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Novel Methods of 'Work for Food'

Steve Harrison is currently undertaking a PHD in the Department of Anthropology, University of Toronto. The following article is based on his experience in Rwanda in the summer of 1996 while working for ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency).

After the genocide of 1994 the people of Rwanda were faced with a barrage of NGOs looking to help clear the mess left after the four months of absolute chaos.

In 1996 I was asked, along with five others, to be part of a project funded by ADRA (Adventist Development and Relief Agency). Our project's mandate was the rehabilitation of L'hopital Mugonero (Kibuye Prefecture), and a surrounding orphanage and school. We were to be working on electrical and plumbing problems, but most importantly we were to begin the long task of cleaning the buildings of the remains of the fighting. The walls were badly damaged from looting carried out at the hospital. There were two mass graves in the hospital's front yard, and the hospital was rank with death. The walls were still covered with blood from nearly two years earlier. Although not specifically stated in our original goals and mandate, we also took on the job of replacing a roadway leading to the hospital, that had been damaged during the fighting and then subsequently eroded away through use and rain storm. It seemed pointless to fix a hospital building that was inaccessible. The work on this road will be the focus of this paper.

We began by assessing the work to be done. Seven small bridges needed to be constructed, the edges of the road cleared of bush and fallen trees, and the road needed to be re-graded. Graders were not easily found in remote Rwanda, so the task of re-grading the two- kilometre roadway was to be done by hand. There was not enough time for us to do this ourselves, and finances did not afford us the luxury of being able to pay for this ourselves, so we drafted a proposal and approached the WFP (World Food Programme) through their local office in Kibuye for some assistance. We knew that they had resources for this type of work, but not the administrative ability for this extra project. Our proposal was simple. We wanted them to supply the food for the project (we actually offered to contribute as well to sweeten the pot) and we would administer the project for them. They agreed after a short but involved discussion. However, for reasons which were unclear to us, they were unwilling to release the food until the project was completed. As it was, we were quite relieved for the assistance so we did not dispute this.
We discussed the work with the hospital administrator and agreed that the next day we would hire 20 people to help with the rehabilitation of the road. The workers were chosen by the local hospital repairs and rehabilitation coordinator. The next morning reality hit hard. We had our twenty workers on hand, but after speaking to some of them we found that they had not eaten for nearly a week. Most had travelled miles by foot to get to the job site, and some were even sleeping on the hospital's front lawn. We approached WFP for assistance at this juncture: we needed to feed the men and women in order for them to be productive. We were told that this was not what had been proposed and therefore not what would happen. No amount of discussion helped. We were short on time and money, and could not afford to supply these people with enough food ourselves, so we were forced to consider other methods of procuring food.

Our first thought was theft, but morally and ethically it seemed inappropriate: even though there were WFP and UNHCR tents full of food less than a kilometer from where we were located. The next thought was trade, but we had very little to offer though. We began to think about our collective abilities. We had masons, carpenters, electricians, diesel engine experts, and teachers amongst us. All valuable skills but also available elsewhere in the area. Then it hit us: we could trade computer expertise with the UN and WFP people. While in the office of the UNHCR group in Kibuye, some mention had been made of problems associated with computers used in the field for recoding information. Also fax and communication problems existed, and no one would come from Kigali to fix them. It turned out that electronic skills were in such high demand you could almost name your price!! Within a few days of working for the various NGOs in the area, we had secured not only enough food and clothing for our workers, but also extra for their families, and enough to nearly double their quotas upon job completion. With this in hand, the work on the road was much more productive and expedient. We finished on time, and the improvements were astounding. You could get to the now repaired hospital (with running water, electricity, and a functioning generator) and it allowed for the subsequent attraction of a group of Argentinian doctors to staff the hospital.

When we left the area, we had completed nearly all of our tasks. We were hampered by poor communications to Kigali, and a lack of available materials actually to complete all of our work on the rehabilitation, but we had proven that through the bartering of knowledge, considered rather common place in Canada, one can achieve one's goals.

Two lessons may be drawn from this experience (Editors):

Firstly an attempt should have been made to find out something about the health and welfare of the selected labourers. Coming form western countries inexperienced field workers often take personal food security issues for granted and might, as we did, view food for work schemes as a supplement to people's normal diets.

Secondly, it is important to involve proposed workers on food for work schemes in discussions with proposed resource providers (in this case WFP). This would surely have prevented the situation where an inappropriate contract (in this case food after work) was agreed.

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Reference this page

Steve Harrison (1998). Novel Methods of 'Work for Food'. Field Exchange 4, June 1998. p20. www.ennonline.net/fex/4/novel