Posts Tagged ‘Africa’

Harnessing the Olympic Spirit

Tuesday, February 16th, 2010

Right to Play in GhanaI am an Olympics junkie.

For a couple of weeks every four years, I live and breathe the thrill of events as diverse as swimming, diving, snowboarding and ski jumping. This year is no exception. I am on the edge of my seat in front of the television every spare minute I have.

The Olympics never cease to give me a sense of warm fuzzies, patriotism and awe that a group of such incredibly diverse people and nations can co-exist for two weeks and celebrate the goodness in human nature. It would solve a lot of the world’s ills if we were able to bottle up the goodwill and save it for times when poverty, ideological and political differences create conflict.

Interestingly enough, there is an organization out there who does just that. Right to Play is an organization, born of efforts in the early 90s by the Norwegian Olympic officials to show support for people in war-torn nations and areas of distress. Today, the organization seeks to improve the lives of children “in some of the most disadvantaged areas of the world by using the power of sport and play for development, health and peace.”

Leading this incredible organization is a former Olympic athlete – 4-time gold medalist Johann Olav Koss of Norway. The organization has expanded beyond the Olympics, but it continues to embrace Olympic ideals of sport and global citizenship as it works to improve the lives of children in some of the most impoverished areas of the world.

Last August, Rick had the opportunity to represent Operation Kids Foundation in Ghana as he toured first-hand some of the projects and programs Right to Play has established there. He commented:

Trained Right To Play coaches have the trust and confidence of the children they coach. Based on that relationship and the innocent distraction of “play,” a soccer ball can be used to represent a virus – say HIV – and a simple game can show a child for the first time how the virus spreads. The games address other critical issues such as peaceful conflict resolution which can, in regions where children are forced into military duty sometimes as young as 11 or 12, be the difference in whether some of these children experience a childhood in any sense, or go on to a normal adulthood. The simplicity of the Right To Play model is the genius of it, and to see it first-hand is inspiring to say the least.

It is hard to imagine, by American standards, how critical these simple concepts and programs are to a generation of children who bear the hope of their collective nations for a brighter future. We may look to sports as a way to obtain personal success, fitness, economic prosperity, recreation or geographic bragging rights, but to those Right to Play serves, sports can be lifesaving – the difference between dying young and going on to help their nations rise above status quo. Through these programs, individuals with a passion for sport are helping create a healthier, safer world for children – translating the Olympic spirit into everyday action items.

The Olympics certainly are an inspiring time – when the world feels good and right, and it comes together to celebrate the accomplishments of young adults who have dreamed of this fleeting moment all of their lives. It is hard not to sit back in the easy chair and bask in the warm glow of the Olympic spirit.

I challenge during the remaining days of Olympic competition to individually bottle that “warm fuzzy” feeling and put it to good use. We may not be able to capture it to use as a global panacea, but if each of us paid a little bit forward, we could make an enormous collective impact on the world.

As you cheer for your favorite curling team, hold your collective breath as Lindsay Vonn hits the slopes or gasp at each gravity-defying snowboard trick, remember that feeling of goodwill and resolve to share it with others. Spend a little extra time teaching a child something new. Give a little more to your favorite charity. Be a little more generous with your time. Take a few minutes to chat with your neighbor – the one who might be just a little different than you. Revel in the diversity of the human race. Celebrate goodness and hard work in your community.

Harness the Olympic spirit to make the life of one other person a little better.

-Sara Brueck Nichols

Lessons from Ghana: Making a Difference

Thursday, September 17th, 2009

My recent trip to Africa reminded me of some of the finer points of delivering assistance and support in areas of great need. These are lessons learned from many years of being involved in areas like Thailand, New Orleans and other areas of unique and extraordinary need.

It is my experience and observation that generous people are drawn to certain areas and certain types of need. The conditions in many regions of Africa are a perfect example: Celebrity focus, news headlines and other media reports has created an awareness of living conditions in parts of Africa. That is good. However, awareness does not always represent a solution: sometimes action does not even represent a solution.  As we like to say within our organization, “Generosity is not the issue, effectiveness is.” Part of being effective is delivering what is truly needed in the eyes of the beneficiary.  

When delivering aid to a people, regions and cultures we may not fully understand, there are things to be aware of that, in context, easily explain why so many efforts do not work. I am going to try to articulate a couple of these important details and perhaps spark deeper thought and discussion when it comes to international giving.

Truthfully, we cannot underestimate cultural differences. We frequently see aid delivered in the form that the donor feels appropriate, rather than what the community in need really desires and recognizes. We saw this after the deadly Southeast Asian tsunami in 2004 when well-meaning groups shipped large quantities of coats and scarves to a hot, humid region of southern Thailand; the intentions were good, but the effort was lost on people with very different and specific needs. We see a similar dynamic in many international efforts: housing development for people who culturally would not live in the types of shelter being constructed; a failure to involve appropriate and respected leaders who can be the lubricant between those who want to help and those in need; Last but not least, trying to jump ahead of the process and bring people to a point we as donors feel they need to be, rather than a point they desire to be.

As donors, we need to consider the culture we seek to aid from a perspective of dignity and sustainability. Anthony Oliver-Smith writes,

“The best outcomes imaginable [are] systems in which people can materially sustain themselves while beginning their own process of social reconstruction.” 

Essentially his is the “Teach a man to fish …” philosophy. The sound bites and clips we see in the media, which serve a great purpose by bringing public attention to global need, often abbreviate the situations to the point where a generous and prosperous nation like the U.S. is compelled to react immediately. Again, it is with the best of intentions, but in ways that we see as appropriate from our perspective.

The fact is that when people are in desperate circumstances, you usually find that some sort of displacement is at the heart of the situation. Whether it is caused by political unrest or natural or man-made disasters, there is almost always a dual sense of disconnect from the things they hold dear and at the same time a pride in what they consider to be their heritage. In these stressful times, many look to religious tradition for identity; they seek to reestablish what is meaningful to them. They depend on those they trust the most. That is the starting point.  

We as donors and as caring global neighbors need to remember this. Again, quoting Oliver-Smith,

“We should approach the goals of reconstructing and reconstituting community with a certain humility and realism about the limits of our abilities. Such humility and realism have not characterized to any major extent, the planners dealing with uprooted peoples to date.”

Our usual American-driven focus on cost-containment and efficiency must be maintained to be sure, but not to the point of excluding the needs and wants of the very people we are trying to help. I cannot say it any better than Oliver-Smith:

“Donor-driven …designs [can] endanger the connection that people establish with their built environment, violate cultural norms of space and place, inhibit the reweaving of social networks and discourage the re-emergence of community identity.”

With this backdrop, the Forever Young School in Ghana (the dedication of which was my reason for traveling to Ghana in the first place) is a model. It was created in partnership with local leaders. It was built by local artisans. It is staffed by local teachers who received training from outside sources, but are allowed to teach in a manner relevant to their local community. The dignity and autonomy of tribal leaders is recognized and respected. Local culture was not considered an obstacle, but an asset from which to build. The project is well-designed and takes into account details in a variety of areas, including transportation needs, recreation, academics, health and medical support. It has become the cause of community celebration!

The day we arrived for a special ceremony opening the school, families and local leaders assembled at 4:00 am to prepare for our visit, which was not scheduled until 2:00 that afternoon! They sang for us, they danced, they provided food … the sense of gratitude was at a level that can only been seen when a proud and deserving community is helped to achieve what they need in a manner meaningful to them.

As a result, I left feeling like the donors and organizations that supported this school had created something they could feel proud of – both from a relief-of-needs perspective and a donor efficiency perspective.

It was truly inspiring.

-Rick