Monthly Archives: July 2012

Why Poverty Persists in America, pt. 1

There are four reasons, says Peter Edelman, author of “So Rich, So Poor: Why It’s So Hard to End Poverty in America”:

With all of that, why have we not achieved more? Four reasons: An astonishing number of people work at low-wage jobs. Plus, many more households are headed now by a single parent, making it difficult for them to earn a living income from the jobs that are typically available. The near disappearance of cash assistance for low-income mothers and children — i.e., welfare — in much of the country plays a contributing role, too. And persistent issues of race and gender mean higher poverty among minorities and families headed by single mothers.

In the wake of the recession, with so many people currently unemployed, the poverty level in the U.S. continues to grow.  And, while Edelman’s diagnosis is right, the fixes for at least some of the problems seem more difficult.  The number of low-wage jobs in America reflects the spread of globalization and the movement of jobs overseas.  This process has been ongoing for several decades, as manufacturing steadily moved abroad and, increasingly service industries, like call centers and business process outsourcing, followed suit.  Ironically, America’s loss became the developing world’s gain, as hundreds of millions of people climbed above the poverty line in places like China, India, Brazil, and the Philippines.  On a global scale, the trend toward low-wage jobs in the United States may actually reflect a global poverty reduction trend.

Still, working a low-wage job in the U.S. is no doubt difficult.  More than 100 million people – nearly a third of the population – live below twice the poverty line ($38,000 for a family of three).  Edelman says that this trend has been ongoing since the 80’s, but we only opened our eyes after the recession.  This is true, but doesn’t tell the whole story.  Amidst one of the longest, deepest recessions since the Great Depression, corporate profits have broken records for the last three years.  As companies retrenched and laid off their employees to cope with a crash in demand, they became more nimble and cost-conscious.  As the economy recovered, instead of hiring back old employees, they outsourced jobs overseas or automated wherever possible, lowering their operating costs and increasing profits.  In the long-run, the U.S. economy will be stronger and more globally-competitive as a result.  But, in the short-term, the number of people living below the poverty line in the US will surely increase.

Those jobs are not coming back.  Edelman suggests investing more heavily in education and skill development, and I agree.  Because the funding source is local, our current public education system is failing to educate huge swathes of the population in a vicious cycle that creates a poverty trap.  Setting aside the fact that discriminating on the basis of zip code is morally wrong, as I have discussed on this blog, it will only exacerbate our competitiveness problem.

On the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) test, a global test given to 470,000 students in 2010, the U.S. ranked 14th in reading, 17th in science, and 25th in math.  But these numbers do not tell the entire story.  When the results are segmented by the percentage of students participating in the subsidized lunch program, which is the most accurate gauge of poverty levels in schools, the level of stratification is striking.  In schools where less than 10% of students apply for subsidized lunch, the U.S. has the highest PISA scores of any OECD nation.  In schools with more than 50% participation, the U.S. sits between Austria and Luxembourg.  Mel Riddle, the head of the National Association of Secondary School Principals, explains the other side of that coin:

The problem is not as much with our educational system as it is with our high poverty rates. The real crisis is the level of poverty in too many of our schools and the relationship between poverty and student achievement. Our lowest achieving schools are the most under-resourced schools with the highest number of disadvantaged students. We cannot treat these schools in the same way that we would schools in more advantaged neighborhoods or we will continue to get the same results. The PISA results point out that the U.S. is not alone in facing the challenge of raising the performance of disadvantaged students.

This is a travesty for a number of reasons.  Not only are we denying huge numbers of children a decent education, we are also diminishing our own competitiveness as a nation in the future.

In the next post, I will talk about the other three reasons.

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The Idea of Travel as a Search

At the summit of Mt. Nyiragongo, a volcano outside Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo

That is what Ilan Stavans and Joshua Ellison posit in the their essay, “Reclaiming Travel,” featured on the New York Times philosophy blog, The Stone. The literary professor from Amherst and editor of a literary journal lament the packaging of travel and its reduction to a commodity, rather than a unique experience marked by uncertainty.  A cruise ship, like a guided tour through a historical site or an all-inclusive stay at a resort, is a known entity where the only action required is putting down a credit card and showing up.  Not having to seek out an experience makes people complacent and prevents them from actually understanding the place they are visiting.

