Process, Privilege and Balloon Kenya

Privilege (noun) – a special right, advantage or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group.

I’m here in Kenya with nine other international fellows working with Balloon Kenya to support local entrepreneurs to grow their business. Working in Kenya presents a unique and interesting dynamic that has caused me to reflect on the topic of privilege in some depth.

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You might have heard an often quoted statistic that if you own a car you are in the top (something) percentile of global wealth. If this does not shock you then maybe the following statistic will. Did you know you need just US$ 34k annual income to qualify as part of the “global elite” or the top one percent of wealth in the world? According to World Bank economist, Branko Milanovic, the global median salary per year is US$1225. For me this information is just mind boggling. Especially considering I was raised in New Zealand, a country that perceives even US$10,000 per year as far below a ‘living’ wage.

So let’s talk about privilege. It’s a tricky concept to pin down beyond an Oxford definition because it is exercised in so many ways; economic privilege, racial privilege, resource privilege, religious privilege, gender privilege, tribal privilege, linguistic privilege… the list goes on. An important consideration is how relative privilege is; it can only be measured in comparison. Therefore it is not surprising that if you exist within some definition of privilege you may not actively recognise how you exercise, it is simply human nature to be “living in your own bubble” (check out this experiment to learn more: http://www.buzzfeed.com/nathanwpyle/this-teacher-taught-his-class-a-powerful-lesson-about-privil#.vykL4zb4O).

Balloon Kenya addressed this paradigm by discussing the impacts of “voluntourism” at the very beginning of the program. Everybody reads an article  on the subject of arriving as a foreigner with good intentions and the group has the opportunity to discuss expectations moving forward for the program. It’s a great start. The reality is that it is very easy to forget the impact of being a “voluntourist” as you continue through the next five weeks. And I won’t deny that I’ve personally struggled with this on the daily. For me, it is an interesting (and contentious) dynamic that the international fellows are the ones acting as “advisors” for business people despite nine out of ten having never started a business and certainly having a pretty basic understanding of the Kenyan business climate. Myself included. I would argue that this is an example of privilege being exercised.

Huffington Post author, Pippa Biddle, brings up the excellent point that developing countries just like Kenya have a shortage of skilled labour yet voluntourism is fundamentally the export of unskilled labour to such places. In the same essence, voluntourism is an exercise of economic privilege. That’s what attracted me to Balloon Kenya, it wasn’t a simple export of unskilled labour to Kenya. Rather it is a strategic export of individuals that are experienced (or at least versed) in business. However this is not rigid criteria for the application process, otherwise I wouldn’t be here. In fact I’ve never studied business let alone run my own business, so I’m already less experienced in this area than the entrepreneurs I’m working with. On this point Doug, the co-founder of Balloon, stresses that it’s about being trained to implement business tools and process rather than being the think-tank or idea-generator behind each business.

From an educational perspective, I may be the ‘most privileged’ one of our cohort for the reason that I have not come with a business degree or wealth of experience managing businesses. That’s not to say I’ve bought my way into the program but rather contributed alternative skills to the program that are not captured within a business qualification. In fact it would probably be a good exercise for Balloon fellows to exchange with one another what their motivations and expected contributions are early on, if only to gain a deeper understanding of personal expectations and how they align.

The outcome of my privilege, most likely, is that I will leave Kenya having gained much more than I have contributed. As Pippa says, volunteers benefit greatly from such experiences. Mario Machado furthers this in a Huffington Post article saying, “nobody can do good development work in a few weeks or months, especially not outsiders.” The reason being, that such work is fundamentally about relationships and these relationships take time to build. He advises that development organisations (and the like) should be training and educating people who are actually from developing communities. Which Balloon have also nailed on the head with their Master Trainer Program and ICS Program. This program sees local Kenyans trained in the same capacity as international fellows and thus with the ability to carry out the same work.

I applaud Balloon Kenya for not just encouraging young people to volunteer in communities, but rather to invest in communities. If you’ve looked at the application fee you’ll know that a portion is forwarded to an investment fund of which interest-free loans will be awarded to successful businesses.

If you’re thinking of joining Balloon the best advice I can give is that intentions are great but grounding in reality is equally important. By ‘reality’ I mean a strong recognition of the privilege for doing such work in the first place and the limitations that exist due to limited time commitments and “outsider status.” I don’t think it’s cheeky to assume that a common motivation for most fellows to participate in Balloon Kenya is in order to gain practical international experience for their own professional development – another example of exercising privilege. If you are awarded a spot on the program it is incredibly valuable to keep in mind that each entrepreneur is giving you their time and skills to an equal – if not greater – degree than what you are giving.

If you want more info on global income check out: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2082385/We-1–You-need-34k-income-global-elite–half-worlds-richest-live-U-S.html

Read the Huffington Post articles here http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/4832836 and here http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/6062638

Written by Emma Raymond, Balloon Fellow 2015

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