Cameras for Kibera, a non-profit project to help Kenyans

The Dutch project Cameras for Kibera is aimed towards helping young Kenyans become video journalists in order to help them tell the stories about Africa’s largest slum. Kibera, Nairobi is home to possibly as many as 2.5 million people who live in crowded conditions of poor sanitation, poor housing and very little possibilites. For the most part, the plight of the people who live there has been largely overlooked which is one reason for the video project. This particular video was created by Rocketboom Field Correspondent Ruud Elmendorp who videotaped one of Camera for Kibera’s video journalists at work.

The thing I like about this project is its matter of fact approach. It shows people having a life despite the odds, but also points to the fact that help is urgently needed without making the people themselves sound pitiful. Cameras for Kibera is an offshoot project of the Dutch Hot Sun Foundation. If you have video camera you’re no longer using, here’s a possibility for putting it to use.

Slumdog Millionaire: Not too crazy about it

Spoiler alert. Oscar season is here. I’ve seen all the movies in the major categories and some. At the risk of sounding crabby and uncool–not with it, I wasn’t enamored with Slumdog Millionaire. Yes, yes, yes, I know the movie is considered mighty fine, and a shoo in to bring home Oscar on Sunday, but at times when asked what I thought about it, I’ve declared, “I hated it.”

That’s not true. I didn’t hate, it but I’m not fond of it either. Of the movies nominated for a Best Picture Oscar, I liked it the least. Somewhere during the middle of the movie, about the time the two brothers were tossed off the train, I had an unsettled feeling, a bit of unease–the feeling that I was being manipulated to have certain ideas about India, poverty, and what might make it feel better. It felt exploitative in a Hollywood, feel good kind of way.

I have company. In a conversation with former Peace Corps volunteers, we tried to pinpoint what bothered us the most about the film. We didn’t come up with anything specific, but it has something to do with our own experiences of living in the midst of poverty, and how the movie piled on bad news in huge helpings with only one solution to address the mess–win gobs of money and get the girl. .

It’s not that there aren’t kids who get maimed to make them better beggars. There are–some. I’d say not many. It’s not that people haven’t been killed in India because of unrest between the Muslims and the Hindus (or Christians for that matter). Some have been. It’s not that there isn’t organized crime in India. There is. And, it’s not that the police wouldn’t torture a person in India. Some do. Throw in the prostitution angle and the movie covers it all. Not the bride burning, though. That wasn’t included–it must have been left off the laundry list of bad things to include in the repertoire of really, really bad things that happen to people in India. (I’d venture to say, there are equally bad things that might happen anywhere, but India is in these days, particularly since any one who needs assistance over the phone is likely to be talking to someone in India.)

So, here we have a movie that piles on all the worst India offers on it’s worst days and shows seemingly endless scenes of torture and child endangerment. But, it’s a feel good movie because at the end, the bad guys are dead, the police turn nice, the talk show host has a change of heart, and one of the only two positive characters in the storyline wins amounts of money that most of us will never see. PLUS, he gets the girl–the girl being the only other character that audience members are coached into caring about.

The way I see it, Slumdog Millionaire took the darker side of India and turned it into a movie that those of us who will plop down money on movie tickets feel good about seeing. At the end of the movie, we feel good because love persevered. Too bad about the blind kid, though–and the brother gone bad did make a bold statement about getting money through organized crime when he arranged himself in a bathtub filled with crisp bills knowing he’d be gunned down in a blood battle.

If I hadn’t lived in India or The Gambia, I might have liked Slumdog Millionaire better. But I feel like it took an outsiders view under the guise of capturing reality. Some might say that the movie showed what poverty is like. Really? Only the beginning scenes showed the closeness and organization that occurs every day in a jugghi colony –the version of poverty I’ve seen–the kind not jazzed up by fantastical events. In my mind, poverty was not the biggest reason the three kids were in jeopardy. Religious unrest and hatred was. That was barely addressed in the movie and was used merely as a vehicle to kill off Mom so the rest of the story could occur.

There were two scenes, though, that felt like perfect pitch. One was at the Taj Mahal. Although it was a volume turned up version, the interaction between westerners who feel guilty about being tourists, and the people who make money off that guilt was fairly accurate in its intention. Still, it was a parody of American tourists. Are we that hapless and clueless? My experience of the Taj Mahal is that, although you might be swarmed by people trying to sell you post cards as you beeline from your vehicle to inside the Taj Mahal complex, in general, you’re not going to be ripped off if you look for official tour guides. The over the top part was the car being stripped. Could it happen? Sure, I suppose. I never heard about it happening though.

