Rethinking our role in development

Reflections on a summer volunteering in Kenya.


Having stayed in Kenya for two months this summer, it feels strange to be back in Oxford. No more matatu drivers shouting in a bid to get me into their crammed vehicles, no more two-hour hikes in the sweltering midday heat to reach a tarmac road, and, most significantly, no more eating ugali (a Kenyan porridge made of cornmeal). I had been volunteering with a UK charity, Education Partnerships Africa (EPAfrica), which recruits students from several UK universities. The charity works in rural secondary schools, using bottom-up initiatives to empower the local community.

Based at a rural secondary school in western Kenya, I worked with two project partners to invest £3000 into sustainable projects for the school, ranging from fixing the water supply to creating an ICT lab. Although the work was very small-scale, I was exposed to major challenges facing East Africa and innovative solutions to these issues. Indeed, my very understanding of ‘development’ evolved over the summer.

According to the orthodox view, dominant until the 1990s, development simply was economic growth. Poverty was defined purely in economic terms as a lack of income or resources. However, Amartya Sen’s ground-breaking book Development as Freedom led a new way of thinking, recognising that development and material prosperity cannot be equivocated. Sen instead considered development to be the process of enabling people to make the most of themselves. To complement this, the Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative and the United Nations Development Programme jointly devised the Multidimensional Poverty Index in 2010. This uses a multifaceted approach to determine the level of poverty within a country taking into account a range of factors such as school attendance, nutrition and sanitation.

My experience this summer has given me a whole new perspective on what it means for a country to ‘develop’. Living in a traditional Kenyan homestead, I saw first-hand the near-universal sense of pride in local customs such as traditional male circumcision; regardless of your opinion on such practices, it was inspiring to see the community come together in celebration for such events. A one-size-fits-all approach to development which simply advocates industrialisation overlooks the inherent value of cultural richness and community participation. My close interaction with the family also showed me how individuals can simultaneously be well-off and deprived in different aspects of their lives; the children excelled at school and most family members owned televisions, yet there was no running water and nobody owned any means of transport.

A big realisation I had when travelling to Nairobi was the extent of the rural-urban divide in Kenya. The level of income and wealth inequality between the cities and farmland (known as shamba), as well as within the capital itself, is absolutely staggering. Looking out of the coach window as we entered the capital, I had to crane my neck to glimpse the top of a glass sky-rise building – a stark contrast to the small thatched-roof houses which some of our neighbours occupied.  When walking around the affluent Westlands suburb in Nairobi, with its posh cafés and huge shopping centres, I glumly reflected on the fact that less than five miles away was Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa. GDP hides this inequality, and it was clear to me that any measure of development must look beyond GDP to get a real sense of the economic prosperity of residents.

A key challenge I encountered during my stay was gender inequality. There were infuriating instances where contractors would only converse with my male project partner. For instance, an IT specialist refused to make eye contact with myself or my female co-worker, even when it was clear that she was by far the most tech-savvy and had researched the precise projectors and routers we needed (a clear display of the ‘girls don’t know about computers’ mentality). We actively resisted such behaviour, but its prevalence made me realise how frequently women in authority must feel excluded and devalued.

The staffroom was its own battlefield. The teachers were overwhelmingly male, resulting in a toxic laddish atmosphere in which women felt silenced. In one instance, a group of male teachers mocked a female teacher over the fact that she was not married. When the woman declared that she did not want a husband, the men hooted with laughter before dealing her a scathing outpour of scorn. Many other female teachers did not feel able to speak up in similar situations.

One dilemma we faced was over installing a ‘high achievers’ board, naming the final-year student with the highest national exam grade as a way to motivate students to study hard. To my dismay, the Headteacher’s list of names was all male. I worried that this could severely demoralise female students. Yet my suggestion of separate girls’ and boys’ boards would also not have worked as teachers wanted the board to display actual marks, and a girls’ board persistently featuring lower grades could be even more demoralising for female students. In the end, we compromised with a board documenting the achievements of students for the past fourteen years, thus incorporating three female names.

One of the most difficult things I had to come to terms with was the fact that our investment in the school could not address the most significant barriers to educational attainment and that there were many deep-rooted issues which I could do nothing to solve.

Every day, as we walked home from school, we would pass the same girl of around five years old, whatever the time. We realised that she must be pacing up and down the same dirt track for hours on end each day. Questions swirled in our minds: why was she not in school? Was she safe? Where were her parents? With each coming day, we grew more concerned about this girl, and so it was with great relief that we finally encountered her mother by a primary school one day. Speaking with her, it became apparent that the mother could not afford the school fees, and so each day her daughter would be turned away from school. It was a heartbreaking story, but one which is all too common.

