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'Green bicycles' change students' lives

So I’m sitting at lunch today in Kwale, Kenya and one of my Kenyan colleagues is reading the newspaper. He comments, ‘You know, sometimes what is said to be green is not really green.’  He shows another colleague and me this article:  “‘Green bicycles’ change students’ lives.”

They begin discussing:  How are these bicycles really green? How much are they paying to ship them over to Kenya? This is not even the right model of bicycle. These are not the Black Mamba bicycles like we are used to — these bicycles will not stand up to Kenyan roads. And you won’t find the spare parts here either. We are not short of bicycles here in Kenya. Why not purchase them locally? Why are they shipping in refurbished bicycles?

I tell them about 1millionshirts (an idea to send a ton of used t-shirts to ‘Africa’ that was subsequently taken through the wringer) and SWEDOW (Stuff We Don’t Want — a term made famous by @talesfromthhood to represent the idea of sending unwanted junk to ‘developing countries’ and feeling good about it).

We go back to the article to see what the details are, to see what exactly is it that makes the bicycles ‘green’?  After all, ‘green bicycle’ is in quotes in the headline, so maybe the article’s author is also questioning the real ‘greenness’ of these bicycles.

We read that the project is the brainchild of Kenyan Isaac Kalua, who runs the Green Africa Foundation. He visited Tokyo a few years ago and met Hiroshi Kurokawa, the Chairman of the Japan Bicycle Foundation, and the idea was born.

“The organisation [Japan Bicycle Foundation] receives bicycle donations from wealthy Japanese, refurbishes them and ships them to other Asian countries to help rural people reach school and healthcare centres…. On average, each refurbished bicycle costs Sh12,000, including the cost of shipment.” Kalua was able to convince Kurokawa to ship some to Kenya also.

So, if my calculation is correct, 12,000 Kenyan Shillings is around $150. (This June, 2009, blogpost called “Wanna buy a Kenyan bike” [complete with great photos] details the features that a good bike should have for the Kenyan context, and says that a new one can be purchased in Kenya for $75).

The article explains that in return for receiving a bicycle, “beneficiaries have to plant trees in their homes and schools and also encourage their communities to do so.”  The Japanese ambassador to Kenya says “this is an innovative way to get people to plant trees.” He also says that he looks forward to the day that there will be more Japanese bicycles than Japanese cars on the roads of Kenya.

Continuing on, we read that “…the project is facing challenges from Customs officials who take too long to clear the bicycles, making storage charges to soar. We were forced to pay Sh1.2 million for the storage of the latest batch of bicycles. We find that a big burden since this project is meant to be humanitarian.”  (That’s around $15,000 for storage.)

Handy SWEDOW flowchart

Now, I haven’t visited the project, spoken with project participants/ beneficiaries, nor have I done extensive research on the initiative, so I might be missing something here. But on the surface, using the handy SWEDOW flow chart, (created by Scott Gilmore at Peace Dividend Trust) it looks like the best thing to do with a bunch of used bicycles would be ‘sell them, send the cash to buy local’, or ‘throw them out.’

Greening Africa. Bike riding in Kenya. Tree planting. Recycling/re-using Japanese bicycles. Good ideas, but I bet there is a better, more sustainable, and more cost-effective way to achieve those aims than shipping refurbished bicycles from Japan to Kenya.

Related post on Wait… What?

The elephant in the room

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I’ve been following the debates surrounding professionalism, amateurism, innovation and good practice in aid and development work on the blogosphere and Twitter for awhile now.  In their most extreme and exaggerated form, they go something like this:

Extreme side 1: Amateurs are evil

Aid is about the poor.  Amateurs and would-be overseas volunteers should stay home, give money to experienced international organizations, volunteer locally, and stop getting in the way of professionals who are trying to get some serious work done. Aid and development are complicated and there is no silver bullet. They require experience and expertise. Amateurs, voluntourists and unskilled volunteers do more harm than good — they are clueless, showing up with no experience or concept of good aid or development processes. They bypass coordination structures, create confusion and duplication, repeat mistakes and don’t follow known best practices or proven ethical and industry guidelines. You may be a brilliant designer, marketer, manager or engineer but if you don’t have experience in aid and development, please use your skills elsewhere.

