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How do you fight poverty in Africa?

If there is one thing we’ve learnt in Tanzania, it’s that dealing with poverty in Africa is complicated. We arrived full of energy and passion, ready to contribute and make a difference. But the more you learn and experience, the more you realise that it’s going to take a lot more than that.

We’ve come across some exceptional projects that are making a significant impact for the local community. There is the School of St Jude, established ten years ago with three students, that now caters for 1,600 of the poorest and smartest children in the region, funded entirely by donations. There is also the Shanga Shop, a social enterprise employing local people with physical disabilities to make glassware, jewellery and clothes from recycled items.

Both of these projects are flourishing. But unfortunately they are rare. The majority of the projects we’ve visited are at best struggling to operate, and at worst slightly questionable in their intentions.

There is the women’s refuge, the only one of its kind in Arusha. It provides housing, food and fees to cover education for women who have been abused or abandoned by their families. It’s an incredibly inspiring and very well organised project, but at the moment they only have enough funds to cover the next two weeks of operations.

There is a local school providing primary education (a combination of free education and fee-paying students), where all income from school fees and donations is deposited into the personal bank account of the Principal. When you find out that all the teachers, including the Principal, where given pay rises last month, while some of the classrooms don’t even have roofs yet (apparently due to a lack of funds) you can’t help but question what’s really going on.

There is the hostel for volunteers designed to link volunteers with local projects, which in theory is a fabulous idea. But there is no volunteer management plan – ‘volunteers’ are dropped at a project and end up standing in the middle of a school yard with no direction about what support is needed and how they might assist. And some are wondering why local services recommended by the hostel appear to cost double the price of services that have been arranged from elsewhere (taxis being one case in point).

Amongst all that you’re left feeling slightly uneasy, and a little overwhelmed by the need. You get the sense that there is some kind of missing link, but you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Why wouldn’t the NGO sector in Arusha be flourishing?

There is no shortage of great intentions. There are numerous small start-up organisations around the Arusha region attempting to address a multitude of challenges from access to education, to supporting abused women to housing orphans.

There is no shortage of obvious need – it lurks on every street corner. There is the man that follows us home most days attempting to sell us Australian coins. There are the people wheeling around carts of scrap plastic and metal they’re hoping to sell. There are the kids that don’t attend school and spend their days running around the villages.

There is no shortage of people that are willing to contribute either. There are many passionate and committed volunteers in Tanzania, many supporting multiple projects. And the fundraising success that some projects have had indicates that there is no shortage of people willing to donate, if you know where to look.

But it seems that there is work to be done in connecting the dots. Connecting good intentions, with evidence-based need, with people who are willing to offer time and funding.

And there is the added complication of low levels of trust in the community, born from poverty that leads to desperation. As a ‘muzungo’ (a white person) you often feel like a walking dollar sign and never really know if you’re being taken for a ride. Even amongst locals there are difficulties. The schools we’ve been working with lock everything up at night, including their chickens, because whatever is left unsecured will be stolen.

The lack of efficiencies is also a challenge. The locals operate on what they call ‘Africa time’. There is a saying in Africa – ‘pole pole’- which means ‘slowly slowly’. ‘Soon’ in Africa can mean three hours later, and apparently in Africa you’re doing well if you get one thing done per day. It took us two entire mornings just to get one quote for a new chicken coop for one of the schools.

In that environment, how do you build a sustainable and impactful project that fights poverty and oppression? In the face of all the challenges, do you give up? Crawl into a foetal position and say it’s all too hard? Never.

There are two obvious opportunities from our perspective. One is strategic and business planning (including financial, marketing and fundraising planning). The majority of projects have no strategic plan, no business plan, no articulated mission or vision statement, and all are in desperate need of funding. Some don’t even keep records of accounts. When we asked the Principal at one school for a copy of her books, she brought us a piece of paper where she had hand written the cost of the items she purchased last month.

Without a strategic plan and a clear mission that sets priorities, everything becomes a good idea. When it became clear to us that we weren’t going to get any guidance on what kind of volunteer support we could offer at the projects we visited, we started to make our own suggestions. Would you like a new chicken coop? Yes please! Would you like a vegetable garden? Absolutely! What about new school books for the kids? Of course! Could we support you with fundraising, or teaching assistance, or sports activities, or painting or building a new shelf? Yes to everything. Which leaves you not really knowing where to start.

The other opportunity is collaboration and partnerships between NGOs. In the time we’ve been here we haven’t come across any partnership models. The projects don’t seem to be aware of how many or what type of other organisations are operating in their space. There is no real need for a ‘competitor analysis’ in the sense that demand for services well and truly exceeds supply, but there is a seemingly obvious opportunity for NGOs with similar missions to strengthen each other through collaboration and shared learning.

Filling those two gaps alone could make a significant impact for a lot of the projects we’ve visited.

A friend of ours who works at The School of St Jude made the wise comment that the need in Africa is overwhelming, and that’s why you need to pick one project (one clearly defined need) and stick to making an impact in that space.

We couldn’t quite narrow it down to one, but we have narrowed it down to two projects that we plan to support long term (more will follow in upcoming blogs). One project we will work with on a bro-bono basis to develop a strategic plan, marketing plan and fundraising plan, and to look into options for collaboration with other similar NGOs. The other we will be supporting with direct financial assistance.

It’s easy to become disenfranchised in Africa, particularly when you arrive with high hopes about the contribution you can make. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Through long-term partnerships with two projects, we’re hoping we can make a focused impact in working for a more just world – pole pole.



When I studied sustainable development at University many years ago the mantra was on “trade not aid” (and third world debt cancellation).

Given the new emerging world order … I’m interested to know whether you can can see or feel the presence of China on the ground there?

Here is where I’m coming from:


Hi Adam. Nice to hear from you.

In fact we did notice that a number of very large infrastructure projects (for example building new roads) were all being funded by Chinese corporations in partnership with the Tanzanian Government.

Trade, as opposed to aid, would indeed assist a country like Tanzania if there was a removal of the terms and conditions of trading that protect and favour the Western world. Sustainable development may however require a ‘helping hand’ from Western nations (not a hand out). A helping hand that continually empowers the Tanzanian people to take control of their own future, through for example capacity building in the areas of organisational Governance, strategic planning and project management.


Hi Tara,

Very interesting to hear what you’ve written here – it’s similar (with some differences) to some of the things I felt about development in PNG. The complexity of the situation (cultural diversity and the tribal nature of the society, the impact of colonisation, modernity and capitalism, issues of aid and debt, and very different ways of going about things from western countries are all part of the mix) is hard to get a grip on and many people who haven’t been in such a place don’t get the context of the poverty or why it is so intractable and difficult to solve. I always worked on the basis that I can’t solve the big structural stuff (though I can help advocate for change regarding it) such as debt or corruption singlehandedly; what I could do was focus on working in discrete projects to be a catalyst for change, and that change had to be driven by the locals and the community itself. Change one community or village at a time….slow I know, but I had to be realistic what I could achieve, and if you change only 10 lives, or 20 lives, you have still had an important impact. As you said, pole pole….


I can imagine PNG must be really similar. And you’re completely right – it’s really difficult to understand the complexity until you’ve been there and spent time with the people. As you say, working on discrete projects is the way to go – supporting the locals and the community to own the change themselves. And you know if more people did that, the combined effort could be significant.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts – wise words (you can tell you’ve ‘been there’).

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