Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Good Intentions Can Backfire In Africa

One of the most persistent problems faced by those trying to bring essential services to developing countries is illustrated by a story I read recently on Sociolingo’s Africa. Here’s a brief excerpt:

I guess I have been around long enough that I am rarely really shocked. However, a story on IPS News from Malawi caught my eye, and yes - I admit it - I am shocked. Read the following:

LILONGWE, Jun 27 (IPS) - Gladys Mawera’s face is contorted with pain -– both she and her newborn baby survived a complicated birth three days ago — but she has not been able to take the painkillers and antibiotics prescribed to her by the medical personnel at the Chiradzulu District Hospital in southern Malawi. The hospital has been without water for five days.

“I am disgusted with my own smell and that of my baby,” says Mawera, who is still wrapped in bloodstained linens as she cradles her child. “There is literally not a drop of water around here,” worries Mawera.

That last line in the highlighted paragraph does it for me. As you read on in the article your mouth drops further and further.

This is not some rustic hospital in the back of beyond. This is a state of the art modern hospital built in 2005 at a cost of 25 million dollars European Union funding which is trying to exist with highly erratic water supplies. In this state of the art hospital, x-rays services are suspended, operations are suspended, patients do not even have water to drink, nurses and doctors do not have water to wash in, linen cannot be washed. How can the hospital function?

It’s all about infrastructure–or the lack thereof–which is essential to building modern societies.

Before modern agricultural methods can be used to compete on world markets, all-weather roads and railroads must exist to take the commodities to market. Before manufacturing plants can operate and provide high-paying jobs, reliable electric power must be available. Before first-class health care can be provided, the hospital must have a plentiful supply of clean water, as this story shows.

We in the West take great pride in projects like the recently-announced $211 million (US) initiative to conserve rainforests in the Congo Basin through the use of advanced satellite camera technology and community-based conservation projects. Personally, I’d rather see the governments of Britain and Norway (who are funding the project), put that money into water towers and pumping stations, concrete roadways, and hydro-electric plants. Global warming is an important issue and there are no easy answers, but the people of Africa will never achieve their full potential until resources are committed to the building blocks of modern society.

Dave Donelson, author of Heart of Diamonds

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