"Africa is, indeed, coming into fashion." - Horace Walpole (1774)


villages in action

Back in September, I wrote a post about the absurdity and irony of the gathering of rich, mostly white people talking about ways to help poor people of color that was the Millennium Development Goals summit and related events. A conversation about this issue started on Twitter, where T.M.S. Ruge (aka, Teddy, aka, the founder of Project Diaspora) launched the idea for an independently organized TEDx event around the idea of letting poor people talk about what they think their communities need, what works and doesn't work in aid, and new ideas the Whites in Shining Armor haven't even thought about. Appropriately enough, he planned to call it TEDxPoor.

Well. Long story short, the TED people (who charge $6,000 to attend one of their conferences) didn't take too kindly to the idea of their name being attached to "poor," and Teddy decided that another platform might be a more appropriate venue through which the voices of the poor could be heard. And Villages in Action was born:
We are excited to announce that on November 27, 2010, the first VIA conference will be held in Kikuube in Uganda; a small village with just over 260 homesteads and a population just over 1000. My mother, one of our speakers, serves as the local chairperson, as well as pastor. I was surprised that she— a village leader—had never heard of the MDGs. She is, however, very excited that she will have a turn at the microphone to represent her village.
I am beyond excited about the chance to hear what people who've never heard of the MDG's think about community development. Villages in Action will feature speakers, panels, music, and all the other sorts of activities that one sees at a fancy summit. The only difference here is that the voices will be those of people who actually live in poverty, who know what it is like to live on $1-2/day, and who some how figure out how to raise children and get by in the most difficult of circumstances. In other words, the experts.

Aren't there a lot of other venues in which the poor can speak? Well, kindof. Most big NGO's do regular "listening sessions" or focus groups in which Western experts sit in a circle with a group for a few hours, asking questions through a translator. But we don't get to be party to the unedited conversations there. We might get to see a write-up, or the exercise might be purely for internal measurement and evaluation purposes within the NGO. Plus there's the added problem that when people in the group know they are talking to an Important White Person from Save the OxPlan Vision, they might be hesitant to give their full and honest opinion out of fear of being impolite or losing access to resources. There just aren't many opportunities for the world's materially poor people to share their voices on a large platform without constraints. Which is why Villages in Action is so important.

Villages in Action takes place in just under two weeks, and there's a lot to be done. They could also use financial support - there are Bronze, Silver, and Gold Sponsor levels, as well as an option to give any amount as a supporter. If you believe that there's value in hearing from the people we purport to help, please consider supporting Villages in Action.


Anonymous Don Stoll said...

The rich and mainly white people at MDG summits don't drown the voices of poor people of color beneath quite as many fathoms of inauthenticity and distortion as do popular films like "The Last King of Scotland," "The Constant Gardener," and "Blood Diamond," which explain contemporary Africa for most Americans (and, I suppose, for most people in the rest of the rich world). Still, I agree that it's refreshing to see Villages in Action erect a platform not dominated by Important White Person types.

Monday, November 15, 2010 2:04:00 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

A question: What is Villages in Action doing about the fraught issue of per diems? Working on community mobilization projects in a peri-urban neighborhood of a capitol city in West Africa, I am often extremely discouraged by the fact that as soon as an outsider is organizing an event (country national or foreigner), everyone is more interested in the possible money offered for participating than in the actual participation in the event. While Villages in Action is being run to give the poor a voice, it is still being organized by outsiders. What is their means of encouraging people to participate? If they are not offering perdiems or perdiems disguised as 'transport' costs or food items, I'd love to hear how they've managed to motivate people to participate in a non-monetary fashion. If they are offering monetary motivation, what do you think that means for the type of discussion to be had? And for 'participatory' development projects in general?

Monday, November 15, 2010 3:18:00 PM

Blogger texasinafrica said...

@unaleona, the event is organized by someone who is from the village - his mother is a local elected official. While he doesn't live there, he's not exactly an outsider. I think that probably helps considerably with getting individuals to participate.

Monday, November 15, 2010 4:03:00 PM

Anonymous TMS Ruge said...


Thanks for the comment, but there is no per diem being paid for the villagers to attend the conference. It is free and those that are chosen and have accepted to speak are part of a planning dinner and break fast where we'll talk about the agenda for the day.

I have provided facilitation for two speakers Ugandans to talk about a very specific role. They are friends of mine and would have come even without me paying their transport.

On the topic of per diems, almost every conference I have been to in the US and Europe provides food of facilitates transport of major players to speak at their events. I don't see you having a problem with that.

Lastly, I would hardly call myself an outsider, any more than you call yourself an outsider when you go visit your parents. This is my villages. I don't know what color blood people need me to bleed before I stop getting called an outsider.

Let's see how the event goes, maybe I'll learn something. Maybe we'll all learn something. But at least we'll have hard evidence for take aways.

Thanks for the post Laura

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 2:10:00 AM

Blogger Angelica Arbulu said...

as Don mentioned, there are thousands of people working all over the developing world sitting down and listening to the voices of the people they are trying to help.

Over 90% of the NGOs and UN agencies work together with locals, as they do not have capacity to work otherwise. I think "the poor" would be better served if we managed to bring that information together rather than saying it has to be this OR that.

Foreigners provide experience and neutrality. I don't want to judge, but so far you have stated that the conference includes your mother and two friend as speakers.

@talesfromthHood wrote a post on why the beneficiaries are not necessarily the best to decide priorities (just like a doctor should decide the course of treatment after listening to the patient, there *is* training and skills behind solving water, sanitation, education or health issues)

This is a great initiative, and nobody is stopping other villages from organising themselves and doing it. Actually, it would be amazing and it should be a goal. But at the end of the day, it will be the voice of one village, and that cannot be extrapolated to all the poor across the world.

BTW, War Child Holland has a policy of never giving per diems. They loose some people, but once it is off the table only those really interested will attend, which goes a long way towards sustainability (there are occasions when the costs cannot be expected to be born by the beneficiaries, but for the most part, probably not the case)

Thursday, November 18, 2010 7:47:00 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Question: how do the event hosts feel about white NGO workers, who just happen to be in the area, attending? Ok, more direct, mind if I show up?

Saturday, November 20, 2010 9:43:00 AM

Blogger Coen J H van Wyk said...

Did you see the report by the Fairtrade Foundation on cotton? How subsidies to American cotton farmers had ruined entire regions in Africa by undercutting their product? Here is how to help eradicate poverty the American way: enable people to build pride and earn an honest income. Stop subsidies, vote buying in America!

Monday, November 22, 2010 11:41:00 AM

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Thursday, November 25, 2010 7:39:00 AM


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