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Emily Hanna

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Stairs to Nowhere

Posted: 04/ 2/2012 9:00 am

Global Citizen Year is a global bridge year program designed to unleash the potential of high school students as leaders and effective agents of change.

They're a common sight along the road to my village, the stairs to nowhere. They dot the shoulder, sturdy cement constructions that lead only to thin air. Once upon a time, someone thought it would be a good idea to build pedestrian overpasses at the locations these stairs now occupy -- but the money ran out, the project was never seen through, and all that's left to show for those good intentions are a bunch of monuments useful only to graffiti artists and perching birds. Half-completion and premature abandonment are unfortunate patterns that I see repeated over and over in Senegal. The physical landscape supports partial walls that don't enclose a thing, sad cinderblock shells of imagined houses, ghostly, scaffold-covered minarets of forsaken mosques. But if you pay attention, it's easy to recognize the "stairs-to-nowhere" effect in other, less tangible areas too.

Before embarking on my Global Citizen Year, I was already a believer in the importance of education in the developing world; however, all my attention was focused on building schools. Now, after seeing first-hand how the school system works and what it's like in the classroom, I've realized that the actual construction of a school is only a small piece of the process -- and probably the easiest piece, at that. A pretty, new schoolhouse is purposeless until you fill it with competent teachers, adequate supplies, and eager students, and it becomes superfluous again if funding is lost. The trickiest part is that there's not always a stark difference between a successful school and one that's failing. I work at a school that fills some of these requirements, but not others -- and therefore doesn't meet all the needs of my community. Is it better to have a substandard school, or no school at all?

I have the most experience with this false-start phenomenon within the education system, but it can be seen over and over again in both charity projects and initiatives by the Senegalese government itself. Too often, I've heard complaints from Senegalese people of how well-meaning foreigners come into their community, start a project with a lot of potential, and then just... leave. Drive through any rural area and you'll see wells emblazoned with an Italian flag, water towers marked by the Japanese, and sign after sign bearing the names of well-known NGOs apparently involved with that part of the country. The problem? No Italians, Japanese, or NGO representatives finishing what they started. As for state-funded projects, it seems to me that the money goes to highly visible, impressive-sounding ventures that, in effect, will make Senegal "look good." Perhaps this is too cynical of a judgement, but I can't help but wonder why a new airport is being built when the old one would suffice. Or why the current president built a massive ($27 million) monument in Dakar to serve as his legacy (incidentally, a job contracted entirely to a North Korean firm). These seem like endeavors that should be undertaken in times of prosperity after more pressing needs have been addressed -- and yet, the price of necessities like food and petrol are climbing every day, and my government-run school has not received new slates for its students in 12 years.

So what is the answer? How can we ensure follow-through, accountability, and positive progress after years of developing-and-dashing? In Senegal, at least, the solution appears to be simply this: put the development projects in the hands of well-trained locals. Handing the reigns to the Senegalese themselves creates a sense of ownership that does not exist when its foreigners swoop in to do the work. Practically, the odds of an initiative being abandoned by people living in the country are far less than if the same initiative is handled by volunteers who live abroad. It won't be easy, of course, and the transition from current modes of charity to a new, more effective, locally-driven one will take time and effort. But that transition will also bring about the lasting and positive change that countries like Senegal need to move forward. My hope is that, when this transfer of power is complete, we will see schools well-staffed, development projects seen through to completion, and maybe even the completion of those stairs to nowhere.