Friday, August 21, 2015

Joseph's Question: What Are You Getting From This?

I had coffee a couple of days ago with a friend I hadn't seen in some years, when we served on the board of a little nonprofit together.  I had always appreciated his mix of warmth and candor, a characteristic that had not abated with age.  So after asking me several searching questions about Yo Ghana! he said something like this: "David, people from Ghana will be thinking, even if they don't say it: "What are you getting from this?"

It is a very fair question.  Many "philanthropists" make a living from their work, sometimes a very good living.  It also looks good on a resume or c.v., can be used indirectly to build wealth.  Most commonly, I think, those of us who do volunteer work with people considered vulnerable due to poverty or trauma or what have you are trying to look better to ourselves and others.  Teju Cole calls this "The White Savior Industrial Complex."  Helping Africans is about "having a big emotional experience that validates privilege."  Being a person born into privilege with more than a little bit of ambition and insecurity, I must admit that a desire to build myself up has had more than a little to do with my volunteer work with battered women, vulnerable children, racial reconciliation, and Kenya and Ghana.

But I also learned slowly, over the years, that the biggest pay-off in all of these activities was the relationships that they brought.  It may seem odd, but the happiest people I know are those who see their lives as a vessel to be joyfully emptied on behalf of others.  With Yo Ghana! I get to work with dozens of such people: the best of the best teachers, people who already have too much to do yet take on more; the principals and headmasters and headmistresses who face incredible problems with good humor and boundless energy; volunteers and advisers who are already stretched thin but sacrifice to support us with gifts of time and money.  And people who are vulnerable economically are often very rich and generous in other respects.  The month I spend in Ghana every year is a month suffused with warmth and inspiration I have found nowhere else.  Our slogan, "exchanges for transformation," certainly applies for and to me.

Religion tell us that service is good for the soul.  Evolution tell us that we are hard-wired to care for each other, that our survival has always been a collective endeavor.  And experience tells me that happiness comes from finding people doing great things and joining them.

Friday, August 14, 2015

Why Raising Money for Yo Ghana! Is So Challenging

I never featured myself leading a nonprofit, and one of the many parts of the job that I find challenging is asking people for money.

Yo Ghana! faces the additional challenge of having a mission statement that doesn't lend itself to bumper stickers or sound bites.  We facilitate "transformative exchanges" between students in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest that emphasize partnership--friendships and understanding nurtured through the thoughtful exchange of letters.  This takes a great deal of time and care, gifts of hours not money.  That said, keeping the letters moving requires some money, and we also support some very worthy projects at our Ghana schools.  But the projects are more subtle than sexy.  We aren't claiming to "Save the Children" or "Feed the World."


Thoughtful development requires humility and caution, a deep respect for what people are already doing for themselves.  We are not in the business of feeding people or even building schools.  Rather, we provide partial scholarships to families who are donating their time to strengthen their schools, and if a school builds walls for new classrooms, we are interested in helping with the roof.


Aside from personal friends and family of board members and other volunteers, we have found that two types of people are likely to support us.  People who leave places where poverty is common are often bombarded by requests from family members and friends for support, so they quickly become adept at giving in a way that will inspire local initiative.  Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who have spent years immersed in places where social structures are strong and material resources modest also appreciate the power of judicious and collaborative giving.  You don't have to have grown up in a village where food and education could not be taken for granted or have been in the Peace Corps to get excited about donating to us.  But it helps if you think carefully about how to give in a way that will be likely to help people in the long run.


Like most of us, I don't like asking people for money.  I have overcome that reluctance by working with the rest of our board and volunteers to create an organization with virtually no overhead that funds projects that reward local initiative.  Our board donates about half of the money needed to link our thirty-some schools and two thousand students and provide some modest grants for our Ghana partners.  If you can help us with that other 50 percent, please click on the "Donate" button on our home page or donate page, or e-mail us.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

School Projects Yo Ghana! Is Supporting--Can You Help?

