In honor of tonight’s sporting extravaganza, I thought I should link to this brilliant Daily Show sketch from a few years ago. Rob Corddry is sent out to review that year’s Superbowl ads and ends up collapsing emotionally and spiritually when faced with the dregs of consumerist excess he finds there.
Just have a look (it’s funny, too, in a dark kind of way.)
[Hat tip: Andrew Sullivan].
The telling bit comes at 4:45. As Corddryn hits rock bottom, he turns to Stewart and tells him he’s been “thinking of moving to Africa, really trying to help people.” It’s a brilliant piece, and one that, in the process of sending up Superbowl Ads sort of stumbles into insight onto the mind of a lot of development professionals.
Realistically, don’t most people get into the development game, on some level, out of a deep, gut-level revulsion with the consumerist excess in rich countries? This Hippie Development Mindset – what Pascal Bruckner memorably took apart as “tiers mondisme” – is a kind of latent fact: you won’t find it openly discussed on the agency websites, or clearly acknowledged in the policy statements. It comes out after hours, beer in hand, in more intimate and confessional settings. It seems to me pretty widespread – lurking just beneath the surface of the hardboiled stories veterans tell to establish their field cred. It sits there silently, shaping the implicit understanding of what causes what that the development world relies on subconsciously.
And just once in a while it explodes into conflict with the implicit understanding of aid “beneficiaries” in ways that are just plain glorious.
Take Josephine Okot’s recent trip out to London. The founder and CEO of Victoria Seeds, Uganda’s leading seed company, Okot must be about as far removed from the Tiers Mondist Mindset as you can get. A hard-charging, loud, aggressive African businesswoman determined to grow her company, Okot would probably feel more at home – characterologically – among the alpha-male business types in the City of London than in the tiers mondist redoubt of the Overseas Development Institute.
Watch her simply flabbergast her Guardianista audience by telling them straight out that if they want to help the poorest farmers, they need to grow the companies that make the things the poorest farmers need to overcome poverty:
“Donors should focus on those higher up the value chain. It is enterprises that are the critical drivers, they drive demand from farmers,” she says. “If donors want to achieve their objectives, if they want to improve livelihoods, they should focus on businesses that add value to output.”
Okot thinks a commodity exchange along the lines of the one recently set up in Ethiopia would improve Uganda’s agricultural sector. “Why not cut and paste for Uganda?” she asks. An exchange, she believes, would improve quality, encourage the construction of adequate storage facilities and boost trading volumes.
Hemmed in by the demands of tiers mondiste political correctness, the journo softballs his mortification, telling us merely that “development experts may question Okot’s priorities for donors.”
But, of course, this is basically an aesthetic imperative. Homo guardianisticus is horrendously ill at ease with the whole idea of development through private sector development. This is not what they got into the game to foster. This is what they got into the game to fight.
At the Campaign for Boring Development, we’re not about to hide our allegiances. We think the poorest smallholders in Africa need improved seed and inputs more than they need almost anything else, and the development of a competitive dynamic between firms eager to sell them those seeds holds more promise for them than almost any intervention an overseas agency could possibly dream up. Because the face of development looks a lot more like Josephine Okot than like Rob Corddry.