Last One to Leave Please Turn Out the Lights

Well it’s official now, following a few in-country reshuffles and a recent global strategic review VSO are pulling out of running away from retreating from exiting Namibia. We’ve (vols) known for a little while but asked to keep it to ourselves while our in-country partners were informed and everything sorted out.

This will be no Saigon moment and involve winding down over the next 12 to 24 months rather than a mass rush to helicopters on the roof of the VSO office (well so VSO staff tell us anyway).

So why, after nearly 20 years in country are we leaving Namibia to fend for itself without the massive subsidy of the drinks industry (if nothing else) that VSO volunteers provide throughout the country?

VSO internationally want to concentrate on “fragile states” which by any stretch of the imagination Namibia can’t really be considered. They have a strong government, solid infrastructure and as a final nail in the coffin are now classed as a “middle income state”.

This “middle income” status has probably come as a bit of a curse for Namibia as although it does show clearly the achievements made post-independence it is also just a single indicator (and a much too broad one at that) and has directly led to a large number of NGOs and development organisations upping sticks and disappearing to more impoverished parts of the globe.

So what does this mean? Mission Accomplished? Can our Country Director stand up in front of the press and say “Ladies and Gentlemen, we got ’em!” (meaning we got the orphans, out of poverty)?

No.

What the “middle income” status clearly fails to recognise is the vast inequality that exists in Namibia, in fact making it (by another measure, the Gini coefficient) the most inequitable country in the world.

Namibia does have resources, it has a strong and growing economy and it has a growing middle-class of affluent government employees and businesspeople. But it also has a large number of people living on or below the poverty line, often subsistence farmers or casual labourers struggling to feed their families in the face of pressure through climate problems (recent flooding shows how vulnerable Namibia is to unforeseen natural events) or economic migration.

That is not to say that the future for most Namibians is not brighter than for their parents and the chances for their children in turn are not higher than ever; they are.

Before continuing I should make clear I can only offer a jaundiced, one-sided and totally biased view of the situation having only ever worked with VSO or in development in Namibia (and of course had a grand old time doing so).

While I can understand in many respects more traditional “aid agencies” moving elsewhere to work where there are starving masses or large numbers of refugees I can’t quite see how VSO should also follow this model.

VSO aren’t an “aid agency”, one of their USPs (“unique selling points” – see my retail experience here) is that they work to “build capacity” rather than “deliver services” (obviously I may be a few years out of date or perhaps misunderstood it all in the first place).

In real terms this means that they don’t send teachers to schools (as say Peace Corps do now and VSO used to do in decades past) but rather we would send “advisory teachers” to work over a district or region with all the teachers of a subject or “management advisors” to work with head-teachers in multiple schools and improve their skills in school management.

Naturally the lines blur and sometimes you do the job, especially where it builds capacity rather than training someone to do it for you. In my role this would include putting in network links and cabling, I did it myself with able assistance, doing some training but mainly concentrating on getting the job done. This I was happy to do as in many respects it’s a “one off” job and also builds organisational capacity.

This brings us back to the idea of fragile states. I am able to do my job and able to successfully cover a wide area (Kunene Region is larger than England) for the simple reason that resources are available.

When I need equipment I can order it (braving the somewhat convoluted procurement process but ultimately there is money there). When I need to go 300 miles to another hospital I can because there are vehicles available, money to pay for fuel, and good roads to get there on.

I know of other IT people, sent to more fragile states that spend a lot more time than I ever have sitting on their hands, waiting for a meagre budget allocation or simply unable to get to where their skills can be used for lack of transport.

I’m such most VSO IT people have cobbled together solutions using paperclips or staples but I do it for expediency rather than complete necessity and when a paperclip just can’t cut it the actual proper cable can be acquired and delivered to my office for installation.

When I have a problem I can usually actually fix it not because of any skills on my part (god knows they’re lacking) but because I can easily access google on the office broadband or via decent GRPS coverage through my phone. Likewise I can download drivers for fresh installations and updates for anti-virus software which absolutely makes the world of difference between something almost working and actually working.

If VSO want to have an impact at a “higher level”, if they want to impact wide areas and large numbers, then surely it’s a requirement for good systems, resources and stability?

Sadly then I’m forced to conclude (in my blinkered and no doubt naive way) that VSO are making a mistake by exiting Namibia.

We’ve been here almost 20 years, have good visibility in the country and some excellent relationships with partner organisations.

It could be said this may be a reason in itself to leave. If after 20 years we’re still needed here then what have we accomplished?

The truth is though that VSOs work in Namibia has changed throughout the time, moving more from teachers to advisors from service delivery to capacity building as has VSO globally.

If we are still doing the dreaded service delivery then that’s not the fault of Namibia and the placement process could just as easily be to blame.

Myself in the last two years have seen a change in focus, comparing my placement description against one I helped to create recently for a placement in Opuwo you can see a marked shift in level of detail, focus on the strategic and level of consideration given to questions like “is this going to be an effective placement” and “if so, how effective”.

These changes are all for the good but if anything reflect previous shortcomings in some parts of the VSO processes not in Namibian partner organisations most of whom will gladly take a volunteer to do a job such is their need for support and professional assistance.

Namibia is a great country, only 20 years independent and suffering from the same post-apartheid legacy of inequitable distribution of land and resources and other states such as South Africa but coping with it well and making real progress. The “middle income status” should be celebrated as a sign of how far things have come but for massive numbers of people there is still a long way to go.

If we did stay in Namibia I could see a world of possibilities for working at all levels, including the strategic, and using our resources to help further develop a country with great potential and opportunity.

Unfortunately the decision has been made.

VSO will continue to bring in volunteers to Namibia but as we work towards exiting and I hope the impact of VSO volunteers (excluding me of course, all I’ve done is break stuff) will be a long-lasting legacy.

Mission accomplished? No. Mission fairly successful? Yes, I believe so.

So all that’s left to say is; will the last one to leave please turn out the lights?

Grovelling pre-emptive note: I am sure that VSO internationally are making such decisions for all the right reasons and are able, unlike me, to see the big picture and know, unlike me, what the best use of VSO resources are. In summary I’m an idiot and you probably shouldn’t be listening to my opinion at all.

Timely example of inequality: This morning I started writing this at the Opuwo Country Hotel sipping N$20 (about 2 pound) Apple Tizers before remembering the news embargo and emailing our Country Director to find out if the news was public. Having heard back that is was I’ve just been interrupted at home by two small children dressed almost in rags begging for empty bottles. One day, two Namibias.

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