Thursday, June 15, 2006

Public Relations

Tuesday we travelled with WFP and their largest private donor to view projects that they had funded in the northwestern part of Malawi. It was great to get out of the capital again, but I am beginning to see why all Malawians indiscriminately ask us "azungu's" for money when they see us.

While there is a lot of poverty in Malawi, after awhile you must cast away your western designs (they live in mud huts! they use outhouses! they don't wear shoes! their clothes are dirty!) and start to discern different gradiations of poverty (they don't have any livestock, their bellies are swollen, their hair is turning red from lack of protein...). It's something I am just beginning to realize and cultivate, as I can see it's a skill highly needed in this line of work if you are to truly help the "poorest of the poor."

After three hours of driving we reached a village that has been in a drought since late February. From my lens, every place in Malawi seems terribly dry - the grass is yellow, the trees are getting brown - even though I am told that this is just the beginning of the dry season and it will get worse until around November. So, I'm not the best person to be taken to assess a drought-ravaged area. Luckily, this task does not (officially) fall to me.

We arrive to look at a small plot of scorched land, the Traditional Authority (TA) of the region is there, as well as the village chief and several men. From the village, a flood of people come streaming down the road ala the Pied Piper of Hamline and coagulate around us. (The kids of course, brush up against us and cast furtive, curious glances to find our eyes behind shaded glasses. They're cute.) One of my colleagues spends a great deal of time asking questions about how long the drought has been, how many families have been affected, if they have cattle, where they get food, what percentage of chidren have stopped going to school, etc etc.

The visiting azungus from Holland openly point camera lenses at children and adults, one even with a tripod and video-recording set up. (I understand the need for PR but come ON.) Later, they hand out balloons to the children (in a drought ravaged field? The fortunate few that figured out how to get theirs blown up watched them pop before their eyes) and pens to the adults (causing a few scuffles).

The leaders answer that about 80% of families are affected, they've sold off their cattle, the men go to neighboring areas to find work to purchase food and almost all the children have stopped going to school since January. The women say they need a hospital, and near the end, a man chimes in that their bore wells are all dry, too. Can you fund that?

I look down at the little girl next to me, and she is gently gnawing at a fist sized cucumber. She tries to give it away to her neighbors, but no one will take it. She takes little nibbles and peers up at me. Later, I am playing with the children and I see a little boy carrying a Chichewa textbook. He teaches me the words bedi (bed), agogo (grandmother), baba (grandfather) and ufi (corn silo).

I'm not doubting that this village has been affected by drought. I'm sure it's going to get much worse for them before it gets better. Now, it's possible that I don't have all the information and I am keeping my mind open.

But in the back of my head I wonder if the villager's aren't doing a bit of PR of their own.



Anonymous said...

as a public relations professional, I must say you picked up quite keenly on the efforts of those you were visiting. their tactic of bombarding you with emotional appeal is one of the oldest tricks in the book. well played, villagers, well played.

nate-nate-bo-bate said...

Is there a point where desperation and PR meet?
At some point, when we're in our darkest, don't we unconciously use PR to gain attention from those who may be able to help us in some way or another?
I see your point with the hidden unabashed use to PR to help their cause, but jesus, who could blame them?
I'd like to stop the bleeding in my heart and say that some people are just unfortunate to live in places like that, and that if they get to that point, they should go somewhere else where they can prosper, but it's hard to do. I can't imagine how hard it must be to see those kind of desperate means in person. I also can't imagine how hard it is not to want to help every living thing you see, to get all sides of the story and sort through the facts before you make a decision.
I'm not sure I could do something like that. I'd probably break down and start digging wells for them myself, trying anything I could to fix what's broken. But, what good would that really do? In the big picture, probably not much.

I still stand by my original statement, though. I envy you for getting to do this.

Mtanga said...

Re: Emotional Appeal
That's not to say it didn't work. If I could I would slip money to everyone I saw and give them all clean clothes, but the world doesn't work that way. You just further reinforce the relationship that you, the rich white person, descend upon a village and act all Savior-esque. Thus, when villagers see foreigner they automatically see a pocketbook stuffed with money. It creates an unsustainable dependency on donor money.

You know the adage, "Give a man a fish he eats for one day, Teach a man to fish he eats for a lifetime?" That's what we're looking for here.

Look for my upcoming thesis: "Development as Help or Development as Dependency?" In stores (ok ok, on my laptop) soon!

emira said...

dependency vs. help? I always wonder about that since it seems as though we can't make either work in today's world. the developing world will continue to develop as long as the West, or more precisely northern hemisphere continues to hold 95% of all resources (i.e. money) nothing will change. yes, it would be nice to teach them (your little villagers) to fish for a lifetime but that lifetime (as a result of poor medical care and political/economic situation in their country) will not be very long. So, what are we to do? I know that the future of helping developing countries lies in small-scale projects (such as yours) but I wonder if there is maybe a grander (perhaps regional, in this case African) solution to dependency. any ideas?