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4 benefits of hiring aid workers with disabilities

This is the second piece in a three-part series on development workers with disabilities. See part one, and check back next week for the final installment!

By Rebecca Berman

In the previous post, I discussed some of the reasons there are so few people with disabilities working in international development. Now, I want to talk about why this needs to change.

I would like to make a public call to development professionals – individuals, NGOs, government agencies – to not just include people with disabilities in programming, but to make hiring them a greater priority. It’s time to move past the “We need to include people with disabilities” rhetoric often heard at international conferences, and start asking, “How can people with disabilities be active participants as employers, diplomats and field workers in international programs?”

This way, people with disabilities aren’t just recipients of aid, but are active participants in the process of creating change.

These are some of the benefits of hiring aid workers with disabilities:

1. Visibility is everything.

In a development context, there are often discussions on hiring both international and local staff. This is due in part to the idea of cross-cultural exchange that both parties can contribute to. The same can be said for what happens when people with disabilities are involved in projects at a leadership level. As many people may not know about disability issues, the visibility of leadership can create learning opportunities and change existing stigmas towards disabilities.

In Tanzania, I am currently taking Kiswahili classes. Someone asked my teacher, “How can she learn?” in relation to my deafness. My colleague here (also with a disability) has been working on creating accessible infrastructure – a task in which the accuracy of accessibility may not have occurred without the expertise of a local person with a disability. Thus, visibility reduces the lack of knowledge that is often a barrier to disability employment and related programming.

2. Accessibility for one person means accessibility for all (or getting closer to “all”).

When an environment is made accessible (if it isn’t already), it enhances the environment for everyone, not just the person with a disability. A recent article detailed how image descriptions on websites benefit not just people who are blind or with low vision. They’re also useful to people with slow Internet connections, and they’re beneficial by calling attention to important aspects of the picture. The same can be said about “Easy to Read” versions of booklets, which also benefit people who aren’t fluent in the language or who want a condensed version of a longer text. Thus, accessibility has hidden benefits that people aren’t aware of until they’re exposed to the accessible materials (or the need for such).

3. Overcoming the socioeconomic effects of disability unemployment

The mindset of exclusion of people with disabilities from the workforce has damaging results that lead to economic losses. A 2014 project by the British Council reported that Pakistan is losing up to 6% of its annual GDP by excluding people with disabilities in multiple sectors. Since many areas interweave with employment (such as education, training and health), increased focus on inclusion in all sectors is not just good for “moral purposes,” but also serves a practical purpose in boosting the economic well being of an entire country.

A country’s labour market also faces losses due to exclusion. This has been seen in the labour markets of Bangladesh and Morocco, with $891 million and $1.1 billion lost per year, respectively.

4. Disability will soon be “the new gender” (if it’s not already).

With the Sustainable Development Goals and 159 countries ratifying the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), disability will also become more prominent in future development programming. The past decade has seen an increase in gender mainstreaming; I think the next decade will see more disability mainstreaming, along with a focus on other minority communities.

Like gender, disability is a cross-cutting issue. Disability is related to poverty, democracy, climate change, WASH, refugees, gender, and so on. For instance, women with disabilities are three times more likely than those without disabilities to experience sexual violence. Thus, there is a need to integrate women with disabilities in gender programming. The same can be said with poverty initiatives. Since people with disabilities are more likely to live in poverty due to unemployment (and other factors), they should also be targeted in poverty-reduction programs. As they say, if you don’t have a disability in your lifetime, you will know someone who does.

Even if it isn’t your primary focus, issues concerning people with disabilities will inevitably appear in your field. Besides, aren’t we supposed to ensure that the greatest number of beneficiaries are reached by our programs?

Rebecca Berman is a Mosaic International Fellow in Tanzania, where she is coordinating an inclusive education program and supporting other initiatives for children and young adults with development and intellectual disabilities. She has previously worked with Handicap International and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and has provided self-advocacy training in the U.S., Kenya, Guatemala, India and Ghana. You can follow Rebecca on Twitter.

Featured image shows volunteer Kate Nelson, herself deaf, working with colleagues in Fiji. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

The glamorous double standards of celebrity humanitarianism

By Tom Jarman

No experience needed – Apply within.

Development is a strange field in that virtually any John, Dick or Mary can do it. This isn’t to suggest that such work is a walk in the park, far from it. Yet, a culture has emerged in which nearly anybody can be actively involved, regardless of experience, knowledge of poverty or even maturity level. This has enabled a booming voluntourism trade, a global movement of slacktivists and, (my personal favourite) a trend of celebrity humanitarianism. In fact, the only real “skill” you need to do humanitarian work is wealth (it also helps if you’re white), making celebrities some of the most skilled professionals in the business.

Our obsession with celebrity culture means those involved in aid work often provide the public with a window into the world of development. Yet, this window offers an extremely distorted view, in which poverty can be easily addressed by the mere presence of a celebrity. In this way, celebrities individually shoulder the burdens of development whilst the efforts of others, such as local doctors and human rights lawyers, are masked.

Worse still, the commitments of many celebrity humanitarians are part-time at best, and the gospel they preach is rife with double-standards.

Do as I say, not as I do.

Many celebrities view charity as something that can be taken lightly alongside other leisure activities, outlandish materialism, lucrative business deals and reality television. Take Kim Kardashian, who feels that visits to children at rehabilitation centres in Botswana are compatible with $750,000 Lamborghini birthday presents. Of course, Kim is an easy target, but even the more “sophisticated” humanitarians are fraught with contradictions. Whilst Angelina Jolie is renowned for her work as a humanitarian, some of her personal choices seem at odds with her pro-peoples stance. It’s strange that an anti-poverty campaigner is happy to spend $23,000 on facials, and is also opposed to a tax on the wealthy that’s intended to support the National Health Service.

But when it comes to flagrant hypocrisy, Scarlett Johansson really takes the biscuit. Followed by entire packet. Earlier this year, Johansson became embroiled in a scandal after joining forces with Israeli soft drink maker SodaStream, which controversially operated a factory in occupied Palestinian territory (though this is now due to close). This alliance was in direct conflict with her 7-year position a global ambassador for Oxfam, which opposes all trade with the occupied territories. Amazingly, Johansson refused to admit any wrongdoing, and instead ended her relationship with the organisation in favour of delicious bubbles; not to mention the delicious money to be made from the Super Bowl half-time show, which featured her SodaStream promo.

