The primary goal of everything TPM does is to “Cultivate Prosperity.” “Cultivate” implies that the process is a slow one and one that must be cared for and looked after over time. There are no quick solutions to poverty and personal growth. To “prosper” is to flourish, thrive, grow, and succeed. It’s not about money or material wealth; it’s about having your basic needs met and being able to become what you want to be in life. So we are on a long, slow path to self-fulfillment and personal growth. Our major projects during the 2013 program are aimed at helping people achieve this long-term security and personal success. Short-term band aids and hand-outs feel good for the giver, but they inhibit long-term solutions and the personal growth of recipients. Further, they cheapen the impact of any long-term solutions being cultivated in the community – why should anyone work hard to cultivate prosperity alongside us if others are being given things? – and create a culture of dependency where people have no imperative to get creative.
So that is a brief background of some of my philosophies gained from multiple trips to Mkyashi and much studying of charitable aid and economic development.
On Wednesday evening after a long day of meetings with local officials and entrepreneurs I came back home to call Bank of America and try to sort out an issue with my debit card. Obviously, I was put on hold for a very long time – worst bank ever. I was sitting in a chair with my Blackberry open on speakerphone and my debit card out in front of me when Honorata (name changed) came into the room and sat down beside me. I have known Honorata since the first time I came to Tanzania three years ago. She is a tiny, strong woman who has somehow managed to produce nine children and she is always very sweet. She sits next to me with a cup of tea and waits for me to finish on the phone. As she sits there, I wonder why she has come. Maybe she just wants to visit, but maybe she has a business idea she wants to talk to me about! Maybe after years of being dependent upon handouts she is finally ready to take control and become independent. She is fidgety and seems uncomfortable as I finish up my phone conversation.
I hang up my fancy telephone (in Africa Blackberrys are still considered fancy), put away my debit card to an American bank account and begin the usual extended pleasantries that are customary in Tanzania. At this point I’m still smiling stupidly and hoping that she has come to discuss some idea. Almost immediately she says the words “shida” – problem – and I know I’m in for the ask. She explains to me that she needs money for two of her kids’ school fees.
I’ve told myself since before I left that I am not going to give away money in this manner. I’m not going to buy soda and cookies for kids, I’m not going to buy beers for people at the local bar, and I’m not going to give away money for school fees or flour. I believe that if I set a precedent from the start and prove that the other projects we are working on can be successful, people will stop seeing me as a source of free money and start seeing me as a potential partner who is willing to help them become self-sufficient however I can. Additionally, I am working with money from donors, and they did not donate to TPM so that I could just give money away. It was donated because people believed in programs that could create lasting change.
It all sounded logical and easy when I thought it through in America, but now here I am with a fancy cell phone and a debit card telling a mother with nine kids and no job that I simply can’t give her money. Even when I say no she continues to look at me expectantly. Clearly, this is not her first rodeo and she has obviously seen the material signs of wealth in front of me. I explained to her that in the next few weeks we will begin the implementation of a gardening program and that I would love to make her family one of the first to get training and supplies to begin their vegetable garden. She looks at me indifferently and is no doubt disappointed not to be leaving with cash in hand, but she thanks me and we schedule a time for me to come to her home to plan the garden. I know I have let her down and that the next few weeks will be difficult for her. I know I could have eased that short-term difficulty by giving her a bit of money. But I firmly believe that I have to stick to this principle if TPM is going to create the kind of change we want to see.
I do not believe that giving money to Honorata would have truly made a difference in her life. I would have had to do the same thing next month and the month after and I’m not planning to spend my whole life here, so eventually she would be in this same position. Better to stop now and find a solution. Still she is a hard-working and genuine woman and it was heart-breaking to say no to her. But we have to take that energy and turn it into even more passion and commit ourselves to helping people in Mkyashi begin cultivating their own prosperity. Honorata will be a great woman to start with.
For readings on this subject I recommend: Dead Aid by Dambiso Moyo (an African woman explaining the damage aid has done to her continent), Toxic Charity by Robert Lupton, and The Blue Sweater by Jacqueline Novogratz.