In these times of financial turmoil, it is natural to question government spending and examine how our limited resources can be best put to use. Overseas aid budgets have come under intense scrutiny from citizens of countries the world over, with some people preferring that we cease all aid in favor of spending on domestic projects during this cash-strapped and difficult period – the “charity begins at home” outlook.
Many others recognize the importance of aid to the world’s poorest, whether for reasons of social justice, compassion, or diplomacy. Amidst all the voices and opinions, I have noted the growing unease and, at times, cynicism people have about aid and its efficacy. “We give and give, but nothing ever changes” is a phrase I have often heard.
Implicit in this unease is the notion that the world’s poor are simply recipients, simply needy, waiting to be led out of poverty. What we do not see represented as often is the tireless commitment and dogged determination of communities and of average community members to improve their lives, to increase their opportunities, their access to jobs, health care, and education.
On a recent trip to Nairobi, Kenya, I was fortunate to see the very real and powerful will of local people to solve problems and escape poverty. The Mukuru slum in the eastern part of Nairobi is home to over 100,000 people. Off several roads, row after row of corrugated iron and wooden shacks are crisscrossed with winding dirt lanes no more than a few feet wide. My colleagues from Concern Worldwide and our local partner organization, the Mukuru Slum Development Project, and I walked through the maze of paths, hopping over open, murky trenches filled with waste water and sewage until we reached a shed about the size of a classroom.
We were going to meet a group of residents from the Hazina and Kisii neighborhoods of Mukuru who had gathered to form the Haki Community Conversation. Inside the muggy, dimly-lit room squeezed 40 men and women, old and young, many with young children sitting on their laps. Everyone was meeting for one reason: to address local issues with local ingenuity. Used in many countries and contexts, Community Conversations are just that–meetings where people can talk about, and work to solve, the immediate challenges in their community.
The meeting started with announcements from various attendees, addressing issues that had come to light since the last meeting, such as fire safety and domestic violence. The floor then opened for anyone to raise topics that were of interest to them. One woman stood, swaddling a child in a brightly colored shawl, and asked where she could access maternity services. Thankfully, the Haki Community Conversation already has a working solution in place. It identifies pregnant women and informs them of where and how to get maternity treatment vouchers, enabling them to access free medical care during their pregnancy.