In her response to the public backlash that followed, Johansson insisted that she “never intended on being the face of any social or political movement, distinction, separation or stance.” This illustrated her failure to grasp the fact that poverty is not a natural occurrence, but a fundamentally political phenomenon. Moreover, it highlighted an unwillingness to seriously commit to social change and a decision to instead adopt a cynical soft approach. The lack of conviction of many such celebrity endeavours is beautifully illustrated by Johansson, who made clear that, when push came to shove, profit came before people.

People don’t save people, rappers do.

Aside from the dubious commitments to development, celebrity humanitarianism is particularly problematic because of the messages it conveys about the players in developmental processes. In conflict zones such as Darfur (and any humanitarian situation), a myriad of local actors, such as doctors, human rights lawyers, grassroots activists and journalists, are doing the real work. Yet, these key figures are often displaced by crusading celebrities, who dominate the scene whilst everybody else takes a backseat. In doing so, development becomes very much an individualistic affair. In fact, many celebrities go one step further by personalising the whole experience. In many cases, the focus hones in on how a tearful celebrity is dealing with a crisis, whilst those affected by it disappear into background noise. In this clip, a young child who has escaped trafficking actually has to comfort a sobbing Lindsay Lohan. Priceless.

Bob Geldof infamously exemplified similar self-absorption when he hijacked the Make Poverty History Campaign in 2005. Originally, the campaign was meant to be a coalition of hundreds of NGOs from around the globe raising awareness on important issues of poverty. But instead it turned into a one-man band as the campaign became synonymous with Band Aid and the struggle of Saint Bob. What could have been an effective campaign was instead reduced to another song of “Powerful Giver” and “Grateful Receiver.” Band Aid: a broken record since 1984.

Goodwill hunting

Despite their shortcomings, celebrity ambassadors are an extremely popular tool for international NGOs, now as concerned with branding as the private sector. This is understandable, as such high-profile figures are excellent for garnering publicity and attracting funding. In light of Johansson’s SodaStream shambles, one wonders how organisations can choose an ambassador potentially bereft of integrity, but perhaps it boils down to style being more important than substance.

Style is certainly the order of the day for the UN Goodwill Ambassador programme, which has included the likes of Victoria Beckham for HIV/AIDS and Emma Watson for Women.   Not that I have any huge issue with the latter, but I couldn’t help feeling slightly confused that she was appointed Ambassador for Women around the same time Malala Yousafzi was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize. Emotive though her speech was, human rights is certainly not Watson’s specialty, nor do I recall her taking a bullet for gender equality. Ultimately, it seems glamour trumps merit when it comes to brand ambassadors.

People may defend such celebrities, pointing out that “something is better than nothing”. However, I believe those who profess to be role models in society should be subject to scrutiny, because they often set a precedent that others follow. Those who wish to help tackle poverty must go further than field visits and photo ops – it will take engaging with the issues of poverty, challenging the policies of institutions that perpetuate it and, perhaps most importantly, reflecting on the ways lifestyle choices contribute to such issues. Let’s hope that in the future, the commitment of brand ambassadors goes deeper than the lens of camera.

Tom Jarman works for Zimele U.K., a small charity in Wales, and blogs about international development.

Featured image shows William Hague and Angelina Jolie visiting Nzolo Camp in the DRC. Photo from the G8 U.K. Presidency.

 

Where are the aid workers with disabilities?

This is the first in a three-part series on development workers with disabilities. Check back next week for the second installment!

By Rebecca Berman

Even though people with disabilities make up 15% of the world’s population, with 80% living in developing countries, they are rarely part of the international development agenda (or haven’t been until recently). As disability issues are becoming more prominent – especially with post-2015 discussions – valuable opportunities exist for people with disabilities to take ownership and showcase their expertise. WhyDev has already featured articles about the lack of inclusion of people with disabilities in international development programming. However, there needs to be more discussion about another equally important issue.

Where are the people with disabilities who work in the development and humanitarian aid sectors?

Around the world, people with disabilities face higher unemployment rates than those without. Nearly 90% of people with disabilities in developing countries are unemployed, and 50 to 70% in developed countries. Why do people with disabilities have a higher rate of unemployment? The obvious reason for this is due to pre-existing stigmas. Two others, particularly related to the development context, include:

“It’s too expensive.” / “We already have limited resources.”

Cost is often cited as a barrier for not hiring people with disabilities. In the development field, organisations are often working with limited resources and with an extra sense of urgency in using every last dollar.

But, according to estimates in UNICEF’s 2013 State of the World’s Children report, including people with disabilities costs less than 1% of a program’s total budget. In addition, a study in the U.S. found that two thirds of disability accommodations cost less than $500, with nearly a quarter at no cost. Examples of cost-free accommodation include adjusting tasks or schedules for maximum performance efficiency.

“The accommodations or medical care are not available overseas.”

People with disabilities are, unfortunately, used to inaccessibility. Thus, we have the knowledge and resources to create better systems and to increase accessibility. We know what works and what doesn’t. Many times, disabilities are barriers to joining the Foreign Service and the Peace Corps (or similar programs). In the end, if a person with a disability is applying, they will have the resources to overcome the anticipated barriers that the job entails. For instance, a person who uses a wheelchair would be more likely to know the best mechanisms for upkeep and repair in a development setting. The dialogue needs to center on how the person’s needs can be met on the job, rather than perpetuating the status quo by continually excluding those with disabilities and viewing disability as a medical condition (rather than utilising the modern social model of disability, which views it as being an effect of how society is organised, rather than the person’s “impairment” or “difference”).

The vicious cycle of inaccessibility and invisibility

I have seen firsthand the social capital cost of exclusion. For instance, international development conferences are often not interpreted. By not having a sign language interpreter, a segment of the community loses out on learning and networking opportunities. In addition, the “voice” of people with hearing loss is missing from international discussions, which perpetuates their invisible minority status. Similarly, language classes often do not provide interpreters, limiting deaf students’ opportunities for learning foreign languages, which are crucial in the aid sector.

The same can be said for discriminatory medical requirements that prevent people with disabilities and/or other medical conditions from participating in international jobs. These definitions and the link between disability and medicine/illness is a highly contentious one. Regardless of the person’s identity (as a “person with a disability,” a “person with a medical condition,” etc.), based on their “symptoms” or perceived inabilities, they are often lumped together in the eyes of human resources.

