Tanzania, last week...
As I stroll the streets of Tanzania's capital city Dar es Salaam I see people from all walks of life struggling to make a living. Young boys wiggle their way through traffic jams to sell a bar of soap or a cigarette lighter. Underpants, brooms, you name it. Anything to make the few shillings that will carry them over to the next day without starving. At a traffic light I see a man without legs. He sits there patiently waiting for coins to be thrown at him from airconditioned 4x4 vehicles waiting for the light to turn green and dash off. Ironically, the small street vendors and handicapped are the lucky ones. Most of the people just sit in the shade under a tree and do nothing. They belong to the mass of unemployed Tanzanians of which the precise number remains unknown.
Meanwhile a thousand business folks and government officials from around Africa have landed in the city for the three-day World Economic Forum summit and meet in the fanciest airconditioned hotels of town. 'Committed to improving the state of the world' read their banners. Every hour or so a police escort followed by a black Mercedes with some dubious flag on its bumper passes by. Everybody looks up, stares at the vehicle that rushes by, then all returns to normal.
I suddenly feel the urge to ask those around me about the Millennium Development Goals. Simply because I am curious to find out what people in a country that ranks amongst the poorest on the planet know about these. After all, the MDGs should benefit Tanzania to a large extent, so its populace should be familiar with the goals I imagine.
Tanzanians are some of the most friendly people I have ever met, and a handshake and some chitchat is sufficient to start some small talk leading up to the question in the back of my mind: 'Do you know what the Millennium Development Goals are?'.
First I talk to Maria, 23 years of age, with a degree in accountancy. She works in a hotel where she runs the business centre. Maria speaks good English, is IT literate, listens to the radio regularly, and reads the newspapers. But a question about the MDGs returns a blank. She has never heard of these, nor read anything about them.
In the lobby of the hotel where I stay I run into a friendly man, in his fifties, and we start chatting. He works for an NGO that deals with HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention. 'This will be spot-on', I secretly hope before asking the big question. But this man also goes blank when asked what he knows about the MDGs. Bummer.
Whilst waiting for the ferry to go to Zanzibar I walk into a local stationary shop. I buy myself a small writing pad, and after paying for it ask the Indian lady behind the counter (in her mid-thirties I guess) the dreaded question. She nods her head in a 'no' manner and apologises politely. The MDGs are unknown to her. Does she read newspapers? 'Yes', she responds.
Next to me in the shop is a Tanzanian man, also in his thirties, who happens to be the first to provide me with an answer. 'Isn't that a big bag of money to build roads in Africa?'. We all laugh.
On Zanzibar I try my luck with a British lady, aged 27, who is working in the health sector and has been doing research in Tanzania for the last three years. 'Something with poverty, right?'. 'Yes, something with poverty' I reply. 'Anything else?'. No answer.
A day later, after flying to Tanga, a fairly big city on the coast, I try my luck with Miriam, 27, housekeeper. Nothing. The radio was on as we spoke.
At the hospital in Tanga I run into Kanika, a 42 year old father of six children, who once flourished as a truck driver and worked in Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and as far as Malawi. Now he runs a taxi service, using his motorbike. This was a man of the world, experienced a lot, travelled, and speaks good English. When I talk to him he holds the Daily Standard, a Tanzanian newspaper. 'The MD-what?' is the simple but telling answer I get from him.
Are MDGs for us or them?
This small sample of Tanzanians by no means matches the outcome of a full-fledged survey, but it got me thinking nevertheless. First, if people don't know about the MDGs, is this because the media in Tanzania do not cover these? No. The DailyNews alone returns 69 articles published in the last year when searching for 'MDGs' or 'Millennium Development Goals'. Maybe the MDGs are just too distant from people's every day life to bother. But titles like 'Global Fund impressed by war on malaria' or 'Tanzania 'succeeding' in AIDS fight' should have been received with pride and a healthy dose of patriotism. Void of other explanations, let me turn the discussion around.
Is there a need for those that should benefit from the MDGs to know about them? Would the life of the man without legs at the traffic light change if he was aware of the ins and outs of the eight goals? Is it sufficient when only the governments of the 192 UN member states that signed up to the MDGs know about them?
In other words: If something is being done for you from higher up, is there a need for you to know about it?
This is a fundamental question and I struggle with the answer. Did the people of Western Europe know about the Marshall plan that followed the peace declaration in 1945? Many probably didn't - but it worked nevertheless and fuelled development in post-WWII Europe.
But we live in a new era. An era in which empowerment of and knowledge acquisition by those affected are viewed as important, if not essential. Would the MDGs be reached faster and better if target groups would actively pursue them? Would the poor be put in a position to hold their governments accountable for the resources provided by the international donor community to reach the MDGs?
Information generates knowledge. Knowledge empowers. Empowered people can tackle the MDGs better. Or not so?