How to Get America Back on Track



In my last post, I discussed the unfortunate state of affairs in the United States today. From a pre-industrial agrarian economy controlled by wealthy landowners, to an era of industrialization marked by the creation of a middle class and a period of prosperity, and ultimately a post-industrial phase where the middle is systematically being hollowed out and the extremes once again dominate the landscape, the United States finds itself at a crossroads. The country can ignore the state of affairs or rationalize it as a byproduct of modernization, continue along its current path, where increasing income stratification creates an oligarchy controlled by wealthy elites from a few key sectors – financial services and petrochemicals, to name a few. Or, it can collectively come to terms with the fact that the country has fundamentally changed over the last four decades in ways that demand significant political and culture reform.

Identifying the problems is not sufficient. With that in mind, I want to propose solutions that address what I consider to be the root causes. The criteria is that they be practical, yet attainable. They are ambitious reforms that include a mix of proposals embraced by Democrats, Republicans, or both (or neither). While they are achievable legislatively, I am ignoring the political horsetrading and gamesmanship that would be required to have them pass.

What’s Next

The thirty years leading up to 2008 are generally considered to be a period of prosperity in the U.S. A few cyclical recessions aside, the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s were marked by solid GDP growth and a strong increase in the overall wealth of the country. Yet, with the outsourcing of labor-intensive jobs (and the weakening of labor unions in the manufacturing sectors that remained) and the overall movement toward a service-based economy, dominated by a fast-growing financial sector, income gains largely went to the top 10% of earners, with a disproportionate share going to the top 1%. Simultaneously, short-sighted economic policies designed to control government spending steadily dismantled much of the social welfare system – a trend that continues today at an accelerating pace, with family planning and food stamps as the most recent victims of the guillotine.


Some of this was inevitable. The depletion of the middle class is a byproduct of globalization. On a global scale, it is actually a good thing, as developing countries reap the benefits of burgeoning manufacturing sectors. The result will be the greatest migration out of poverty the world has ever seen. But there is no denying that the U.S. itself will be worse off. More specifically, the low-wage workers, the urban minorities, the recent immigrants, the rural whites, the high school-educated, and all of the other would-be chasers of the elusive American dream will find fewer opportunities in this new world, and their struggles will only get worse.

So the question remains: what can we do about it? If we are undergoing a systemic change at a global level, is the situation hopeless? The answer to the second question is no. The answer to the first question is the subject of this post.

Why Tax Reform Makes Sense

On the most basic level, an economy – whether a nation or a household – is a self-contained entity in which goods and services are exchanged. In a modern economy, the medium of exchange is money – a fiat currency issued by a central bank that regulates its volume and the cost of borrowing it. When economies trade with one another, money either comes in or goes out. Rather than trying to do everything, economies specialize in whatever they are best at doing, relative to their peers. On the most basic level, you pay a plumber to fix your pipes or a carpenter to build your cabinets because it doesn’t make sense for you to do those things yourself. Instead, you earn money by specializing in what you do, and use the money generated from your expertise to pay others who specialize in something else. On a much higher level, nations specialize in broad industries. Manufacturing in Germany, financial services in Switzerland, carmaking in Japan, and electronics in South Korea are all examples of what is known as competitive advantage – where countries excel in particular sectors and trade with one another.

Within larger economies, there are smaller economies – the household, the community, the city, the state, etc. – that also trade with one another. The doctor provides care for patients and decides to re-do his kitchen. He hires a general contractor, who subcontracts to an electrician, a painter, a plumber, and a carpenter, all of whom purchase materials at Home Depot, which employes hourly workers and buys products wholesale from equipment manufacturers, which hire truck drivers and warehouse workers to move pallets. All of these people buy food from the grocery store and clothing from retailers. They buy cars and houses and school supplies. And all of those products – known as “durable goods” – that used to be manufactured here in the U.S., are now made overseas. And the people who used to make them have find new jobs, which are now in shorter supply.

So why does any of this matter? Because money moves around an economy is when people spend it. After the financial crisis, the Bush administration send every American a check for $600 so that they would get out and spend it. The much-maligned stimulus package and the tactic called “quantitative easing” – otherwise known as printing money – are both massive efforts to get people to spend money. There is a term in economics called velocity, which is the number of times a dollar changes hands during a year. The velocity of money describes the speed with which people are spending money, and, in general, faster is better.

Chart showing the log of US M2 money velocity (green), calculated by dividing nominal GDP by M2 stock, M1 plus time deposits 1959–2010. Employment-to-population ratio is displayed in blue, and periods of recession are represented with gray bars).

Chart showing the log of US M2 money velocity (green), calculated by dividing nominal GDP by M2 stock, M1 plus time deposits 1959–2010. Employment-to-population ratio is displayed in blue, and periods of recession are represented with gray bars).

So when the economy is moribund and fewer people are reaping the benefits of broader economic prosperity, the solution is to spend money. And the people who spend the most money, as a percentage of their income, are the ones who have very little. As I mentioned in my last post, the bottom 20% of earners spend more than 60% of their income on clothing and housing. After food, schooling, car payments, and other incidental expenses, they have very little left to save, much less invest in the future. To make ends meet, these individuals take on debt, which traps them in an escalating spiral of interest payments that culminate in eviction and bankruptcy. Not many people are aware of debt agreement plans, the awareness of which might have solved the issues with bankruptcy.

In short, the best way to increase the velocity of money in an economy is to put it in the hands of people who have very little, because they will spend every last penny. And the people they buy goods and services from will, in turn, spend that money at the same pace. In contrast, the best way to slow the velocity of money is to give it to people with nothing to spend it on.

It is this insight that leads liberal economists to the conclusion that taxing the rich is the solution to the problem. I don’t fully agree with this point. There is a legitimate case to be made that excessive taxes on the rich create a perverse incentive toward investment. I am not advocating raising taxes on ordinary income for the top quintile of earners. But there is another road.

In my next post, I will explain what that I believe that road looks like, from a financial and economic policy perspective.


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The Convergence: America’s Long Arc of Development

The following is a four-part post about the phases of the economic development of nations – pre-industrial, industrial, post-industrial – and a discussion of the current state of affairs in the United States and the world.

Part I: How Countries Develop

For all of their differences, countries, and even civilizations, follow a similar path in their development. The timeline and specifics vary from nation to nation, but the general formula remains constant. On a high level, poor countries become rich through industrialization. The Renaissance in Europe, the Industrial Revolution in the United States, and the era of outsourcing – services in India, manufactured goods in China, and raw materials in Brazil – are all examples of the broad arc of economic development in once-poor nations. Mechanization produces efficiencies that make a country’s exports more competitive. When the value of exports exceed that of imports, it creates a trade surplus, also called a “favorable balance of trade”, as it brings more foreign currency into the country and generally makes the country richer.

As countries become richer and more industrialized, the economy shifts toward producing value-added goods. The wealth increase strengthens the currency of the country, and skilled – and unskilled – workers demand higher wages. As a result, labor-intensive industries become less competitive, leading rich countries to outsource these jobs to poorer countries. In the 1600’s, Colonial America traded cash crops and raw materials for finished goods from England – one of the factors leading up to the American Revolution. As the U.S. became richer post-WWII, it began outsourcing its labor-intensive industries to China and India. And today, these two countries are vying for influence and access to raw materials and cheap labor in a modern scramble for Africa.

Clark's Sector model for US economy 1850 -2009.

Clark’s Sector model for US economy 1850 -2009.

When a country develops in this way, the spoils are more equitably shared, as millions of jobs are created in new industries. From the textile mills in Lowell, to the garment factories in Bangladesh, to the manufacturing facilities springing up in Ethiopia and South Africa, a generation of previously unemployed people starts to work, fueled by demand from wealthier countries for more finished goods. And those new additions to the workforce are introduced to one of the perks of earning a decent wage: paying your taxes.

In pre-industrial nations, income is highly stratified, with an ultra-wealthy elite wielding a disproportionate amount of both political and economic power. On the other extreme, a huge percentage of the population is impoverished, rarely sharing in the spoils of the natural resource contracts that enrich the elites. The only voices that matter are those with access to money and influence, and the poor are marginalized, resigned to the realities of corrupt politicians and unscrupulous businessmen stifling growth and progress in the country.

As a country industrializes, however, the inexpensive labor provided by the massive percentage of the population living below the poverty line enables those disenfranchised segments by creating a middle class. With greater disposable income, poorer families can invest in education, ensuring that their children will reap the benefits of development by ushering in the inevitable move toward value-added goods that immediately follows industrialization. And that middle class – which pays a percentage of its hard-earned money in taxes – starts to demand accountability from its political leaders. As the concentration of wealth shrinks, the broader population begins demanding greater freedoms. A free press develops to satisfy the new-found demand for information, and politicians are brought out of the shadows and into the light.

A more responsive government and an expanded treasury lead to investments in infrastructure, education, healthcare, and other institutions, laying the groundwork for the shift to post-industrialization. With the foundation in place, the country steadily moves up the ladder. The call center that once offered only customer service now offers accounting, IT, and financial services. The t-shirt manufacturer becomes a fashion house. And with each step, the country becomes richer.

A snapshot of a post-industrial economy. Sectors of the US Economy as percent of GDP 1947-2009.

A snapshot of a post-industrial economy. Sectors of the US Economy as percent of GDP 1947-2009.

And what happens to this newly-created middle class? As their income increases, the percentage spent on food, clothing, and housing decline. Their buying power increases, their lifespan becomes longer, and the shocks that once destroyed their lives – an illness left untreated, a drought that destroyed their crops, a civil war erupting out of desperation – decrease, enabling them to not only invest more money in themselves – in the form of better healthcare, better schools, better houses – but also free them from the debilitating stress generated by uncertainty. Not knowing where your next meal is coming from, or whether your daughter will be able to survive a bout of typhoid, or malaria, or tuberculosis, weighs on the poor, deeply affecting their decision-making. Short-term thinking becomes long-term planning, and the whole country is better off as a result.

