Sunday, June 17, 2007

Don't Know Much About...

The Republic of Benin

Benin is a small Francophone West African country wedged between Nigeria and Togo. It is an unfortunate reality that if you don't know much about a particular African country it is probably because that state hasn't had the tumultuous and notorious recent history that it's neighbors might have had and, therefore, doesn't stand much of a chance on the international newspage--such is the [fortunate] case with Benin, I think.

Nevertheless, Benin's history and culture has its share of points of interest. For example, in the days of cross-Atlantic slave trading, Benin was the primary exit-point for slaves captured and gathered from across the African continent to be shipped to the Western Hemisphere. Historically and today the country is the progenitor and primary practitioner of the Voodoo belief system (with over half the population practicing either purely or in syncrestitic forms). During the 1970s and 1980s Benin was commonly known as the "Cuba" of West Africa for its exceptional communist postures and policies. After a stark turn of events in the lates 1980's however, Benin's government was overhauled, its economy was liberalized, and today is considered of the most stable of West African states.

For a more info and a country profile of Benin check out the BBC's or the CIA Factbook's entries. Other informative sites of interest include a Peace Corps Friends of Benin site (a hub for news and other info), Benin's Tourism site (I believe put together in part by Peace Corps Volunteers--includes an exciting welcome anthem), and the U.S. State Department's notes on Benin.

The Peace Corps

When it comes to the Peace Corps, there are a number of associative images floating out there in the popular consciousness: long-haired idealists evading the draft and developing the world with smiles (or perhaps more likely developing their own tastes for local drink, etc.); candidate pools for the CIA's historic recruitment of cold war spies; or, if your imaginative powers are especially fueled by film, maybe you think of Tom Hanks and John Candy bumbling around to build a bridge in a Southeast Asian village (1985's Volunteers).

If you're interesting in augmenting a popular education with some other sources, I'd recommend first checking out the Peace Corps website for the PC's self-spin on history, goals, etc. To get a more candid exposure to what a Volunteer's work and life looks like on the ground, check out the Peace Corps Benin Blog index, which includes updated blogs from current Small Enterprise Development volunteers, some of whom I will probably be working with in Benin.

Economic Development

There's no way that I'm going to be able to sufficiently broach this issue here. But if you're interested in learning more about what has arguably been the most important international social question of the past 60 years, the problem/possibility of "Third World" Economic Development, check out the UN's Millienium Development Project to eradicate poverty (an overly-optimistic project in my opinion but nonetheless noble in its goals and worth looking into for a full-orbed look at some of the goals that international development entails). For the most holistic definition of poverty and development, I'd have to reccomend Bryant Myers's book Walking with the Poor, which is likely to trigger a paradigm shift in any pre-conveived definitions you might have concerning "the poor."
Small Enterprise Development (SED, aka Micro Enterprise Development) is the grass-roots development of small businesses. SED is just one facet and strategy within the whole Development Project, and best describes the type of projects in which I will eventually be engaged in Benin. For a primer on what SED entails, check out an
introductory paper put together by the Chalmers Center for Economic Development at Covenant College.