This is not to say that these policies should be thrown out entirely. Rather, we need to consider the actual reason for the exclusion, and not just accept this as the “norm.” For instance, is the reason because there are actually no accommodations that can be made, or is it because of pre-existing conceptions that exist in-country? If people with disabilities don’t get hired due to their “condition,” the condition stays invisible, and no real progress can be made in changing the situation for those with similar conditions.

In addition to my own experience as a Deaf person, there are plenty of stories about internal hiring and firing biases against people with disabilities and medical conditions, including from agencies and organisations that claim to support those with disabilities. Change like this is a complex evolving process, and the first step is creating visibility.

A Post-2015 World

Since 2007, 159 countries have signed the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Article 27 focuses on employment and aims to “Promote the employment of persons with disabilities in the private sector through appropriate policies and measures, which may include affirmative action programs, incentives and other measures.” As we move towards more equity-based post-2015 goals, this will be important for all people, regardless of background.

Rebecca Berman is a Mosaic International Fellow in Tanzania, where she is coordinating an inclusive education program and supporting other initiatives for children and young adults with development and intellectual disabilities. She has previously worked with Handicap International and the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, and has provided self-advocacy training in the U.S., Kenya, Guatemala, India and Ghana. You can follow Rebecca on Twitter.

Featured image shows multiple sign language interpreters for multiple languages at the EMPOWER Conference. Photo from the U.S. Department of State Bureau of Educational & Cultural Affairs.

6 ways to make the most of your time outside the development sector

By Jessie Date-Ampofo

What challenges do you face in starting a development career? You have to try to stand out amongst thousands of qualified candidates. Perhaps $15,000 is not pocketed away for your next international volunteer trip.

If you live in an international hub like D.C., Nairobi, or Bangkok, there are at least events and networking opportunities, so hopefully you can make connections and stay up-to-date.

But maybe, like me, you live in a place void of international development opportunities. As isolated as you feel, here are a few ways you can stay connected to the development sector when you can’t compare travel maps with your co-workers just yet.

1. Stay updated

The Internet is filled with resources to help you get started when field experience or a Master’s degree are out of reach. Make a list of bloggers and news sites that cover different aspects of development, and do your best to keep up. I use Last Week Today (Ed: Yes!!] and DAWNS Digest to stay current. Twitter is a gold mine of conversations (debates), links to relevant news and different perspectives. You can use the #globaldev hashtag to follow live updates.

Twitter badge. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
Twitter badge. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Another way to get information is to start reading books and journal articles. Knowing what everyone is blogging and tweeting about is fruitful, but your own research is necessary if you need to form an opinion. Find books on the topic areas that interest you, or search for syllabi to see the readings assigned in different development courses. Then, start learning on your own. You’ll gain an understanding of the core issues and prominent viewpoints in development, and have a stronger foundation when you finally start working in the field.

2. Take an online course

Platforms like Coursera and edX offer free online courses on research methods, writing and even designing sanitation systems. Jeffrey Sachs has a Coursera class on sustainable development, and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee have an edX one on global poverty. There are also tutorials available online for things like learning basic statistics, advancing Excel skills or studying foreign languages.

3. Get local

Of course, you don’t have to live in a ‘developing’ country to contribute to development. Shop consciously, and consider the effects your purchases will have on the environment and other people’s livelihoods.

You can also help people in need where you live through volunteering locally. From advocating for a bill to helping with an after-school program, volunteering can make a big impact in your community. Getting involved locally is especially important if you don’t plan to move somewhere with more development opportunities – improving your own community is a good way to invest your time.

Some development organisations also have remote volunteer options. Websites like UN Volunteers and Idealist post the latest volunteer opportunities, which also include remote positions.

Your community may not have development organisations, but there are probably other service groups available for gaining skills and some friendships. I joined my local Young Nonprofit Professionals Network chapter, and, though no other members are interested in development, the group provides management training and networking opportunities that will be useful in any work environment.

Similarly, if you’re currently working in another field, develop useful skills by finding tasks at work that relate to your future goals. For me, that means taking hold of social media and learning to manage budgets at my corporate job.

4. Network online

If getting local doesn’t fill your desire to connect with development enthusiasts, try networking online. Reach out to learn more about the sector and how to navigate your way into it. The willingness of professionals in the development sector to respond to e-mails and questions from a confused young professional has surprised me. Discussing your plans and questions with professionals gives you the opportunity to decide what area of the industry interests you. I have changed my direction a few times, and found some areas to improve (okay, I will learn statistics). Even when there are no development workers nearby, the marvelous Internet can quickly connect you to many people in the sector.

5. Make your own opportunities

You can also start something of your own–no, not an NGO. I started The Development Book Club after getting into a Master’s program and realising I couldn’t afford to go. Though disappointing, I realised waiting until grad school to learn was not in my best interest. I still plan to get a glittery diploma someday, but in the meantime, I’ve gained a small community of people with similar interests and covered a lot of material I should ideally know before grad school. Think about what part of development interests you, and see if you can create a community right where you are.

6. Be present

While dreaming of the day you get your big break, don’t forget to soak in where you are. Anxiety over the future won’t make it come any faster. Recognise that, if you can’t handle life where you are, it may not get better just because you leave or start something new. Use your time in limbo to work on becoming the person you want to be, professionally and personally.

Jessie Date-Ampofo studied Political Science and Philosophy at the University of Toronto and now lives in Cleveland, Ohio. Though not currently working in development, she volunteers locally and is reading through as many development books as she can.

Featured image is farmland overlooking Lake Winnebago in Wisconsin. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Nigeria: What to do when wealth doesn’t mean development?

By Clare Cummings

Having just returned from a research trip to Nigeria, I’ve been struck (not for the first time) by just how difficult it is to make economic growth a force for development. It’s tempting to think that just having a slightly bigger public sector budget would really help, but Nigeria is a clear reminder that wealth alone does not guarantee better services, less poverty or more security.

Nigeria is known internationally as an economic powerhouse, a leading African economy attracting foreign investment and exporting natural resources. It’s also known to have a volatile political situation, extreme poverty and stark inequality. Despite its wealth, Nigeria rates poorly on human development indicators: it ranked 152 in the 2013 Human Development Report, just above Yemen. Compared to other, much poorer, African countries, Nigeria’s investment in public services is low and inequality in accessing services is very high. Why is this?

