Being a Peace Corps Volunteer is a unique opportunity as we are in the rural villages that most NGOs, Government agencies, etc visit for a project and then leave. My favorite story is when some org built a water purification system on sacred ground. They would only talk to the ‘power players’ in the village who said just about anything to benefit from the ‘preferred status’ bestowed upon them by the organization. No one ever used it.
My personal story begins with a group of 4 women. They knew that I was there to realize projects so we would often talk about things we could accomplish together. As a PCV, I was very wary of anyone who wanted to work with me because they were often just looking for handouts and freebies. Then one day the women and I had a conversation about making bread. The only bread available in my village was brought in on a motocycle from a bigger city about 25k away. The bread was terrible and it tasted like gasoline fumes yet people always bought it because it was the only bread they could find. The women said, we know how to make bread. We could do it and sell it in our village.
I thought it was a genius idea with huge market potential. To gauge their desire and because I had little access to funding, I asked the women to raise their own money at a weekly mandatory meeting at my house. They agreed. At this same time I asked them to do some market research. I did the same and we all discovered that people really wanted bread, specifically a sweet bread over a salty one and they wanted the smallest size because it would be the cheapest.
After the market research, myself with two other PCVs taught them a system of accounting for illiterates. We wrote bylaws, established reporting practices, and even made a work schedule. These things we always decided upon by the women. I only posed questions such as, “I think (A) might be a good idea because __________. What do you think?” Once this was decided upon, we set about building the clay oven and covering. I was able to find about $100 from a fund open to PCVs in Benin and the women raised about $20. This was enough to get the basic stuff done but they depended upon and agreed to reinvest all profits for a period of time to buy more supplies.
We built the clay oven and started baking bread. I had been controlling the money box this whole time because I was asked to do so by the women. I kept a strict record that was always copied in another notebook held by the women. We also instituted rules ensuring that money was always counted publicly and two separate records were kept. The bread was a massive success! They started making money hand over fist (for a rural village) and everything was going great. Little by little, I ceded responsibilities to women in the group. I thought they were prepared to take on the lockbox of cash so I turned it over to them to oversee. A few weeks went by. I would help make sure the reporting was still being done and they would continue to meet at my house.
Then one day they didn’t make bread on the agreed upon schedule. I inquired and discovered that the night before the women got together and liquidated all of the cash and split it evenly among them. Now they were dead in the water with no money to buy the next round of supplies. The project was over; it had failed.
The biggest reason that this failed might shock some of you: I didn’t make them raise enough of the own capital. The second problem is that we didn’t have enough money to begin with.
Many people believe that because these people are so poor (less than $2/day if they were the rich ones in my village) that they could never contribute but there is truth in that old adage of ‘if there is a will, there is a way’. I should have been more patient and made the women raise upwards of 75% of the project’s costs and we should have raised at least $300 as opposed to $120. They could have, over time, kept saving and saving.
I didn’t understand my purpose until afterward. I was essentially their bank or their savings account in a culture where saving money is not done, let alone a priority. Yes, I could help with the planning and ideas but they had no where to safely store their money where their husbands and kids couldn’t ask for it. If we would have saved enough and purchased everything we needed, the majority of the businesses capital would be in non-liquid assets such as the bread pans, the flour, other tools, etc. This would have given them a greater sense of ownership and pride since they would have raised the majority of money leading to greater protection. More importantly, they would have purchased all necessary supplies so they could have started paying each other immediately, instead of seeing the money pile up for the purchase of supplies.
Thankfully, I learned this in my first 6-months of service and applied some of these lessons to the rest of my service.
I do have one piece of advice for International Aid workers: use Peace Corps Volunteers if you can for advice or projects. PCVs will generally know who are the best people to talk to or work with and they can provide you with a clear situation assessment from the ground. If you are deciding upon a project site, look to coordinate work with PCVs. Or just simply support their projects on the peacecorps.gov website. We often see what happens to your project after you leave and we could have given you good advice from the beginning.