A hypothetical discussion between leading economists on developing Africa:
Jeffrey Sachs: If you throw enough money at the problem, it’ll go away. The solution is always underfunded.
William Easterly: If you don’t find the right sweet spot, you might as well pour the money down the drain.
Ansaa Baiju (my hypothesis, so I get to moderate the discussion): The problem is that there are too many decoys.
Setting the context: Tweeting Development
Twitter is amazing. Actually it’s not. It’s a buggy piece of software that I have to grit my teeth and bear while I’m trying to participate in interesting conversations with people all over the world. Granted, it’s got 300 million + users, so when it’s over capacity, or jumping a bit, I will groan a little less.
That said, the PEOPLE on twitter are amazing, and I’m happy that they’re members of the Twitterverse so that I can meet them in it and also see what they’ve done outside it.
I recently exchanged words with @ONECampaign about their promotion of a Happy Kids NGO director , who was very excited about a project she had helped to engage in with Della, ‘a fair trade fashion company‘ operating (at least partially) from Ghana. ONE had launched a blog competition, and Kelsey, a University student from California who is a director of a Not-For-Profit to help children, had won for her involvement in a project which was helping to further the cause of young female emancipation…or something.
This is how the ‘exchange’ went:
It’s easy to judge. Here I am, living in the comfort of Metropolitan Ghana with my fingers firing away at someone who’s actually trying to make a difference in a rural community that I must have driven past on a domestic tour prompted by a non-Ghanaian friend. So easy to judge.
But I understand what’s happening from a different perspective, because as someone who has worked to make a difference myself, it’s really not easy to make an impact without targeting the money in the right direction. Happy Kids is facing its own funding hurdles – and has a donate button on its website. As you can see from this article, regardless which side you’re on (swooping down to rescue or fixing the problem from the ‘roots’), getting the money is the hard part. It essentially becomes like aiming a cannon at a watermelon to create an aneurysm in a savage beast more than 1,000 times your size. Even if it’s charging at somebody else, that’s slightly hard.
Not the hardest part, though. Because as many movies show, once you’ve hit the beast, there’s that moment in which you’re not sure whether you hit the target, and whether the shot will actually bring it down. Then the beast finally collapses.
By now we know that movies fast forward life – so in the world of development finance, the moment between targeting the cannonball and exploding the watermelon is at the very least a few years long.
Explaining myself…even though I said I wouldn’t
While one of my resolutions for 2012 was not to explain myself – because I don’t owe anybody an explanation – I feel a burning sensation a few inches above my diaphragm that I can only shake by writing about what triggered it. So here we go.
If you follow me on Twitter, you know that my cathexes (focal points) are Ghana, South-South co-operation and Social Entrepreneurship. And I think the point of their intersection is essentially the launchpad for Africa’s development.
But in the mean time, I tend to get irritated by the serendipity of one or two of the pieces of the puzzle ‘hooking up’ in a project whose impact is extremely limited. I believe in creating integrated, targeted and sustainable solutions to problems that exist.
That’s why I am an Nkrumahist, and why it irks me that as a country we haven’t gone beyond Medium Term Development Plans (which are basically squeezed out of us by ‘Development Partners’). Love or hate Nkrumah, he’s the one person who managed to trigger the most development on the continent in the least amount of time. The Rock Star of African-led Development, if you will.
It’s also why I can’t stand to see small projects initiated by people who may or may not be trying to beef up their resumes so they can become experts on the ‘developing world’…or create feel good and more expensive markets in the ‘developed’ world. That may be an over-simplification of development projects and fair trade initiatives, but people really shouldn’t be conned into thinking that they should pay more for something just because a poor African is benefiting from it. The price should be fair, and the product should be comparable to its competition, if not head and shoulders above it. Trade, not aid, remember? And not aid masked as trade either.
Yes, yes, tiny drops of water and the rest of it, but we’re trying to create aqueducts now. Look at any country (or group of countries) that we can say ‘rapidly’ transformed. They didn’t work with thimbles of progress. They were virtually engulfed by surging waves of innovation, transformation, and development. Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Japan, China, India, Germany, Brazil, the United States…need I go on?
Of course, you can still point to the number of abominably poor people in India (or the United States, for that matter), but the point isn’t to make it your philanthropic duty to ‘help’ the poor. It’s to ensure that people have equal opportunities to cross the barrier into a better life – if they make the effort.
Sometimes that does mean distributing malaria treated bednets. But even better than that is providing them with the opportunity to develop their surroundings so they don’t need malaria treated bednets. But the question is always about the trade off – highest impact results within the least amount of time versus sustainable results over a (much) longer period? Because if the treated bed nets (among other things) were being produced locally, people would be getting paid to make them, and they would be benefitting the community at the same time.
‘Economies of scale,’ you yell, ‘the bednets won’t be affordable if they’re being produced at the community level!’