Similarly, when our school reopened after the school holidays, it was deserted. During the first week of the new school term, only around 10% of students attended lessons, whilst huge swathes of students dressed in their school uniform could be seen walking away from school. A conversation with the Head Teacher revealed that these pupils could not afford to pay the fees upfront, and so they regrettably had to be sent away due to the school’s limited resources. This issue hurts families who work in agriculture disproportionately, as they can only make a lump-sum payment once the crop has been harvested. Free schooling in Kenya is largely a myth, since state schools still require fees to pay for obligatory school lunches and staffing shortages. This inevitably means that thousands of children from the poorest households are currently excluded from education.

Language barriers also present a huge hurdle to high academic performance. Can you imagine having to sit all your national exams in, not your first, not your second, but your third language? This is what the vast majority of Kenyan students must do. In the region where I worked, children speak Luhya and Kiswahili at home, and only learn English during primary school. However, by secondary school, all lessons are taught in English. This insistence on teaching in English without providing adequate support to those students with limited exposure to the language causes many students to be left behind.

One challenging aspect of rural living in Kenya is how the weather can dictate your day. Poorly-maintained rural roads were what made us fear the weather. Torrential thunderstorms would render the pot-hole riddled dirt track an impassable river; on several occasions I found myself trapped in the local town, unable to make my way back to the family compound until the storm passed. Even when walking down the road on a sunny day, I once found myself sinking into a pool of mud and having to be lifted out.

This poor infrastructure is devastating for remote communities. Visiting the nearest health clinic can take hours, making emergency medical treatment nearly impossible. The cost of a boda boda (motorcycle taxi) ride to the nearest market means it is difficult for some residents to buy and sell goods, undermining their livelihoods. Until large-scale infrastructural action is taken by the government, the weather will continue to rule the roost and these underlying problems will persist.

There are a huge number of Western misperceptions about Africa. To start with, there is little comprehension of the distinction between regions such as East Africa, let alone individual African countries. Western views of the level of economic development in these countries have been massively skewed by the media and not-for-profit organisations, who are incentivised to publicise the most extreme and appalling instances of poverty to boost readership and charitable donations.

For example, mobile technology is widespread in Kenya. There were just two tiny shops near our hamlet: the first provided mobile phone charging, the second topped up mobile phones with credit. The country is a world leader in mobile-money services, with most of the population subscribed to various mobile phone payment services; the most popular platform, M-PESA, has 18 million active users. This innovation, in turn, promotes development. Research by MIT has shown that between 2008 and 2016, mobile money services lifted 2% of Kenyan households out of extreme poverty and particularly benefitted female-headed households. Mobile money gives women greater financial independence, enabling them to set up their own businesses and move away from agricultural work.

However, many people in the West still labour under the misguided view that there is very little mobile technology in Kenya. For example, one of our school projects was to install a WiFi connection for the new ICT lab. Yet during a phone-call home, people asked incredulously, “But how on earth is that ever going to work? You do realise that you’d need good data signal for that.”

There are also a large number of microfinance initiatives, which seek to distribute small loans to individuals who lack access to financial institutions. Indeed, M-PESA was originally designed to facilitate this. I accidentally stumbled across the power of microfinance myself during my short stay in Kenya. Returning from school one day, my project partners and I were invited to share chapatti and chai with the family. We sat in confusion as community members gathered inside the house, each placing a small number of Kenyan shillings on the table.

In turned out that the local residents had started a microfinance initiative whereby each month they would pool cash and lend this to someone in the community. A delay in the repayment of this loan would not have the same catastrophic consequences as it would with a commercial bank, making the loans very flexible. Many residents probably lacked credit scores and so could not borrow from banks anyway; this system enabled them to access capital, which they could then use to start up small businesses. Microfinance is just one system that emphasises the importance of community empowerment in development.

This summer was a steep learning curve in more ways than I could describe. EPAfrica’s emphasis on investment ensures that its positive impact is felt long-term, and the continuous focus on school ownership of projects reduces the risk of aid dependency. I could not recommend volunteering with the charity enough to anyone who genuinely wants to make a sustainable difference (albeit small), learn about a new culture and make long-lasting friendships.

Becky Clark is EPAfrica Oxford’s Recruitment and Retention Officer

Apply to be a Project Worker at

Application deadline: Sunday 11th November 2018

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