The other scene was when the two brothers were being chased by the police when they were young. This was perhaps my favorite scene. What I liked about it was it captured the essence of rambunctious boys and authorities who try to keep them in line. My impression is that this is a cat and mouse game that happens daily with no one getting hurt.

When I saw Slumdog Millionaire, it felt like dining at a huge buffet with every kind of food imaginable, but after the experience, I wasn’t sure exactly what I ate.

Here’s what I think would make for a better movie. Show kids from a jugghi colony that have been cast in a blockbuster movie and what it’s like for them to have this experience, particularly once the cameras have stopped rolling. From what I’ve heard and read, a trust fund has been set up for the children who were cast as the childhood versions of the grown up characters. The kids have also been enrolled in school, but in general, their lives are the same. Tinseltown didn’t change them much. However, they are going to attend the Oscar award ceremony. (See photo of Rubino Ali, the young girl who played Latika in her house in India.) That might change them a bit.

Here’s what I’m wondering. If the kids who are living in poverty are having valuable lives with meaning and depth–which I think they are, and obviously Danny Boyle thought so too since he left the children where he found them, then why is there the notion that in order to solve life’s problems, we need to be millionaires? As much as we were told that the main character didn’t care about the money, then why did he need to win it in the end?

Of course, I was happy he won it. It’s Hollywood. And the dance scene while the credits rolled was excellent.

Give a Toy and Get a Smile: a charity organization in Cancun that helps tourists give

Last March I went to Mexico on a do-good travel venture which involved building a house. Here is a simpler way to do good if you are heading to Cancun, Mexico on a vacation and want to share your good fortune at being able to afford such a vacation in the first place.

When I read about this program in Home and Away magazine, it caught my attention as one way to count blessings while on a holiday jaunt. As a response to the often impoverished conditions outside tourist resorts in Cancun, Andrew and Nancy Myers began Give a Toy, Get a Smile. The organization gives toys to children in the region who may not have many toys, if any at all.

The suggestion of the organization is that you add hair ribbons, non-battery operated or non-electrical toys, school supplies, a backpack, or any other simple and useful item a child might enjoy to your bag when you pack. When you arrive in Cancun, you can drop off the items at a specific location.

In case you get to Cancun and don’t have items to donate, it’s not too late. Buy school supplies at a local store and donate those. There was a small grocery store near the house that I helped to build. The house was not really in a town, but perched up on mountainous area about thirty miles from Tijuana. Among the shelves, I saw items a child would enjoy. I imagine that while you are in Cancun you can find a box of crayons somewhere.

Here are more ideas for what you might bring to donate if you feel so moved.

Talking Travel with global development researcher Chris Blattman

Besides being a professor at Yale and an expert on poverty and global development, Chris Blattman is widely-traveled and maintains an insightful and entertaining blog. Recently I asked Chris a couple questions related to the ethics of traveling in the developing world, and what the average person can do to reduce poverty.

1. These days, more and more people are combining vacations with volunteering. They might pay a fee to live with a host family, work in an orphanage or on a farm, and return home feeling quite good about where they’ve been and what they’ve done. But do these “volunteering vacations” really do anything to improve the lives of people in the host countries?

I call it “development tourism” and I’ve had an ongoing debate on its merits with blog readers. Most of all I think we should recognize that the short volunteering vacation probably does more for us than the recipient. Development tourism has value, most of all because it expands a visitor’s appreciation for life in a poor country. But we should not fool ourselves into believing that we can have much “impact” in just a few days or weeks. Neither should we convince ourselves this is the best use of charitable funds; the cost of the travel alone could find better uses. Plus, it’s not as though there is a shortage of semi-skilled labor in poor countries ready to dig wells and build homes (more cheaply too).

I say, let’s call these what they are: experiential vacations– better than splurges in tropical resorts, but not quite impactful. The distance from development tourist to the true do-gooder is not that far, however. To make the leap, I usually recommend four options: go for weeks (or months) rather than days; go with the intent to learn, not to “save” anyone; don’t displace the local private sector with your work; and identify a local community organization and continue to raise money for them when home. Sending children to school is a fine idea. But helping families or community organizations to set up income-generating activities (a small poultry or piggery operation, a grinding mill, a brick-baking outfit) is inexpensive yet can generate a stream of income for years of school fees.

