Tag Archives: development

Advice to the Amateurs: Ignore the Professionals

This is part one of a two-part post about the role of amateurs and professionals in aid and development.

The other day, Develop Economies was asked to move to a different table at the iHub because a European government aid agency would be holding a workshop on gender equality.  Grudgingly, he moved.  They spent the next few hours coming up with ideas on how to “engage the private sector” to develop programs that would empower women to increase their incomes while turning a profit.  If I had to venture a guess, less than a third of the people brainstorming ideas had ever actually held a job outside the civil service.  Needless to say, their ideas didn’t seem grounded in practical reality.

If you read development blogs, as I do from time to time, one consistent theme is animosity among “experts” toward to amateurish do-gooders.  In 2011, Nicholas Kristof, the voice for the voiceless, wrote a long piece in the New York Times magazine titled “The DIY Foreign-Aid Revolution,” in which he highlights the good works of people who decided to give up their day jobs to come up with solutions to problems in the developing world.  The centerpiece is a young lady who develops a low-cost sanitary pad made from local materials for girls who cannot afford or do not have access to other products.  It is a great idea and, if executed well, has the potential to prevent girls from dropping out of school.

One of the major criticisms of articles like this is that Kristof typically focuses on a young American protagonist, and fails to acknowledge the local staff and community-based organizations that making the biggest difference.  It is a fair point, and this development blogger, for one, has defended Nick Kristof on that very issue on multiple occasions.  Yet, this criticism took a backseat to the concept of “do-it-yourself,” amateur foreign aid.  The notion that anyone can change the world caused a backlash among a great many bloggers within the development community.

In an article from Foreign Policy magazine titled “Don’t Try This Abroad,” Dave Algoso, a development worker and blogger who writes “Find What Works,” responded with criticism:

Yet Kristof’s headline is: Do it yourself. Bring the same attitude you would have toward re-painting the living room or installing a new faucet. After all, how hard can it be? The developing world is like your buddy’s garage. Why not just pop in, figure things out, and start hammering away?

But in this field, amateurs don’t just hurt themselves. A project that misunderstands the community or mismanages that crucial relationship can undermine local leaders, ultimately doing harm to the very people it was meant to help. There are also opportunity costs when funding could have been used better. Every dollar spent on PlayPumps or an unnecessary orphanage could be spent on other, better interventions in the same communities. My advice is to hire a professional. And if you want to do this work yourself, become a professional.

Despite all my complaints, I think Kristof’s article does some good if it convinces more people to pursue international development as a career. We all start as amateurs. The difference is whether we seek to learn more or assume that we can just start doing something, muddling through as we go. The “DIY foreign aid” concept might spur a few people to launch ill-advised ventures that eat up scarce resources and get in the way of better efforts, but it might also convince a few others to read a couple books, go to graduate school, get jobs with professional aid organizations, and spend their whole careers making a real impact.

I enjoy Algoso’s blog and admire the fact that he has committed himself to this work, but I have to disagree with his main points.  He cites the example of PlayPumps, an infamous example of how DIY foreign aid projects can go awry.  A South African billboard advertising executive and couple of engineers developed a playwheel to be placed in rural communities that would actually pump water out of the ground as kids played.  A huge amount of money was invested in developing Play Pumps and installing them in villages around Africa.  Unfortunately, they were expensive and, as with most aid projects, once the funding dried up, so did the maintenance, causing them to lie idle and break down frequently.  By most accounts, the organization, while well-intentioned, was a failure.

While many of my loyal readers may have never heard of Play Pumps, the organization actually relates to how I became involved in this work.  Back in 2006, when I was 22 and living at home after college, I sat down to watch an episode of Frontline World with my mom.  In this episode, Frontline highlighted the works of two fledgling social enterprises that had the potential to put a real dent in poverty in Africa.  One of them was Play Pumps.  The other was a small tech non-profit based in San Francisco called Kiva.  The latter organization was founded by Matt Flannery, a programmer at PayPal, and Jessica Jackley, an MBA student at Stanford – hardly the profile of microfinance or international development experts.  At the time, they had a handful of partners in Africa and had built a platform to allow their friends and extended network to lend money to women who did not have access to banks.

I thought it was an amazing idea and, at the time, I thought to my unemployed self: “I’m going to work for them.” Unfortunately, I didn’t know anything about finance, business, computer science, or anything else that might be useful for an organization like Kiva.  Plus, I didn’t have any money and couldn’t afford to volunteer.  So I took a job in what one might call the private sector and, after three years, applied for a fellowship with Kiva, where I would represent Kiva on the ground at one of their partner institutions.  By that time, they had grown to over $100 million in loans and over 100 partners.  I flew to San Francisco for a one-week training on microfinance, quit my job, and moved to the Philippines.

Since then, I spent nine months working in microfinance in the Philippines and another six months working in agriculture in Ghana before moving to Nairobi to work for an education company.  There is no doubt in my mind that, had I tried to work for Kiva in 2006, I would never have learned certain things that are valued by the organizations I have worked with in Asia and Africa.  If I had gone back to school and gotten my masters degree in international development with no real substantive job experience, I would have been all but worthless to the microfinance institution I was sent to work with.

