Saturday, August 25, 2007

Music to FAVL's ears...

I am not a cynic (can you co-direct a non-profit that helps establish libraries and be a cynic?) but I was browsing Jeffrey Sachs's Millennium Village website, and noted that Millennium Villages ($100,000 per village per year, whew!) are building training centers and grain banks. This is great news. Ten years from now, when FAVL (thanks to your support!) is ready to expand to those communities, there will be nice empty buildings ready to be converted into libraries.

Let me tell you my story about grain banks. In 1989 when I lived for a year in a small village in eastern Sudan, a project had come in and built a grain bank so the farmers wouldn't be ripped off by the grain merchants because they had to sell their crops early at the low price, and buy grain back at the high price. Never mind that the "exploitative merchants" lived in the village too. They were richer- ten sheep instead of five- but they rode the same donkeys and prayed together at the mosque in the evening. And never mind that the farmers had a traditional system for storing grain - the matmura. Never mind all that. The project built a building. The committee in charge (that included one of the grain "merchants") complained (oh, they were delightfully clever!) that without an initial "start-up capital" the villagers would not contribute to the "bank". So the project gave the bank 50 sacks of grain. There was a stern admonishment: "Sell the grain at a low price when the grain price is high later in the year, and then after the harvest use the money to replenish the bank by buying grain at the low post-harvest price." So they did. And then after the harvest, everyone came and sold the grain from two years earlier (that they had stored and was now starting to spoil) to the grain bank. So now the bank had a lot of low quality grain. As one farmer told me: "If everyone else is going to sell their bad grain to the bank, then I should too, because when they go to sell it later it is all mixed up, and why should I sell my good new grain and buy back their bad old grain?" That year the harvest was pretty good, so the price of grain didn't rise. Guess what? They decided that since the grain was going to spoil, they should just give it out for free among the grain bank members. So now the bank had no money and no grain. So the next year they went back to the project: "Excuse us, but the grain bank isn't really working that well, we're not sure why, but could we maybe get another initial fund of 50 sacks so that this time, we'll really get it right!" The following year the grain bank was closed. QED?

Training centers? Behind our house in the village of Béréba in Burkina Faso (site of our first library) sits the "Women's Center". A nice straightforward village building with tin roof. Very nice. Weeds are encroaching though. In April I wandered over with a friend from the village- we noticed cracks, no maintenance. "Well, it is only used once or twice a year. If the women need to meet the would rather meet in the village than out here at the edge of the village."

Oh, there's a grain bank in Béréba too. It has been empty for years.

So what am I saying? I'm not being sarcastic for the fun of it, and the Millennium Village project, God I hope they are wildly successful. But projects, like gardens, have to be watered and nurtured every day. At FAVL our approach is that constant involvement by coordinators and supervisors- building of teams through workshops and meetings among librarians, occasional librarian field trips to visit sites of interest... these hands-on people centered human development activities are what counts. Not the building! The building is the easy part. Turning a young woman or young man in an African village into someone who is desperately proud of the library he or she manages, who is learning every day, who is visiting other libraries so that he or she knows what better futures lie ahead, and what failures to avoid.... that is the hard part.

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