At some point – when a country has reached this transcendental state of development – it begins a steady decline. Some thinkers for whom I have a tremendous amount of respect, like Fareed Zakaria, describe a “post-American world” marked not by the decline of the west, but the “rise of the rest”. For a time, I agreed with his conclusions. But lately I’m beginning to think that view is a shade too optimistic.

Part II: The Great Divergence

The Great Divergence: share of income by the top 10% of the population in the U.S.

The Great Divergence: share of income by the top 10% of the population in the U.S.

It is hard to pinpoint the moment at which America turned the corner and began its march to peak decadence and subsequent decline. If you ascribe to what some economist call “The Great Divergence,” the trend began in the late 1970’s, as a number of convergent forces changed the economy of the United States. This is right around the time the U.S. began outsourcing its manufacturing sector in response to the increase in standard of living that I described above. James Surowiecki of the New Yorker explains the trend:

In 1960, the country’s biggest employer, General Motors, was also its most profitable company and one of its best-paying. It had high profit margins and real pricing power, even as it was paying its workers union wages. And it was not alone: firms like Ford, Standard Oil, and Bethlehem Steelemployed huge numbers of well-paid workers while earning big profits. Today, the country’s biggest employers are retailers and fast-food chains, almost all of which have built their businesses on low pay—they’ve striven to keep wages down and unions out—and low prices.

Incarcerated Americans as a percentage of the population, 1920-2008

Incarcerated Americans as a % of population, 1920-2008

Simultaneously, just as the middle class was starting to see its job prospects shipped overseas, the most influential conservative president of the last hundred years arrived to reshape the political system to systematically dismantle the welfare state, declare a war on drugs that crippled the socioeconomic development of a generation of African-Americans, and establish an approach to domestic economic policy – colloquially referred to as “Reaganomics” – that sought to restrain the power of the federal government and empower the free market through de-regulation, lower taxes, a tighter money supply and relentless opposition to anything might cause inflation.

President Clinton largely maintained the laissez-faire approach to the economy, presiding over a period of growth and prosperity that continued deep into the Bush years. Then, of course, the inevitable happened: the economy collapsed, having been fueled by a mythical belief that housing prices would never go down. The resulting collapse plunged the global economy into its greatest recession since 1929 – one which it is steadily climbing out of now.

I have purposefully glossed over the last 20 years because the actual events leading up to the collapse – liberal lending policies by the Federal Reserve, de-regulation of the financial sector, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, and other causes – are irrelevant. The financial collapse was a correction back to economy’s original state. It is simply the mechanism by which the truth was exposed. What is more interesting to me now is the current state of affairs. In a nutshell, the economic development trend is not only slowing, or even plateauing. Rather, it is actually happening in reverse.

Part III: The Current State of the Union

The share of income by the top 10% and 1%, respectively

The share of income by the top 10% and 1%, respectively

Income inequality – which decreased during the era of industrialization – is on the rise again. As money and power become more concentrated, fewer individuals enjoy the spoils of prosperity. Wealth concentration in isolated communities exacerbate already appalling disparities in our education system. In a 2012 study, the OECD (Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development) quantified the relative performance of students in the 33 high- and middle-income countries. Among 16-24 year olds, the United States ranks dead last in proficiency in numeracy. In other words, rather than investing in creating a highly-skilled workforce that will enable the country to thrive in that post-industrial economy, it allows any advantage it once had to slip away, damaging the prospects of future generations.

And what about on a microeconomic level? Remember how the poor in pre-industrial nations spend a disproportionate amount of their income on food, clothing, and housing, leaving them vulnerable to financial shocks? Well, that is happening again too. Derek Thomson of The Atlantic provides a sobering analysis of the realities from the Bureau of Labor Statistics:

For the poor, food, clothes, and housing account for more than 60 percent of all spending. The rich have more left over for leisure, insurance, and savings.

The term consumption takes on a more literal meaning when you see the difference between rich and poor spending. Cash-hungry families consume more of their income immediately, spending two in three dollars on absolute essentials like food and shirts. The rich are more predisposed to spend toward the future, with eight-times more of their income going toward insurance and even more going toward savings (although the bottom 20 percent includes lots of retirees on Social Security, the next quintile doesn’t see much in the way of savings either).

There has been a good amount of research recently about how being poor changes your thinking about everything. “If you have very little, you often behave in such a way so that you’ll have little in the future,” Sendhil Mullainathan recently told Harold Pollack in Wonkblog. The poor don’t plan as much for the coming years, because they can’t afford to.

Thinking about the future is a form of luxury.

The percentage of income spent by category for the rich and poor

The percentage of income spent by category.

Why is this important? Aren’t we living in an era of unprecedented prosperity? Yes and no. If you are one of the 2.4 billion people living on less than $2 a day, life is hopefully going to get better for you. You will benefit from the broader trend of globalization and general connectedness of the modern world, by which information and goods flow more freely, regardless of borders. But if you are lower middle class, or, even worse, already poor in America, life is about to get a lot worse.

That is because this trend will continue. The concentration of wealth will only become more pronounced. The Citizens United decision, coupled with the recent Supreme Court decision to strike down the overall political donation cap, will only reinforce the increasingly disproportionate power the wealthy have over the American political system. This sad turn of events brings us one step closer to that pre-industrial political landscape, where the ultra-elite control the government.

Each of these developments bring us closer and closer to our origins as a pre-industrial country.

Part IV: The Future

This long arc of our historical development lead us to one inevitable truth, articulated nicely by the Nobel prize-winning economist, Joseph Stiglitz:

Nowadays, these numbers show that the American dream is a myth. There is less equality of opportunity in the United States today than there is in Europe – or, indeed, in any advanced industrial country for which there are data.

This is one of the reasons that America has the highest level of inequality of any of the advanced countries – and its gap with the rest has been widening. In the “recovery” of 2009-2010, the top 1% of US income earners captured 93% of the income growth. Other inequality indicators – like wealth, health, and life expectancy – are as bad or even worse. The clear trend is one of concentration of income and wealth at the top, the hollowing out of the middle, and increasing poverty at the bottom.

At the end of his article, Stiglitz says that it is not too late for the American dream to be restored. To that point, I believe it is important that we collectively remember our roots – not as individuals, but as a country, and even a civilization. Remember that we all started from humble beginnings and invested in ourselves to ensure that we provided future generations the resources and skills to thrive in a changing world. Because not only will that ensure that we as a country are caring for one another the way that a country should, but also, from a more realpolitik standpoint, income inequality leads to greater economic instability, and a higher risk that we tumble down the chasm yet again.

There is another alternative: that we do nothing, and the trend continues, expanding the gap between what the creator of the show, The Wire, David Simon calls the “Two Americas.” In a speech given at the Festival of Dangerous Ideas in 2013, Simon explains ones manifestation of these two options:

So how does it get better? In 1932, it got better because they dealt the cards again and there was a communal logic that said nobody’s going to get left behind. We’re going to figure this out. We’re going to get the banks open. From the depths of that depression a social compact was made between worker, between labour and capital that actually allowed people to have some hope.

We’re either going to do that in some practical way when things get bad enough or we’re going to keep going the way we’re going, at which point there’s going to be enough people standing on the outside of this mess that somebody’s going to pick up a brick, because you know when people get to the end there’s always the brick. I hope we go for the first option but I’m losing faith.

Like David Simon, I’m losing faith. I hope that we as a society can stand up and recognize this broader trend. In the opening song of the seminal Dead Prez album Let’s Get Free, “Wolves”, the narrator uses an interesting parable to explain how African-Americans in inner cities have been systematically disenfranchised and sabotaged by crack cocaine, the police state, and the prison-industrial complex:

I’m not a hunter but I am told, that, uh, in places like in the arctic, where indigenous people sometimes might, might, hunt a wolf, they’ll take a double edged blade, and they’ll put blood on the blade, and they’ll melt the ice and stick the handle in the ice, so that only the blade is protruding, and that a wolf will smell the blood and wants to eat, and it will come and lick the blade trying to eat, and what happens is when the wolf licks the blade, of course, he cuts his tongue, and he bleeds, and he thinks he’s really having a good thing, and he drinks and he licks and he licks, and of course he is drinking his own blood and he kills himself.

Paul Ryan, a disciple of Ayn Rand, who believed that faith is detrimental to human life, speaking at the Value Voters summit.

Paul Ryan, a disciple of Ayn Rand, who believed that faith is detrimental to human life, speaking at the Value Voters summit.

I would argue that that is what is happening to everyone. People are tricked to vote against their own self-interest after being whipped up into a frenzy about gay marriage, abortion, and other inconsequential issues.  “Look over over there,” while I reach into your pocket and steal your wallet. The party of Christianity and family values is the same party that votes against expanding healthcare, that votes against supporting the poor, that votes for the corporation that pollutes its rivers and destroys its communities. In the Dead Prez analogy, “social issues” are the blood, and economics are the blade.

Can we reverse this trend? I don’t know. I would like to hope that this is not the new world order. But, unfortunately, very little as of late has given me reason to think otherwise.


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The Ethical Obligations of Writing About Poverty and Conflict

The district Kailahun, where the crisis in Sierra Leone began. (Credit: Caroline Thomas)

The district Kailahun, where the crisis in Sierra Leone began. (Credit: Caroline Thomas)

I. A Long Way Gone

The other day I finished reading “A Long Way Gone”, the autobiography of Ishmael Beah, a child soldier during the country’s civil in the 1990’s. After his village was attacked by the rebel army known as the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), Beah remained in a small town called Mattru Jong, before fleeing another attack. Eventually, he made his way across the country to a village controlled by the national army, where he becomes a drug-addicted soldier who murders and tortures people who are unfortunate enough to find themselves in his path. After two years as a soldier, he was rescued by UNICEF, brought to the capitol city of Freetown, and rehabilitated. But the rebels soon invaded the capital, and Beah fled to the U.S., where he was taken in by a woman he’d met while speaking at the UN a year earlier.

The story is raw and violent. The book became a hit, selling well over a million copies and launching a career for Ishmael Beah as an advocate for child soldiers around the world. He has spoken before the UN and other international bodies, started an charity group called Children Affected by War (CAW), and become the most famous advocate for child soldiers in the world.

