Life in Laos through the lens of a diplomatic wife raising twin toddlers.
How do I sum up some aspects of our work without oversimplifying the issues that Darfurians suffer year in and year out? And how can I describe the feeling of uncertainty about the responsibilities that rested on our shoulders to make certain that our decisions are sound and effective when people’s lives are at stake? We were sent to Kass to set up programs as quickly as possible, and to be completely honest, we had a lot of money to burn and we had to burn it fast because of our donor’s time-frame – don’t get me started on how incongruent donor’s time-frames are against realities on the ground to effect lasting positive change. This topic will come up again when I write about post-tsunami relief efforts in Indonesia, but for now in Darfur the pressure was on to make really really good and quick decisions.
Food security is a big issue for Darfurians living in IDP camps. Not only are they unable to grow their own food or tend to their livestock, but they are unemployed and unable to purchase basic staples, even to eat. They rely on relief distributions and over time this can lead to a culture of dependence and severe decline of morale among the IDP population. Part of our transitional development program was to bridge emergency relief with programs aimed at self reliance and capacity building, both factors that would achieve a higher degree of sustainability. So we decided on several livestock distributions and trainings in agriculture and veterinary medicine.
The trainings were very straightforward. We hired an agricultural specialist and an experienced vet to teach a very basic short course. The classes were well attended and the students all seemed to really enjoy themselves. Even if there wasn’t a huge job market for them to apply their training, at least the students (mostly young people) had an opportunity for self development while learning skills that they can use in a home garden or help other’s precious livestock animals. I still remember the big smiles of our graduates as we handed them their course certificates, so bright and proud and hopeful.
I was more conflicted with our decision to do livestock distribution. Theoretically, giving groups of women several hens and one rooster would provide them with necessary protein rich eggs for them and their families to eat for a fairly long time. Practically, however, chickens are very disease prone and who knew if they would just kill them all at once for a huge feast the next day? Doubts aside, we did it anyway and ended up hearing third hand about how there was a “chicken plague” a week later and they all died. Hmmm.
We also distributed goats and donkeys, goats for the nutritional value of their milk and donkeys as a key to increased personal security so women can go out to collect firewood and return with more than they can usually carry themselves. This would reduce the frequency of their risk exposure to attacks outside of town. All of this sounds great until you consider the history of the Darfur conflict and how fighting between the nomadic herders and the pastoral farmers has escalated to today’s on-going crisis. Aided by so-called government-backed militias referred to as the “Janjaweed“, these camel riding heavily armed groups would raid villages stealing livestock, killing men and often attacking the women. How could I have been sure that we weren’t purchasing livestock for our programs from these very same marauders? How could I have known if our demand for livestock instigated raids to supply our orders? How could I have been sure that even if all purchases were legit that news of our livestock distribution wouldn’t lead to planned attacks on our beneficiaries? None of these doubts could have been put to rest within the time-frame we had to conclude our programs.
There were no reports of negative or harmful outcomes from these programs while we were there, and none from subsequent program managers that we are aware of. Yet, the complexities of the issue of how to effectively help and do no harm still plague me to this day, along with questions of how to push back on donors about unrealistic time lines without losing my job. In the end, I don’t know. I still don’t know.
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How do you handle doing things with mixed emotions and don’t let them get the best of you?