Dheepan: an outstanding movie about refugees

dheepan movie Dheepan is somehow a ‘neutral’ movie about refugees as it concerns refugees from Sri Lanka; I worked with many of them in the ’90ties but today we concentrate on other regions as every reader knows. Technically this choice in the movie creates a healthy distance to emotions in actuality. And practically, it makes no difference. Refugees run for a reason, most often a quite serious one. And yes, they are surrounded by luck-seekers, criminals who have other reasons to flee and economic migrants. Making the difference between one and the other is an ideal but in practice not very easy. However the movie is not about asylum policies and dilemmas, it is about how people flee and become a refugee and how they experience the country in which they arrive.
In this movie, the Sri Lanka refugees find a house and a job in the banlieue of Paris, in one of the worst banlieues – I think the movie maker even wanted to point out that the refugees run from a war to end up in another one. It is as much a complaint against the ‘drugs in banlieue’ situation as about the refugee situation. Specifically, the total lack of law enforcement (no police or authorities at all) surprises the public.
I think the movie is brilliant in the way it depicts the refugees. I recognized every emotion, both in daily life and in the history of violence and resistence that refugees from war and conflict areas bring with them – not as a choice but as a fact. My experience with that is both friendship and work and I found the movie Dheepan shiveringly realistic and very strong in the way of showing the emotional side.
As a former French teacher, I regretted that the refugees end up in England – to their satisfaction – and not somewhere else in France, a country I love. This is, of course, a biased view 🙂 Anyway the movie ends well, which in a world of problems is nice and more encouraging to go and watch the movie than the opposite.
What surprised me is that nowadays every discussion and debate in the Netherlands is about refugees but we were only 8 spectators: 8! in a large cinema. Sometimes I wonder how much indepth knowledge people want about reality – I see loads of over-emotional people and few people able to handle the complexity that comes with refugee issues. Let’s face reality even when it is not simple. Go watch the Dheepan movie, warmly recommended!

What people in Zimbabwe learned (and will Malawi follow?)

  One of the Stephanos managers told me this, that in Zimbabwe people have learned something during the last years that people in Malawi haven’t learned yet. The situation in Zimbabwe has been dramatic due to political circumstances. Donors refused to give any more money to the country. The food production was very low. It ended up in a situation where there was nothing to be had for ordinary people. Even the crime rate went down, because it was no use stealing anything from others; because others wouldn’t have anything either so there was nothing to be stolen…
And since the donors gave no money, the people felt completely without help. This has brought a major change in their mentality: they started to help themselves. If there was any land not being used for agriculture, it would now be developed by ordinary people at their own initiative. Teenagers were looking for possibilities to contribute after school. People have become more independant, more active and proud.
In Malawi, everybody is still relying on donors. People forget about following their own values and ideas and focus on donor satisfaction because the big fear of any Malawian is: what if the donor will stop giving money! This is a general mentality that children also learn at a very young age. Remember: 40% of Malawi’s national budget comes from donors! So the withdrawal of donors would have dramatic effects. However, anybody can predict that such a donor-situation will not last forever. Does Malawi need a crisis like Zimbabwe to create a turning point?
Personally I am surprised to see Malawi this poor, 1 of the 5 poorest countries in the world, I am still puzzled by it. Malawi has strong assets with a beautiful lake, mountain, wild parcs and lots of land that is not being exploited for agriculture yet. And: the customers for agricultural products (think of India, China) are already there, they don’t even need to look for them. There is a lot of unused potential. I have seen countries with ‘less potential’ and better results. Yet it is normal in Malawi to ask white people for money all the time also individually (if you’re white, try a walk on the street and you will notice). What could create the shock effect for Malawians to take their destiny more in one hand (and for donors to let them do it) – preferably without the dramatic situation Zimbabwians have suffered from.