Yet, as it turns out, his story may not actually be true. In 2008 – a year after the book was published – an Australian newspaper published a 4,000 word expose claiming that the attack on Mattru Jong, which kicked off a chain of events leading to him becoming a soldier, occurred in 1995, not 1993 as he had claimed. This would mean that he was only a soldier for a few months, rather than the two years he discusses in the book. Beah and his publisher denied the accusations, and the two groups have been trading barbs back and forth ever since.

The specifics of the chronology are not that important. There are plenty of explanations, not least of which is that a 13 year-old addicted to drugs and brainwashed to kill might be granted a little leeway in ability to recall specific memories. But it did get me thinking about the role of narrative in shining a light on things that might otherwise go unseen.

II. Nicholas Kristof and the “Bridge Character”

This is a topic I have written about extensively in the past. At the time, I watched international development experts criticize Nicholas Kristof for writing stories that oversimplified complex conflicts and using “bridge characters” to widen the story’s appeal. Kristof would distill the war in the DRC to a fight over natural resources, leaving out the messier parts about the oppression by the Belgians during the colonial era, or the assassination of Patrice Lumumba and the installation of pro-Western dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, who drove the country into ruin, or, most recently, the fact that much of current conflict might be traced back to the Rwandans, who, up until a few months ago, were the darling of the international development community. If he took the time to explain the Byzantine web of cause and effect, people would simply tune out and go back to not being able to point out the DRC on a map, much less empathize for its people.

For writers like Kristof, good intentions justify the means. If you have 750 words every week through which you need to convince an audience of millions to care about something they don’t have the patience to really understand, then you do everything you can to pull at the heartstrings of your readers and draw them in not with discussions about the roots of the conflict, but about the young, usually white, recent college graduate who started a clinic serving victims of the war. Through their story, people begin to pay attention.

In an interview with Outside magazine, he explains how he decided to frame his stories the way he does:

So I turned to the field of social psychology, trying to understand how I could craft my writing so that it would generate a response rather than a turned page. Over the past 20 years, there have been many studies that shed light on this question, and, increasingly, I’ve come to believe that those of us who care about human rights and global poverty can do a far better job in our messaging. Like Pepsi, humanitarian causes need savvy marketing. Indeed, they need it far more than a soft-drink company.

Good people engaging in good causes sometimes feel too pure and sanctified to sink to something as manipulative as marketing, but the result has been that women have been raped when it could have been avoided and children have died of pneumonia unnecessarily—because those stories haven’t resonated with the public. So for God’s sake, let’s learn how we can connect people to important causes and galvanize a robust public reaction.

I think he has a good point. The cause du jour is often not always the one the demands the most immediate attention.

People demonstrate violently in the street in Bangui, demanding that President Djotodia steps down following the murder of a magistrate shot dead the night before. 30 minutes later, the Séléka arrived and fired into the crowd, killing two men and wounded one.  (Credit: William Daniels)

People demonstrate violently in the street in Bangui, demanding that President Djotodia steps down following the murder of a magistrate shot dead the night before. 30 minutes later, the Séléka arrived and fired into the crowd, killing two men and wounded one. (Credit: William Daniels)

Everyone, for example, knows about the civil war in Syria, which does not even have significant advocates. But very few people, I would guess, know that the Central African Republic, a small country in a conflict-ridden region of Africa, is about to explode into civil war, prompting fears of genocide and mass murder. This report is from the Guardian newspaper last week:

A massacre of the innocents is taking place in the heart of Africa as the world looks the other way.

One man describes how his four-year-old son’s throat was slit, and how he saw a snake swallowing a baby. A woman explains that she is caring for a young girl because her mother went searching for medicine and was bludgeoned to death with Kalashnikov rifles. A young man tells how he was bound and thrown to the crocodiles, but managed to swim to safety.

This is the world of horrors that the Central African Republic (CAR) has become. Thousands of people are dying at the hands of soldiers and militia gangs or from untreated diseases such as malaria. Boys and girls as young as eight are pressganged into fighting between Christians and Muslims. There are reports of beheadings and public execution-style killings. Villages are razed to the ground.

Never much more than a phantom state, the CAR has sucked in thousands of mercenaries from neighbouring countries and, France warned on Thursday, now stands “on the verge of genocide“. Yet many would struggle to find the country on a map, despite the clue in its afterthought name.

If you count yourself among the few people who knew this story, consider yourself among the most informed in the world. But, as I will explain in the next section, graphic descriptions of conflicts can sometimes become controversial as well.

III. The Fog of War in the DRC

A friend of mine, Laura Heaton, wrote an article for Foreign Policy magazine a year ago called “What Happened in Luvingi?” It is about her trip to a rural village in the DRC that had been attacked by a rebel group, which allegedly raped 387 women over the course of the four-day attack. The conflict in the Kivu region of the Eastern DRC was notable for its violence, yet even by these standards, this was exceptinally brutal. Even worse, there was a group of UN Peacekeepers stationed nearby that failed to protect the village.

The village of Luvungi in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The village of Luvungi in the Democratic Republic of Congo

The event galvanized a massive response from the interational community. In many ways, it was a bellwether moment in the conflict, drawing the spotlight to rape as a devastating tool of war. It highlighted the ineffectiveness of the UN and its Peacekeeper program, and brought huge attention to the conflict as a whole.

When my friend went to the village three years later to investigate, she spoke to the village elders, who told her much of what she already knew, but refused to let her speak to any of the women. That night, her translator spoke to one of the women who had allegedly been raped and discovered something startling. It turns out, much of what was claimed never actually happened.

In reality, there were probably a few instances of rape, though it was probably closer to 10 than the 400 that was claimed. But by inflating the numbers, the notoriety generated by the event generated a tremendous amount of support for the community, in the form of money, healthcare, and supplies. If the true story came out, it would mean an end to all that.

This is an example of the slippery slope of hyperbole. Undoubtedly, the horrific nature of these crimes drew the world’s attention toward a problem that, up until that point, it had been able to ignore. The sheer scope of these mass rapes meant that people had to start watching and caring. But, at the same time, this particular village drew resources away from other affected areas that may have needed them more. The same ethical question remains: is exaggeration in the name of raising awareness justified?

IV. The Current State of the Debate

These three anecdotes highlight the complexities of the awareness debate. Does Ishmael Beah risk doing more harm than good to a cause if he exaggerates his experience? Does hyperbolizing an event risk diverting attention away from other, more pressing issues, or does it provoke outrage from people who would never have tuned in in the first place? Does the disproportionate attention given to particularly egregious events, like rape and crimes against children, create perverse incentives from groups in desperate need of support from the international community? These are complex and difficult questions to answer.

In the era of social media – of Twitter, Facebook, and the fast, fleeting, viral stories that circulate – you see general feel-good awareness-raising more and more. The website Upworthy shows feel-good videos of people doing the right thing in the face of adversity, allowing people to feel better and perhaps more informed about certain social issues. The story of Batkid in San Francisco, where 20,000 people helped turn San Francisco into Gotham City to make a five year-old’s wish come true, is another example. These are human issue stories that draw attention to a larger cause, but also, by their very nature, provide a narrow lens through which to view it. Childhood leukemia is something terrible that we should work hard to solve. But perhaps there are other more treatable ailments that are overshadowed by the story.

The marketing of causes by Upworthy.

The marketing of causes by Upworthy.

I think that, on-balance, simplifying issues to give them a wider appeal and increase the likelihood that action will be taken is a good thing. I don’t think that technocrats will base their policy recommendations on the writings of Nicholas Kristof, Bono, and other cause advocates. Instead, I think these advocates provide cover to policy-makers who face an electorate that needs a reason to care about these issues. Similarly, feel-good stories shared on Facebook and Twitter help to make people generally more compassionate. They expose them to real stories that allow them to experience empathy when thinking about controversial issues like gay marriage and immigration reform, where the basic rights of historically-marginalized groups are debated. The threat of being labeled a bigot carries more weight when the threat of your bigotry going viral on Facebook is real.

So, in conclusion, while I would love for the journalism of Jeffrey Gettleman and the research of Esther Duflo to have mainstream appeal, I know that will never be the case. In the meantime, if sharing Upworthy videos on Facebook makes people more compassionate, and Nicholas Kristof and Ishmael Beah inform people about injustices they would never have known otherwise, that is just fine with me.

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Do For-Profit Schools Give Low-Income Children A Real Choice?

At the opening of our school in Embu in May 2012

At the opening of our school in Embu in May 2012

Before reading this, please take a minute to donate to the Ravindra Ramrattan Memorial Fund.  Ravi was killed in the terrorist attack at Westgate Mall in Nairobi on September 21st.  You can read about his story on this blog.  

Bridge International Academies, a chain of low-cost private primary schools based in Nairobi, Kenya, was the subject of a recent episode of All Things Considered on NPR.  I would encourage you to listen to it in full, as the cofounder and my old boss, Shannon May, does a great job of explaining the philosophy of Bridge. The radio segment and accompanying blog post discuss the Bridge model, and highlight a few common criticisms.  Here is one:

“If somebody suggested that kind of an educational model, in this country they would be laughed out of the educational community,” says Ed Gragert, the U.S. director of the Global Campaign for Education, which advocates for increased access to education in the developing world.

“That’s not how kids learn best,” he says. “Kids learn by interacting with each other. It seems like we are going back for the sake of somebody making a profit to where a robot could teach that class.”

I worked as a business analyst with Bridge for a year, where I was responsible for all things data, including longitudinal student performance testing, marketing analytics, and a whole lot of one-off projects.  When I left the company in May 2012, I wrote a five-part post discussing my thoughts on Bridge and its model. Given that I wrote the post 18 months ago, some of the processes, data, and technologies I describe may be a bit dated.  For example, Bridge hadn’t yet rolled out e-readers and was just starting to utilize the smartphone application.

I am reproducing the unedited post here in full.  At the end, I’ve added an updated conclusion that gives my thoughts on the criticisms raised in the NPR segment, and my thoughts on Bridge and the state of education today.