On top of Treble Cone in Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

The result, according to the authors, is a dramatic shrinking of the world, where accessibility leads us to think we understand people and places, when, in reality, we are just consuming specific perceptions of the world.  In their conclusion, Stavan and Ellison explain what they feel are the implications of this effect:

This lack of awareness is even more pronounced when it comes to different cultures. The media bombards us with images from far-away places, making distant people seem less foreign, more relatable to us, less threatening. It’s a mirage, obviously. The kind of travel to which we aspire should tolerate uncertainty and discomfort. It isn’t about pain or excessive strain — travel doesn’t need to be an extreme sport — but we need to permit ourselves to be clumsy, inexpert and even a bit lonely. We might never understand travel as our ancestors did: our world is too open, relativistic, secular, demystified. But we will need to reclaim some notion of the heroic: a quest for communion and, ultimately, self-knowledge.

Our wandering is meant to lead back toward ourselves. This is the paradox: we set out on adventures to gain deeper access to ourselves; we travel to transcend our own limitations. Travel should be an art through which our restlessness finds expression. We must bring back the idea of travel as a search.

For the most part, I agree with the authors in their distaste for pre-packaged travel experiences, but I also recognize that this isn’t for everyone.  Most people travel to get away from the daily grind and relax, see the sights, and enjoy themselves.  Most people don’t want to deal with the struggle that is really only enjoyable in retrospect and causes unnecessary stress (which, one can get under control, through stress management courses from a legacy rehab).  So, while I enjoy the discomforts of travel as much as the next person, I understand why people would not want the same experience in the three weeks of vacation they get every year.

At a soup restaurant in Chiang Mai in Northern Thailand

The authors get this point, and address it in the article:

Travel is a search for meaning, not only in our own lives, but also in the lives of others. The humility required for genuine travel is exactly what is missing from its opposite extreme, tourism.

Modern tourism does not promise transformation but rather the possibility of leaving home and coming back without any significant change or challenge. Tourists may enjoy the visit only because it is short. The memory of it, the retelling, will always be better. Whereas travel is about the unexpected, about giving oneself over to disorientation, tourism is safe, controlled and predetermined. We take a vacation, not so much to discover a new landscape, but to find respite from our current one, an antidote to routine.

Riding back from Ngong Hills in Kiserian outside Nairobi, Kenya

They are right about why most people travel, but wrong in their judgment of the merits of modern tourism.  The kind of travel experiences the authors advocate are difficult to condense into a week or two.  It is possible in places where the comforts and conveniences of modern travel don’t exist, but, in more trafficked places, it requires a lot of effort to remove yourself from the grid and connect with the people in the places you are visiting, particularly when you don’t already know people who live there.  It has been much easier for me to have more authentic experiences, since I usually have friends or friends of friends who can show me around.  I am lucky in that respect.

I like the idea of travel as a journey.  But sometimes people just want to relax take it easy.  And who can blame them?

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The Top Three Social Enterprises in the World

A year ago, I was sitting at the iHub in Kenya, analyzing thousands of payments made by parents of students at Bridge International Academies, trying to identify potential leading indicators of withdrawal, when Kentaro Toyama, the founder and director of Microsoft Research India, stopped in to give a lecture titled “ICT or Development: Why it’s so hard to get rich and help the poor simultaneously.”  His thesis – that it is actually very, very difficult to be both financial and socially sucessful – aimed to check some of the fervor around the concept of social enterprise, which is at the forefront of a new market-led, private sector approach to international development.

I took umbrage with his premise at the time, since I was working with a social enterprise, Bridge International Academies, that had secured the backing of prominent investors and managed to scale across Kenya, with plans to move international within a year.  But, more importantly, I felt the narrow definition of social enterprise offered by practitioners, academics, and Toyama himself, made it impossible for companies that fit the bill to every be successful by these standards.  After the talk, I asked Toyama why he didn’t consider Celtel, the telecom company founded by the Sudanese-British Mo Ibrahim, to be a counterexample.  After all, Celtel created the African telecom sector – one of the fastest growing industries in the world – out of nothing, at a time when nobody – including the father of social enterprise, CK Prahalad – thought it could be done.  “Celtel is only focused on making money, so they are not truly a social enterprise,” he responded.