Amateurs make major mistakes and get themselves into trouble, and then professionals have to waste their time dealing with them instead of on the people in most need of help.  They parachute in ideas and technologies designed from afar that have no basis in reality because they don’t have any experience in aid, development or the developing world and they don’t listen to past experiences or lessons learned. They come up with stupid ideas, take away paid jobs from local people, create hand-out schemes and other unsustainable and inappropriate models of helping, and then leave. In no other field are amateurs allowed to go in and muck around in other people’s lives with no preparation or experience just because they have good intentions, so why are they allowed to barge into poor communities and bumble around just because they feel guilty about their own wealth and privilege or think it’s their right to help? The poor deserve better than that. Aid should be left to professionals who know what they are doing.

Extreme side 2: Aid and aid workers are evil

There’s no point in talking about professionalism because aid workers and aid and development in their totality have been an utter failure, regardless of how professional aid workers think they are.  Aid is aid, how hard can it be? We need to get things done! Everyone can and should get involved in helping, because it’s everyone’s right and responsibility to help. How will things advance if new ideas and innovations aren’t tested? And by the way, my latest product/ invention/ idea would easily solve that issue that aid workers have been struggling with for centuries…. I just need a place to test it out, got any communities? Volunteers and people with good intentions can do just as good a job as professional aid workers, who have made a total mess of everything anyway with their outdated models and bureaucratic, slow, top down procedures.

New ways of doing things and ideas brought in by youth, volunteers, design students and for-profit innovators from different sectors are beneficial to aid, which is currently stagnated and ineffective and needs an overhaul, or better yet, total annihilation. Aid workers drive around in giant SUVs and don’t have any commitment to local people because they live in fancy ex-pat houses with servants, getting rich off of the backs of the poor they profess to help. It’s just a big business that is perpetuating itself and preventing the poor from developing.  On top of that, the only way you can get into it is to start as a volunteer, but volunteering is discredited by those same aid workers. The dying field of aid and development is a closed and exclusive club. Aid should be abolished, and/or bypassed by small groups of dedicated, good-hearted, every-day individuals and/or social entrepreneurs and capitalists with good intentions who really care about people in the developing world, and can bring in new ways of working and innovations.

Hmmmm.

I’m finding the arguments really interesting.  A little mixed up and too generalized sometimes, but both sides resonate with me because I’ve seen concrete examples of a lot of the above.  (By the way, I hope no one takes offense at how I’ve portrayed the sides – this is just an exercise here – I love you all).  So I was trying to step back and look at the discussion.

It struck me that the arguments sound a lot like the old media – new media arguments.  New media is less professional, less rigorous, and sometimes unethical and low quality. But it often it brings innovations and truths that old media misses. It’s quick, accessible, open, less controlled and often pretty freaking amazing and right on.  Old media is solid and has a long history of quality and impact, but it’s also slow, unresponsive and conservative at times. Old media that’s not finding a way to integrate and learn from new media is dying.

So how might old aid, old development and new aid, new development work together? What can traditional non-profits learn from traditional media outlets that have embraced new media or morphed their old models into something that is still solid and proven, yet offers a space for participation and innovation by the public?

What general standards and knowledge need to be out in the public to help amateurs or people from non-aid and non-development backgrounds who want to engage avoid pitfalls and known errors, and avoid breaking laws or forging forward unethically or foolishly, and doing damage? Can old and new come to terms and work together? What examples are there of this already happening in a way that both old and new agree is working?  Or are these two sides totally incompatible and doomed to work against each other?

[Update] See Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges for a Part 2 to this post.

For more background….

Update:  Penelope has written a great post called “On Entrepreneurship and NGOs

Saundra over at Good Intentions are not Enough does a great job of sharing standards, practices and educating on how to select good charities/organizations, and has published a “Smart Aid Wish List” you can add to.

Check out this excellent chapter (.pdf) by ALNAP on Innovations in International Humanitarian Action (thanks to @talesfromthhood for sharing).

[update] Michael Keizer at A Humorless Lot wrote a great response post here:  The professional volunteer (impossible in aid?) and how about the salaried amateur?

Check out the #smartaid and the #1millionshirts hashtags on Twitter.

Follow some of the bloggers on my blogroll — they pretty much span the different sides of the issue in less extreme and more nuanced ways than I’ve done in my exaggerations above.

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Deconstructing volunteerism and overseas exchanges

Mind the gap

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