Why is economic growth failing to address poverty, and what can development organisations do about it?

First, it’s important not to think of Nigeria as one economy and one government. Nigeria is enormous, with a national population similar to that of Bangladesh or Brazil, and a federal system composed of 36 states and a federal capital. When taken as a whole, Nigeria has every challenge and opportunity going: natural resources, divided ethnic groups, nomadic populations, burgeoning cities, etc. Only by delving into the complexity of each state can you begin to understand what’s stopping Nigeria from transforming into a more stable country.

Map of Nigeria's states. From Wikimedia Commons.
Map of Nigeria’s states. From Wikimedia Commons.

Looking at government and politics at the state level, it becomes clearer why Nigeria’s economic growth does not guarantee better living standards. Nigerian state governments each have their own priorities, and these are often not poverty reduction but rather income generation. For example, while the governors of Northern states tend to prioritise agricultural productivity, transport is a political issue in Lagos, as the city’s congestion is a brake on the state economy. Nigerian politicians’ priorities are also swayed by those who financed their election victory. Public funds are often diverted to creating jobs for chosen individuals and awarding government contracts to particular companies. It’s only when a leader’s supporters have been sufficiently rewarded that broader development goals can be considered.

So, taking this as a starting point, how can development organisations, calling for more accountable governments and better services for the poor, persuade Nigerian state governments to change the way they work? Quite simply, development organisations need to learn to work politically. They need to understand the interests of leaders and the constraints of the political system, and find ways to encourage reform without directly threatening a leader’s source of control. Negotiation, brokering, persuasion, peer pressure and incentives are all tools in engaging in the politics of development. This is about taking a politically smart approach to development.

But what could this look like? How about the work the DFID-funded State Accountability and Voice Initiative (SAVI) is doing? SAVI works in a number of Nigerian states to support State Houses of Assembly, mass media and civil society organisations to take action on public problems. Rather than encouraging a battle between government and non-government groups, SAVI looks for ways they can cooperate, finding convergent interests in resolving shared problems, such as corruption in contractors’ building of public infrastructure.

Another inspiring approach to problem solving in Nigeria is Reboot’s work on public financial management. Financial management reforms are often found to be technically heavy, transplanted by international consultants and inappropriate to a country’s own context. Reboot, however, is taking a different approach, which they call “fiscal ethnography.” In this, a team of Nigerian and international staff are embedded in a state government for 18 months to observe how the government systems work, learn about the culture of the organisation and people working in it, and earn their partners’ trust. The knowledge they gain and the relationships they build then enable the Reboot team to tailor their tools and training to the specific needs and priorities of the state government.

Nigeria is certainly not unique in the challenges facing its public sector, and examples like these show that development organisations are beginning to learn that development is not about authority and money, but rather about brokering and negotiating change. Improving the practices of the development community may be just as difficult as improving the practices of state governments, but a movement for change has begun. Academics, practitioners, donors, and researchers are coming together to push for a new, politically savvy way of doing development: development that works.

Look here and here to learn more and join the debate!

Clare Cummings is a Research Officer for Politics and Governance at the Overseas Development Institute, where she works on public service delivery, justice, security and democratisation. She has previously conducted field research on the governance of slum resettlement in South India and worked as a researcher for a consortium of NGOs in Burundi. Claire holds a Masters of International Development from the University of Amsterdam. You can follow her on Twitter.

Featured image is an aerial view of Lagos. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Volunteering abroad with children: Some recommendations

This post originally appeared on KickStart Ghana and is re-printed here with permission. It is the second in a two-part series on volunteering with children – see part one here.

By Ruth Taylor

When considering the sometimes disastrous consequences of overseas volunteering with regards the emotional and physical well-being of children, it is all too easy to conclude that all projects involving children should be stopped altogether, preventing the problems from ever even being a possibility. Although a firm critic of many projects abroad involving children, I adamantly believe that, if done correctly, in conjunction with local stakeholders and with the benefit of the child firmly situated at the heart of any decision, projects that bring together Western volunteers and local children can be hugely effective for both parties.

Over the five years I’ve been involved with KickStart Ghana, our attitude and practices regarding volunteering with children have developed dramatically. I find it really encouraging looking back and seeing how, as an organisation, we have become more impactful through our work, due to the decisions we’ve made, especially when considering our child-facing programmes. Child protection and safety, as well as beneficiary impact, are things we regard as being of the highest importance.

The three summer programmes currently running in Ho consist heavily of working with young people. The summer school, reading club and football coaching sessions, delivered alongside our local partners and supported by our dedicated team of UK volunteers, all focus on increasing the educational and sporting abilities and achievements of young people.

So, how do we ensure we are not making the same mistakes as so many other international volunteering organisations with regards to our work with children?

Firstly, we work closely with community stakeholders, determining where we can have the most positive impact, building on and supporting initiatives already taking place in the town. In the same way we would not appreciate foreigners coming into our communities and telling us what our children do or do not need in order to develop, organisations must thoroughly understand the necessity and rightfulness of local stakeholder engagement and involvement. By working alongside local teachers, child care professionals and parents, organisations go some way to ensure their actions are embedded into the context of the local community, leading to more impactful and more sustainable programmes which are supported by local people.

Secondly, all our volunteers pass through a structured recruitment and training programme, ensuring they are well equipped for their designated roles whilst in-country. Our Summer School volunteers provide extra-curricular activities for Year 6 pupils, but as they are not qualified teachers, the national curriculum content is left to Ghanaian teachers to deliver. When questioned on this, our response is simple: would we ever allow a volunteer teacher from Ghana to come to the U.K. and teach a Year 6 maths class, despite the fact they were not actually qualified? Obviously not!

It is important that all international development organisations that work with volunteers know the boundaries they are setting for their programmes by doing so – volunteers, by their very nature, cannot do everything a paid, fully-trained member of staff can. It is the responsibility of each individual organisation to ensure measures are put in place to enable volunteers to work to the best of their ability.

Thirdly, we follow a strict policy when it comes to child protection, ensuring all volunteers are made fully aware of the policy before and during their placement. No cameras are allowed on project, as we wish to encourage our volunteers to focus their attentions on ensuring the programmes are the best they can be, not with their eye continuously objectifying a child through a lens.