This is where I think he and the other critics of social enterprises are wrong.  The most successful social enterprises might not have a social motive at all.  Mo Ibrahim famously said “Africa is a wonderful place to make money.” in the spirit of that statement, I will take a crack at identifying the most influential social enterprises in the world.

1.  Celtel

Celtel, as I explained, is the first telecom company to identify Africa as a growth market.  What followed their proof of concept was a flood of competitors, which created one of the fastest-growing and most competitive markets in the world.  Vodafone, Airtel, Glo, Tigo, and other companies began offering lower and lower voice and text plans, while Nokia led (and still dominates) the market for low-cost mobile handsets.  It is not uncommon for people in the rural areas and slums to have a cell phone, but no running water or electricity.  Mobile penetration has increased exponentially over the last 10 years.  Today, it is currently 65% and growing.

The resulting increase in communication capabilities has significantly reduced the asymmetry of information that led to widespread inefficiency.  It allowed families to remain connected more easily, facilitating internal migration and loosening up the labor markets.  Countless companies have leveraged the mobile platform to communicate more with customers.  In a world without ATM machines or credit cards, mobile money has enabled consumers to pay bills and transfer money without having to pay exorbitant fees to pawn shops or money wire services.

Celtel started the mobile revolution in Africa.  And it make a killing in the process.

2.  Google

Google’s organization and digitization of information has increased information access to people across the developing world.  In areas where the ratio of people to libraries is a fraction of corresponding number in the U.S. and Europe, eliminating the monopoly physical references – books, newspapers, and magazines, for example – have on knowledge has enabled people to make more informed decisions about just about everything.  With Google’s search functionality, autocratic and repressive leaders that inhibit economic growth and development can no longer control the information their people receive, enabling citizens to make informed decisions based on facts, rather than propaganda. You can challenge your previous place of work’s decision with an Employment Lawyer.

Google’s democratization of information has had a huge impact on development around the world.  They too have made a killing the process.

3.  Twitter / Facebook

Twitter’s role in catalyzing the Arab Spring and enabling it to spread like wildfire will have profound impacts on the development of countries in North Africa and the Middle East.  It is only a matter of time before the same network effects and distributed communication enabled by social networks like Twitter and Facebook enable the same sorts of reforms in sub-Saharan Africa, in countries like Zimbabwe, where discussion of the Arab Spring is outlawed.  On Fareed Zakaria’s blog, an article titled “Four ways social media could transform conflict in Africa” explains this effect:

Social media could make African states more sensitive to audience costs (that is, the benefits and drawbacks that it could accrue from lying or telling the truth), since citizens can now interact with their governments and with others in civil society in ways that they couldn’t before. An example of this trend has been the recent #SudanRevolts social movement on Twitter, in which Sudanese and global supporters have launched an unprecedented movement calling for an Arab Spring-like end to the rule of strongman Omar al-Bashir. Previously, in early 2011, other African leaders were confronted with small-scale conflicts organized via social media, including in Cameroon and Angola. Indeed, the massive uptick in cell phone users across the continent has led many to predict that the next long-term revolutions in African leadership will be launched via cell phone.

Social networks will continue to have game-changing impacts on repressed states.

Here are some honorable mentions:


It is said that you can get a Coke anywhere in the world.  I have been to two dozen countries around the world and visited some of the most remote places, and have never not been able to get a Coke.  The number of people who are employed at every level along the value chain is huge, and Coca-Cola deserves credit for creating such an efficient supply chain.


