Friday, November 20, 2009

Plane Crash in Goma

This week a plane crashed in Goma. It is neither the first nor will it be the last, in this town where the only major runway is cut short by hardened lava. Many of the planes that fly into Goma are too large to safely use such a short runway, and yet the air traffic continues, because after all, what other option do you have in a country where the roads are often cut off by armed gunmen demanding payment for passage. During the three years we lived in Goma, there were at least 2 fatal plane crashes, and now here is one more to add to the list. Thankfully it appears that all the passengers and crew, as well as the people on the ground, have survived this accident, although some injuries have been reported. In last year's crash many people died not only on the plane but on the ground because the plane plowed into a crowded market area. This time, it appears that the plane did not reach the market area. However, yet again, this should draw serious attention to the fact that Goma's runway is too short, and is situated directly next to Birere, the most crowded market area in Goma.

There are many serious safety issues in Goma which are difficult to address, from the war to the active volcano to the gas in the lake. But one is left to wonder how there can possibly be so much money to facilitate countless flights into and out of Goma each day, carrying both passengers and valuable cargo, and yet no funding to make the runway longer or the airport more safe. The people of Goma already have enough to worry about. Why should they have to fear being run over by an airplane while they sell produce at the market?

The airport in Goma is a disaster. And it is not just waiting to happen. It has already happened. We saw it in 2007. We saw it in 2008. And we see it now again. We ought not feign surprise when something goes terribly wrong.

Below is a report from a young man in Goma, who also submitted the picture above.

"This is to inform you that at approximately 11H55, a CAA commercial passenger aircraft failed to stop on the runway whilst running landing at the Goma airport consequently crushing on to some lava rocks. The air crash was accompanied by a huge sound which reverberated all over Goma town sending a wave of panic amongst the local population.

Pursuant to the air crash, MONUC aviation, MONUC military and UN Security rushed to the scene of the accident for purposes of rescuing the injured and traumatized passengers. It was immediately observed that other than some broken wings, the body of the aircraft's fuselage remained intact and undamaged and there was no fire around the area.

All the 117 passengers on board were safely helped to disembark from the aircraft. Preliminary reports indicate that one passenger was found unconscious whereas 20 others were in a state of shock and with minor injuries and bruises.

Note that the governor of the province of North Kivu, Sir Julien Paluku was aboard this aircraft.

MONUC ambulances helped to transport the injured to the level 3 Hospital in GOMA."

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Fast-food Giving (and a word on Kiva's behalf)

"I have my standards
And I am eating them for dinner."

That is a slogan I just read on a Whole Foods shopping bag. At least it went something like that. I didn't actually purchase the bag...or my I can't be quite sure. But you get the idea.

How thoughtful of Whole Foods, don't you think? They have made it so nice and convenient to have our standards. It we start running low, we can just drive across town and pick some up. But I am starting to wonder if they are being a bit too generous with their standards. I mean does everyone really qualify? If I go and buy a bag of apples at the store, then surely I have earned my standards bag. I mean who can deny that an organic apple has standards? But if I buy a carton of mint chocolate chip ice cream, maybe they should just give me a regular brown bag. Or maybe they could just put a smiley face on it...

In that same Whole Food store I noticed bags of food on display. Each bag had a hand-labeled tag displaying the contents and who had donated them. Presumably they were being shipped off to some needy cause. I enjoyed looking at the carefully selected cereal bars and Thai rice mixes that filled the bags. And as I swiped my debit card (oops.. I admit it...I did actually purchase just was so small I apparently did not qualify me for a standards bag. Perhaps I should have demanded my standards?) But as I was I swiped my debit card, a picture of Rwanda flashed on the screen, offering yet another way that I could donate money to help feed hungry children I think.

Now don't get me wrong. I have no problem with feeding school children, or donating to food pantries. I just am starting to wonder if it has all gotten a bit too easy.

In this age of convenience have we made our giving just another fast-food convenience? Have we become so consumer-oriented that we have begun to think of giving as a commodity? We want to give, but we want it to fit on our clocks, and in our check-out lines, and don't forget to make sure it is tax deductible.

The problem is that fast-food isn't very good for us. The reality is that the flashiest, easiest to reach, and quickest to consume snack is not usually the most healthy one. And "fast-food giving", probably has much the same problem. If you give a donation to something that looks flashy, is well placed and well advertised, it might be a good thing, but you had better count on a decent percentage of your donation going toward marketing and overhead. It takes money to create that convenient and compelling package.

But that isn't even my real concern. Perhaps we are perfectly happy to consider part of our donation as the cost of making it quick and easy and pretty.

But what happens when we think that we can address the problems of the world, by swiping a card or carrying a bag. Sure we swipe more cards and carry more bags, but do we also begin to believe that this is what social activism should look like?

Charity organizations rely on donations, and spend a significant amount of time and money figuring out the best way to attain them. They cater to our demands as "consumer-givers". We give to help, but we also give for the experience. And they know that. And they want to produce the best "giving experience" for us. The child sponsorship model grew into great popularity in the 90s because it met the consumer demand for personal connection. It provided people with the sense that they could connect to an individual child and make her life better. Likewise the organizations where you can give a goat, or a cow to a family in Africa have similar, personal appeal. But in both cases, the reality is more complicated. Money is not often miraculously delivered to individual families, and goats are not often delivered directly either. Rather donations become part of larger, more complex programs. Both child sponsorship organizations and animal giving organizations have had to go back and explain that the actual money you donate may not go to that individual child, or to buy that individual goat. Often your donation is used as part of a larger program, which may do very good things, but... well, it is not exactly what their slogan said.