2. What’s your take on the ethics of visiting so-called “rogue” states– places like North Korea, Zimbabwe, Myanmar, and the like? Are travelers helping the local populations or are they inadvertently supporting oppressive regimes?

It’s difficult for me to see how one supports an oppressive regime through holiday travel. Tacit approval? Not likely. Generating income for a corrupt government? The amount is probably miniscule, and if anything supports the local private sector and a civil society far more. Should either die, the fates of these countries’ citizens can only get worse. Besides, any miniscule harm seems likely to be countered by the exposure you give citizens to a freedom fry-eating foreigner, and the changed impressions you bring back with you to your own country. What are we to do? Leave these countries to meet only the oil and mining executives, foreign mercenaries, and Coke bottlers?

3. Billions of dollars pour into Sub-Saharan Africa every year, but the problems there seem as intractable as ever. Is this the fault of corrupt governments, profligate NGOs, or is this simply not enough money?

In twenty years, I may write a book on the subject, and it will still be inadequate, despite three decades of soul-searching and study.

I usually like to make three points, however. First, at the height of the industrial revolution in the US and Europe, per capita economic growth was never more than one or two percent per year. For most countries in most of history, development was and is slow business. And Africa has been decolonized for a mere half century. The high-octane growth in China and South Korea are the exceptions, not the rule. If we maintain four or five percent growth in Africa, as many nations have accomplished in the last decade, then incomes will double every 15 or 20 years. That’s not a bad goal.

Two, the difference between a poor country (say, $2000 per head) and a middle income one (say, $12000 per head) is simple: one has a manufacturing sector and one does not. Something like forty percent of Kenya’s GDP comes from the 5 percent of the workforce: those in light and medium industry. That sector is crucial. Most African nations won’t have a self-sustaining education and health system until they build some sort of industrial tax base. What’s needed to get there? Reliable roads and electricity are a start. Reducing the red tape faced by business can help too. But realistically, I believe real wages in Asia will probably have to rise before it becomes profitable to produce in Africa. The faster China and India get rich, the sooner we’ll see a transformation in Africa. In the meantime, preferential trade and tax treatment by the US and Europe for African goods could help foster industry and technology transfer. So could aid directed to developing commodity processing facilities and other programs that take raw material extraction upstream.

Last, stability matters. Roller coaster aid flows, commodity prices, trade privileges, capital investment, and political instability derail growth episodes before gains can be solidified. Thinking less about levels of assistance and more about volatility is not a bad start. Especially when capricious donor countries add to the ups and downs.

In the end, the debate about too much or too little foreign aid is, in my view, still too detached from reality. Most of the people writing about it have never lived in a developing country for more than a few weeks at a time, rarely leave the capital when they do, and almost never talk to businessmen. I am guilty of this myself sometimes.

4. Finally, I always advise travelers that the best way to improve the lives of the world’s poor is to visit them and spend money. Is it as simple as that? Is there anything else for the traveler who’s concerned about poverty to do?

On a two-week trip to a foreign country, it’s best to keep your goals modest. Actually, make that microscopic. Realistically, any good you achieve beyond supporting the tourist industry will be purely accidental. I suppose you could seek resorts and hotels that support rather than emasculate the local workers, but that’s not an easy thing to find out. Try the development tourism tips above. But I always like to encourage people to consider a sea change: dedicate yourself to a year, a decade, or even a lifetime of learning and effort to end poverty. There are few more rewarding ways to live your life.

Be sure to check out Chris’ blog here.

International Volunteer Day

If you are a volunteer somewhere, give yourself a pat on the back. This is your day. Started as a UN resolution back in 1985, December 5 is a day to get people fired up for the other 364 days of the year. Even though the areas of economic and social development, are the target areas for applause, I say, if you’re helping anyone anywhere, bravo for you. Hmmm. Economic and social development. Those are broad terms. There’s a page on the International Volunteer Day Web site that lists the 7 Goals for the Millennium that volunteer activities are linked to. They are:

  1. Eradicate extreme poverty and hunger
  2. Achieve universal primary education
  3. Promote gender equality & empower women
  4. Improve maternal health
  5. Reduce child mortality
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure environmental sustainability

Kabul, Afghanistan, Kathmandu, Nepal and Beijing, China are featured as areas where such projects are happening, but there are more. If you are looking for a place to make a difference when you travel, the International Volunteer Day Web site might be a place to start. Here are volunteer stories to get you inspired.