Ellen and Nicky Chime in

Here is an amazing article from the IHT. Amazing because you’ll notice that it’s written by Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, the President of Liberia, and Nicky Oppenheimer, the Chairman of DeBeers (HT: Chris Blattman)

I subscribe – mostly – to the views expressed in this piece. The caveat is that for all the lofty rhetoric, the empirical evidence points to the fact that attempts at promoting private sector initiatives in Sub-Saharan Africa are met with a lot of resistance, both in-country and by the development industry.

The opinions put forward in the IHT article rest on the assumption that capitalism = good. I’m not going to challenge this notion, first of all because I think that debate has been taken up a few too many times, but mostly because whether or not we like or agree with this idea, it is the defining paradigm of the way the world works.

Of course, the way the world works is not always the way it should be working. But haven’t we learned that this is a useless point to make in this day and age? Enough futile attempts to dethrone capitalism as the dominant operating paradigm of our time – let’s work within it, make it work for those who need to be lifted out of poverty.

The problem is that if we are going to be functioning with this mindset, the way in which the entire aid/development industry operates needs to be reconsidered. And as my current hero, Elizabeth Pisani, has expressed, this type of industry is not reactive to changes and evolutions in the real world. A mere look at the Millenium Development Goals gives us a pretty good understanding of how aid agencies construe their work. As Andrew Natsios famously pointed out, arguing against the MDGs is like arguing against “motherhood and apple pie” – you simply can’t, because in and of themselves, these goals are desirable and ultimately good. But they do nothing to make developing nations – and particularly the LDCs of this world – become self-sustainable.

Natsios says:

The MDGs are also heavily weighted towards social services… In overemphasising these particular goals, we risk underemphasising the importance of equitable economic growth, good governance, and democracy, without which, we cannot produce the tax revenue to sustain the social services that the MDGs embrace. What is needed is a proper emphasis on economic growth as a necessary condition for social services, instead of vice versa.

One of my biggest issues with the MDGs is the emphasis placed on universal primary education. It did not take countries, schools, and NGOs very long to realize that this goal is essentially pointless if no proposition concerning the quality of education is associated with it. Furthermore, which countries have been able to raise its population out of absolute poverty by having its citizens educated at the 5th grade level? None. And the MDGs make no provision for university education – something which could really spur development.

This is Goal 2:

Goal 2 of the Millennium Development Goals sets out by the year 2015 to:

  • Ensure that all boys and girls complete a full course of primary schooling

I’d like to use this opportunity to invite you to think about a completely different way of approaching aid – one of my favorite topics these days is bottom of the pyramid social entrepreneurship. That’s not the panacea either, but it certainly challenges a lot of dusty misconceptions about what development should be.

Edit:

Just read this relevant piece from The Washington Post:

Shikwati and others cautiously suggest that the current situation is different. Enormous gaps between rich and poor persist in most sub-Saharan African countries, but there has been a slow trickle-down effect from the growing private sector, as jobs have been created in the cellphone industry, for instance, or tourism or banking.

Maggie Kigozi, executive director of the Uganda Investment Authority, attributes about 63,000 new jobs created in that country this year to growth in the private sector. Uganda has cut extreme poverty in half over the past decade — down to 30 percent of the population living on less than $1 a day — a fact that Kigozi also chalks up to private sector activity.

“We owe our success to that,” she said. “Not to the World Bank, and not to nongovernmental organizations,” she said, referring to aid groups.

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