Aid for orphans in Malawi

  In Malawi plenty of NGO’s have started an orphanage. The amount of orphans here is incredibly high, partly because of HIV/AIDS related deaths. Precise figures can be found in this Unicef publication: http://www.unicef.org/malawi/MLW_resources_childprotecstratsum.pdf. Unicef is not in favor of orphanages. Guiding principles for Unicef are (amongst others) that the family is the first line of defence for the protection of children and that community child protection practices are the heart of any child protection system.
The Malawian government is also not happy with orphanages and wants to abolish them if possible. Arguments in favour of that are for example:
– children are taken away from their family and community context, and thus derooted and alienated from their origins, relatives, values and traditions; it harms the children’s development
– for the price of 1 child in an orphanage, 8 children can receive help in a community
– most of the children living in institutions have a surviving parent or close relative, and they most commonly entered orphanages because of poverty, not because the parents or relatives do not want to take care of them
– research has shown that cash given directly to families is more effective than subsidies given to orphanages
– creating orphanages serves the donors more than the children
See also: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/06/world/africa/06orphans.html?_r=1
The last argument is exactly why the change of policy to abolish orphanages and work directly with communities is difficult to accept for NGO’s. It is more easy to find donors for a single child support than for a community. And it is more easy to work with children only and not with entire communities. Also, an orphanage gives NGO’s and donors the possibility to control the complete situation of a child, to offer the education the NGO thinks is important and eventually ignore their background.
In an orphanage like Kondanani – where Madonna recently got her children from – children are obliged to speak English only . They get a very good education in a merely western environment; a good kick-off in life, is the thought. Kondanani has been led thoroughly during many years and lots of donors contributed to create a world in its own, with fences around it to protect it. After primary education, various kinds of secondary education are offered and now even a Kondanani university might start on the premises. Is this kind of closed and safe environment for children, from baby until student, good or bad? One thing is sure, now that a (donor/NGO)dream that started almost 20 years ago is coming to its completion, the idea of ‘offering aid for orphans within their community only’ will not be received with a warm and open mind… This is just one example out of many. The Stephanos Foundation that also runs an orphanage in a compound is the first to be willing to cooperate for change – Unicef considers to make a pilot out of it.
Intriguing is the fact that donors/NGO’s do not automatically see the government of Malawi as leading when it comes to policies for Malawi children; they do not seem to consider their own position as supportive or additional to Malawi policies. Do they have the right to resist the government (and UN), for example by the experience and expertise they have about what works in practice, or by the money they raise, or because of the responsibility they feel for the children they are caring for in their orphanage already? Or can their attitude be considered as arrogant and postcolonial, as an ‘addiction to help’ like Dambisa Moyo describes in her book Dead Aid?
Nothing is easy here in Malawi. Yesterday’s newspaper mentioned the opening of a new road made by China and a new bridge made by Japan. It is difficult to take a government serious when it does not even make its own roads and bridges or when the members of parliament are on strike (really!) for a 137% increase of wages. However, by not taking the government serious for sure there will be no structural, sustainable change and orphanages will be needed forever (which, of course, is good news for the addicted-to-aid part of the donors/NGO’s).

Pigs, kids, and why it works in Malawi

     

On the south side of Blantyre, the Stephanos Foundation runs a project that is based on participation of villagers and their empowerment. Many people work in the tea plantations that cover the hills in the area: in good days, the wages can be 600 kwacha(= 1,70 euro) per day. Workers of Stephanos sat together with the community to find out how to improve their situation and this is how the pig-project took shape. Isn’t that a great way of working?! This is what the community wanted and so this is what they were going to do. So different from projects that start from the idea of the donors, and what donors think should be done and paid for…
9 female and 2 male pigs were given to the community as a start. The female pigs are given to a child that has to take care of it; when the child is at school there is a watchman (usually woman). The male pigs go around to do their favorite thing and this is how young pigs are created. In general, a pig gets 6 young ones. 2 young ones are given away to other children to make the project grow, the rest can stay at the house where they were born. Now in a few years time, already 300 children are participating in this program. A committee that has a real constitution and a serious chair is overviewing the project and making decisions.
The value of a pig is 5 times more than a goat, between 42 and 57 euro. Compare that to the income the tea plantations offer…! So now children can fund their school fee for secondary education because of the pigs. And their surroundings are profiting too. There is already more money than necessary, so the committee decided to invest in agriculture. It was their idea, not the idea of Stephanos.
Stephanos offers the encouragement and the knowledge input for what the committee wants. And they offered a pump for water that can be handled by feet (so no need for electricity, oil or whatever that will make the pump stop when there is no cash money – very practical). The villagers have made a beautiful field where over 10.000 oignons are growing now. One oignon can be sold at a price of 30-40 kwacha (say 10 eurocents). So next October they expect a big profit… and it might be invested again.
This project is not a Millennium Village: there was no ‘integrated total approach’ of things, no fancy barn, no mechanical work on the fields, no manager. But it has a very good chance to be sustainable because all of it is run by the community itself in the first place – and it is affordable without donor because the people run their own business and don’t rely on the donor’s money.
I like to add one thing, and that is that I found the villages we passed very clean. The reason could be that this is a different area, with even a different tribe, but it was striking the eye (also when I went ‘at random’ to the toilet in one of the houses) and I do think it matters. Consciousness of health and hygiene, even in poverty, is a great asset for self-esteem and development. The sheds for the pigs were well made and looked after. Animals can stink and reduce the pleasure of living at a place, but this was not at all the case because the cages were also well maintained.
Photographs above: the pigs in their cage, and a girl who is the happy owner of a pig, with her watch(wo)man (green shirt) on her side, and the field with the oignons.

 

Creative use of waterpipes in Zomba

  Waterpipes were sent to Zomba by a donor in order to help create a better draining system. Part of those waterpipes – that by the way are a very good quality and quite expensive – found another destination as you can see on the picture above, they will never serve a draining system. Well, at least the water pipes were not just thrown away…
Some people suggest that systems like Western Europe has, cannot work here in Malawi anyway. For example something will get broken halfway the draining system and there will be no one or no money to repair it. So then all of the street or maybe even all of the village will stay without a good draining system. A more individual or ‘serial’ approach would do better than a community system. Could be true.
A thought that comes to my mind all the time is how creative people are here in Malawi. They might not use the products the way the ‘western world’ does, but they find new ways to use them for things that apparently matter to them and that are also lacking. If that creativity would be combined with a (long term) business attitude, what would we see happening in Malawi!

