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One woman who made a difference

There was a two-page spread in a Dutch newspaper the other week on a father and son’s decades worth of development experience in Africa. Looking back, they felt that their years of diligent work and best intentions had had very little lasting impact on pulling people out of poverty in the communities where they had worked.

The article needs to be understood within the context of a raging political debate on development aid budgets in The Netherlands and elsewhere in the western ‘developed’ world. On the one hand, there are supporters of development aid who say that maybe we haven’t been as effective as we would have wanted, but we (the haves) have a moral duty to help the poor of the world. The other side of the argument is that we outsiders have little impact with our paternalistic approach to improving the lives of people in different cultural and socio-political systems: we have precious little to show for our more than 60 years of effort in Africa.

It is a complex debate with no easy answers. In Nigeria, there are many foreign and indigenous ‘aid’ initiatives that support one or another group of individuals (children’s homes, street kids, hospitals, training schools etc). Our initiatives do touch lives but it is a drop in the ocean in a country where government expenditure on education, on the social safety network and on assisting the most vulnerable members of society is negligible. Nigeria’s people will not be pulled out of poverty until the government decides to use the billions it receives in oil receipts to improve the lives of its citizens.

So what kind of ‘aid’ does work?

Sorry, I don’t have an easy answer. But I am reading a book that gives an example of one woman who did have an effect. Unbowed is the autobiography of Wangari Maathai, the Kenyan who won a Nobel Peace prize in 2006.

It isn’t a new book but is interesting in light of the Dutch article and the debate on development aid. The frustration of father and son is, I believe, the result of the fact that they never got public support for their work in the way that Dr Maathai did. The Dutchmen reflect on how the projects they established would begin to crumble the moment they left a village. On the other hand, Dr Maathai’s project continues, even after her death. Today the Green Belt Movement that she established in 1977 is active in 30 countries promoting action on climate change, community regeneration and equal opportunities for women.

Her book describes in an easy, unemotional tone, the problems she encountered in Kenya – environmental degradation, poverty and the deplorable state of women’s rights. And she portrays the complexity of the causes of these problems and how hard it was to campaign for and eventually effect some amount of change to improve the lives of ordinary Kenyans.

Dr Maathai is an unusual woman by any standard: the first African woman to receive a Nobel Prize, the first woman in east and central Africa to earn a PhD and head a university department in Kenya: mother of three, divorcee, politician, civil rights and environmental activist, she was beaten, jailed and vilified for her stance against established power structures and corruption. And yet she remained a simple and humble person, driven by a desire to solve problems, one at a time, day by day, step by step.

Her story shows that the causes of poverty in ‘developing countries’ are complex (with both national and international as well as current and historic roots) and entrenched: redressing these issues takes more than good will and money – it takes perseverance and, especially, communal support of the road chosen to affect change.

If you haven’t read about Wangari Maathai, you may want to pick up her autobiography. The book itself is a nice read, but more importantly, her story is a reminder to each of us that simple acts by simple people can lead to great change.

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