Wal-Mart and other big box retailers that source local produce from farmers and establish a highly-efficient storage facilities and cold chains enable significant improvements in the agriculture sector of a company.  BusinessWeek discussed the impact Wal-Mart’s entrance into the Indian market could have had had politicians allowed it:

The global chains were likely to invest in trucking and distribution systems in India, where government estimates show 40 percent of fruit and vegetables rot before being sold because of the lack of cold-storage facilities and poor transport infrastructure. Farmers will have “assured business” if foreign companies were allowed to invest in multibrand retail, said Pratichee Kapoor, associate director for retail at Technopak Advisors Pvt.

These are just a few social enterprises that have had outsized social impacts.

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Kenya Enacts Bad Immigration Policy

Today, the Nairobi ex-pats are riled up about a new policy restricting immigration for young and low-skilled workers in Kenya.  Here is the story:

Kenya has shut the door on foreigners seeking permits for jobs that pay less than Sh168,000 per month or Sh2 million per year (USD $24,000). The move, which marks a major labour market policy change, also bars foreigners aged 35 years or less from being issued with work permits. The changes are contained in fresh regulations that Immigration minister Otieno Kajwang’ has published in a special Kenya Gazette notice.

Senior Ministry of Immigration officials, who did not want to be named because they are not authorised to speak to the press, said the new regulations are particularly targeted at foreigners holding jobs that can be handled by Kenyans.

The new rules have also locked out expatriates from employment in the medical, real estate, engineering, accountancy and legal professions.

This crackdown on immigration is not happening in isolation.  Recently, Uganda passed legislation with the same provisions aimed at curbing immigration that potentially takes away jobs from locals.  This strikes me as not only bad policy that will significant repercussions for development, but also counterproductive in achieving its intended aim (to increase the number of jobs for Kenyans and Ugandans).  On a macro-level, relatively open borders generally have a positive impact on economic development in two ways.  First,  the exchange of knowledge, ideas, and skills improves human capital within the country and makes businesses serving the domestic and export markets more competitive.  Immigration from advanced economies – regardless of skill level and age – typically comes with investment and infrastructure.  Chinese companies employing cheaper Chinese labor will still bring machinery, technology, and business practices that can be emulated by local companies.  So, not only is the Kenyan government stifling the influx of ideas to its country, it is also preventing investment, which has the potential to enlarge the pie, rather than simply expanding the pieces that go to foreigners.

My social enterprise and non-profit friends are upset because they see the law not only as an affront to what they are trying to achieve – improve the economic condition of poor – but also regressive in terms of job creation.  This is a valid point – for every job taken by an expat in the social sector, multiple jobs open up for local staff.  One friend who started a company in Nairobi had this to say on Facebook:

Dear Kenya –

I am 28. I am the oldest person in our young company. Over the next 7 years, we plan to hire more than 100 university graduates into entry-level positions with top-tier international training & mentorship.

My vision is to have the most-sought-after middle-managers in the entire region working for me. I don’t think I am being naive. We have already hired four. We’re doing this.

If this is implemented, consider them fired.

Let me know if you can help us and our Kenyan staff. They just graduated 3 weeks ago.


The person has a good point, which is that employment, coupled with mentorship and development, can have a significant ripple effect as qualified young professionals go out into the workplace.  Realistically, this bill is not aimed at my friends, however.  More than half of the work permits in the country are held by Indians, typically from a lower caste, who emigrated to the country to set up businesses and take advantage of the relatively untapped market.  Another 25% belong to Chinese immigrants, who are working on infrastructure projects for state-run contractors.  Only 10-20% are held by Americans and Europeans.

Most Kenyans I spoke with did not have kind things to say about many of the Indians – known in Swahili as “mwindi” – in the country.  That is because, as a general rule, many of the Indians treat the local population as second-class citizens.  One of the reasons for this is that many of the Indian immigrants are from a lower caste, and have been discriminated against for their entire lives.  Those in the lower castes typically have darker skin, so some of the root of their discrimination has been based on skin color.  When they move to Africa, they are employing people who have an even darker skin color, so they are even more likely to discriminate.  This, coupled with the fact that Indians control a significant percentage of the import-export sector and, to a lesser extent, retail, has created resentment among Kenyans and Ugandans.  I am not certain, but I would guess this bill is aimed squarely at the Indian immigrants living and working in the country.