I. The model

After six months learning about agriculture in West Africa and working on a project whose objective was to improve the private sector, I decided to return to the private sector, since the public sector was not very good at making it any better.  I had interviewed with the Acumen Fund for its global fellowship in Nairobi six months prior.  I knew a few folks through my Kiva connections, and began networking for jobs there.  I cold-emailed a few, hit up friends for introductions, and stumbled into an informational interview with Jay, the founder of Bridge International Academies, through a former Kiva Fellow in Benin.  When I told him I was trying to move to Kenya four months later, he said “let’s meet when you get here.”

So, when I got there – actually, 10 hours after I got there – I met with him to discuss the prospect of me working with the company.  The company, as a background, is a chain of low-cost private primary schools serving the slums and low-income communities in Kenya.  When I met him in January, they had just opened their 20th school.  When I met him again in May, they were at 25 schools.  When I left two weeks ago, Bridge had 75 schools throughout Kenya, and is planning on opening another 200 by the end of 2013.

The model is as simple as it is elegant.  Bridge is creating a “school in a box” – a highly standardized, systematized, and replicable model for an individual school, where everything, from the curriculum to the training to the school operations, is designed for scale.  The process begins with market due diligence, where a team of research associates interview 40 households in each community where we are considering opening a school.  We survey the parents to determine whether there is a market for one of our schools.  For the last four months, I worked with the research team, developing an algorithm to predict the size and profitability of each new school, allowing us to determine how much we need to pay for land, how many classrooms we need to build, etc.   I redesigned our research report and, using our enrollment figures from this year, created a rubric based on population density, market size, cost-competitiveness, and the number of competing schools, which gives us a fairly accurate projection of how a school in that community will do.

Once we have approved a community, we scout for suitable plots and negotiate for the land.  Our construction team builds the school, and our training department ensures that teachers are trained and ready to teach by the time our school opens.  The curriculum team – which consists of 40 Kenyan and American educators – script every minute of every lesson, from math to English to science to Kiswahili, which is then delivered to the students by the teachers.  The incentive structure for school managers is based on the number of students they attract to their school, while the teachers are given bonuses based on performance.  All problems at the school – from teacher complaints to requests for water or desks – are routed through an in-house call center, which also makes outgoing calls to schools and teachers to ensure that the ship is running smoothly.  Lastly, the IT department has designed a billing system that allows parents to pay with M-PESA, and a school-management Android smart-phone application that automates much of the payment and performance monitoring at the school level.  All in all, it is a remarkable model.


II. Why is Bridge successful?

I think that one of the reasons that Bridge has been so successful at innovating has been its willingness to bring in a multidisciplinary team to run the show.  People like me, who have no background in education, but a good deal of experience in other areas, bring fresh ideas to an industry that, apart from certain ed-tech companies and charter schools like KIPP, is not known for innovation.  Our head of operations was the former director of business development for Dominoes Pizza in Asia, responsible for introducing the retail chain to a completely new market.  The founders include one successful tech entrepreneur, a division lead at IDEO, the design firm, and an anthropology PhD.  It doesn’t get much more interdisciplinary than that.

Another reason I think it has seen success where others like it have seen failure is that it refuses to accept excuses for poor performance on the part of its employees and vendors, and sees itself first and foremost as service provider that puts its customer first.  As a generality, business in Africa moves more slowly and expectations are sometimes different.  The business culture – with many notable exceptions – is such that the customer is never at the top of the priority list.  The other day, a coworker told me that a vendor to whom we paid a lot of money to perform a service which he performed poorly – was upset that the management was too busy to see him.  “This is an outrage – I am a client,” he said.  The fact that we were, in fact, the client and he the service provider undoubtedly never crossed his mind.

Bridge demands quality from it suppliers, timeliness from its vendors, and results from its employees.  This mentality ensures that the best people for the job are in place, and they can perform their jobs efficiently.  In the NGO world (or at least the ones I have seen), this approach to doing business is hardly, if ever, the norm.   If a deadline is missed, people say “what can we do – it’s Africa time.” Or an NGO holds a conference that only attracts participants for the per diems and lunch provided.  Accountability is not part of the lexicon.  At Bridge, on the other hand, if a vendor screws up the logo on the 1,000 shirts it ordered, it refuses to pay until the mistake is corrected.  It’s only business.

That is because Bridge, above all else, is a business.  It happens to be building low-cost primary schools in slums, but it is first and foremost a profit-oriented enterprise.  If Bridge is going to reach 1,000 schools and one million children in countries around the world, it has to be laser-focused on the bottom-line to succeed.  Drawing from a talented pool of private sector veterans and a founder who started and sold a company in his twenties, Bridge understands this well.

This kind of truly business-minded approach to development is rare, even within the relatively new and trendy industry calling itself “social enterprise.” While many social enterprises – companies that try to turn a profit while doing good – struggle to balance the demands of a double bottom-line, Bridge has create a model where the profit motive is inseparable from the social mission – one cannot exist without the other.  If Bridge students perform poorly on the KCPE exam – the test culminating primary education in Kenya – parents will pull their kids from Bridge schools en masse.  On the other hand, if they perform better than students at other schools, Bridge schools will double in size in a day.

That is because poor parents, just like middle- and upper-income parents, are discerning consumers when it comes to education.  They look for quality and, more importantly, value for the little money they have.  This is generally true for most products and services, but particularly so for education, which parents see as a means of getting out of the slums.  For Bridge to grow, it must be educating its students better than the alternatives in the community – either government schools or other non-formal schools.  In this case, it means ensuring that we outperform other schools – both government and other non-formal schools.


III. The academic foundation of the concept

The Bridge model is a fundamentally libertarian idea.  It is premised on the belief that school choice is a good thing.  Many organizations, including many establishment development titans, believe that education should be a public good, provided free by the government.  This may be true in theory, but, like most development theories, it is rarely true in practice.

For example, Kenya already technically has a free primary education system, where all students, regardless of socioeconomic status, are guaranteed the right to an education at no cost.  Yet, in the slums, where the houses are built illegally, few government schools exist to serve the communities.  And even in areas where public schools do exist, additional fees payable to the head teacher and others mean that parents are paying almost as much for school as they do at Bridge.  Outside of Nairobi, many of the government schools are as close to free as a school can get in Kenya, but they are often overcrowded, far away, and staffed by complacent teachers who are either overburdened with too many students or complacent when it comes to teaching.

Much of the free primary education system in Kenya was subsidized by foreign donors.  But these donors eventually decided to scale back funding after massive corruption scandals were exposed.  In the main Kenyan daily newspaper, the Daily Nation, every day exposes a new corruption scandal.  Needless to say, the state of the government education system is underwhelming at best.

Because of the failures of the government system, thousands of non-formal schools have sprung up throughout the slums to serve these communities.  Education entrepreneurs, churches, NGOs, and other groups build and operate schools to fill the void left by poor state-run education.  While the Global Campaign for Education and others would like to believe that these schools do not exist, they are everywhere.

When people speak and write about Bridge, they credit the company with a radical new approach to education, offering private education as a means of providing quality education.  But Bridge is hardly innovative in this respect.  Non-formal schools like Bridge have existed for decades.  It was not until the early 2000’s that a British academic named James Tooley began seriously researching education in the slums of India, Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, and other countries, and finding bustling schools with hard-working teachers.  He published a book called The Beautiful Tree and several articles for the Cato Institute detailing his findings, which were influential in seeding the idea for Bridge.

Rather, the real innovation Bridge brings to this sector is its relentless pursuit of efficiency gains and systematization of the day-to-day running of a school.  Technology as a means of creating scalable payment and performance monitoring systems, a scripted curriculum written by subject-matter experts, modular school construction using low-cost materials – these are all key innovations that have the potential to revolutionize this sector.  But the concept of a low-cost private primary school for the poor is nothing new.


IV. The criticisms of Bridge

The first and most obvious criticism of the Bridge model of education is that a scripted curriculum creates a non-dynamic learning environment for children.  The western model of education is premised on the idea that critical thinking is essential to success.  The very idea of a liberal arts education is a distinctly Western concept.   So, naturally, when people hear that our teachers are high school graduates who are taught to teach by reading to children from a script, they automatically assume that the quality of the education is poor.

It is true that the standard of education at a Bridge school is going to be far below that of more expensive schools.  But when compared with the alternatives – which include government schools staffed by often unmotivated teachers and other non-formal schools offering little in-house teacher training – Bridge offers an education that is subject to rigorous testing and review.  For example, our curriculum is written by a team of Kenyan education professionals and Teach for America alumni, many of whom have Masters Degrees in education.  It has a video team that films lessons to be reviewed by the curriculum writers.  They look for level of engagement among the students and adjust the approach to maximize comprehension and retention.  Student exams are digitized and reviewed both to identify weaknesses in the curriculum, but also review teacher performance.  Lastly, the school managers audit the teachers on a regular basis to ensuring that they are performing adequately.

Lastly, and most importantly, Bridge undertakes a rigorous longitudinal testing study of 5,000 students every six months to monitor improvements in reading and math.  Using a test developed by the Research Triangle Institute and USAID called the Early Grade Reading Assessment and Early Grade Math Assessment (EGRA / EGMA), Bridge compares the performance of 3,000 of its own students with that of 1,000 students at government and other non-formal schools.  The results, which are shown on the website, show strong performance gains in basic reading skills, compared with its peers and less strong, but still measurable, gains in math.  I know this because I was responsible for leading this student testing and performing the analysis.  Using this data we can then tailor our curriculum to address our problem areas and improve the curriculum.

This level of analytical rigor is simply not possible at other non-formal schools.  Why?  Because Bridge is able to leverage economies of scale.  It can invest huge amounts of resources into improving its model because it knows that all changes can easily be rolled out across every single school in a day.  When I first met Jay in January 2011, Bridge had just broken 10 schools and opened its first school outside Nairobi.  By the time I left, the company had 73 schools across Kenya.

