used now all over the world with great success.
I place some orders for hessian bags. No such thing in Uganda. Only potato sacks, which are 3 times too big. After lots of trial and error I end up with 25kg polyethylene rice bags as the material to start the job with. If the bags are too big they hold too much material and people can’t lift them. The trick now is to try them out and do some training at the same time.
I design a curved outdoor bench in our compound. If we are going to experiment we may as well make something permanent. The Green Warrior staff line up and listen while I tell them what we are going to do. They seem a bit bewildered because they have never heard of this type of construction before. Then again, I’ve introduced them to many things they’ve never seen before. I direct them to gather the different materials and tools we need.
“Hurry up, get your buts moving”, I yell. Green Warriors don’t muck around. There’s people scrambling everywhere grabbing shovels, hoes, getting cement bags from the store and shovelling sand into wheel barrows. I get my hoe and scrape out a shallow footing in the shape of the bench. Once everything we need is piled around the project site, I begin with showing them how to fill the sandbag only half full. The half full bag swells out with the earth inside, I put a thin layer of cement in the bottom of the footing and lay the first bag flat and pound it flat with the shovel, taking care not to break the bag. After 4 bags the team push me out of the way and begin laying bags like pros. We put a dry mix in between each layer to fill any air gaps. This prevents slippage and reduces problems with settling.
It’s a whole days work and we finish up with beautiful curved cement rendered bench. The team are proud of their achievement but something is wrong. We used 11 X 50kg bags of cement and one half bag of lime. On a larger scale this will blow out our budget entirely. I ask the team how we could have used so much. I do a forensic investigation on our methods. One problem area is the African cement mixing method. That is piling a bunch of sand and splitting a 50 kg bag of cement onto it. There is no precise mixing so they over use cement. Ok I can see this is exactly what the villagers are going to do. They will run out of cement unless we control the mixing.
Another area of waste is the cement inside the walls. We don’t really need to use cement there as filler, we can use clay. The team and I work out the innovations for the next mini project before we are ready for the real thing.
We’ve implemented a new breakfast system here at HQ. Everybody gets a free breakfast here from our kitchen each morning now. Even though we give our team allowances to buy food they don’t, they just starve and save their money. Each morning, the staff are like zombies, with no food in their bodies. It’s hard to motivate a starving person so the boss agreed to my proposal. Unfortunately for me the staff like Ugandan millet porridge. Its ground millet mixed with peanuts, some spices and sugar. It tastes to me like Satan’s armpit.
We are ready to go and I ask the driver if he got his free gruel. He nods and grins and pulls a japati out of his pocket wrapped in a plastic bag. A japati is some flour and water rolled flat and fried in genetically engineered soya oil from the US, shipped in as food-aid. Much of it ends up for sale at the markets. The driver has his emergency japati just in case we break down.
Ten minutes drive from Abim we swing onto a bumpy track and head through the long grass to the village where one of our two test silos will go. I have to pick villages that have over 60 hectares of arable land to support the silo. We need 20 hectares to make the silo viable. If the silo collective can pay on the spot for produce, a low fee, and then pay the balance on receiving the sale money then we have a way of stretching out the farmer’s income. These guys have a big drink-up if they get a lump sum of money with nothing left afterwards.
The chief meets us and takes us over to a shady tree and points out the area put aside for the silo. My brain calculates the amount of loose soil we’ll need to fill the earth bags for the construction. I ask the chief where he’s got some soil. The soil he shows us is a few small piles around the village, not enough by far. Hmmmm…What if we dig a cistern and use the soil from that? Alfred the engineer grins and gives me the thumbs up. He translated to the chief who also nods and grins. We can harvest the rainwater from the silo roof to fill the cistern.
The chief and my team jump in the pick-up truck and we drive through the savannah to a water source about 400 meters from the village. Lots of cattle have been through here. Alfred explains that the people get no products from the cattle. “Its just for the elders to look at”, he says with a shrug. The cattle have flattened most of the vegetation and its still the wet season. In the dry season this place will become a desert.
The water source is a spring leaking into a hand dug shallow dam. I tell the chief he has to find a balance between cattle and cropping if we help him. The interpreter explains and he understands. We check out several other sources to ensure there will be enough water for production of 60 hectares all year long.
On the way home we stop at another village to see Bruno, the 2IC of another silo project site. We check out his choice of sites. Its right next to the new power lines running through his village. I notice there are no wires going into the village, no power here yet.
Bruno agrees to the cistern idea and there are 2 other buildings nearby that can channel their roof water into the cistern, plus the rainwater from the silo roof. It’s got to be cheaper to dig and line a cistern than cart the soil by truck. A win-win for all involved.
The best aid is aid-to-trade. Helping people to create a permanent living from what they have on hand. After 40 years of food aid these guys are getting weaned off the aid-drug, as I call it, and its time for some serious rehab. The biggest threat to this kind of project is the aid-drug dealer. If they start dumping food aid into the middle of a volunteer project like this, the workers disappear pretty quickly. Despite the challenges, it feels right and we shake hands.
The chief knows this is their chance to climb out of the hole after being in it for 40 years. The team and I head home to organize the materials and tools. In my minds eye I see prosperous communities with flourmills and bakeries beside the silos in each village…. I am an eternal optimist.
Steve Cran, North Uganda