The latest organization to struggle with this marketing problem is Kiva, who markets itself as providing direct, person to person connections between small lenders and small borrowers. It is a fascinating idea, but the reality is that your loan is actually processed through local microfinance institutions and does not necessarily go directly to the individual person whose photo you clicked on, as described in this NY Times article and in this blog post. Now this does not make your donation any less effective in the lives of individual people, in fact it means that your donation is being better monitored and better distributed. Ohhh...but we so love clickable photos.

And isn't that the problem? When we support easy, fast and flashy ways of giving, we encourage other organizations to package themselves in this way. We encourage them to simplify the problems for us, and make promises they may not be able to keep. Kiva is an excellent organization with a unique and valuable model. And if we read the information on Kiva's website, the lending process becomes clear, and if you know much about microfinance, the way Kiva is operating makes a lot of sense. In fact it makes a lot more sense than it would if Kiva worked exactly they way people imagined it did. The problems of people around the world are complex, and so must be our part in them.

I recently received a fund-raising appeal from another organization. As far as I know, they are a very good, solid organization that works to treat children with cleft pallets. The back or their envelope featured a big lettered promise that if you made a donation today, they would never ask you for anything again.

Is this really the way humanitarian aid should be packaged and sold? But this is what happens when aid organization find themselves marketing to a consumer market.

And so I worry about the convenience of our society. When I was living in Africa I hated waiting in restaurants. You would sit, and sit and sit. Then they would bring you a soda. And then you would sit and sit and sit. And then they would bring you a platter with a salt and pepper shaker on it. And then you would sit and sit. And about two hours later your meal would come. This never appeared to bother Africans in the least. I guess they were there for the experience. I, on the other hand, was there to eat. And was usually doubled over in hunger by the time the food came.

Since I have been back in the US I have not waited for one meal. I mean I have not once gotten to the point of looking at my watch and wondering where the food is. Sometimes I try and imagine what the trendy New York people sitting at the table next to me would do if their food didn't come for two hours. That always makes me smile.

But has fast and easy food really been so good for us? In his book "Africa Doesn't Matter: How the West Has Failed the Poorest Continent and What We Can Do About It" Giles Bolton
argues that there is a difference between the type of aid that we like to fund, and the type of aid that is most effective. Child sponsorship, and animal giving exist because we, as consumers like them, not because they are the most effective or efficient way of delivering aid. Bolton argues that real change must come from direct budgetary support to poor countries, but you see that got jumbled up in my mouth as I said it. It is hard to make that flashy and compelling, and it isn't readily available in the check-out lane.

How does SHONA fit in this? Did I really just say that we shouldn't think that purchasing a bag will address the problems of the world? I didn't mean a SHONA bag of course!!! I can just see the SHONA craftspeople jumping up and down and gesturing wildly for me to stop my rambling before I scare away our customers. Please don't go away. We desperately need your purchases and they make a very real difference in the lives of 5 incredible people in one of the most difficult regions of the world. And unlike some larger organizations, with us the direct connection is completely real. An individual craftsperson did sew each item and they are receiving 100% of the profit. But stay tuned for my next post, on how these issues do affect SHONA, and in the meantime, I would love to hear your thoughts on the topic.

Monday, November 2, 2009

What does the holiday season mean to you?

To me the holiday season is about hope and joy. It is about celebrating the gift of life and cherishing those around us..

So why do I find myself stuck in traffic? Why do I end up in nameless, crowded shopping centers looking at rows of appliances, and trying desperately to come up with a meaningful gift?

Alas, I am a procrastinator. I always wait until the last possible moment to buy my gifts. But it isn't just because I am a procrastinator. It is also because I know how hard the job is.
How do you find a gift that represents the true spirit of the holiday season?
How do you wrap up the hope and joy of the season and put it in a box?

I'm sure there are many different answers to that question. And maybe, in all truth, the holidays aren't about wrapping things up and putting them in boxes at all.

But on the off-chance that you plan to buy at least one gift this holiday season, let me offer just one suggestion.

How about adding a few handcrafted SHONA gifts to your holiday shopping? You can order them right now, and then stash them away. You will find they are the perfect gifts to have on hand when someone unexpected stops by. And they are the perfect gift for those people who already have everything. I can assure you that they don't have this.

But more importantly, I can't think of a more concrete way to give the gift of hope and joy to others. Your purchases make an incredible difference in the lives of 5 very real craftspeople in one of the most war-torn regions of the world. And you give this gift not just to them, but to the families they support.

Roy and his youngest daughter Marlene

by making it possible for them to live and work with dignity and pride.

Argentine at work

Remember that 100% of the profit from each sale is returned to the craftspeople.
Imagine if each person that read this blog bought just one item from SHONA... Imagine if every person that read this post shared it with 2 more people...

This holiday we invite you to come and shop with us.
You'll find some beautiful handcrafted gifts, and be inspired by some of the most hopeful people in the world.