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Tuesday March 27, 2001

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Speaking to the silent

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Mamadou Baro, assistant anthropology professor and member of the Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology (BARA), describes yesterday a figurine given to him as a gift from a village chief in Mali, Africa. BARA members travel the world to help the poor as well as emphasize the significance of collecting anthropological data.

By Ayse Guner

Arizona Daily Wildcat

Profs in anthropology program detect the problems of developing countries

Mamadou Baro has worked his way into the deepest places of rural Africa and South America to detect corruption and malnutrition.

Baro, an associate of anthropology, along with other UA anthropology professors has been detecting the major problems of developing countries even if it means days of walking under the hot sun.

Sometimes Baro would ride a horse or a donkey to reach his destinations - like he did in the dusty villages of Haiti, a country located one hour south of Miami.

"Even if it's going to take two days to get there, we would do it," Baro said, who also works for the UA's Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology, or BARA.

Armed with that idea, Baro has done years of work abroad that have helped poor nations pinpoint their needs, and led organizations to direct their donations to the right places, he said.

However, the majority of data that are available today about the developing countries are questionable, he said, and they fail to incorporate the perspectives of those nations' people.

Large-corporation data-collectors often ignore the villages where access is difficult and depend on the "outsider's perspective," which is based on their own perceptions of what the needs are, Baro said.

They often stay in big cities to complete their reports, and after they finish their work, their findings become obsolete.

"Whenever there is a problem, they bring experts from outside," he said. "The expert fixes the problem and leaves. But when he leaves, nothing is left.

"It's not sustainable."

Baro, on the other hand, does it the other way around.

As a BARA trainer, he meets with hundreds of experts that come from different countries, as well as from the UA, and trains them to reach these isolated villages to meet with households and listen to their issues.

In the case of BARA's Haiti project - targeted to evaluate feeding centers of Haiti that the U.S. government funded for food distribution - Baro trained 180 experts to interview 4,000 households.

"The voices might not be heard because leaders can be too strong," he said about why they directly go to households.

And to select these households randomly, Baro's colleagues use a "lottery" method in which they write the residents' names on pieces of paper, put them in a hat and have the children pick them out.

The children would get excited and often cheer out the names, Baro said, adding that the point is to get the public involved.

The next step is to spend a lot of time with those residents.

"The issue for them (residents) is to get to a point when they can trust you," Baro said. "We eat the food they eat and we sleep where they sleep."

When the project was completed in 1999 after six years of work, Baro and his group revealed that the feeding center workers were corrupt and would barely provide any food to the Haitians. Instead, they would keep the food for themselves or sell it, he said.

Baro reported the findings to the U.S. government, which in turn decided to end the feeding centers' operation. The government then developed "dry feeding" programs, which deliver the food directly to the households.

"We are not pretending we solved all the problems, but at least now they have all the tools that they need to replicate to the rest of the country," Baro said.

BARA was originally formed in the 1950s as a state-wide center to monitor the welfare of American Indians in Arizona. The center's budget expanded in the '60s and '70s when its anthropologists began to work with the Mexican immigrants and American Indians outside of Arizona.

In the '80s, the work spread to other continents like Africa, where much recent BARA focus has gone.

The latest project in Africa is called the National Science Foundation project, which Timothy Finan, BARA director, says is the group's largest ongoing project, conducting about $1.5 million worth of research a year. The purpose is to use and document the changes in urban cities of Africa because of deforestation.

To do that, the researchers look at images obtained by American remote-sensing satellites such as Landsat and Spot, and analyze where the forests that once existed were. Then, they go onto the ground to see what human activity was responsible for that, Finan said.

Little rain fell over the years, which caused a draught and made growing crops almost impossible, Finan said. Also, the desert is expanding because trees are being cut down for wood, he added.

"It is a major concern for the people," Finan said.

The project is funded through CARE International, a private organization, which hired UA researchers to find out if its programs were reaching their goals and to locate the needs of communities.

Baro, a native of the northwestern African country Mauritania, is leaving today for Mexico for an anthropology conference where he will present the work he did to combat poverty in Africa.

He said he believes much of the aid that came from the United States never reached the right places.

"Look at the money where U.S. spent on these poor nations," Baro said. "What difference did it make?

"Not much."

"The elite in the Mercedes got the most help," he said. "But the agenda with our program is now set by the people themselves and the method allows the money go to the households as opposed to the state."

Students who want to apply for BARA can contact Timothy Finan at or can telephone the local bureau at 621-6282.