Friday, March 16, 2007

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today's answer is employment

i recently wrote about the influx of people looking for jobs now that we've advertised the location of our offices. i may have unintentionally sounded frustrated...seeming to say, "please, stop - no more!" then, yesterday i was reminded of the unique position i am in to make a difference. we talk a lot about sustainability in development work - there is a lot of money now to do x, y, and z but what happens when the project funding ends in 1, 2, 3 years? i'm not convinced a lot of the time that all of the money and investment dropped into development produces results. strategies may make positive change in the short-term, but how do we make long-lasting change and truly create a world free of poverty, death from preventable disease, and abject despair?

you can argue (and i have) about what entry point is the best for solving the development conundrum, whether it's health, education, economic, environmental. obviously i've made my choice, but i don't deny that all are necessary and you can't have one without the other. for example, the longer a girl stays in school, the more likely she is to delay having sex, which increases her age at first birth, decreases the total number of children she will have, which then decreases her risk for maternal death and decreases the risk of her children dying before 5 years. likewise, the older she is before sex, the less likely she is to practice risky sexual behavior, which decreases her risk of HIV/AIDS. all because she stayed in school. plus, now that she has an education, she can find a more stable, more skilled job, earn more money, and have the resources to send her own children to school. the cycle continues.

i work in public health treating communities, but today i am convinced that the best thing you can do for an individual person is to give them a job. employ someone, pay him, and enable him to help himself. income is money to feed his family, send his kids to school, buy a suitable home, go to the doctor when sick. the psychology of dependence that is created thru give-aways compels me to shy away from blatant charity. employment, on the other hand, allows a person to be independent and build pride in his work and himself.

i am proud to say that personally phil and i employ three people - robert, mary, and sam. it probably seems indulgent from a western-perspective to have so many staff. maybe it is - really, we probably don't need all the help we have. we don't see it as self-indulgent, though. yes, we're lucky but the really lucky ones are robert, mary, and sam who have full-time, well-paid jobs working for (we like to think) nice employers.

i wish i could hire everyone that comes knocking on our door, but i can't. we hardly have enough work to keep our trio occupied. we don't need our house cleaned 2x a week (1x per a week is plenty), i don't need someone to drive me around town (i am perfectly capable of driving myself). but, robert is married with three girls, sam is married with three boys, and mary is raising more than 6 kids - some her own, some left behind by her brother who was killed last fall in a road accident. without work from us, what would they do? they'd piecemeal a livelihood together and they'd survive, but it'd be much harder.

i just said they're really lucky and we're just lucky...our luck came in finding such great people to hire. mary came to us through a reference from a friend, both robert and sam took their own initiatives. driving up mbuya hill some months ago on a sightseeing trip, we stopped to admire the view. robert walked right up to our car and handed us his resume. we didn't have any jobs at the time, but were impressed by his courage and remembered him when we did have a job. i met sam within the first weeks we were in the country when i was renting a "special hire" car most days for work. sam drove me a couple of times, the last time giving me his phone number and saying he'd like a job with an NGO if i ever had one to give. when i did, i called him up. we used to have a cook, too. we don't employ barbara anymore, but that's because we helped pay for her to go to cuba where she is studying at university on a 6-year scholarship sponsored jointly by the cuban and ugandan governments.

sam surprised me the other day when he refused to let me pay him. i wouldn't take no for an answer (i was stunned, in fact), so prodded him until he told me he didn't want to be paid until he had his new bank account ready because he wanted to deposit the money directly into the bank. i pay him $145 per month and he pays $60 per term for his son's school fees, and he didn't want to be paid without an open bank account because he didn't want the money in his pockets where it could be spent inadvertently. our short conversation solidified my conclusion that i'd hired the right guy.

phil and i have decided to take our commitment to our staff one step further and have agreed with robert that we will pay his daughter's school fees. kate is 5 years old and just old enough to start kindergarten next term. i am a huge proponent of on-time and consistent schooling, as evidenced by my interpretation of the education-health-employment cycle. so many kids in uganda start school late or are forced to take 2-3 years off here or there due to lack of resources to pay for school fees and uniforms and supplies or because a parent dies from HIV/AIDS or because the family needs that child at home to work. i don't want that inconsistency and insecurity to plague kate in her education.

sam tells me that he doesn't like universal primary education (UPE - president museveni's plan for free primary education for all ugandan children) because the quality of education is low: classrooms have 50+ students for one teacher, the school buildings are run-down, the resources just aren't available. plus, even though the education is supposedly free, you still have to buy the uniform for the child to attend class. robert and i agreed that he should choose the school that he thinks is best for kate and that, although we will be giving him the money for the school fees and uniform, he should be the one to pay the school and purchase the supplies, not us. i want to leave the autonomy and control in his hands. we're just the enablers.

a few days ago, a co-worker from headquarters who was in country told me that her favorite thing to do while abroad is to hire people. she is so right - hiring people is far and away the best thing i've done while living here.

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