This level of growth means two things.  First, since the unit economics are such that each individual school is profitable at a relatively small size, more schools mean additional revenue that can be poured back into the company.  And second, any major policy changes can be backed with incredibly rich data sets.  As the company’s business analyst, I was working with datasets with sample sizes in the tens of thousands.  For someone trying to use data to better understand how our parents think, pay, and act, and understand what makes a good school, I was in heaven.


V. How Bridge uses data to perfect the model

In the last post, I talked about how Bridge is able to leverage its economies of scale to both utilize huge amounts of data to make decisions and, once those decisions are made, they can be rolled out en masse.  I will give a few concrete examples of how this works in practice.

Last September, we wanted to see whether offering a free month of school and having a grand opening ceremony with a bouncy castle would boost enrollment.  So we did what most respectable startups exploring a new product or market would do: we tested it.  Of the nine schools we opened last September, four had a grand opening ceremony (GOC) and first month free (FMF), two had only FMF, one had only GOC, and two had neither.  When I looked at the numbers, the results were amazing.  Not only was initial enrollment nearly three times what we had experienced in the past, but the conversion rate – the most important factor in measuring the efficacy of a marketing promotion in retail – was 85%.  This is practically unheard of in retail.  In other words, 85% of people tried the product and decided to buy it.  When was the last time you started paying after the free trial expired?

When I shared the results with the management team, the action was relatively decisive.  With the 30 January-2012 schools scheduled to be opened in only eight weeks, they changed everything.  Effective as soon as possible, every new school would have a grand opening ceremony and every new student would be given a free month of school.  And, to make it fair, all 60 schools would have a GOC in January and every student would receive January free.   One by one, the managers detailed what needed to be done and set to work.

The IT team began making changes to the billing system and the smartphone application; the training team began prepping the training facilitators to communicate the new policy, and the operations team went out to each school to explain the changes directly.  Marketing began contacting companies that rent bouncy castles and negotiating prices, while government relations reached out to the elders in the community and invited them to attend as “Friends of the Academy.” Within 24 hours of my sharing the analysis, the company began preparing for a monumental change in the way things were done.  In January 2011, our largest school opened with 200 students.  In January 2012, the biggest had more than 700.

For me, the policy change had even greater implications.  Since each cohort of schools opened with different policies, regulations, and circumstances, it was difficult to isolate determinants of performance without introducing incredible amounts of bias.  But now, every school had a grand opening ceremony and January became a free month for every single student.  Therefore, the maximum attendance in January effectively equalized every school and made them as close to comparable as they would ever get.  Now, all of a sudden, we were able to actually measure how factors like population density, school location, cost competitiveness, income levels, urban/rural, and relative importance of education in the community influence school size and profitability.

Example of a regression model built to predict enrollment.

Example of a regression model built to predict enrollment.

From our market research, we had hundreds of consistent variables about each community.   So I built a massive Excel model and ran some basic correlation analyses and scatter plots to identify the most important factors in determining where to open a school.  Based on the analysis, I created an algorithm to actually project the size of the school after one year that was accurate within a range of 100 students at 80% of schools.  We automated the report creation and incorporated a profitability model into each one, which would dictate land price and school size.  And, just like everything else at Bridge, once we had it right, the new report became part of the Bridge model, and is there to stay until the data proves it wrong.


VI: Updated conclusion from November 2013

I feel largely the same way about Bridge today as I did back in 2012 when I left to return to the U.S.  I still believe it is a revolutionary idea that has the potential to re-define how companies serve the poorest segments of the population around the world.  It’s laser-focus on scalability and and its systems-orientation have made it a model for other burgeoning social enterprises, and not just in education. A standardized approach designed for replication has applications in healthcare (see Penda Health), water and sanitation (see Sanergy), agriculture (see One Acre Fund), and other sectors.

Bridge has strong partners in its investors and has some very talented individuals leading different segments of the company.  If it is successful, it has the potential to prove out the social enterprise model as a viable approach to economic development.  In doing so, it would open up funding for similar companies around the world.

And perhaps most importantly – at least to me – it has the potential to prove that the conventional wisdom can and should be challenged.  When James Tooley and others first began advocating for private schools in the slums and talking about charging poor families for an education, he was lambasted by the education establishment for trying to charge for what they considered to be a public good.  But over time, people came to realize that theory does not always jive with the realities of the situation on the ground.

In the specific case of Ed Gragert, the man criticizing the model in the NPR piece, he should go to Mathare, Kawangware, or any of the other slums where Bridge schools are located and visit the schools in the area. Before passing judgment, he should look at the alternatives and judge for himself whether Bridge offers a decent education relative to other schools. He should think about the availability of talented teachers in the communities where Bridge builds schools, and look at the incredibly rigorous screening process they use to identify the best candidates in the community.  Because then, he would realize that what people would say about a school like Bridge in the U.S. means next to nothing.  If there is one thing I learned during my years working in international development, it is that context is key.

In reality, Bridge – like many of the innovations in Africa – is far ahead of the curve of the U.S. education system.  Contrary to Mr. Gragert’s assumption that a person would be laughed out of the room for proposing a Bridge-like model, the arc of education is bending closer to the Bridge model than he would like.  MOOCs, Khan Academy, “flip teaching” and the entire blended learning model are an attempt to leverage economies of scale and domain expertise to improve the quality of education in the U.S.  Because Bridge is deeply constrained by a lack of resources, it is required to innovate in ways American educators do not.

For example, the scripted curriculum allows Bridge to thrive in the absence of a robust higher education infrastructure in low-income areas of Kenya. If they can leverage the expertise of skilled educators, Bridge teachers can focus on controlling the classroom and ensuring the students are at least reasonably engaged.  Without electricity or Internet, Bridge schools cannot simply project Khan Academy lessons.  So, in reality, the e-readers are an ingenious way of delivering world-class lessons without the resources of an American classroom.  These innovations may seem trivial, but, in reality, are quite ahead of their time.

So, a year and a half later, I feel the same way about Bridge that I did when I finished working there back in 2012.  I wish them all the best in their expansion to Nigeria, and can’t wait to see what they do in the future.

Develop Economies’ Music Recommendation



The Sad Aftermath of the Nairobi Attack

APphoto_Kenya Mall Fact Check

Last month, terrorists from the group al Shabaab attacked the Westgate Mall in Nairobi, killing 67 people. In the wake of the devastating event, Kenyans rallied together in a showing of national unity often missing in this deeply divided country. Outside Kenya, the world expressed its sympathy and offered support to the country. And over the last month, under the bright spotlight of media, the government has manage to squander that good will so spectacularly that it calls into question the integrity of the most respected state institutions.

The attack occurred on a Saturday morning. The police were the first to respond, and, according to reports, managed to contain the terrorists in a corner of the Nakumatt grocery store. On Saturday evening, the KDF (Kenya Defence Forces) took over the operation from the police. A breakdown in communications between the groups led to confusion about the whereabouts of the remaining terrorists, and possibly allowing some to escape. At one point, the Kenyan military fired at the police inside the mall, killing one policeman who was responding to the attack. The siege on the mall lasted for four days, ending only after the Kenyan military fired anti-tank missiles into the store and destroyed three floors of the mall, possibly killing additional hostages.

During the siege, few details emerged about the attack and its immediate aftermath. Initial reports said that between 10 and 15 attackers stormed the mall. A month after the attack, a CCTV camera from the Nakumatt released to the press showed four men armed with AK-47s seeking refuge in the loading area of the supermarket, often putting down their weapons to pray. In addition to killing 70 innocent people, Al Shabaab could now say that four of its members held off one of the strongest militaries in Africa for four days.

A week after the attack began, shop owners were allowed to return to the mall to survey the destruction, and were surprised by what they saw. The entire mall had been looted. Everything – watches, jewelry, lingerie, electronics, and alcohol – was gone. The banks had been robbed. Six ATM machines were shot open and cash registers were emptied of their contents. Stunningly, the military claimed that it had not stolen the money, but rather “recovered and repatriated” it for the tenants at Westgate.

Within a week, 21 of the 85 businesses had filed reports with the police saying their stores were looted. Some business owners even questioned whether the military deliberately prolonged the attack to enable it more time to steal. Jeffrey Gettleman describes the aftermath:

Four days after that, the first shopkeepers were allowed back in to survey the wreckage. Millions of dollars of property had been destroyed, and businesses said that at least hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and merchandise were missing.

On Thursday, the talk among a group of forlorn shopkeepers was of “terrorism insurance.” Nobody there had it. But Mr. Manji hoped that would not matter.

“This was not terrorism; this was looting,” he said. “It’s sad that the people who were supposed to protect us have robbed us.”

At first the Kenyan military denied the accusations. A spokesman for the KDF, Major Emmanuel Chirchir, claimed that the military was being falsely accused, citing that one store – a shoe store – had not been looted. Chirchir stated: “It would also be good to list shops that were vandalised out of the over 80 stores. So far, Bata shop has talked of its shop being intact. KDF did a fantastic job, we know our enemies who have decided to use propaganda to undermine our public good will.” That was on October 5th.

On October 3rd, A Kenyan TV station claimed to have viewed surveillance footage that showed soldiers emptying cash registers into bags and walking out of the mall with white plastic bags. Last week, television stations in Kenya aired that footage, and it was damning. Soldiers walk into the supermarket, guns raised, and later are shown walking out carrying goods with one hand and rifles with another. One soldier is shown trying to break into a jewelry case, but is unsuccessful. The military claimed that the men were only taking bottled water from the supermarket to “quench their thirst” during the assault.

The Kenyan news media, led by the Daily Nation and the Standard, are generally hard-hitting journalistic institutions, particularly by African standards. They were highly critical of the military in the aftermath of the attack, as more information came to light. And they spared no institution in their excoriation of the government and its handling of the attack.

Instead of admitting they had indeed looted the mall, the military instead began looking for the source of the leak. They interviewed the founder of Nakumatt at a police station, and, when that did not turn up anything, trained their guns on the media. On October 24th, they announced that they would be arresting and prosecuting two journalists from the Standard for their coverage of the scandal. “You cannot provoke propaganda and incite Kenyans against the authorities. The two journalists will be apprehended,” explained the Inspector-General of the police, David Kimaiyo. So much for freedom of the press.

