About Jan Marchal
Jan Marchal was 26 when he started his career in the field of development cooperation, working for Dutch NGO ICCO (Interchurch Organization for Development Cooperation). He left the field six years later, disillusioned: “I really wanted to do something to help Africa, but I realized that my work was not actually helping Africans." Today Jan Marchal is a freelance journalist.
From my very first trip to Africa, I was puzzled by the large number of development organizations present there. After working in Africa for six years with a Dutch NGO specialising in development cooperation, I was quite embarrassed, as I could no longer accept my role as the white man who came to develop Africa.
By Jan Marchal
I was 26 when I first set foot in sub-Saharan Africa, more specifically Uganda, as a development officer. I was eager to discover the continent and help develop it. What a challenge! While discovering Africa, I would also gain practical experience in development cooperation. Africa needed 'development cooperation' rather than aid, I was told.
The local partners
The NGO I was working for aimed to promote sustainable development in developing countries by working with partners, namely local NGOs. I was personally responsible for the funding of agriculture, health and education projects in Uganda. My duty was to assist local organisations with the implementation of these projects through ‘capacity building’, a popular term in the field of development. At the time, I saw it as an efficient way to promote development, as Africans themselves defined their needs and priorities.
Maximum impact desired
On each of my trips to Uganda, I was always overwhelmed by the special attention I received from the partners. I was given a place of honour and all eyes were on me. I had never felt that important, nor had anyone been that interested in what I had to say. I must admit that the attention was all but unpleasant. Often I had passionate discussions with the partners about the progress and impact – or the lack thereof – of a particular project, as I had to ensure the maximum impact of funded projects. If the results would be below target, we would have to consider a new strategy or simply stop the funding, because my employer wanted the funds to be spent productively. Therefore, I had to closely monitor the projects, in person.
On the ground
The projects were located ‘on the ground’, a term used for remote locations with the greatest needs. During ‘field trips’ we assessed the projects. The kind of welcoming I would usually receive in the villages was like this: everyone would be singing and dancing, especially women, waving banners and pieces of woods with my name on. I would receive a king’s welcome. But even though I knew it was part of the folkloric African hospitality, I was slightly ill at ease. They saw me as their saviour, the person they should thank for the seeds, livestock or medicine they had received. Unfortunately, this delightful atmosphere was often short-lived. At the end of a visit, I would always receive a list of all the problem areas. And more help was requested, always.
Only successful villages
Unfortunately, it was impossible to assess the impact of a project by visiting one or two villages. Therefore, I relied on the partners’ knowledge on the ground, as they decided which village to visit. So we mostly visited the successful ones. If I wanted objective feedback on a project, I had no choice but to hire an expensive consultant. But what was I to do if the implementation of a project would fail, for one reason or another? If an organisation was having staffing problems, due to an employee dying from AIDS from example, or the area had experienced drought, armed conflict or some other calamity, was I then to stop the funding? If not, how much more funding was I supposed to grant? I realized that this job had put me in a tough position. (to be continued)
Part 2 of this article will be published on Sunday 21 August.