To develop, you need information: an intern’s point of view
by Elyse Elder
As an American graduate student who had never travelled beyond Europe, the ideas I had of Africa were jumbled. I came to the continent by way of a university grant to complete research on development practices; I knew that if I wanted to understand how development unfolds in practice, I needed to better understand the factors that contribute to persistent poverty.
While preparing for my trip, I had no idea what I was walking into, and the internet wasn’t all that much help. There were the typical heartbreaking pictures of hardship, violence and disease right alongside photos of modern metropolitan areas and fashionably dressed Africans shopping at trendy boutiques. I had read anthropological studies about numerous African countries for my degree and had followed various contentious local political campaigns, but I knew that reading about a country and experiencing it are completely different. I decided a blank slate was best.
I first arrived in Livingstone, Zambia, home to Victoria Falls, ready to absorb anything thrown at me and I was struck by both the warmth of the Zambian people and the beauty that surrounded me. Cars would have to wait for elephants to cross the road and at night I would fall asleep to the sounds of hippos grunting in the Zambezi River. The Zambians I spoke with voiced thoughts and opinions on politics, family, friends, and job availability. People described how they were striving for goals like securing a job, or providing a better future for their children.
However, upon leaving the tourist haven of Livingstone, I discovered that to achieve these goals most Zambians fight an uphill battle. Through my studies I had become aware of the issues that impact development like unemployment and the inaccessibility of higher education, but I had not considered how debilitating a lack of basic but critical information can be. I could not have grasped the full magnitude of this aspect of development until I saw it firsthand.
Development is growing exponentially across the African continent, but rural communities that live on significant portions of land are still walking through certain parts of life unguided because they lack access to vital information. For example, 20% of Zambian children are stunted from under-nutrition. This is not always just because they are poor, or that mothers are neglectful, but rather because they do not have adequate access to accurate information on infant nutrition.
Some colleagues and I visited a women’s farming group outside of the provincial town of Chipata. All said they desired more information on health and nutrition. Less than a handful had a radio and those with cell phones did not have an easy way to charge them. Anything I need to learn is a few keystrokes away, but these women must rely on second-hand knowledge. These past few weeks in Zambia have already shown me that development of communities is hugely complex. A seemingly small aspect like access to information creates challenges and compounds other difficulties.
As an intern and project coordinator for Lifeline Energy, I am privileged to be liaising between them and their local partner COMACO (Community Markets for Conservation) in Chipata. Both organisations understand the pitfall of the information gap and are working hard to close it. For the next two months I will be working to understand the key challenges facing impoverished Zambian farming communities. Already I’m learning that even the smallest pieces of life, like no access to basic information, can have devastating consequences.