In perhaps the strangest twist of all, the Standard published an article on October 26th titled “Kenya Defence Forces considered among strongest, most disciplined army in the world.” The timing is certainly suggestive.

The drama continues to unfold in plain sight of the rest of the world. Coverage of the looting and the internal squabbles and blame-throwing can be found in every major newspaper in the world. Kenya’s reputation as lion of East Africa – a fast-growing economy with tremendous potential in the midst of region wracked by instability – is slowly being chipped away.

No where is this feeling more palpable than in Kenya itself. In a letter to the editor, a Nation reader shared his thoughts about the crisis:

Much has been said about Kenya Defence Forces’ conduct during the Westgate siege. I feel betrayed by our forces should the allegations against them be proved true. It is disheartening watching the last bastion of integrity falling to the beast of looting and corruption.

His opinion reflects the broader feelings of many in the country. Kenya is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. It ranks 139th out of 176 on the 2012 Corruption Perceptions Index, the standard for assessing the level of graft in a country. The average urban Kenyan pays 16 bribes every single month. By some estimates, one-third of Kenya’s GDP is lost to corruption every year.

The national security apparatus was thought to be the last bastion of integrity in a sea of corrupt state institutions. This is why the realization that the KDF exploited one of the most vulnerable collective moments for the country in recent memory for its own deeply selfish gains is so troubling. If the core of the military is rotten, the thinking goes, what else is left?

The role of a free press is to expose corruption and graft and hold the guilty accountable for their misdeeds. Yet now the institutions that were supposed to protect the country are threatening that freedom by arresting and prosecuting journalists who are doing their jobs. It is a sad turn of events for a country that, just a few months ago, seemed to be on the verge of a renaissance.

John Githongo, a former journalist and anti-corruption official in the Kenyan government and subject of the book It’s Our Turn To Eat, lamented the Westgate scandal as unfortunate, not only with respect to the looting itself, but because of its predictability. In his conclusion, he explains the current state of affairs:

In truth, we celebrate thieves instead of imprisoning them; we elect those who pilfer public funds instead of throwing the book at them; we virulently abuse each other on the basis of tribe and yet employ grand pretentions to modernity.

This modernity is skin deep. Since the middle of the Kibaki regime, deepening and spreading graft has been excused away by throwing GDP numbers at those who complain about graft.

But then our entrenched corruption is merely a symptom of a deeper malaise that has de facto legalised graft. With the discovery of oil and other minerals, even Western countries that once placed graft near the top of their agenda in their interactions with us have gone silent.

The scandal is in the process of unfolding now. Where it will go remains to be seen. But what is certain is that the Al Shabaab did more than just murder 70 innocent people and terrorize a country. It revealed that even Kenya’s most venerable institutions are mired by corruption. And it is not surprising. Corruption is a cancer. Once it metastasizes, it spreads through the organism, infecting every piece of it. And Kenya, it appears, is even more infected than once thought.

A Tribute to My Friend, Ravi Ramrattan

Me, Sue, and Ravi

This weekend has been difficult. I found out yesterday that a friend was killed in the senseless, horrible attack in Nairobi. He was a great person and meant a lot to many people. He had a profound impact on so many people’s lives that I would not even begin to understand how to chronicle it all. So I will settle for talking about the time I knew him.

I met Ravi early on in my time in Nairobi. I was grabbing a drink at a bar called Sierra Brewery with another guy named Ravi (Ravi Bungoma, after the town he hailed from in Western Kenya) who was applying for a job at my company, and he brought along Ravi Ramrattan (also known as Ravi Mumias). He worked for an organization called Innovations for Poverty Action at the time, and was stationed at a sugar factory in a town called Mumias a few hours outside of Nairobi.  I remember thinking that this guy was exceptionally smart. Subsequently, I found out he had bachelors degree in mathematics from the University of Cambridge, a masters degree in financial economics from Oxford, and another masters in econometrics and mathematical economics from the London School of Economics. After teaching statistics to graduate students at the London Business School for a year – at the tender age of 26 – he decided to move to Kenya to commit himself to the cause of poverty alleviation.

After six years in London, Ravi moved to Mumias, a rural town of 33,000 people in Western Kenya, where he spent a year and a half implementing an academic study at the Mumias Sugar Factory. Ravi ran a study evaluating the impact of a conditional cash advance and a cell phone based extension system on sugar cane farmers. Using a randomized controlled trial – the methodology used by pharmaceutical companies to determine the efficacy of a drug – Ravi tried to determine whether this particular development intervention generated additional income for the recipients. After picking up three degrees from some of the most prestigious universities in the world, he moved from London to a rural town in Western Kenya to help people he’d never met.

A few months after I met him, he moved from Mumias to the big city to take a job as an economist with an organization called Financial Sector Deepening, which, despite having one of the worst names imaginable, had the noble goal of “supporting the development of financial markets in Kenya as a means to stimulate wealth creation and reduce poverty.”As part of his role at FSD, he worked to develop the capacity of financial institutions in the country in order to make them more inclusive. When I found out he worked with microfinance institutions, I took every opportunity I could to goad him into an argument about whether microfinance worked. This is something I did whenever I met people from Innovations for Poverty Action. But with Ravi, I always left with my ego bruised from the intellectual drubbing he would deal me.

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

Ravi with his many academic distinctions

As a wannabe economist myself, I took every opportunity I could to take advantage of his incredible wealth of knowledge. During one trip down to Diani Beach on the Kenyan Coast, four of us sat on the terrace of our rented house and waxed philosophical deep into the night about income inequality in America (as we did).  My friend Dylan and I argued one side, while Sean, Ravi’s roommate at the time, argued the other. Ravi sat quietly, and, whenever we would reach an impasse, which happened often, Ravi came in to break the tie. After all, he knew way more than we did and was probably amused at how badly we skewed the facts to our favor.

Another funny thing to me about Ravi was that, somehow, he was a phenomenal dancer. I could never figure out how it was possible that he was able to bust so many incredible moves on the dance floor. I remember one night a big crew of us went out to a club in Nairobi called Gallileo Lounge, which, other than having a star in the logo, had nothing to do with astronomy. I was standing on the dance floor, not dancing, because I’m a terrible and highly self-conscious dancer, watching Ravi dance with our friend Woubie, and thinking to myself “My God – this is amazing.” In a somewhat legendary story, he was supposed to have a dance-off with one of the cab drivers who had been told of his prowess. It never came to fruition, I’m told, but everyone knows who would have won.

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

Ravi and Woubie getting down with a few of our friends

When I heard the news, I was crushed. I was with my friend Sharon, who lived with Ravi for a few months in Nairobi. For two days, we felt helpless, having to watch from afar. Being together made it easier to deal with the news. We decided to get dinner at an Indian restaurant to honor his memory, and spent the dinner sharing stories. Like his plan to start a hot sauce company, or his nickname, “The Lion of Mumias”, after a halloween costume from years prior, or the fact that he blasted the same Bollywood song all of the time. Even among the crew we’d assembled in Nairobi, which contained some of the more unique people I’ve ever met, he was in a league of his own.

I find it deeply ironic that Ravi would end up having his life taken by the people he most wanted to help. He spent a good part of his life studying economics, training himself to not only understand, but quantify the impact of development interventions on poverty alleviation. If you implement a project – whether it is microfinance, clean water, or education – it might work, and it might not. But, more importantly, if you don’t understand the results, you are destined to potentially throw money and people at the wrong solution. Ravi’s work, in particular, uncovered the true impact of these interventions, providing the academic foundation to replicate them around the world.

On this blog, I have spent many posts pontificating about the links between poverty and terrorism. I thought a lot about why this work is important, and what broader impacts it would have beyond just improving lives.  For people living hand-to-mouth, life is a series of struggles often ending in tragedy.  Anger, resentment, and despair are a volatile combination in the minds of young men and women who see little hope for escaping their situation.  For Al-Shabab, these young minds can be manipulated to pick up arms.  By stoking latent frustrations at the injustice of poverty and promising a sense of a community, brotherhood, and commitment to a higher cause, a recruiter can more easily convince a young man to become a cold-blooded mass murderer.

Unlike incomes or educational attainment, likelihood of radicalization is not something you can quantify. But I do believe that its real. And, though I never talked to Ravi about it, I’m sure he’d agree. He committed himself to serving the poor, and made the choice to move to Kenya for years to help the less fortunate. He moved to a small town in Western Kenya to study the roots of poverty, and returned to Nairobi to work for an organization whose mandate was to promote financial inclusion across the country. I have no doubt that Ravi would have continued this journey, taking it to the highest levels and influencing global development policy in one way or another.

But his life was cut short by evil men. Whether they’d been manipulated or radicalized doesn’t matter much to me. They took from the world a great person who wanted to make the world a better, more inclusive and equitable place for the most downtrodden and marginalized people. He could have done anything, but he chose this life. He chose to help people he’d never met to attain something better for themselves and their families. A nobler cause, I do not know.

Over the last few days, the outpouring of support has been overwhelming.  While the good works he did will remain, the community that has rallied around him over the last few days perhaps reflect his greatest legacy.  As the people who knew him – from his youth in Trinidad and Tobago, his college and grad school in London, or his years in Nairobi, when I came to know him – have moved to different parts of the world, they have kept him in their memories.  And this week, the diaspora of people whose lives were touched by Ravi are getting together all over the world to remember him.  That, to me, is a source of comfort.

Impromptu gatherings to remember him have popped up in Boston, New York, and Washington DC. When I tried to organize one in San Francisco, I was worried Sharon and I would be the only ones around.  Within a few minutes, I was added to an email chain of 10 people who had already begun to plan one. Right now the count stands at 25.

So, if you are in San Francisco this Friday, we are going to celebrate his life over dinner, and then go dancing at Little Baobab – a fitting tribute for such a great guy.

My deepest condolences go out to his family and the friends who loved him.


ravi in the fields


ravi and woubie2







Rest in peace, my friend.

Rest in peace, my friend.


