This week, for most students, was focused heavily upon the idea of foreign/international aid. Through our course of study here in Namibia we have constantly been exposed to different people and organizations that are heavily effected by international aid. Many of our internships rely on international donors to keep their doors open and programs running smoothly. When we were given the opportunity to meet with aid organizations and discuss the topic of international aid in our development course, we were all very excited. We learned lots of interesting things in Politics, History, and Religion class, but a large part of the week was spent on international aid which is why we have chosen to focus this blog primarily on that topic.
For development class this week students were asked to arrange meetings with different aid organizations and agencies working within Namibia to fit in with our focus on international aid. One group organized a meeting with UNAIDS. Students attending this meeting met with Ms. Gloria Billy, a program officer at the agency. Ms. Billy explained to the students about the work of UNAIDS and its leadership role among non-governmental organizations within Namibia that deal with HIV/AIDS related issues.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the conversation, however, was when students asked Ms. Billy about her personal opinion about the work of HIV/AIDS organizations within Namibia. Ms. Billy replied that while many organizations are doing good work within the country, there are so many organizations and few, if any, are coordinating their efforts to both stop the spread of the virus and provide treatment for those who are already infected. Students also learned that many organizations have failed to develop any system within their organization for sustainability meaning that they constantly depend on more money from outside donors to keep their programs running rather than finding a way to gain support from the Namibian government or ways to fund themselves. These organizations can end up hindering development rather than helping it along. This was a very important meeting for students as it helped shine some light on questions students had raised about the number of organizations working with HIV/AIDS and the sustainability of such organizations.
Another group visited the Finnish Embassy, which was practically a cultural exchange in itself. The embassy, employing just nine people, was set on a plush green property. The students met with the Chancellor of Development, Janne Sykkõ. During that time, Mr. Sykkõ was more than happy to talk us through the history of both Finland and the relationship between Finland and Namibia. As he continued, his humility, honesty, and genuine nature was more than evident, and his hospitable nature was just astounding.
Speaking to Americans, he was more than aware of the amount of aid Finland offered in comparison to the US; however he admitted that with the little aid given they still tried their best to support locals and see long-term sustainability in each project. He also commented on the people of Finland’s desire to see their corporations continue to follow the same fair labor policies abroad and did their best to follow up on companies such as Nokia. Although some of us wish Americans did the same, we are often criticized for our lack of knowledge and desire to follow up on US companies’ actions abroad.
One question asked was about the nature or hidden agendas of international aid organizations and if he felt this was often true of international aid. His response was once again very genuine, and he admitted that sometimes there are personal goals acting as a driving force however, most often the goals of international aid are to see long term sustainable development. Although many of us wanted to agree with him, some felt that too many times international aid’s main purpose is other than seeing to long-term efficient development or change. Never the less, Mr. Sykkõ was able to inspire us to believe in the good nature many international aid groups claim to achieve.
Following our visits to the different embassies and agencies, our academic week culminated with a visit to USAID with the development class. The visit was very pertinent as a lot of students work at internships funded by international donors and/or USAID. At USAID we met with Debra Mosel, the assistant mission director of USAID in Namibia. Debra offered us a lot of insight into the work that USAID does both within Namibia and globally as well as insight into how the agency works with a foreign country while still holding to US foreign policies. Prior to the meeting, some in the group had expressed concern over the fact that the aid provided is strictly controlled and monitored by the US government and its foreign policies. This has the potential to conflict with the plans and ideas of the host country.
This meeting however helped some to see the different sides to various situation and organizations, helping to inspire a bit more faith in the development field.
Students seemed very drawn to the discussion of the work of the emergency department of USAID as they provide basic services quickly and with very little intervention from the US government. Overall the experience was a very important one as it allowed students the opportunity to not only find out more fully about the work of USAID, but also provided a forum for students to ask a lot of the lingering questions that had remained with many of us throughout the semester.
Although the visit with USAID was interesting, its slogan “USAID, from the American people”, struck a lot of students. This idea of aid coming from the “American people” is almost humorous when in fact not only do most US citizens not know where Namibia is, let alone how to pronounce it, but most are not even aware of USAID itself. This is perhaps a representation of the lack of care or understanding Americans have for countries outside of the US, but could also be related to the fact that most Americans have very little to do with where the aid goes and how it is used.
After the meeting one student had an interesting conversation with a local Namibian who works closely with such organizations as USAID, UNAIDS, PEPFAR, CDC, and other international aid organizations. During that conversation the student was trying to get a local’s perspective on these organizations work in regards to sustainability. During that conversation however, USAID was highly regarded as a flexible, well organized, and sustainability concerned organization. But, CDC, UNAIDS, and PEPFAR were noted to be result seeking organizations which do not look at sustainability, let alone the needs of locals. Instead, these other organizations were commented upon as being irresponsible and personal-agenda driven foreign aid groups - exactly what develop class has been critical of.