My story is hardly unique.  Out here in Kenya, I see former lawyers, software programmers, investment bankers, management consultants, journalists, engineers, college students, product managers, teachers, physicians, and tech entrepreneurs starting and working for very cool companies that are making a difference.  None of them are “experts” – in fact, nearly all of them come from the private sector in their previous lives.  And if they had taken the advice of some development bloggers, they, like me, would still be at home.

These people are what the development economist Bill Easterly calls “searchers.”

In foreign aid, we see the follies of planners manifest in numerous ways. Mosquito nets, medicine, and food are often traded away to support non-necessities or vices. On-the-ground habits, lifestyles, and environmental conditions often spread diseases faster than medicine or recommended methods can contain them. Even when real, entrepreneurial spirit is successfully channeled, there is often no infrastructure to competitively bring certain products to market.

At the end of the day, the clearest and most simple demonstration of the failure of planners is that after billions of dollars in aid and systematic tweaking, there appears to be no real or lasting change in the developing countries in question (at least, not attributable to aid). In fact, many countries appear to be getting worse.

It seems reasonable, then, that the answers for developing countries can be found by tapping the searchers therein — the entrepreneurs, the missionaries, the workers, the teachers, and the students. Instead of seeing the people in these countries as victims, our policies need to focus on empowering them as individuals. We need to focus on their potential, not their limitations.

The searchers don’t necessarily listen to the professionals.   Instead, they came out here – just as the “amateurs” criticized by the community of aid bloggers did – and got to work implementing their own ideas and vision.  They seek inspiration and guidance from a broader range of sources.   And, for the most part, they have pretty successful, picking up the requisite anthropological knowledge along the way.

In my next post, I will discuss why amateurs bring a fresh perspective to development, and why that is so important.


The Awareness Dilemma: How Nicholas Kristof Gets Us to Care

For those who do not know, Nicholas Kristof is an incurable optimist who writes a column for the New York Times on aid, development, foreign policy, and all things related.  In a video posted to his blog, he took questions from readers.  The author of one development blog point out that most of Kristof’s articles follow a standard narrative that: “one that often focused on the foreign, typically American “savior” helping the poor Africans in need, to the exclusion of efforts of black Africans themselves to bring about change on the ground.”  It is a good question, since most of the development workers in this world making things happen are locals, not foreigners.  Here is Mr. Kristof’s response:

I do take your point. That very often I do go to developing countries where local people are doing extraordinary work, and instead I tend to focus on some foreigner, often some American, who’s doing something there.

And let me tell you why I do that. The problem that I face — my challenge as a writer — in trying to get readers to care about something like Eastern Congo, is that frankly, the moment a reader sees that I’m writing about Central Africa, for an awful lot of them, that’s the moment to turn the page. It’s very hard to get people to care about distant crises like that.

One way of getting people to read at least a few paragraphs in is to have some kind of a foreign protagonist, some American who they can identify with as a bridge character.

And so if this is a way I can get people to care about foreign countries, to read about them, ideally, to get a little bit more involved, then I plead guilty.

I think this is a pretty thoughtful and right-on response.  Continue reading

The Development Umbrella: Systems Trump Solutions

William Easterly is a development economist who runs the blog Aidwatchers.   When I read his posts, I imagine an exasperated and pragmatic man who has had it up to here with people misunderstanding and oversimplifying the problems he has devoted his life to solving.  His latest post, titled “The Answer is 42! Why Development is About Problem-Solving Systems, Not Solutions” fits this category well.   He explains exactly why some things work and some things don’t, and reveals the key to creating long-term solutions.

Here’s why direct solutions to problems cannot foster development. Each direct solution depends on lots of other complementary factors, so the solutions can seldom be generalized across different settings; Solutions must fit each local context. Solutions that generate the highest payoff in each setting should be a higher priority than the lowest payoff solutions. Since there is little or no feedback on how well each solution is working in each local situation, there is little possibility for any such adjustments.

Continue reading

China and Poverty Alleviation: The Case for a Strongman

On Monday, the Philippines will hold a national election.  It is the first time the country will be using an automatic voting system, and nobody knows what is going to happen.  It seems appropriate to include this post before the election is over.  For more on the candidates, check out this BBC News primer.

Over the last four decades, the economic landscape in Southeast and East Asia has shifted.  After World War II, the Philippines had the second largest economy in Asia (behind Japan).  Years of mismanagement, corruption, and poor government policies dragged the economy down during the 70’s and 80’s.  The policies of Ferdinand Marcos, a strongman who imposed martial law on the country until 1981, depressed economic growth during his years in power.  Isolated incidents, including a severe recession in 1984 and the Asian financial crisis in 1997, put further downward pressure on the economy, hampering progress after reforms in the 1990’s.  Even now, the period of optimistic economic growth which President Gloria Arroyo has attributed to herself is, in reality, a result of remittances from abroad, which account for 11% of GDP.  All of this has led to a national poverty incidence of 40%.