Our volunteers are also reminded about their position as mentors, not friends. Although they 100% should develop friendly, trusting relationships with the children, they are not in Ghana to hand out hugs, nor are the children attending the projects to be fussed over, but rather to benefit from the activities provided. By doing this, we hopefully curb any negative side effects for the children when it comes to attachment.

Much research has been done regarding the detrimental effects that short-term volunteering placements can have on children and when properly thought through, the conclusions seem obvious.

Having a constant stream of volunteers arrive in your community, show you love and affection and then, without a backwards glance, get back on a plane can prove very difficult for children, especially if coming from vulnerable backgrounds.

If we think about this from a UK perspective, it’s like volunteers from other parts of the world, coming over and working in our young people’s refuges for 2 weeks at a time, completely unqualified to do so, getting to know the residents, gaining their affection and trust, before travelling around the country for a bit and then hoping back on a plane, never to be seen or heard from again. And then the next group arrive and so on. Although maybe not fulfilling the Western volunteer desire for the much needed profile pic with a cute Ghanaian child, or supplying a never-ending opportunity for cuddles, KickStart Ghana believe these decisions make our programmes more impactful and consequentially, the experience a better one for volunteers and beneficiaries a like.

I am not here to claim that KickStart Ghana are by any means perfect as an organisation when it comes to these issues, but I am pleased to work for a charity that takes this stuff seriously, doesn’t cut corners and instils a respect in our volunteers about these important issues. I’d like to finish this blog with a quick word of advice for anyone currently considering volunteering abroad with children. The below 5 points, I believe, should be understood, appreciated and taken to heart by anyone looking for a placement. Do not consider your actions inconsequential, and make sure you are spending your time and money wisely, so as to be bringing about good instead of harm.

  • Think about what your own strengths are. Good intentions are a fantastic starting point, but unfortunately are not enough to make a difference. If they were, we’d have no problems left in the world. You must consider what skills or strengths you as an individual have to bring to a project. The last thing any developing country needs is more big-hearted but utterly clueless Westerners flying over thinking they can help by simply being there.
  • Look closely at the organisation you are considering volunteering with. What is their track record when it comes to volunteering with children? Do they prioritise the safety and well-being of the child over everything else? Are they more focused on the volunteers’ happiness than the child’s? This should be easily determinable through the way they present themselves online and through their recruitment process. If you can secure your place in 90 seconds, like I mentioned above, move on to someone else.
  • Focus on the impact on the child, not the impact on you. If you truly want to volunteer, your energy should be put into ensuring the programme/s you are involved in are as impactful as they can be. Don’t choose a project solely for its location, duration, proximity to the pub, etc. Although you will inevitably get a lot out of your volunteering experience (arguably more than you will actually give), you should not in any way see your trip as a holiday. If you do, reconsider what you’re doing, and go to Spain for a week instead.
  • Always consider what best practice is in the UK. Would we allow a particular action to occur, or a particular attitude to prevail in our working with children at home? If not, then you need to consider why the situation is any different in the country you are in. If we really believe children are equal and are all deserving of the same high level of care, then are actions and attitudes should mirror this, no matter where in the world we are.
  • Hold people and organisations accountable. If you come across a placement, or are involved in a project, that you think may have put children at risk, speak out about it. Go to the people in charge and raise your concerns. The only way to move forward with these issues is to first highlight that they exist and then speak out against them. Only then will we be in a position to move towards a reality where volunteering your time with children across the world is something to truly boast about, not as some shallow badge of honour, but as a constructive way to aid global child development.

Ruth is currently International Development Manager for Student Hubs, leading the Impact International programme, which aims to promote global citizenship amongst students in the U.K., by acting as a platform for them to learn more about international development, human rights and international volunteering. Alongside her day job, she is a trustee for KickStart Ghana, a charity working to enhance sporting and educational opportunities for communities in Eastern Ghana, and she sits on the Steering Committee for YTFN, a youth organisation promoting effective philanthropy. She is interested in youth development engagement, campaigning and the complexities of international volunteering.

Featured image is students taking a computer class in Ho, Ghana. Photo from EIFL.

Volunteering abroad with children: A game of double standards?

This post originally appeared on KickStart Ghana and is re-printed here with permission. It is the first in a two-part series on volunteering with children, so check back next week for part two!

By Ruth Taylor

Let me ask you. How many times have you logged onto Facebook and been greeted with a newly-updated profile picture of one of your friends, volunteer-smile intact, affectionately cuddling a small, rather grubby-looking child, from an unknown African nation? Once? Twice? Too many times to recall?

If you haven’t experienced it personally, you’ll probably be aware of the growing phenomenon sweeping schools, colleges and universities across the Western world. In search of adventure and a desire to break normalcy, our young people, during their gap years or summer holidays, are jetting off to volunteer (more often than not, with children) in countries across the Global South… It’s become a craze. Like over-reliance on Apple products and an addiction to Starbucks, voluntourism is becoming something by which this generation is being defined. It’s almost come to be seen as a rite of passage (albeit for the relatively well-off) – something you do before, during or after university. Something that will “set you apart” and help you land your £40k-starting-salary graduate job.

Let me ask you another question. How would you react if the craze was reversed? Would you allow your children, your younger brothers and sisters, nieces and nephews, to appear as the photo fodder within a Kenyan’s profile picture? An Ethiopian’s? A Cambodian’s? Would you be okay with letting the young people close to you feature in the strange online societal competition of foreigners, where you wear your profile picture with a small child of a different skin colour as a badge of honour, boasting about the fact that you – you noble and benevolent being – have volunteered abroad?

I have a feeling we might be slightly less agreeable than others across the world and so starts my second blog for the summer – the complexity of volunteering with children and the complicated way we, in the West, appear to have different ideas and ideals about what’s acceptable with regards to working with young people, depending on where in the world they live.

As I mentioned in my previous post for KickStart, the world of international volunteering is a murky one, although all too often, volunteers and potential volunteers view it through rose-tinted glasses. When we consider volunteering abroad specifically with children, the situation becomes murkier still, what with child protection and welfare, the complexity of cross-cultural teaching and learning and a whole host of other ethical issues regarding the suitability of (usually) unqualified volunteers working with (largely) vulnerable young people. It is a topic that is receiving far too little attention.

