Sunday, December 18, 2011

Camp Build and VHT training

Last week I was a counselor for Camp BUILD. It was a great time, but tiring. I had (obviously) the best group of kids out of the whole camp, and we rocked it. I was also in charge of a personal project session, which was held for an hour or two each of the 5 days of camp. By the end of my session, 15 kids had worked together to build 6 functional trebuchets (or some variation thereof), which we then used in a final culmination presentation to the camp by chucking water balloons at them. I also was in charge of a critical thinking challenge each day, where each group would try and come up with the answer to a riddle that I provided each morning in a central location. I didn't realize how much competition there would be for them, which was both a nice and nasty surprise, depending on the circumstance. Anyway, all and all, it was great.

After the Camp, I went directly to VHT training in Bushenyi, Uganda. I had never been to the west part of the country, except for once, and I was struck at just how beautiful it really is. Early mornings when the fog is still hanging in between the hills, and the sun is producing mellow orange and red signs of its approach...such a scene easily held me captive on the first morning I was there. Subsequent mornings it found me waiting for it again. Simply wonderful.

The training itself was a bit challenging. It was designed to be a TOT (training of trainers) for the Peace Corps Volunteers, but also a training of VHTs in the district. Getting us to be interactive with the community and learn alongside of them is a great idea. Unfortunately, we don't speak their language, and they don't speak ours.

After a couple days of non-stop Runyokore lectures, it was pretty obvious that what we were going to get out of this training was not going to come from the mouths of the speakers. We all dug our heads into the reading materials we had been given, and started talking about the good and bad about VHTs in Uganda.

VHT means village health team. Basically the idea is that for people who aren't able to reach a health center, or for others who simply don't want to but might infact be neglecting the health of themselves or their family members, they will have an opportunity to talk to a VHT member within their own village. The VHT would be in charge of census-esque reports, encouraging proper maintenance of latrines, washing stations, antenatal care, and sleeping under mosquito nets (to name a few). The VHT is a volunteer position; selected by the community as a responsible and reliable person. Every quarter, the VHTs will be held responsible for turning in reports on the household into a summary for the parish level. It will then be put to the subcounty health officer (LCIII's office), and finally the District (the District Health Officer, or DHO).

Look, that's great. I mean, its a FANTASTIC idea. It's creative, it solves a lot of problems that certainly exist, and it encourages the community to take responsibility for themselves. The idea is there.

Unfortunately, the idea is expensive. The materials that VHTs require to do their reporting and turn in each quarter (for each of their 20-50 houses, depending on their catchment area) isn't cheap. The books cost around 18,000-20,000 shillings for each VHT. Each district having more than 100 becomes too big of a burden very quickly for the district to foot the bill for it.

If the district did try and pay for it at one time, you would never know it these days. In yet another case of how NGOs and Foreign Aid have "helped," in almost every instance of a VHT training or refresher course, the classroom materials and record books were printed at the cost of some fancy named organization. They carry out a training, buy a ton of books and pass them out along with their t-shirts, they high five themselves, and go. 3 months later...the community has been taught that they are going to be receiving these materials, but they don't really know from where it came from. The government expects the community to get these materials, and remembers that they did it last time; no need for them to foot a bill if they don't have. What falls through the cracks? Everything. Thus, because NGOs and short-sighted foreign aid organizations want a winnable victory in a week long VHT training...they are in essence damning the whole sustainability of it in that process. At best, they stick around, and continue giving trainings and materials; even then, all that is being produced is a harder dependency on the great white people. And each time, the foreign aid dependence is increased. Each time, they need us more than they did before. (I was explaining this to an NGO very recently, to one of its members. When I got to my conclusion that so many times a company focusing on Aid actually increases the dependency of the country, instead of decreasing it, he smiled and said "yes, of course!" Do you want our company to fail?")

And there it is. Organizations playing both sides of the fence, wanting to help but wanting to keep helping for hundreds of years. Good aid foundations stay open because they can still find a reason for their assistance DESPITE their work, not because of it. Not because they personally ensure that the community will be dependent on them. A good organization SHOULD close, SHOULD have an end date, SHOULD hold the community responsible to keep the things they are teaching/giving in a way that they never have to give it again. Until organizations realize that, they will be one of the leading causes to the overall poverty and lack of production within Uganda. And they will continue to cut the legs out of people like me, who are trying to organize people and teach them how to really help themselves.