Running The Distance

Photo courtesy of Gautham Krishnaraj

“My dear, here we must run as fast as we can, just to stay in place. And if you wish to go anywhere you must run twice as fast as that.” ― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland.

I have been reflecting a great deal on distance.

I grew up everywhere: the Middle East, Europe and North America have all been home. With each move, the distance to extended family and concomitant Sunday lunches has grown. In Canada, my immediate family relocated to Vancouver while I was a student at the University of Toronto. Countless flights later — over the second largest country in the world — I am astounded by the fact that I still don’t have frequent flyer status. A naturalized global citizen, I naturally became interested in global problems. As of July 2017, a fellowship with the Aga Khan Foundation Canada has me working on early childhood development in Tanzania, far from home. And within Tanzania, in Zanzibar, an island far from the coast, and stuck halfway between the distant past and the immediate present. In an ever shrinking world, distance has never felt so real.

Students and practitioners of international development are regularly forced to grapple with this idea of distance. It begins in the confines of the academy, where theories and white papers are written from afar about what is happening in the field. If the odds are in your favour, desk research is simply the precursor to actually travelling to the field; a place that is, more often than not, an urban center where access to stakeholders and informants is made easy. And perhaps, if you are particularly lucky or ambitious, you will travel deep into rural areas and actually find yourself standing in a field. The field is, then, a relative construct, defining the space between what we know and what we don’t, between where we work and whom we work for. Where we are — at home or abroad — and who we are — consultants or frontline workers — forces us to constantly reassess what we define as the field, and to determine how far or how much farther we must travel in pursuit of impact.

I recently travelled to the field. Kilwa, one of the six districts of the Lindi Region in southern Tanzania, is a six-hour bus ride from Dar es Salaam. The place has all the characteristics of nowhere and yet it is home to people who make it somewhere. The objective of the trip was to document how the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme — Zanzibar (the organization I work for) is partnering with Comic Relief and the local government to deliver pre-primary education to hard to reach communities.

Soon after I arrived, we set off to visit the communities where the program, titled Elimu Bora or ‘better education,’ is being implemented. “The first village is eighty kilometres from here,” says the Program Officer as we stop to buy water and bananas for the journey. It takes us two hours to travel the entire distance, our speed hindered by the dirt roads that we must follow deep into the bush. It quickly becomes clear that distance is not only a barrier to access or delivery but also a hindrance to productivity.

When we arrive, we disembark from our Land Rover and begin climbing a short hill which, at its summit, is home to the skeleton of a soon to be pre-primary classroom. The classroom will serve sixty children in the hamlet, and will be staffed by community members who are currently participating in a teaching bootcamp. Prior to this project, many children have not accessed schooling because of the distance from their hamlet to the government sponsored school that serves the larger community. Distance quickly becomes synonymous for danger as we are told that the journey to school is particularly fraught with peril during the rainy season, when swollen rivers make roads impassable. And, later, distance takes on the guise of hunger: the government sponsored school offers no lunch-time feeding program. Children must either walk six kilometres for a home-cooked meal or spend the rest of the day hungry.

The skeleton of a pre-primary classroom

Before we depart to visit the second community, we are told that the roads are not safe enough to access the village. We decide to try our luck and, thirty minutes later, we complete the five kilometre journey further inland. “We need to get out and walk from here. The car can go no further.” With a machete in hand, our informant begins leading us through fields. When we finally sit and talk amidst banana trees and amongst curious chickens, we are told that the distance to the government sponsored school concerns many parents who, in turn, do not let their children make the journey till the age of eight. Grade 1 teachers stress the need for the children to complete the pre-primary curriculum, resulting in children enrolling in primary school at the age of nine.

In a field

The Tanzanian government reports that total enrolment in pre-primary education increased by 46.1% between 2015 and 2016. Such statistics are cause for optimism. Yet, my trip to Kilwa was an important reminder that hard to reach populations continue to struggle to access and benefit from essential services. As Anthony Lake of UNICEF puts it, “Disaggregate the data and we find that our statistical national successes are masking moral and practical failures. […] The neglected and hardest to reach may be the hardest to help. But these are precisely the people we must help.”

That international development is increasingly focused on data driven approaches to programming makes sense — it is easier than ever to mine large swaths of quantitative research for insights and explanations. However, the danger of working behind a veil of statistics is that solutions will be designed to fit data. Instead, we need solutions that are customized to fit real people. And this demands that we focus on the qualitative as much as we do on the quantitative. It requires that we view distance not simply as a variable but, instead, as a lived reality. It means that we must continue to ask how far, or how much farther, we must go. It is only if we run the distance that we might have a chance of winning the race to leave no one behind.

The views expressed are entirely my own and do not represent the views or opinions of the AKDN, AKFC, GAC, or MECP-Z.