Thoughts on the Nairobi Terrorist Attack, Pt. 2

Another photo from Jonathan Kalan (Copyright AP/Jonathan Kalan)

In the last post, I gave a brief history of the events leading up to this horrible terrorist attack. Now, I want to talk about why this is happening now.

If you were to Google “Somalia” anytime in the last six months, you might be surprised to see mostly positive press about the country. The Kenyan-led invasion brought a period of stability to the country. For the first time in many years, the central government controlled most of Mogadishu. The Somali diaspora began to return to the country, looking to invest in rebuilding the institutions that had crumbled over the previous 20 years. In a move filled with symbolic significance, Turkish Airlines launched its first direct flight to Mogadishu on March 12th, 2012. For the first time in many years, optimism returned to Somalia.

In the background, Al Shabab appeared to be on the ropes. They had been beaten back to more remote areas of the country, and continued to lose what little popular support they still had. And the return of the Somali diaspora was perhaps the best indication that things were possibly taking a turn for the worst.

There are a lot of theories about why this happened now. Some people are saying that this attack was an inevitable backlash against the Kenyan invasion of Somalia. Others are saying that it is only the beginning of an Al Shabab resurgence, as it tries to push back and regain control of the country’s destiny. And some believe this is Al Shabab’s way of re-asserting its loyalty to Al Qaeda. Within Al-Shabab, there have always been power struggles between two factions – one which is focused on gaining control of Somalia, and another with jihadist ambitions of restoring the Islamic caliphate. By attacking a symbol Western influence, like an upscale mall in Nairobi, it is following through on its jihadist goals.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I suspect it is more complex than any of the reasons above. Ken Menkhaus, a scholar on Somalia at Davidson College, believes that this is an act of desperation by a fundamentalist Islamic terrorist organization that has been all but defeated in its own country. I urge anyone who wants to understand the underlying roots of this conflict to read Menkhaus’ post in ThinkProgress. In it, he explains the logic behind this brazen attack:

The Westgate attack is the latest sign of the group’s weakness. It was a desperate, high-risk gamble by Shabaab to reverse its prospects. If the deadly attack succeeds in prompting vigilante violence by Kenyan citizens or heavy-handed government reactions against Somali residents, Shabaab stands a chance of recasting itself as the vanguard militia protecting Somalis against external enemies. It desperately needs to reframe the conflict in Somalia as Somalis versus the foreigners, not as Somalis who seek peace and a return to normalcy versus a toxic jihadi movement.

I think he is largely right in the sense that this is the action of an organization whose back is against the wall and is flailing wildly. But I disagree that this is was a calculated strategic bid to gain support from a population that has turned against them. They already lost that support, and it is never coming back. A few weeks ago, Somalia’s future was bright. If Al Shabab were to have its way, the country would regress to chaos and destruction. And without a common enemy like Ethiopia – which is how Al Shabab rose to power in 2008 – there is no reason to support an organization that claims to fight for the people while callously leaving so many of them to starve to death.

Rather, I think this attack is the action of a few psychopathic, manipulative mass murderers who justify their actions under a banner of religion, and a dozen deeply misguided and sociopathic followers who have no real understanding of why they are doing what they are doing.

(In the original version of this post, I used information that wasn’t verified.  The names and nationalities of the attackers have not been released)

The Al Shabab Twitter account, which keeps getting shut down by Twitter and resurfacing again, released the names and countries of the attackers. Of the 17 names listed, six are from the United States, two from Sweden, two from Syria, and one each from Russia, Canada, and the UK. Only three are even from East Africa – two from Somalia and one from Kenya. When 15 of the 17 attackers are foreigners, it is hard for me to believe that the goal of this attack is to re-assert the power of a weakened regional Islamist organization.

Back in 2008 and 2009, Somali kids from Minneapolis began disappearing and resurfacing as fighters in Al Shabab. A detailed article in the New York Times magazine explains what happened:

For many of the men, the path to Somalia offered something personal as well — a sense of adventure, purpose and even renewal. In the first wave of Somalis who left were men whose uprooted lives resembled those of immigrants in Europe who have joined the jihad. They faced barriers of race and class, religion and language. Mr. Ahmed, the 26-year-old suicide bomber, struggled at community colleges before dropping out. His friend Zakaria Maruf, 30, fell in with a violent street gang and later stocked shelves at a Wal-Mart.

If failure had shadowed this first group of men, the young Minnesotans who followed them to Somalia were succeeding in America. Mr. Hassan, the engineering student, was a rising star in his college community. Another of the men was a pre-med student who had once set his sights on an internship at the Mayo Clinic. They did not leave the United States for a lack of opportunity, their friends said; if anything, they seemed driven by unfulfilled ambition.

“Now they feel important,” said one friend, who remains in contact with the men and, like others, would only speak anonymously because of the investigation.

These are not native Somalis committed to the restoration of a Sharia-controlled government in Somalia. They are radicalized, deeply insecure, and easily manipulable kids believe they are fighting for a cause that they have been convinced is noble.

I think this is the action of nihilistic psychopaths who pervert religion as an end to justify their evil means. They understand nothing about Kenya, other than what they have been told, and callously murdered nearly 100 people this weekend. They fight under the banner of an organization with the blood of 260,000 Somalis – including 120,000 children – on its hands. What they have done is inexcusable and they deserve to die, which they know too well is their inevitable fate at the end of this standoff.

While I don’t agree entirely with Ken Menkhaus’ analysis of the situation, I do agree with his conclusions about what to do next:

The Kenyan people and government now control the next move. If they respond to this terrible tragedy with restraint and respect for due process and rule of law, they will do more to undermine Shabaab than all of the counter-terrorism operations conducted inside Somalia.

Kenya and Kenyans are not the only players who have the next move. Somalis – in Kenya, in Somalia, and in the diaspora – also face an unavoidable and immediate choice. Either they can mobilize against Shabaab and take the movement out once and for all – by drying up its financial sources, exposing its operatives, and denying the movement any safe space from which to operate – or they can sit on their hands and make vague calls for a negotiated settlement, as they have done for years. Somalia desperately needs a “Sunni uprising” against the hard-core extremists who now make up what is left of Shabaab. If Somalis refuse to act decisively against Shabaab, then it will be up to foreign governments to crush the group. But this will entail crackdowns that will almost certainly impact innocent Somalis and legitimate Somali businesses in Kenya and around the world, and that is not in anyone’s interest except Shabaab’s.

This is ultimately a Somali problem, and requires a Somali solution that is swift and unequivocal. If that happens, the terrible attack of September 21 will go down as the day Shabaab dug its own grave.

I know it will be hard to forgo retribution against Somalis living in Kenya. But Kenya is a beacon of optimism in East Africa, and its people are rallying in support. They will be shaken, but unnerved. They are resilient, and will respond in a measured and thoughtful way. And, with any hope, the Al Shabab and all of its leaders will die a quick death.

Thoughts on the Nairobi Terrorist Attack, Pt. 1

A photo taken by my old roommate, the incomparable Jonathan Kalan (

This weekend a dozen gunmen stormed the Westgate Mall in the Westlands neighborhood of Nairobi. Armed with AK-47s and grenades, they killed 70 people and injured 150 more. As I write this, a former colleague at Bridge is in the hospital and my friend Ravi is still missing. Waiting to hear any news has been painstakingly difficult as we all pray for him. I am not a particularly spiritual man, but, for the last 36 hours, I’ve been praying for some good news.

There is so much I want to write about here that I don’t even know where to begin. This will be a long series of posts.  I’m going to start by giving the context for while all of this is happening.

A Brief History of Terrorism in Kenya

When I moved to Kenya in May of 2011, Somalia was characteristically a mess. The country barely had a functional central government, and the majority of the country was (and still is) lawless. The country is technically split into three semi-autonomous regions: Somaliland, Puntland, and Somalia. Somaliland is a functional region within Somalia that is far more stable than the others. Puntland is second in terms of stability, but it is best known for being the epicenter of piracy off the Horn of Africa. Somalia, which covers the southern half of the country, is a fragmented, war-torn region controlled by warlords from different clans. Despite being one of the most homogenous country in Africa – everyone speaks the same language (Somali) and follows the same religion (Sunni Islam) – the country has an extensive clan structure that dominates what little political landscape exists.

A bit dated, but an accurate depiction of the situation in 2011

In May 2011, Al Shabaab (literally translated as “The Youth”) controlled huge swaths of Somalia. They had been firmly in control for several years, and wreaked havoc on the population. During the worst famine in decades, Al Shabaab refused to allow foreign aid organizations into the country to deliver food to starving populations. As a result, the food crisis escalated into a famine, and tens of thousands of people starved to death. Later, they bombed a public square in Mogadishu where young students were applying for scholarships to study at university. It was despicable to watch then, and many times I wrote on this blog about the nihilistic and wanton brutality employed by the group towards its own people.

The turning point came in late 2011, when pirates on two occasions crossed the Kenyan border and abducted tourists from the pristine island of Lamu off the northwestern coast of Kenya. After a French tourist died during the ordeal, Kenya decided to invade Somalia and neutralize the threat to its border. Over the course of a few months, working in tandem with UN peacekeepers from Uganda and other nations, the Kenyan military drove the Shabab from its strongholds in Mogadishu and Kismayo, where it controlled the port and extracted a large amount of the revenue that kept it in operation.

In effect, two complementary forces led to Al Shabab’s weakening. Most directly, military intervention by Kenya and the Uganda-led peacekeepers killed much of the group’s leadership and rank-and-file. Military force, however, would not have been sufficient had Al Shabab not lost the support of the people. The group claimed to fight for the Somali people against foreign powers that sought to control the country, rising to prominence in the wake of a failed US-backed invasion by Ethiopia. But the Al Shabab’s cruel indifference to the suffering of the people during the famine, its brutal enforcement of Sharia law, and its callous efforts to violently prevent any semblance of Western influence to permeate the country, led Somalis to turn against them and support their neutralization. All of these events – the kidnapping, the bombing in Mogadishu – occurred in October 2011, which is when the tide turned.