That’s not what I’m suggesting. When I buy treated bednets and see that they’re imported, then I wonder about the long term sustainability of projects to provide free ones to targeted groups.Checked shipping costs to Africa recently? Those could have been spent on salaries and infrastructural development.
When I can see pharmaceutical companies on the Ghana Stock Exchange that are not producing ARVs and then hear a large uproar when the Global Fund is cut, then I feel sorry for PLWHAs, but start raising my eyebrows at the governments, entrepreneurs, ‘philanthropists’ and human rights advocates who aren’t pushing companies to produce generic drugs. Why are funds subsidising consumption instead of augmenting production? If we really want to eradicate HIV within a generation, which is more sustainable in the long term? And we need to look at more projects in exactly that way. Some organisations are already doing this, and I’ll take the time to focus the spotlight on them later.
It’s about DIGNITY
Let me end this post with another journey around the Twitterverse.
From the Acumen Fund website, via @acumenfund:
That doesn’t mean charity. Funding development can be ‘profitable’ too.
It’s about consciously building COMMUNITIES that help themselves
Take ‘Three Avocados’, a not-for-profit coffee company which I just came across me on Twitter (let me disclose now that they’re actually following me, but they didn’t ask me to write about them at all) .
Between $0.50 per $3.00 bag of coffee will go directly into providing clean water in Uganda. Now this is virtually the same principle as Della (the ones who partnered with Happy Kids to ‘build capacity’ in sewing in Hohoe), except the end result is different.
With Della, people have money to spend on what they want. That may or may not be used to provide the community with the basics such as education, healthcare, sanitation, etc. The profits are used at the owners’ discretion. Which is fine – it’s a for profit company.
With Three Avocados, on the other hand, the coffee growers have money to spend on what they want (it’s worked into the cost of the coffee) and the basic amenities that are otherwise government’s responsibility (provision of water) are taken care of from the profits from the sale of the coffee. The more obvious difference in ‘Three Avocados’ is that it is supporting infrastructural development, which is a critical to developing countries and communities. And they’re also following me on twitter. (Only half kidding)
But in all honesty I’d like to see large multinational companies engage in CSR that focus more on real growth initiatives that aren’t just digging boreholes and providing people with access to water – which is indeed essential – but empowering the communities they are working with. It’s not one or the other. It’s both. Which is why I like these lessons so much.
At the bottom of that retweet, I missed a vital comment: that African High Net Individuals both at home and in the Diaspora needed to essentially start venturing their own capital. ‘Charity’ begins at home. My comments are directed at those who give. And using percentages in our favour now, there are more of them outside Africa than on the continent. Just look at the percentage of poor people in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Also via @AfricanInvestor: A Bloomberg curated list of feel good gift investments http://buswk.co/rybFz6
I realised I didn’t retweet it because of my personal views of ‘helping’ large multinationals do good in the developing world. I’ll deal with this particular list of feel-good investments in a subsequent post. Regardless, you’ll probably be able to understand my sentiments from this post – it’s mostly about the 99% contributing their hard earned money to those who already have more than enough. Remember, unless the company is issuing its own stock, they don’t really make money from people’s purchases on the market. But again, the article is in the right spirit. Sort of. There will be no aneurysm for the big poverty monster there, this or any other Christmas time, though.
Where do we go from here?
I’d like to see a dramatic change in philanthropy. The winds have already started blowing. I’d like to see an avalanche of real development in Africa funded by targeted philanthropy – investments by people in production that gives back. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Yes, people need to make sure that children are fed, clothed, sheltered, and that they can learn and grow in healthy and productive environments. But it’s the responsibility of the communities in which the children are, and not other people half way around the world, to make sure that these needs can be sustainably met. So every time you’re give a dollar to a feed a hungry child in Africa project, make sure you’re giving three to a project that is engaging in sustainable development projects in communities across Africa.
I concede that from half way across the world, it’s rather difficult to tell. The easiest rule of thumb is to ensure that they are engaging with the communities they serve. Sometimes that means engaging with local government. Sometimes that means ignoring local government if they’re not serving the needs of the community, and aren’t accountable to their own citizens. It does eventually tend to be about accountability – who is responsible, who is watching, and how the impacts are actually measured. But that’s another blog post altogether.
I’m focusing on African Development in this post because it’s clearly the continent that is the farthest behind as far as the World View is concerned. Never mind the fact that the absolute number of people living below the poverty line in South East Asia in 2005 (the base year for the World Bank’s ‘raised stakes’) was about one and a half times that living in Sub-Saharan Africa. Look up the figures here. The way the figures are presented, it’s hard to get an overall representative view of what the poverty situation actually is – unless you go for the favoured percentage statistic, which I feel – even though $1.25 is a Purchasing Power Parity figure – is misleading.
The insert about Three Avocados was inserted into the article after it was finished, but fit perfectly with the last paragraph which had already been written.