However, the Ugandan legislation explicitly targets NGOs:

The government has banned international and local NGOs operating in the country from employing foreigners unless they show proof that no Ugandan matches the skills of the expatriate staff.

“The NGOs come to help the community and complement government effort and should not solicit money in our names to create jobs for themselves,” he said. “Otherwise, they should set up commercial enterprises, not the not-for-profit, non-political and community-empowerment organisations.”

Amb. Gabriel Kangwagye, the NGO registration board chairperson, told this newspaper yesterday that the not-for-profit groups solicit money from donors under the guise of helping the under-privileged, and they should not saturate local job market by employing their own.

Whether this legislation is based at Western or Asian expats doesn’t really matter.  Either way, there are better ways of dealing with the problem of unemployment.  Greater investment in education, skills training, and infrastructure, or less plundering of state coffers would serve to make the local economy more competitive.  Unfortunately, the Kenyan and Ugandan governments have chosen to shoot themselves in the foot and enact laws that will reduce the amount of both foreign direct investment and aid money to the countries.  The result will be a reduction in GDP growth, higher unemployment, and a generally regressive system that will undoubtedly hurt the people the laws are intended to help.

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Dambisa Moyo: Right and Wrong About China in Africa

Dambisa Moyo recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times asserting that the surge in investment by China in Africa has been a positive development for the continent.  A lot of people take issue with Moyo’s oversimplification of highly complex problems, sweeping generalizations, and lack of analytical rigor.  I tend to agree with many of her points, as I have discussed in this blog, with the exception of a few critical assertions.

First, Moyo, the development economics pugilist who believes that foreign aid undermines democracy and growth in the third world, discusses China’s motivations for investing in Africa, explaining why, unlike other exchanges between governments, it is a mutually-beneficial relationship between two countries:

Despite all the scaremongering, China’s motives for investing in Africa are actually quite pure. To satisfy China’s population and prevent a crisis of legitimacy for their rule, leaders in Beijing need to keep economic growth rates high and continue to bring hundreds of millions of people out of poverty. And to do so, China needs arable land, oil and minerals. Pursuing imperial or colonial ambitions with masses of impoverished people at home would be wholly irrational and out of sync with China’s current strategic thinking.

Moreover, the evidence does not support a claim that Africans themselves feel exploited. To the contrary, China’s role is broadly welcomed across the continent. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey of 10 sub-Saharan African countries found that Africans overwhelmingly viewed Chinese economic growth as beneficial. In virtually all countries surveyed, China’s involvement was viewed in a much more positive light than America’s; in Senegal, 86 percent said China’s role in their country helped make things better, compared with 56 percent who felt that way about America’s role. In Kenya, 91 percent of respondents said they believed China’s influence was positive, versus only 74 percent for the United States.

Moyo is correct about China’s motivations.  As the world’s manufacturer and home to one of the fastest-growing consumer classes in the world, they have an insatiable demand for raw materials to ensure their factories are running.  Oil, natural gas, timber, and other materials are abundant in Africa and available to the highest bidder.  In the colonial era, European countries divided up Africa along arbitrary lines at the Berlin Conference, and used the newly-created countries as repositories raw materials without regard for the native populations.  As a result of severe mismanagement on the part of the colonial powers and poor governance after independence, populations not only saw none of the rewards of the natural resources taken from their countries, they were penalized in the form of inflation as one country after another succumbed to what is known as Dutch Disease, or the natural resource curse.

China, in contrast, frequently trades in-kind with African governments, building roads and hospitals in exchange for exclusive resource contracts.  By improving infrastructure and delivering results, the Chinese largely circumvent the traditional channels of corruption – no-bid contracts with firms started by politicians, for example – and ensure that the people benefit.  I saw this firsthand when driving along Thika Road, one of the largest Chinese infrastructure projects in Sub-Saharan Africa, which cut a two-hour commute down to 30 minutes for a huge number of people working in Nairobi.  I have written in the past about the impression these developments have left on Africans.  There is little doubt in my mind that, despite bouts of shady activity, the Chinese are a positive force in Africa.