The image of the happy, white Westerner surrounded by the beaming faces of black children has become the snapshot associated with what it means to volunteer abroad (put it into Google and tell me I’m wrong!). Accompanied by the emotive language of voluntourism websites, it is not a surprise that volunteering your time on child-specific projects is the most popular form of volunteering abroad today.

I’m as fond of children as the next person, and if given the opportunity to play with kids from any nation for a couple of weeks, I’d have a hard time turning it down. But arguably as the most vulnerable individuals within any society, surely these children deserve a little bit more structured thinking? How exactly is the best way to support their development and learning? Who exactly is the right person to do this for the upmost benefit of the child? What potential damage could be being done to these kids if the project was to go wrong or just be plain neglectful?

By sending out our well-intentioned but unqualified and inexperienced 18 year olds, are we actually actively harming the very children we are so carelessly flaunting on our profile pages?

A recent experiment saw me take to the Internet and the websites of five of the biggest voluntourism companies to see how long it would take for me, a 23 year old white female graduate, with a smidgen of teaching experience, to sign up and volunteer with children abroad. The average was under 90 seconds. 90 seconds, with not a single question about who I am and why I’d be a good person to work with kids. I could be anyone, anyone, with any sort of horrific motivation for wanting to spend unsupervised time with children.

Obviously, in the vast majority of cases, volunteers wishing to work with children are simply young people with a desire to improve the situations of other young people living lives very different to their own. However, there are incidences of people with far darker intentions having the opportunity to volunteer with children abroad, where they are unlikely to undergo any criminal records checks, be supervised whilst on project or ultimately be traced if an indecency is suspected. Would this iewer even be a possibility in the U.K.? The answer is a resounding no! To volunteer with children at home, you first have to wade through thousands of proverbial miles of red tape – why do we think children in other countries should have anything but the same level of security?

Through my research, I also found that the majority of voluntourism organisations do not require volunteers to have any level of experience, let alone qualifications to volunteer with children, whether in a school or a residential care institution. Can you ever imagine this being the norm in the U.K.? How many times have you seen a plane full of well-intentioned but unqualified, 18-year-old Nepalese young people flood U.K. schools or residential care homes to “teach” our children? My guess would be not that often!

This begs the question of why we feel people have to be trained and educated to a fairly high standard to work with English children, but the same does not apply when considering children growing up across the Global South. What kinds of assumptions, whether conscious or subconscious, are we making and thus basing our actions upon? Do we really believe, as our actions seem to depict, that as Westerners, even if uneducated, we are somehow more innately qualified to care for children and know what is best for them, than their own teachers, nursery nurses, even parents? Or, worse still, do we think that the children of Africa, Asia and South America are somehow deserving of a lesser standard of care? If, like most people, you balk at both of these ideas, then maybe it is about time our actions changed to mirror what we claim to believe.

In part two, Ruth details best practices for volunteer organisations and gives some tips on choosing a volunteer position.

Ruth is currently International Development Manager for Student Hubs, leading the Impact International programme, which aims to promote global citizenship amongst students in the U.K., by acting as a platform for them to learn more about international development, human rights and international volunteering. Alongside her day job, she is a trustee for KickStart Ghana, a charity working to enhance sporting and educational opportunities for communities in Eastern Ghana, and she sits on the Steering Committee for YTFN, a youth organisation promoting effective philanthropy. She is interested in youth development engagement, campaigning and the complexities of international volunteering.

Featured image is a classroom in Kenya. Photo by Deepa Srikantaiah.

The reality (and absurdity) of the aid sector

This post originally appeared on AidBits and is re-printed here with permission.

By Michael Keller

“Are you joking?” That was the written response I got from my boss when I suggested moving our cumbersome reporting process to the cloud a few years ago.

Before I bolted for the relative tranquility of the private sector, like most aid workers, the question of efficiency was on my mind at least once a day. Not the effectiveness of the programs I managed, but my own organization’s efficiency, or lack thereof.

Echoing countless colleagues in the field, I often wondered things like, “Why are we doing things this way when the rest of the world uses a cheaper, faster method to achieve the same result?” and “How is it possible that no one in the chain of command has developed a system to keep track of reporting?”

From just a few years in the field, I amassed enough stories of bureaucratic absurdities to fill a book.

In fact, I realized that the majority of my co-workers had similar complaints. Worse, no one seemed to be able to do anything about it. Organizational momentum was always geared towards implementation or fundraising, while fleeting yearly workshops tended to focus on strategy and capacity building. Systems to improve the quality of our work always seemed to slip through the cracks, replaced by ad hoc approaches developed in spite of the bureaucracy rather than as a part of it.

Here are just a few anecdotes to highlight an institutional weakness familiar to most aid workers:

  • One respected, well-funded organization I worked for had many small projects going on in various parts of the country, and a motivated boss developed the mother of all Excel files to track them. The solution was great, but contained obvious drawbacks. Staff adoption was almost zero because no one intuitively understood the system and training time was limited. The file was offline, and so large that new data had to be regularly copied and pasted into a new file, then e-mailed up the chain of command to be pasted back into a master file. Updates required my boss to drive around to 7 offices with a flash drive and new set of operating instructions. Aggregating data input by different people on different projects, with no clear standardization of data values, became a nightmare. And, unfortunately, the macro-heavy file became increasingly buggy; once the boss rotated out to a new mission, no one had the time and knowledge to fix it, and it was abandoned.
  • Arriving in a remote part of Africa to assess refugee needs after my predecessor was prematurely evacuated, I was lost. No handover. Just 3 short reports from my predecessor, found by chance. Hundreds of reports by others concerning my region, but saved to mysterious locations with inconsistent file names. And for orientation, a scan of a hand-drawn map. I spent my first week skimming the reports, furiously copy/pasting paragraphs relating to similar topics into a 180-page searchable document, just to get a basic idea of what had been done where. In the field, I made diligent use of my GPS unit so I could create maps back at the office. I quickly realized we were providing “one-time emergency” assistance for the fourth year in a row to the same population. By the end of my mission, I had the most detailed maps ever made of my region and a well-organized stash of reports for my successor. But the combination of high turnover and lack of institutional backing for these systems meant the maps faded from memory and the reports got lost in the jumble of colleague’s personal filing systems.
  • In another job, I was overseeing multiple local implementing partners. They had to submit their project plans via e-mail in Word documents. I would modify and comment, and send them back for revision. Once I was satisfied with the proposals, I would repeat the e-mail exchange with my own boss. Her revisions and comments would then get e-mailed through me back to the local partners. Throughout this process, entire sections of the document would get accidentally deleted, and information I had intentionally deleted in one version would sneak back in the next. As a direct result of this document daisy chain, projects often did not start until half-way through the fiscal year.

