Tanzania, East Africa is a funny place. The nation is host to riches of abundant agricultural land, the second largest herd of cattle in all of Africa and vast tracks of natural resources from gold to diamonds. With greater than two-thirds of the nation classified as youth (under the age of 35), there is a tremendous and ready labour force on hand that can literally re-build the nation. And yet, Tanzania is one of the poorest countries in the world.
At first glance, the problems are obvious and multiple in Tanzania. People can’t grow enough food, there is too little cash in the economy, the government is weak, women are not equal contributors to the economy, basic resources are improperly managed, quality education is scarce and costly — and this is just the tip of the iceberg.
Being a North American, I like it when a problem is solved quickly. However, none of the issues mentioned above are simple and none of them can be addressed overnight. Learning improved farming practices is a process that can only be undertaken one season at a time; elections happen once every five years and creating a school, far less having quality teachers and curriculum in place, can take a decade.
Despite notions to the contrary, the world is not turning a blind eye to the problems of Tanzania. There are literally thousands of government, local and international offices and/or programs trying to resolve each and every one of these seemingly distinct challenges. While the details and origins of these initiatives appear to call for high degrees of specialization, it is surprising that they often state a common goal. Be it health, education, business development or food security, everyone is trying to get to the same place — improved livelihoods for the poor.
As a development worker, I marvel at the hundreds of reports that come across my desk with directions as how to help make life better. Yet, I am equally perplexed as to how little discussion there is as to what the actual destination is. What is an improved livelihood — and who has been making the definition?
The easiest answer is to turn to the international designation as embodied in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). These include eliminating poverty and hunger, universal education, gender equality, child health, maternal health, combating HIV/AIDS, environmental sustainability and global partnerships.
Every single one of these elements is more than noble, they are absolutely essential. However, each of these concepts is only a piece of the ‘improved livelihood’ puzzle. Their actual meaning, especially to those to whom they aim to benefit, is another matter altogether.
While I am a firm supporter of the MDGs, I can honestly state that they are widely, and rightly, unknown in any village I have had the benefit of working with in Tanzania. When entering a household where people state they make $20 dollars a month and only have enough food for half of the year, something like environmental sustainability is about the last thing I am going to take the time to discuss. The conversation is more likely to be about how anything I am doing is going to improve the basics — food, shelter and clothing.
At the end of the day, the environment (or any issue for that matter), is only a starting point that ultimately leads to a destination that is not mine to define. During my first travels to Tanzania, I arrived with a host of improved livelihood solutions for the rural poor to every problem imaginable under the sun. Today, I have learned to let go of every one of these answers and to begin with the questions. What do you need to make your life better? How can we get there together?
» Josh Sebastian is from Brandon-Westman and is currently working on international development projects in Tanzania, East Africa.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition July 16, 2012