Compare this with China.  In the 1981 the poverty incidence in East Asia was 85%.  Over the last 30 years, China has enacted economic reforms designed to drive the poverty level of the country down.  As of 2005, the poverty incidence in East Asia had fallen to 16%.  This decline of 600 million people is attributable almost exclusively to China.   The chart to the right shows something amazing: when you remove China from the picture, the percentage of people living on $1 and $2 per day has remained essentially flat over the last 20 years.  Since 1990, China has accounted for almost all of all of the poverty alleviation in the world.  Why has China done such a good job of pulling its people out of poverty, while the number of poor seems to stay relatively consistent in the Philippines?  The system of governance espoused by the two countries over the last 30 years is at least part of the answer. Continue reading

A New Way Forward on Global Development

The Obama Administration recognizes that the successful pursuit of development is essential to our security, prosperity, and values.  In a world shaped by growing global economic integration and the fragmentation of political power; by the rise of emerging powers and the persistent weakness of fragile states; and the potential borne of globalization and risks posed by transnational threats, development is a strategic imperative to the United States.  Our investments in development – and the policies we pursue that support development – can facilitate the stabilization of countries emerging from conflict, address poverty that is a common denominator in the myriad of challenge we face, foster increased global growth, and reinforce the universal values we aim to advance.” – A New Way Forward on Global Development

This is an excerpt from the opening paragraph of a memo leaked to Foreign Policy magazine the other day.  It is a draft version of the National Security Council’s Presidential Study Directive on Global Development Policy (PSD-7).  The 7-page documents details plans for an overhaul of U.S. approach to development and foreign aid.  I am still reading through the document and the commentaries that have already been posted, but the approval ratings from the development community have so far been positive.  My first thoughts are that the document is classic Obama: simple and pragmatic, intuitive and ambitious.  It proposes consolidating the fragmented government agencies to reduce waste, bringing more accountability to aid distribution by applying quantifiable metrics to programs and investing in those with a proven return, and building in-country capacity to produce sustainable solutions.  In a world of limited resources and an industry with a reputation for squandering those resources, the report proposes selectively choosing sectors that yield the most far-reaching and broad results.  Simultaneously, the U.S. will hold countries responsible for keeping up their end of the bargain by utilizing funds appropriately.  The U.S. will take a multi-lateral approach, working with other foreign governments, NGOs, philanthropy organizations to divide the labor and financing according to sector expertise.  Lastly, the U.S. will create a new “modern architecture” to ensure that government agencies are working in tandem.  Continue reading

Industrial Agriculture and Solutions to World Hunger

In this essay, the author discusses the right approach to combating the problem of hunger – an attribute shared by closed to 900 million people worldwide.  He takes issue with the arugula-eating liberal elites, like Food First, a California-based organization that opposes the technological advancements of the Green Revolution.   Modern improvements in agricultural technology and sciences create higher crop yields.  When land ownership is limited to a few hectares, it is critical to maximize the output on these small plots,  which is what industrial improvements in agriculture enable.   It is true that there are downsides to the Green Revolution, including further marginalization of subsistence farmers and, in some regions, a widening of the income gap in the agricultural community.  But what cannot be said about this approach is that the food it produces is either inferior to organically-grown crops or that the process is any less sustainable.  Industrial technologies, chemical fertilizers, and improved seeds generate more food, feeding more mouths, reducing malnutrition and generating income.

Poverty — caused by the low income productivity of farmers’ labor — is the primary source of hunger in Africa, and the problem is only getting worse. The number of “food insecure” people in Africa (those consuming less than 2,100 calories a day) will increase 30 percent over the next decade without significant reforms, to 645 million, the U.S. Agriculture Department projects.

What’s so tragic about this is that we know from experience how to fix the problem. Wherever the rural poor have gained access to improved roads, modern seeds, less expensive fertilizer, electrical power, and better schools and clinics, their productivity and their income have increased. But recent efforts to deliver such essentials have been undercut by deeply misguided (if sometimes well-meaning) advocacy against agricultural modernization and foreign aid. Continue reading

Sleeping in the Bed You Make

“If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose- because it contains all the others- the fact that they were the people who created the phrase to make money. No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity- to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created.” – Ayn Rand

Wine on the beach tastes better when it's stolen.

I read this week that the victims of supervillains Bernie Madoff and R. Allen Stanford have joined forces to lobby congress to compensate them for their losses.  There are few people I have less sympathy for than the wealthy victims of a Ponzi scheme.  These are not people whose homes were destroyed in a flood.  They are not women whose husbands have died unexpectedly, leaving them widowed and poor.  Rather, they willingly gave their money to a crook who duped them into believing he could do what anyone with a basic understanding of the stock market knows is a mathematical impossibility.  With consistent annual returns of 10-12%, why bother with a savings?  Whether or not they were greedy, they participated in something called the market.  And as sure as day becomes night, the market rises and falls.  The victims knew this.  When it all came tumbling down, I’m sure it was a tough pill to swallow. Continue reading