I regularly discussed these frustrations over drinks with a good friend. Despite our years of experience in the sector, we just could not believe that these simple bottlenecks had not yet been addressed. We realized that, though individual demand for innovations was extremely high, the institutional momentum had failed to materialize, despite decades of talk about accountability, transparency and the Big Foot of aid, Results-Based Management (universally recognized but rarely seen).

To overcome the inertia – and the tendency to develop proprietary software that quickly morphs into an outdated legacy platform – a private-sector solution was needed, one tailored to the idiosyncrasies of the industry. My friend jumped on the opportunity and founded AidBits with almost no hesitation; the idea was that obvious. He had his first eager client before even coming close to finishing the beta product.

Moving many of the daily chores of project and program management into browser-based software was an idea way overdue by the early 2010s.  Perhaps no one in the private sector saw the profitability in addressing the problems of the non-profit world. But Feras and Ibrahim knew that with their solution, they could not only turn a profit, they could do so while greatly improving the quality and timeliness of aid work.

Imagine a field office in which data reporting is standardized, with easy-to-understand online tutorials to remind staff of the need for and meaning of key terms like “goal” and “S.M.A.R.T.” Picture a donor institution using a platform to aggregate relevant information with a simple click and chart program progress automatically. Envision a work environment in which past reporting is archived and searchable, maps can be generated by non-GIS specialists, and workflow shifts from MS Office and e-mail to the browser.

AidBits won’t solve all the problems facing development and humanitarian work. But it will make errors easier to catch, reports faster to file and time harder to waste. The drudgery avoided and money saved will allow for a greater focus on the quality results that beneficiaries deserve. AidBits is forging ahead to enhance a multi-billion dollar industry currently stuck in the 20th century. And no, these guys are not kidding around.

Michael Keller is an international development expert, having worked in Africa and the greater Middle East for a number of international aid organisations. You can follow him on Twitter.

Featured image from Robert Francis.

Famous founders: A blessing or a curse?

By Anna McKeon & Natalie Jesionka

Bob and Jane take a sabbatical from their careers in Sydney to travel the world. On their trip, they travel comfortably but authentically and are moved by the poverty and daily struggle they encounter for the first time in their life. They are especially moved by the children they see begging. Having had a transformative experience, they talk about how they can “give back” in some way. When Bob and Jane get back to Australia, they decide to establish their own non-profit organisation to promote education, so the children they saw will never have to beg again. Enlisting high-powered friends to help publicise their mission, they raise half a million dollars within two months. They’re bombarded with requests from radio and TV shows, get featured in magazines and are soon hailed as heroes.

The rise of the hero NGO founder is becoming an all-too-familiar story in the development sector. Whether it’s people we know or individuals we discover through magazines and TV, we quickly place a trust in those who inspire us, giving them our respect, our support, and often our money, with few questions asked.

As a result, such individuals can quickly become beyond reproach. Blessed with unrestricted – often private – donations, they’re working in a system with few checks and balances. It is in these circumstances, when the PR machine can take over, that the individual begins to overshadow the organisation, and significant problems go unchallenged.

What we as supporters don’t often see is what happens when Bob and Jane actually go back to the country they visited to launch their project and their NGO. We don’t hear much about their struggles in establishing an education organisation without a background in teaching, dealing with legalities in a language they cannot speak or working in cultures they don’t understand.

While they may remain dedicated to their mission, they now inhabit two worlds – and neither one properly understands them.

Inevitably, the times we do hear of those struggles is when problems become too big to be ignored. The exposé of Somaly Mam earlier this year is perhaps the most compelling example of a hero NGO founder whose public profile overshadowed not only her whole organisation, but also her entire cause. Mam’s was the classic hero’s journey, complete with the tragic fatal flaw and fall from grace. As Laura Agustin points out, even in apparent disgrace, the media is still focused on the founder: most people became involved with the Somaly Mam Foundation because of Somaly Mam – not because they were interested in understanding how to change the structures and systems that create and sustain human trafficking.

It’s time for a reality check: in order to improve the way founders and organisations do good, we need to start talking about the challenges of managing a high profile. Here are some ideas of how to recognize the red flags and avoid falling into the trap of Founder’s Syndrome:

  1. Overshadowing the organisation

The problem that frustrates many people in the development sector (aid professionals and commenters alike) is that the focus on an individual founder’s story often quickly overshadows the mission and activities of their organisation. One way to demonstrate that your passion is for your cause and not your profile is to refrain from propagating such an attitude. Lose the “About Me” or “My Story” page from the organisation’s website. Organisations demonstrating a strong foundation try to reduce the focus on any one individual and ensure their visual media and narrative represent the people they’re working with.

  1. Believing the PR machine

Somaly Mam’s story (and Greg Mortenson’s before hers) demonstrates that it’s all too easy for a PR machine to run away with itself. If some details are slightly wrong, but the coverage is generating donations for a good cause – where’s the harm? Once a hero has been created, few people are keen to question their standing. As Daniela Papi put it,

With aid, it often seems that all you need to do is state the dedication of your life to some cause, and that statement of altruistic intent alone is all you need to get the media and donor community supporting your stock.

This can mean the opinions of high-profile founders are sought above experts, regardless of their actual level of knowledge of an issue. The founders become the face of the movement, the coveted photo-op and editorial, but may not have the skills or knowledge to actually implement what they represent in the field.

Some founders keep connected with reality through talking openly about their organisation’s challenges. If the media does get caught up in your personal story, make sure to correct their version of events. Make it clear that there are always things the organisation can do better. All NGOs are (or should be) constantly learning, constantly developing. In role modeling this attitude, you’re less likely to get caught up in a cycle of PR fluff and fabrication.