Grant Projects: An Invitation to Smart Giving
Though the heart of our mission at Yo Ghana! are the transformative letters between students in Ghana and the Pacific Northwest, we offer our Ghana partners modest grants, usually about $500 per year.  These grants require and foster local initiative: we support projects that schools have started and funded.
Several schools are still shaping their requests, but here are this year’s projects so far:
Anani Memorial International School  This K-6 school is located in the heart of Nima, one of the largest slums in Accra, Ghana's capital.  Although tuition is just $100.00 per year, many parents are unable to pay it.  But some twenty parents, such as the mother shown here, have donated roughly $300 worth of time, skills, and goods to the school: cooking oil, onions, music lessons, trash removal, and much more in a place where thousands of people work twelve hours a day for a dollar or two.  In exchange Yo Ghana! provides scholarship assistance.  Headmaster Kofi Anane reports that this focus on self-help has raised the community’s sense of pride and investment in the school.
Nipaba Brew School in Sampa, on the border of Côte d'Ivoire, is an outstanding private school that serves many students from families of modest means.  It excels at teaching literacy at a very young age.  The school estimates that the 3-in-1 printer that Yo Ghana has helped it to purchase will pay for itself in a year as well as saving many hours of staff time a month.
St. Kizito School, K-9, a public school run by two exceptionally dedicated priests, is located in a remote part of Ghana's Northern Region.  The school has to turn away students to keep its overcrowding from becoming even worse.  So the community has built the foundation and walls for three new classrooms (see the photo to the right) that would take the average kindergarten class down from ninety to fifty students.  Yo Ghana! contributed one third of the costs of roofing the new classrooms, and once the school is able to match that amount we will provide the final third.
Evangelical Church of Ghana School in Tamale, the Northern Region's capital city, is an outstanding K-9 private school with modest tuition.  But many strong students struggle to make their payments.  Napari, described by his teacher, Madam Clara, as “one of the bright students in the class,” is from a family of thirteen, and his father is not able to earn enough from farming and carpentry to pay all of his children’s school fees.  Yo Ghana! is contributing to a scholarship fund so that bright students such as Napari can keep attending this school.
Angel's Academy on the outskirts of Accra began as a free school in Mr. Ernest Opoku-Ansah’s living room.  More than twenty years later it has become a very successful private school that continues to serve many students from poorer families.  The school took a big risk in building a computer laboratory and staff room with its own funds and has asked Yo Ghana! for help in providing new or reconditioned laptops for it.
Savelugu Senior High School, shown here, is one of the leading and largest educational institutions in Northern Ghana, with particular attention to the sciences.   The school’s PTA has contributed both funds and labor to create two sets of urinals for its students and women faculty, which will save them much time and inconvenience.  Yo Ghana! is matching their contribution.
Smart phones.  As internet connections are often spotty in rural Ghana, we are providing smart phones costing roughly $90.00 each to several of our Ghana schools so that they can send pdfs of letters when the internet is down and more easily share photos with their U.S. partners.
Laptops.  Many of our schools are looking for sturdy laptops, which can be much more easily carried to Ghana than desktop computers.  Please let us know if you have some to donate.
Remember, your contributions are tax deductible, and our overhead is next to nothing.  We have no offices or even a PO box, and our board members donate their time, travel expenses, and several thousand dollars a year.  Our very busy teachers do their Yo Ghana! work on top of their many other duties, and our Ghana teachers commonly dig into their own pockets to buy internet and phone time to communicate with us.  So if you are looking for a scrappy little nonprofit where your money will go a long way and to the right places, we are glad you are reading this.

There is a link to our Paypal account on our website, or e-mail yoghana.org@gmail.comyoghana.org@gmail.com to send a check.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Zed Books to Publish "Africa Existential"

I received the very welcome news a couple of days ago that Zed Books is offering me a contract to publish Africa Existential: American Quests from "The African Queen" to KONY 2012.  I hope to have a good draft of the manuscript finished by June 2016, and it will be another year or two from then, if all goes smoothly, until Zed publishes the book.