Had Moyo stopped there, we would have been entirely in agreement.  But, I think she has a tendency in her essays and her books to view the world in binary, drawing clear lines of causality amid complex systems.  In the op-ed, she assigns blame for Africa’s governance problems on the influx of aid, which supposedly undermines the ability of the people to hold their leaders accountable for failures of government.

China’s critics ignore the root cause of why many African leaders are corrupt and unaccountable to their populations. For decades, many African governments have abdicated their responsibilities at home in return for the vast sums of money they receive from courting international donors and catering to them. Even well-intentioned aid undermines accountability. Aid severs the link between Africans and their governments, because citizens generally have no say in how the aid dollars are spent and governments too often respond to the needs of donors, rather than those of their citizens.

In a functioning democracy, a government receives revenues (largely in the form of taxes) from its citizens, and in return promises to provide public goods and services, like education, national security and infrastructure. If the government fails to deliver on its promises, it runs the risk of being voted out.

The fact that so many African governments can stay in power by relying on foreign aid that has few strings attached, instead of revenues from their own populations, allows corrupt politicians to remain in charge. Thankfully, the decrease in the flow of Western aid since the 2008 financial crisis offers a chance to remedy this structural failure so that, like others in the world, Africans can finally hold their governments accountable.

This is a relatively common theory of why Africa’s leaders are so unbelievably corrupt.  But I disagree for several reasons.  First, it shifts the blame from corrupt politicians to the supposedly enabling factors that entice them to steal.  This is ridiculous.  Corrupt leaders – African or other – steal because they are bad leaders and, I would say, bad people.

Results from the Corruption Perceptions Index

The fact that foreign governments provide the money for the education system does not mean that politicians are obligated to steal it.  They could, for example, use to it to build schools and pay teachers.  But, unfortunately, they often don’t, opting to steal the money instead.  This isn’t always the case, as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, John Atta Mills and Ghana, and other good democratic leaders have shown.  But, when it does happen, the donors are not to blame.  The blame rests solely with officials – elected and unelected – who chose to steal the money.

Second, Moyo believes that if countries stop giving foreign aid to corrupt governments, those governments will cease to be able to provide basic services to their people.  The people, in turn, will then rise up to overthrow the government, replacing it with a better, more honest government.  In theory, this is how democracy works.

In practice, the reason African leaders are not held accountable has less to do with foreign aid and more to do with their unwillingness to relinquish power after their term has ended.  In the days of the cold war, when the U.S. and Soviet Union purchased influence from corrupt autocrats like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now the DRC), you could possibly make this point.  But, today, I think that is hardly the case.  Take Zimbabwe.  Robert Mugabe violently represses all dissent, and has remained in power for 30 years.  His longevity has nothing to do with his ability to deliver services to his people (he doesn’t).  Laurent Gbagbo in Cote D’Ivoire killed hundreds of people to stay in power (he didn’t).  In the last year alone, the president of Mali, Ahmadou Toumani Toure, was overthrown in a coup, and the president of Uganda, Yoweri Museveni, brutally repressed protesters and political opponents.  Today, the leading candidate for president in Kenya, Uhuru Kenyatta, is currently on trial at the Hague for war crimes.  He was sent to the ICC for his role in the post-election violence of 2007.  If he is elected, it will have nothing to do with foreign aid.

In contrast, one leader who cites Dambisa Moyo as a offering a model path for Africa is known for systematic repression of dissent.  Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda, has undoubtedly done great things for the country, in terms of economic development, healthcare, and other public services.  But his record on human rights has been questioned, at best, making his actions difficult for some stomach.  (As a caveat, the reasons underlying Kagame’s approach to governance are complex and can be discussed in another post.  My intent is not to take a stand – only to show that it is not cut-and-dry.)

The fact is that Chinese investment in Africa is a good thing.  But to draw a straight line of causality connecting foreign aid with prevalence of corruption and malfeasance in government is ludicrous.

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What Do I Think of Agriculture Development? Pt. 3

The following is part three of a three-part post on agriculture economic development.  Read part two here.