  1. Threatening organisational sustainability

How Matters has a great overview of some of the problems of Founder’s Syndrome. If an organisation relies solely on pedaling an individual’s profile, donors will likely dry up if that individual leaves the organisation. In addition, the presence of a high-profile founder can make staff or board members more likely to defer to their opinions. This may not only result in misguided choices, but may also leave a decision-making vacuum when the founder moves on.

To ensure that your organisation can function without your involvement, prioritise capacity building and local leadership, encouraging program and strategy decisions to be made by those with the most knowledge and experience. Decide how to evaluate your impact, and use measurables to back it up. Go beyond the anecdotes and the easy visuals.

  1. Perpetuating unhelpful “saviour / victim” concepts in aid and development.

Representations of founders as “saviours” and communities as “victims who need saving” are not helpful to overall portrayals of global inequities. It’s all too common for such “victims” to be turned into commodities in the name of fundraising. To try to avoid this, integrate your communications into your organisational structure. Let your staff tell the stories of their work, and decide as an organisation how best to communicate about the issues you’re tackling. Be respectful of those you serve, and know where to draw the line when fame does hit. Having a media policy can help you avoid exploiting individuals or communities in the name of publicity.

It’s clear the top-down founder model needs serious overhaul, but new models of social good and high-impact development are still lagging behind (or getting lost in the hype of the next founders like Bob and Jane trying to change the world). Just as we look at corporate CEOs and politicians, we need to start looking at founders with a critical eye–understanding that it’s a difficult place to be in, but also pushing them to be better, more accountable and ever more transparent about their work. With this in mind, we’ll be able to move beyond sensation-driven development work and really consider our impact and best practices on the ground.

Anna McKeon is a communications consultant, specialising in research and strategy development for social change initiatives. She has a background in television and digital media in the UK, and has recently worked with Save the Children UK and The Better Care Network to lead a global, inter-agency project aimed at discouraging orphanage volunteering, as well as with Bigger Boat and PEPY Tours. Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict and human rights at Rutgers University. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.

Featured image is the Karakoram mountain range, the site of Greg Mortenson’s now disproven story about launching an NGO. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

What really happens to your donated clothing?

This post originally appeared on Shannon Whitehead’s blog and ONE.org and is re-printed here with permission.

By Shannon Whitehead

How often do you drop off clothes at your local charity shop?

If you’re anything like the rest of the country, Goodwill and Salvation Army are the perfect resources for discarding the stuff that you don’t need.

The pair of jeans that don’t fit you anymore? Donate. The sweater with the small hole in the armpit? Donate. The dress that’s been pushed to the back of your closet? Donate. Most of us see these donation centers as a way to throw out what we don’t want without actually throwing it out.

In fact, we believe we’re doing the world a service by giving our old clothes to those living somewhere in need.

In reality, what we’ve come to believe isn’t that simple. I’d go so far to say it’s fundamentally flawed. Here’s why:

  • About 4.7 billion pounds of clothing are donated by Americans each year. Some of that ends up in landfills, some of it is recycled into rags and insulation, and some of it ends up in the markets of sub-Saharan Africa.
  • Whether it’s Goodwill, Salvation Army, Savers or another charity shop, employees at all of these stores are sorting through the hundreds of bags of discarded clothing that comes in every day. Sifting through mostly worn, old and faded garments, only about 10 percent of the clothing donated is good enough to be resold in the retail store.
  • So what happens to the other 90 percent? The charity shop sells the garments by weight or by the bin to textile recyclers. The clothing is shipped to a recycling plant where employees sort the garments by “grade” and fiber. As shirts, dresses, pants and jackets come off a conveyor belt, an employee must make a snap decision as to where that piece of clothing will end up next.
  • The clothing deemed “re-sellable” is shipped in containers by the tons to countries such as Ghana, Angola, Cameroon, Congo, Tanzania and Rwanda. One hundred pound bales are then sold to sellers in these countries at a profit for the recycling plant. One bale costs around the same amount as feeding a family of five for a month in a country such as Cameroon.
  • The bales are not allowed to be opened until the purchase is final. So, the seller is relying completely on the employee who made a snap decision in the recycling center. If a recycler missed a hole in a shirt or a broken zipper on a pair of pants, the seller ends up paying for the mistake. The quality of the clothing is only as good as the recycling plant’s sorting method.
  • So, the plant must be pretty strict then, right? Actually, it’s a toss up. While there are responsible recyclers, there are just as many that are lenient and careless. In fact, there is no auditing system or accountability control should an entirely damaged bale show up in Africa. Because the seller needs to make the money back to buy his or her next bale, one bad purchase can result in bankruptcy.
  • The global trade of second-hand clothing is a multi-billion dollar industry for developed countries. With our clothing waste being sent overseas by the tons, there’s little chance of African countries, as a whole, developing their own textile trade. In the last 10 years, local industries, such as garment-making and tailoring, have collapsed, leaving hundreds of thousands of workers unemployed.

People will argue that the second-hand clothing industry in Africa is booming. And, on the surface, it is – over one-third of sub-Saharan Africans wear second-hand. The reality, though, is that for as long as the second-hand clothing industry thrives, Africa’s economy is unlikely to improve.

According to Professor Garth Frazer from the University of Toronto, no country has ever achieved a sustainable per-capita national income (at a level associated with a developing economy) without also achieving a clothing-manufacturing workforce that employs at least 1 percent of the population.

Over the years, certain African nations have attempted to ban or restrict the influx of Western clothing imports. In an effort to give existing industries a chance and to maintain traditional culture, countries such as South Africa, Uganda and Nigeria have tried to implement regulation. While it’s done some good for those countries, it hasn’t provided a solution.

Simply put, as long as we, the consumer, continue to buy and discard at our current rate, there will be a market for our wasted fashion. And we will likely continue to believe that once it’s out of our closet it’s out of our hands.

The facts in this post can be attributed to the research of Lucy Siegle, author of “To Die For: Is Fashion Wearing Out the World?”, an op-ed by Tansy Hoskins and various other sources.

Shannon Whitehead is the founder of Factory45, an accelerator program that gives designers and makers the resources to start sustainable businesses in the USA. Shannon got her start in 2010 when she co-founded {r}evolution apparel, a sustainable clothing company for female travelers and minimalists. Applications for the Factory45 2015 program will open in February.

Featured image is a roadside market selling second-hand clothes in Chipata, Zambia. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.