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December 3, 2009

By Camden Bowman

São Tomé

The equatorial sun blazes hotter and hotter as the sweat drips off my nose, splashing into what has now become a small puddle beneath me. Being chased is not fun, but hiding is worse. I crouch lower into the brush as the footsteps come closer. I can hear the soldiers breathing; They are practically on top of me. Development work is dangerous, they told me, but I had never expected it to come to this. Suddenly, with a terrifying efficiency, my alarm goes off and I wake up. Time to go to work.

A lot of people think that working in development involves loads of bushwhacking, well digging, and rebel-evading adventure. I’m sure all of these things exist somewhere. As for me, working for ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency) involves a lot of proposal writing (kind of like writing a report for school, only it’s pass/fail), organizing documents, and occasionally just looking busy.  Now granted, that last element is, at the moment, because my boss is gone and no one else seems to know what to make me do. Regardless of the reason, I’ve spent a good deal of time doing very important tasks like playing pinball on my computer, reading a book, writing e-mails, and writing this article (no offense Andy, it’s just not part of my job description, and not overly important to any ADRA projects). I’m sure that pretty soon I’ll be too busy to think, if the boredom doesn’t kill me first.

There is some level of adventure involved. I am living in one of Africa’s poorest countries, and I do sometimes take trips into the interior to see the small communities in the jungle on former plantations. For the most part, though, it’s office work. Really, that’s the way it should be. ADRA has a policy that foreign workers are not allowed to do any job that a local could do. It’s a good policy, because it means we employ people who know the culture intimately, and who desperately need jobs. What it means for me, however, is no well-digging.

I really can’t complain though. I’m learning a lot of things about the field, and I have gotten to do some work. I have an excellent opportunity, as only a sophomore in college, to experience what I’m studying first hand and decide whether this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. Is this what I want to do with the rest of my life? I’ve wanted to work in development since I was a freshman in high school. I saw people suffering, and I knew that I was in a position to help them. There was nothing else to think about, my mind was made up. I never stopped to ask the question, “does aid help?”

Many economists today are saying that it doesn’t, and after being in São Tomé e Príncipe, I can understand why. More than 80% of the country’s economy is based on foreign aid, and that doesn’t look like it will change any time soon. Despite the efforts of NGOs like ADRA to provide aid in sustainable ways, the majority of aid is channeled through the government. Everyone knows the common saying, “if you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him to fish, he eats for a lifetime” but what happens when you give a man a fish every day? He eats for a lifetime and never learns to fish, and you spend a lot of money on those fish. The argument is simple: the best thing for Africa would be if the U.S. and Europe would just leave it alone. Africa can solve Africa’s problems, and the West is just complicating things.

But this answer is still insufficient. What about those cases where aid does help? What about individuals who escape poverty because someone like ADRA provided assistance? Do such people exist? And what about the human cost of ceasing all aid? The questions are more than I could write here. Africa will solve Africa’s problems. We cannot do it for them. The question now is whether or not we can help, and more personally, whether or not I can help. I don’t have an answer for this question yet, and it’s one thing I’ll be thinking about for the duration of my stay here.

Anyway, those are some random thoughts on working here. I really should get back to work; after all, there’s a very important pinball game waiting for me. Maybe I’ll break my high score.


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