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TASTE : Who sets the agenda?

I had this boss, once. Fred, his name was. Scared me to death. I was possibly the youngest manager and he was Sales & Marketing Director, a fearsome guy operating in the days before equal opportunities, employment protection and suchlike. You didn't cross Fred if you wanted to go home on Friday with a job. But he had a sharp mind and would often share his insight with youngsters like me. I thought of him the other day when I heard a woman on the radio. OK, so I didn't actually hear her myself but a friend was telling me what she said. It seems she was interviewed because she had walked the length and breadth of Africa, and one thing she said took my breath away. According to my friend, who is usually a trustworthy witness, she was arguing that development professionals from the West were ruining African culture. She illustrated her point with the example of a community she encountered where the women no longer went to the river to draw water because a non-governmental organisation (NGO) had installed a hand pump in the village. She argued that such action had robbed the women of their cultural right to engage in female exchanges whilst collecting river water. That's when I thought of Fred. You see Fred had an interesting view about the way the miners conducted negotiations with the Coal Board. In those long gone days, the unions representing our miners would meet with the bosses every year or so to thrash out wage structures. As one might expect, these negotiations were held secretly in some topnotch hotel. That's where Fred thought the miners had got it wrong. "Who's setting the agenda?" he'd grumble. "Let them set up a table at the pit face, take management down with the first shift of the day, let them walk doubled up for a mile or more and then sit down and negotiate while breathing in coal dust all the while. They'd soon agree to the terms of the workers!" Fred had a good point, and one that applies to development work as well. I wonder if our lady on the radio actually asked the women from the community if they had requested a borehole. I wonder if she has ever experienced the despair of having a child writhing in pain from a waterborne infection - an infection obtained from the very water that she was suggesting they ought to be happy to drink. Just so that they could maintain their cultural mores. Who sets their agenda? Them or some lady on the radio? I'll accept that I haven't walked the length and breadth of Africa, but as CEO of TASTE, a Sheffield-based NGO active in small water projects in West Africa, I do know a little. I know that communities value clean drinking water above all else. Offer them a chance to have clean drinking water or take a 5km walk to a stream or river holding water of dubious quality and they will take clean water every time. And when we understand that young boys and girls can attend the village school more regularly because they don't have to shoulder the burden of water harvesting, then the pompous do-gooder lady on the radio should go and... Sorry, Fred would not have lost it so easily. "Well, that's an interesting story," my wife said, "but why not just tell them the facts?" "Like what," I countered. "Like TASTE is a Sheffield-based charity that is passionate about getting clean water to rural communities in Nigeria and that you need all the help you can get?" "I know water is a basic human right, but how you're putting it is a bit in your face," I objected. "Look, people want to know that they can make a difference and with a small charity like yours, any help really counts. You've only got two of you in the UK office, so virtually all the money goes where it needs to - helping communities that are terribly disadvantaged. How many people reading this article would walk to the Don, drop in a bucket and start drinking what's in it? Just tell them - they wouldn't put up with it, so why should anyone else? It's not fair! Just tell them!" Sometimes the women in your life are quite right. A bit like Fred really. taste.org.uk steve@taste.org.uk )

Next article in issue 41

Hacking : Shock exclusive: Tabloids morally corrupt

As soon as the likes of Rupert Murdoch and Piers Morgan became accepted moral arbiters of British society, the hacking scandal or something …

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