I'm honored and excited to be working with Zed.  It's a workers' collective in the UK "committed to increasing awareness of important international issues and to promoting diversity, alternative voices and progressive social change."  The two scholars they found to review my proposal and chapter gave prompt and very critical, helpful feedback, and they publish all of their books in paper.

This will be "my" (explanation of the quotation marks to follow) seventh book, and my views of having a book published have changed quite a bit in the twenty years since Harvard University Press published the first.

First, although  having books published by presses considered reputable is a great way to get credibility in the academic world, very few  bookstores, newspapers, radio stations, or readers outside of one's immediate family or narrow slices of academia are interested.  The consequences are underwhelming.

Second, one's book is not really one's own.  Africa Existential will not really be "my" book.  It has already been improved immeasurably by two very bright readers.  It will receive, I hope and expect, a good deal of additional attention from those readers as well as a general editor and a copy editor, people who will make the book more logical, compelling, and readable and save me from embarrassing errors.  The book is also the work of many hands in a more general sense.  I have read hundreds if not thousands of accounts of Africa and watched many films.  Everything I have to say is, in a very real sense, second hand.  Not all of these contributions will show up in the references.  I have had the pleasure of visiting Africa several times myself and am friends with many people from Africa and many Americans who have traveled to and thought about Africa.  All of these experiences and people have shaped and will continue to shape "my" manuscript.  Writing a book, furthermore, requires a vast support network in all sorts indirect ways.  Wendy and Peter, my immediate family, are very supportive.  I was raised by bookish working-class parents who had a mania for education that dozens of dedicated teachers nourished.  Scores of librarians have assisted in the research itself, and vast, modern mechanisms of education, communication, and food distribution that only a tiny sliver of people in the history of the world have enjoyed have made it possible to set aside thousands of hours of time to work on this project and to use that time with a degree of efficiency unavailable to scholars even a generation ago.

Thirdly, I have learned that a book is never definitive.  Our intellects our weak, our reach is modest.  Every subject is a vast ocean.  We do not master such vastness and complexity.  Even those who spend decades at a given subject are only dipping their toes in here and there, exploring a few samples through distorted lenses. We therefore are always writing "a" history of something, never "the" history of anything.  We must agree with Job: "Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know."

One has to wonder, then, if publishing a book is worth the countless hours of research and writing and rewriting that go into it, hours that might be more responsibly spent at more socially constructive and useful tasks, and I wouldn't be surprised at all if this turns out to be my last one.  Still, for someone who spends much of his time trying to figure out what makes the world tick, it's a great privilege to have one's thoughts--refined by others--recorded and dispersed, their many shortcomings not withstanding. .


Friday, July 24, 2015

Lessons from When Helping Hurts and Brando Akoto, Concluded

I have already pointed out one of the key points made in When Helping Hurts by Corbett and Fikkert: We all need help.  Hence comfortable Americans who head off determined "to help poor people" often discover their own poverty of relationships and resilience, for example.  A slogan that quickly emerged from Peace Corps veterans sums this realization up nicely: "I got much more than I gave."  Giving and receiving often unfold in surprising ways, and material goods are shown to be but one part of a rich life.

A second key realization that often emerges from working in impoverished areas is the intractability of problems.  Distributing food or building buildings is easy enough.  But doing so in a way that ensures that local people benefit in the long run is much more difficult and requires a great deal of patience and listening and, above all, collaboration.

In other words, development work done right leads to and requires sustained and meaningful relationships.