Aid, as I have discussed in this blog, is one of the three D’s of foreign policy: defense, diplomacy, and development.  It is the hearts in the phrase “winning the hearts and minds.” Being so, the work is certainly not borne entirely, or even at all, out of altruistic motives.  Instead, it is one way of winning sympathy and gratitude from people whose governments we need to provide favorable trade agreements and ally with us against our enemies.  In East Africa, for example, Uganda has moved up in stature with the U.S. government for its willingness to send troops and lead AMISOM – the UN peacekeeping mission in Somalia.  Al-Shabab is one of the more pressing threats in the eyes in the U.S. state department, given its ability to operate freely in the lawless country and its track record for recruiting disaffected youth from American cities like Minneapolis.  Kenya, on the other hand, is viewed as relatively weak, as its military has done little in the region, save invade Somalia six months ago and fail to take full control of the key Al-Shabab stronghold in Kismayo.  When a country scratches the back of the U.S., it is more likely to scratch back in the form of government-to-government aid and development funding through mechanisms like the Millenium Challenge Corporation (MCC).

With this in mind, it is no surprise to me that foreign aid – particularly within the agriculture sector – is ineffective.  The incentives are completely misaligned.  In the zero sum game of global commerce, a stronger domestic agriculture sector in a country dependent on imports from the U.S. will adversely affect our own farmers.  If donor countries really wanted to end food insecurity once and for all, it would be relatively simple: eliminate import tariffs on African agriculture products, end agriculture subsidies for maize and other crop productions, and regulate commodity speculation more closely.  I am not necessarily advocating any of these things, and I understand why they exist.  I’m just saying that it would work.  Instead, the most important thing about these projects is that every single piece of literature, sign, poster, or whatever else have the following words displayed prominently: “From the American People.”

Aside from the fact that agriculture is a global business and donor countries must look out for their own interests above all else, the execution of agriculture development projects is generally poor.  I once had a discussion with some friends in Ghana about looking at the impact of projects like ours on the hospitality sector.  I wouldn’t be surprised if 25% of the $30 million allocated to the project I worked on went to hotel rooms.  With per diems of $100-150 per day, people could do a lot of damage with very little oversight.  This frivolous attitude toward spending was a bit troubling in my mind, particularly since the young field staff were required to ride motorbikes, which resulted in the death of one person and multiple broken bones to others, some of whom were good friends of mine.

Most of the emphasis in these projects seems to be on placating congress more than anyone else.  The monitoring and evaluation department called the shots most of the time, demanding that the field staff just “get the numbers.”  In other words, if congress says to train 1,000 farmers, then go train 1,000 farmers, regardless if that is in the best interest of the people being trained.

I have one particularly vivid memory of arguing fiercely with the head of one of the sub-contractors responsible for the horticulture segment of the project.  I said that we were wasting our time by working with small-time juice processors and needed to focus our attention on the big guys.  He insisted that working with small processors – none of whom had the business acumen, capacity, or capital to scale – was the only way.  After we reached an impasse, he walked inside and brought back a piece of paper, which he slammed down on the table in front of me.  It was a list of the indicators and targets given to him by ACDI/VOCA, which ultimately came from USAID and the U.S. Congress.  All of them pointed to helping the small guys.  “In this world,” he said, “there is what is, and there is what should be.  Until someone starts paying me for what should be, I am going to give them what is.”

That, for me, summed it all up.  It wasn’t as if this man did not get it.  He knew that what we were doing didn’t make any sense.  It is just that his financial incentives were not aligned with doing what works.  So, unfortunately, he has to do what doesn’t work.

That moment represented the turning point in my opinion of government aid projects.  I detailed my frustrations in a post comparing the emphasis on stats to that of the police department in the TV show “The Wire.” From then on, I began looking for something new.  I wanted to return to something more organic and grassroots, where people were motivated and given the freedom to be creative and proactive.  I decided that Kenya – more specifically, Nairobi – was the place where I could find all that.  So I booked a flight, quit my job, travelled around Ghana for a month, boarded a plane, and set out to become inspired again.

In the next few posts, I will talk about my thoughts on education, social enterprise, and the contrasts between East and West Africa.

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