Millennium Village Southern Malawi

     
The UN is building Millennium Villages to accelerate development and the achievement of the millennium goals that were set. In many countries in Africa an integrated approach of agriculture, health care, education etc. is brought into practice. The MillenniumVillage in the Zomba region of Malawi contains a vaste area with a lot of very small villages and 35.000 people. What jumps in the eye at first sight is the larger scale of agriculture that is applied here, with the use of mechanics and new kinds of crops that are richer than the former ones (like the pieces of orange patatoes at the picture above). The project works with partners rather than donors (like the electricity company of Malawi), although visitors see a big sign of US Aid when they arrive.
The success formula to make this work was to have villagers involved from the beginning in the cooperation they formed, and also to give village chiefs a role in it. An increasing amount of farmers are now self supporting, getting crops from the cooperation and giving back a few bags of crops after harvesting – thus they guarantee the continuity of the project. See the picture of the barn above. They have some extra money now so that they can pay education fees for their children and have a little luxury at home.
The best breakthrough was when they started to talk business. In the beginning, ‘food security’ was in the center of the program. But when there was food security and they started to think of markets to sell their harvest to, that is when general interest and participation really grew. An important lesson learned in the MillenniumVillage is: start from the needs the people have (which can be different from the needs others tell them they have!).
Yet there is a lot of work to be done. It is clear that this is another project in Malawi that got a lot of outside / donor money put into. Managing the cooperation, building barns or other materials are not included in the ‘self-support’ so far. Health care has improved considerably in general, and specifically for pregnant women, but nobody pays a dime for health care. How sustainable can that model be? Well, they have some more years to go. The good news is that many visitors pass by to learn about the Millennium Village model and return to their own region full of ideas and inspiration.

Self Help Africa

     Self Help is the new magic word and the name of a program that has several groups around the country in Malawi. So we went to see one of those new, inspiring groups in the Zomba region. After some indications received by officials, we ended up in one of the local offices of the Ministry of Agriculture in a small village. There they told us the Self Help Africa group did not exist any more because the donor stopped. Apparently a Self Help group starts on the basis of donations and is supposed to do things alone after a while. What could have been done was to hand the group over to local officials or other projects but this wasn’t done. Logically, in my eyes, as the method was supposed to be self help so why hand it over. Anyway not the most successful project I heard about so far…

At the office that was about agriculture, we did see a girl who came there for help: she was bitten several times by a raging (rabies) dog. She was placed on a bike and fastly driven away: I don’t know where, given the fact that we were a bit in the middle of nowhere – and I don’t know how much time she would have. She was very calm and very sad. I hope she ended up well.

Dead Aid in Malawi

  Dambisa Moyo is an economist, born in Zambia, and the author of the New York Times Bestseller “Dead Aid: Why Aid Is Not Working and How There Is a Better Way for Africa”. In the past fifty years, she writes, more than $1 trillion in development-related aid has been transferred from rich countries to Africa. Has this assistance improved the lives of Africans? No. In fact, across the continent, the recipients of this aid are not better off as a result of it, but worse—much worse. Dead Aid offers proposals for developing countries to finance development, instead of relying on foreign aid. If you don’t know about her ideas yet, find more at www.dambisamoyo.com.
Walking around in Malawi, that is among the 5 poorest countries in the world and relies for more than 50% of the national budget on external donors, her book becomes a living truth. The police here is paid by the English, treatment against aids for over 300.000 people is paid by the Italians. On every corner a charity can be found but there appears to be no economy. Moreover, the harvest has failed in large parts of the country so that hunger is expected the coming months for over a million people here. I have never been in a country that was more desperately seeking for aid, and that donors feel compelled to give aid to. The words of Dambisa Moyo that aid is an addiction, both for donors and for receivers, can be seen in practice here.
Many workers ‘in the field’ realize that aid, after fifty (!) years of aid already, is not the right answer for the problems of Malawi. A totally different approach is necessary, but they are squeezed between the two groups of aid-addicts. 1. The donors on the one side who want to answer to immediate needs of the Malawi people in the same way they always did, and who in many cases pay their salaries and the means they work with; 2. The Malawi people on the other side for whom it has become completely normal to rely on external sources and to ask for more, as much as possible, and who knock directly on their door.
However, things are going to change. The publication of Dead Aid a few years ago was a first sign. The economic crisis in the West, that brings new ways of thinking not just about the western world itself but also about ‘the way things are done’ in relation to the rest of the world, is a second sign. And for everybody who is travelling in Malawi, subtile notions are there that the acceptance of whites will not be so big any more in the years to come – like it happened in other southern African countries already; that is a third sign.
The situation in Malawi is absolutely an example of Dead Aid; may it also become an example of the solutions that Dambisa Moyo has proposed in her book, at a short term notice…