When Mr. Brando talked about relationships during our September 2014 journeys to Yo Ghana's Ghanaian schools I enjoyed watching how community and school leaders responded to his words.  Some expected--and hoped--that we would act like a "Western NGO" was supposed to act: build classrooms and distribute school buses and computers. But most responded very positiviley once Brando explained that: 1) We didn't have that sort of money; 2) The community already had resources to start improving its schools without our help; 3) That we hoped to be their partners and friends for years, even decades to come; 4) That the letters, the warmth and knowledge, that their students shared with their friends in Oregon and Washington was a great gift that we could work on right now.

"If you take care of relationships," Brando likes to say, "everything else will follow."  When Helping Hurts can be read as an exposition of that truth.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Lessons from When Helping Hurts, Part II

Last week I wrote about how this fine book by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert underscores the importance of humility in relief work, not simply because humility is some sort of abstract virtue but because humility prompts people with money to realize that financial wealth is often accompanied by poverty in other important aspects of life, such as friendships and resilience, and that possessing money does not magically give one the wisdom required to use it effectively to help without hurting.

That said, people who have more than enough wealth should not be discouraged from helping those who lack things like sufficient food, safe water, and access to education, for example.  But how does one help without hurting?

One cardinal rule that the authors repeatedly emphasize is the importance of respecting local people, organizations, and solutions that are already sustaining communities that might look poor from a western perspective.  Those of us with money are often too quick to rush in with solutions to problems that were not necessarily problems--or to problems that local people could or would have solved without outside intervention.  One of Yo Ghana's strongest supporters likes to remark that the West African community in which he grew up was much better off several decades ago than it is today because western NGOs had not yet discovered it.  The residents knew that they had to meet their own needs, and they did so.  Now the temptation is to wait for a western NGO to take care of everything, an expectation that undercuts the work ethic and determination needed to succeed in any society.

Indeed, a growing number of people from diverse backgrounds point out the problems that commonly ensue when outsiders come in and simply start building schools, hospitals, wells or providing other materials or services:
1) Local leaders feel undercut and undervalued.  If food is being given away, for example, how will local farmers make a living?  A local pastor may take days to gather money to help a church member in need finds that a stranger visiting from the U.S. will provide the funds instantly.
2) Local elites and local and national governments conclude that they are not responsible for helping the less fortunate, as western donors are taking care of that.  A local wealthy person may feel no responsibility for helping neighbors.
3) Spending money quickly and in large amounts attracts and rewards corruption.

Next week we'll look at the key solution Corbett and Fikkert recommend for how to help without hurting.


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Wonderful Book: When Helping Hurts, Part I

I recently read a book I had skimmed a few months ago: When Helping Hurts, by Steve Corbett and
Brian Fikkert.  It's the most sensible book I know of on the role of privileged people in poverty alleviation and feels a lot like being inside the head of my dear friend and fellow Yo Ghana! board member Mr. Brando Akoto.

When Helping Hurts is written from a Christian perspective, so one of their central concepts is that everyone is broken and poor in some respect.

This brokenness or poverty has two major consequences for development work.

Since one aspect of our brokenness is arrogance, particularly if we have reason to think that we are powerful or superior, many of us are unaware of our poverty and brokenness.  We are apt to think of our material wealth as a manifestation of superiority.  More tellingly, perhaps, we are often unprepared to recognize and deal with our blind spots and limitations.  Our lack of humility is often crippling, because it keeps us from being able to recognize and address our weaknesses.

Second, a broad definition of poverty helps one to see that wealthy people can be poor.  Part of what intrigued me right away about Ghanaian schools was their richness in resiliency and relationships.  I discerned those same strengths among ordinary Ghanaians in all walks of life; their determination and social skills were, by American standards, extraordinary and, for me, inspiring.  

Before well-meaning people try to help those with far fewer material resources, then, we are well advised to: 1) Bear in mind our limitations and lack of knowledge--and to remember that the more we learn, the more we will learn about what we don't know; 2) That, as many Peace Corps Volunteers like to say, we are likely to gain more than we receive, that people who are poor in material goods are often, perhaps by necessity, rich in social skills and moral character.