Category Archives: Development Mission Creep

The Guardian Cracks It: Kenya’s Problem Is TOO MUCH Rural Investment

Everyone knows Liberal Guilt is a seller’s market, but oh brother, where to even start with The Guardian’s feel-bad-now piece on Blood Roses and Chocolate for Valentine’s Day?

The notion that you can improve the lives of the world’s poorest people by cutting off the few, tenuous economic links your readers have with them is – how to put this politely? – totally insane.

I guess it makes people feel empowered to be told that their daily choices can have an impact on the lives of the world’s poorest. And there’s a noble sentiment at the heart of that that we really should honor. What’s sets me off, though, is the pig-headed determination to make the perfect the enemy of the good, shaming readers for taking part in one of the few, tragically few pipelines currently linking their pocketbooks to the world’s poorest people.

Check it out:

Around 70% of the roses being sold in the UK this week were cut in Lake Naivasha in the Great Rift Valley, according to the Kenya Flower Council. The industry is dominated by multinationals, which own vast farms, and about 800m flowers will be dispatched from Kenya to Europe in the runup to 14 February, making them the country’s biggest export earner.

While the industry’s carbon footprint is far from fragrant, there’s also the issue of low-pay and harsh employment conditions for pickers to consider.

Yes, those Kenyan flower-pickers sure are peculiar, leaving the rural idyll of life as a Kenyan subsistence farmer for the drudgery of life as a flower plantation worker. (Shhhhhh, don’t ask too many questions about rural Kenyans’ actual lives, lest you realize the conditions you’re casually condemning as “harsh” and “low paid” are an immense improvement on the alternatives – the real alternatives, not your fantasy alternatives.)

Sigh. There’s enough bad economics and confused aid thinking here to keep me going for weeks on end, but let me try for the aggressively abridged version:

Continue reading The Guardian Cracks It: Kenya’s Problem Is TOO MUCH Rural Investment

Are We Helicopter-Parenting the African State?

Development people have a strange, double-thinky relationship with Angus Deaton’s argument against development aid. Deaton is too senior in the aid world to be dismissed, but his critique is too devastating to be fully internalized. It’s as though part of us knows if we get too deep into this we’re going to find out some things we’d rather not know, so we prefer to know-and-not-know at the same time, a weird Orwellian move that does nobody any favours.

Facing up to the gory details of aid dependence is one of the last great taboos of the development world.

Deaton’s beef is with Western Paternalism: the never explicit, always just-below-the-surface tendency to treat African states like children, abrogating the paternal role for the West.

Trouble is, through aid paternalism, the West has become the very worst kind of parent: a meddling, hyperindulgent, over-involved helicopter parent that constantly undermines his charge. It’s this idea – that we’re locked into a messed up codependency that undermines everyone involved – that reviewers of Deaton’s new book invariably balk at.

And I can see why: on a micro-level, it’s a hard pill to swallow. We see African states patently unable to run a minimally effective health system. We see millions dying of easily preventable diseases, and we find it intolerable. So we go and run the hospitals for them.

So, does that kind of aid “work”? Think of it like this:

A helicopter parent sees his 19 year old son is plainly unable to tie his own shoelaces and goes and ties them for him. Perhaps he makes some peremptory attempt to show the 19-year old how he might go about tying his own shoelaces in future, but the kid has little reason to pay very much attention – the way the relationship is structured, he knows full well dad will still be there to tie his shoelaces when he’s 24, or 30, or 55.

Did dad’s aid “work”? Well, if your metric is “total laces tied”, it certainly seems to work. Is this a reasonable definition of success, though?

It’s when he talks about aid’s impact on state capacity that Deaton is at his most scathingly convincing. Western aid discourses continually fret about the level of African state capacity – “capacity building” as a buzzword is getting buzzier and buzzier – while also pursuing policies that relieve African states of any compelling reason to become more capable. 

Nicholas Van de Walle gets at this poisonous little dynamic brilliantly in his aging, but still useful “African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, 1979-1999.”

In Van de Walle’s telling, donors are blind to how easy it is for African state elites (we’re talking the 100-300 most powerful people in any given country) and African presidents to play them like a fiddle, using aid to keep their deeply screwed up, extractive political systems going indefinitely. He has great fun describing how “adjustment programs” (along with their accompanying “Social Dimension of Adjustment” aid sweeteners) came to be a permanent condition lasting decades on end in some African countries, to the crazy extent that you could publish a book only half-ironically titled “Burkina Faso: A Tradition of Adjustment”.

Continue reading Are We Helicopter-Parenting the African State?

It’s 2014, do you know where your Noble Savage is?

I have real mixed feelings about the latest web video from Survival International. (You can see it here – I’m annoyingly not able to embed it because it’s not on YouTube.)

On the one hand, the little vid is great fun. Oren Ginzburg’s writing is to-die-for, the illustration is gorgeous, and anything David Mitchell touches instantly turns to comedy gold.

Go and have a look.

Back safely? You see the problem, right? They’ve rummaged through the musty cupboards of discredited western ideologies, picked out the Noble Savage, dusted it off and set it to a killer soundtrack.

I hate to be too critical, as I’m sure there are some settings where tribal people were getting along just fine without development interventions, and participatory community project building just screwed everything up for them. Survival’s whole thing is to work to safeguard those types of communities, and that’s their prerogative, no question.

The problem is that There You Go leaves viewers with the distinct impression that all of Africa is a happy frolicking ground for happy natives in traditional costume who spend their days chillaxing and living off the fat of the land until some evil egghead from a foreign NGO comes and screws everything up.

It’s obvious enough, but it’s worth stating again: there’s a monstrous falsification of African realities at play here.

Continue reading It’s 2014, do you know where your Noble Savage is?