After the invasion, Al Shabab vowed retribution against Kenya. My friends and I became warier of our surroundings. We would frequently hear from a friend of a friend at the U.S. embassy that the Al Shabab was planning an attack and that we should stay away from certain places. During the summer of 2011, my friends and I would often go to the Westgate mall and get brunch at ArtCaffe, the restaurant that became the epicenter of the attack yesterday. After Kenya declared war on Somalia, we stayed away for a while.

Over the next few months, there were random attacks here and there, though none appeared to be coordinated terrorist plots. I remember sitting in London Heathrow Airport in January 2012, waiting for my connection to Nairobi, and watching a report on the BBC warning people not to go to Kenya because of an imminent terrorist attack. But the alert came and went, and no attack was staged.  It remained like this for months, as broad warnings thankfully never came to fruition.

We were all surprised that there were no attacks from Al Shabab that year. Nairobi has so many soft targets that creating havoc would be easy. But, at the time, people surmised that the reason for the apparent peace was not because of the tactical difficult of staging an attack, but rather the extensive Somali diaspora in Nairobi whose business interests were so intertwined with the Kenyan economy. If the Al Shabab were to commit terrorism in Nairobi, there would inevitably be a backlash against the Somalis, which would compromise Somali business interests and further alienate the group from its population. So, as a result, they staged more attacks closer to home – in Mogadishu and in Kenyan border towns like Garissa.

I left Nairobi for good in May 2012 having avoided any violence. There continued to be a lull until this weekend, when the Shabab committed the worst terrorist attack the country has seen since 1980.

In my next post I will give my thoughts on why this happened.

The Hult Prize: Food Security in Urban Slums

A few weeks ago, I competed in a social enterprise business plan competition called the Hult Prize.  The competition is ambitious in scale and scope, giving a broad mandate to competitors and rewarding the best ideas with the chance to win $1 million in seed funding.  This year’s challenge was developing a solution to the problem of urban hunger by 2018.

The catch is that the business needs to be scalable and financially sustainable.  The product or service needs to be culturally relevant enough to be useful, while culturally agnostic enough to work anywhere.  It needs to address the root cause of urban hunger, facilitating access to nutritious food at affordable prices.  With those marching orders, we went to work.

My team consisted of some seasoned industry veterans.  Aleem Ahmed spent three years at LEK Consulting before moving to Western Kenya to implemented a clean water program for Innovations for Poverty Action, and later Ethiopia to work with the Agriculture Transformation Agency.  Ahmed El Mahi had a stint as a trader in London before sourcing investments in Mali for D.Capital, Dalberg Global Advisors’ impact investing arm.  Caroline Mauldin spent four years at Accion International, one of the largest microfinance organizations in the world, before heading to the State Department to write speeches for senior officials in the Obama Administration and and set up the super cool Open Government Partnership.   We are all MBA students at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the other three are picking up a Masters of Public Administration from the Harvard Kennedy School along the way.  Our team was stacked, and it was great to work with such an accomplished crew.

After tossing around a couple of dead-end ideas – including one proposed by me around vitamin-enriched flavoring packets – Aleem first proposed the idea of “slum meal plans.” When you dig down to the root cause of hunger in the urban slums, the availability of food is not necessarily the issue.  Generally, there is enough food to go around in most countries (with the exception of places plagued famine, like Somalia in 2011).  The problem is that food is expensive to purchase in small quantities.  We started to think about why this was the case, and came to the conclusion that there were two problems: finance and distribution.

On the financing side, people in the slums have irregular income that can be volatile throughout the month.  It is common to hear about people living on less than $2 per day.  But one of the most interesting insights to come from the research into the financial lives of the poor came from a book called Portfolios of the Poor.  After analyzing financial diaries collected from people living in slums in South Africa, Bangladesh, and India, the authors realized that income fluctuates wildly from week to week, and the poor use a variety of informal financial instruments to smooth consumption.  From this realization came their central conclusion:

“The poor are as diverse a group of citizens as any other, but the one thing they have in common, the thing that deines them as poor, is that they don’t have much money. If you’re poor, managing your money well is absolutely central to your life—perhaps more so than for any other group.”

So we took this as a starting point and applied it to the problem of food consumption.  What if we could construct a micro-savings program that could allow people to put money away for food when they earn income, in order to buy food when they don’t?  There are plenty of mobile-based savings platforms that exist around the world.  Safaricom, the East African telecom that developed M-Pesa, recently released M-Shwari, a savings platform that has seen swift uptake among the poor.  Our idea was to use a food-oriented savings account to take advantage of what is called an “illiquidity preference” – putting cash where you don’t have have instant access to it in order to prevent it from being spent on unnecessary purchases.  In order to incentivize people to join, we would need to offer some sort of discount or loyalty program.  To that end, we started to the think about distribution.

The second part of the equation is what we called the distribution problem.  Disparate suppliers outside the cities and fragmented vendors and retailers in the slums makes achieving economies of scale for any product, let alone food, difficult.  On a per-unit basis, people in the slums pay more for basic goods than their comparatively wealthier counterparts.  If we could develop a network of food vendors in the slums and effectively become a wholesaler of certain products, we could potentially shrink the existing margins between supplier and customer.  We could then distribute a portion of the savings to our customers, and reinvest the remainder in growing the business.

And with these two components, our idea took concrete form.  We called the idea M.yala – taken from the name of a town in Western Kenya and the Arabic word for “Let’s go.”  We spent weeks putting together our presentation and practicing our pitch.

On the day of the competition, we went head to head with 46 teams from schools around the world.  We were selected as one of four semi-finalists, and invited to present to 18 judges and 300 spectators.  Unfortunately, we just missed winning the regional final.  But there is a great team from Hult San Francisco that will be competing at the final round at the Clinton Global Initiative in October, and we wished them the best of luck.

All in all, it was a great experience.  Best of luck to all of the other competitors, and hopefully one of them makes a dent in the problem of urban hunger.

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M-Prep: Democratizing Education Achievement

Help M-Prep, friends of Develop Economies and cool social enterprise, get to the Unreasonable Institute by supporting them!

Anyone who has worked in the education sector in Kenya knows about an exam called the KCPE.  It stands for Kenya Certificate of Primary Education, and it is the most important exam for not only students, but also teachers, school owners, and just about anyone involved in primary education in the country.

Students take the exam during their final year of primary school.  It lasts four days and tests students’ knowledge in basic subjects taught in primary school.  Most importantly, the test determines which secondary schools students will be eligible to attend.  Unfortunately, for many students, secondary school is not actually an option, since only primary education is free and many poor families cannot afford the fees.  Nonetheless, the KCPE exam, to many, is a gateway to success and vehicle for economic mobility.  Because of the disproportionate importance placed on the exam, the time when KCPE scores are released is always fraught with tension.

When I worked at Bridge International Academies, I often had discussions with coworkers about the KCPE exam.  During my time in Kenya in 2011 and 2012, Bridge only offered up to class 4 and 5.  The KCPE exam, which takes place at the end of class 8, was far enough in our future that it would not necessarily pre-occupy parents who were considering sending their kids to a Bridge academy.  But once those children reach class 8, parents in the communities we serve will be closely watching the results of the KCPE exam.

Unfortunately, such a system is fraught with inherent inequality.  Students attending overcrowded and under-resourced schools are naturally at a disadvantage in preparing for the KCPE exam.  It serves as a further barrier to socioeconomic mobility, where poor students will never be able to compete on the same level.  And that is where M-Prep comes in.

Now, just for full disclosure, I know the founder of M-Prep, Toni Maraviglia, from my time in Nairobi.  We briefly worked together at Bridge, where she developed the school manager and teacher training materials.  A Teach for America alum, business school dropout, and true social entrepreneur, Toni discovered while developing an education program in rural Western Kenya that, despite the best efforts of teachers, students lacked access to adequate test prep materials and, as a result, were struggling with the KCPE exam.  Fortunately, with mobile penetration at more than 70%, cell phones offer an ideal platform for disseminating material to students studying for the KCPE exam.  Here is an overview of the problem, and how it works:

In Kenya there are currently 9 million students registered in primary school and less than half of those students pass their primary school exit exam. We’re talking about 5 million kids who do not receive a basic education, 5 million kids with few options for career paths. Most become subsistence farmers or slum laborers; some even become criminals. The poverty cycle continues. Limited study materials exist, but all are low quality or too expensive. Additionally, teachers are overburdened by crowded classroom of 40-80 students and cannot give individualized feedback to students. Most importantly, little interaction exists among educational stakeholders – teachers, parents, schools, and students – and often, nuanced data is nonexistent until a student fails. These stakeholders don’t know what students need to do to improve until it’s too late. If information were widely available and learning was high-quality, accessible, and fun, far fewer students would fail.

MPrep helps kids learn, review, compete and collaborate through accessible and fun mobile applications. We also give teachers data about their students and help parents stay informed – all on simple mobile tech. Basically, we make it easy and fun for an educational community to communicate and share information.

It is a massively scalable model, and they have already made inroads with many school districts.  Parents love the fact that their kids are receiving extra tutoring, and the kids find the product interactive and fun.  Teachers and school headmasters appreciate the fact that they kids are gaining an advantage, which not only translates into prestige for the school, but also real dollars.  Schools that have higher than average KCPE scores are hugely popular, and frequently see a big jump in enrollment.  And, in the latest round of KCPE testing, M-Prep saw real results:

The Head Teacher of Malanga Primary, a school way out near Kisumu said, “Our pupils have improved from a 210 to a 234 averageand we attribute this growth to MPrep. Thank you.” The Head Teacher then told our Sales Manager, Peter Sereti, that they’d like to renew their MPrep data subscription.

The Head Teacher of Muthurwa expressed the same. Their scores jumped from a 199 average in 2011 to 230 in 2012.

M-Prep has a great model that has the potential to effect real change in the primary education system not only in Kenya, but really anywhere where people have access to cell phones.

Now, they are trying to get into the Unreasonable Institute, an accelerator and incubator for social enterprises that offers access to funding, mentors, and a network of other entrepreneurs who are making a difference.  So please support them.

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