Lesson learned: a case study in aid

I will always remember April 2009.

No, not because it was the first month after the power takeover in Madagascar. Not because I learned that I may have actually made the right career decision after many sleepless nights. Not because our pet donkey just died unexpectedly, not even for the remarkable act of bravery by Razily.
April was memorable because as Diana put it so masterfully, the youngest member of the Foko community passed on.

( Kamba and Mavo via rising voices)

If you are not familiar with the story of baby Kamba, it is the story that combines the generous heart of a young woman, the spontaneous support she garnered for her acts from friends and strangers from all over the world, the pitfalls of a humanitarian effort driven by the web and the lesson one can learn from it.

It is not with ease that I write about Kamba's story again today but perhaps now, with more perspective, a few lessons can be drawn from the tragic loss.

Kamba was born in Majunga with a facial malformation that prevented him from eating properly. His twin sister Viviane was more fortunate. One day as she passed by Kamba and his mum, Diana Chamia, a foko blogger, was moved by his plight and vowed to try to help them. The internet community rally around Kamba and try \to get his congenital disease corrected. After jumping many hurdles, Kamba was brought to Antananarivo to remove the extra cellular mass from his head.

Although the surgery was overall a success, his conditions required continuous treatment as Kamba was subject to frequent seizures. The treatment was costly and management of the follow up on the treatment was getting harder. In the meantime, Diana moved to Tana to pursue her studies in journalism.

Then the political crisis in Madagascar broke out. It is unclear how much the crisis affected the care for Kamba, but procurement for his medication became increasingly difficult as well getting the medical staff to keep seeing him. In the end, Kamba was among the hundreds in Madagascar to succumb during our most uncertain time.

( Kamba's family home)

The loss hit everyone hard and prompted the question of what could have been done differently. In a more general setting, it poses the question of how to manage aid from and through the web effectively.
William Easterly wrote about the "five simple principles for scaling up aid". His first two advices are : scale up success not failure and scale up what you do best.

Foko have shown that it does two things well. It reaches out to people not familiar with the web or with difficulties accessing the web and ease their first steps. Foko also promotes worthy initiatives and help group with similar goals connect. Foko is run mostly on the drive and time availability of its members, therefore it is just not as well-suited for handling intensive projects that require 24h attention.
Kamba highlighted a tremendous show of heart by many people, Diana of course, but also Mavo, Avylavitra family and friends , who were at Kamba's side as much as humanely possible and who also travelled the 600 km to attend Kamba' funeral.

Such actions of good will should be encouraged, supported but in a feasible setting. The geographical distance in this case was too much to overcome for all parties involved in addition to the peculiar need of the baby.

So what does one suppose to do after such a loss ?

Unexpectedly, talking to Kamba's mum in July helped mend the wounds. She said that she was appreciative of everyone's effort and that although the loss of Kamba still stings deeply, she knows he is in a better place now thanks to all the love that was send to him worldwide. She believes Kamba's twin sister Viviane still carries a part of Kamba with her.

( Viviane and her mum)

Furthermore, Majunga Foko blogger Zouboon has picked the ball and, through her volunteer work with an association that helps family in need, she successfully placed Viviane's family in a local support structure group so that the nutritional needs of Viviane can be monitored effectively.

(Zouboon at work)

This will not bring Kamba back by any means. But it will hopefully lessen the sting of the loss by showing his family that the support has not left with Kamba.

It is important to note that Zouboon took the initiative on her own, going through all the paperwork and contacts necessary to make things happen. Similarly, we just learned that Jaona of Foko Fianaratsoa was chosen as one of the few youth web activist ( via TakingITglobal) who will travel to Monterrey, Mexico for the UN-GAID annual meeting on "ICT and Innovation for Education" in September.

Diana, Zouboon and Jaona are three of the many Malagasy youngsters driven to make things happen. If Foko’s sole achievement is to help them in their quest and empower them, it would have already been a worthwhile endeavor. You can also follow Zouboon and Jaona on twitter.


  1. Thank you for this post Lova. I still think about Kamba from time to time, how his life took a turn before he reached the age to become fully conscious of that turn. How his life changed because he met Diana, and because, in a way, Diana met the internet. Those changes led to the worst possible outcome and yet were filled with the greatest intentions. I don't think we can second guess those good intentions ... what's most important is that Viviane and her mother have not been forgotten, that they are still part of the Foko community, and are therefore being looked after just like everyone else.

    So much has happened in Foko over the past two years. It has really been a roller coaster - even for an outsider like me. Despite all the hurdles and obstacles and difficult times, I couldn't be more impressed with what the community has built and accomplished.

  2. David,
    Thank you for the heartfelt words and sharing your thoughts on the subject. You probably sense this but there is no way anyone at Foko would consider you as an outsider. I probably misspoke when I wrote that it was ill suited for our structure. I think the main fault was mine in that we did not actively seek early enough a local social support structure like the one Zouboon found. We could not have foreseen the sudden hardship caused by the turmoil but we could have erred on the side of caution. It would have meant more expenses up front but probably worthwhile. We will definitely keep encouraging guys to get engaged with their communities but now we learned valuable lessons on what options we can and should explore.