Monthly Archives: June 2011

Heroic individual entrepreneurs

I personally think that society is responsible for a very significant percentage of what I’ve earned. If you stick me in the middle of Bangladesh or Peru or someplace, you’ll find out how much this talent is going to produce in the wrong soil. I will be struggling thirty years later. I work in a market system that happens to reward what I do very well – disproportionately well.

–          Warren Buffet

Among development workers there is often an inclination to look for inspiring, entrepreneurial, individuals amongst the citizens of developing world who seem to break the mould and aspire to achieve more than their peers. These individuals are a step ahead; they’re hard-working and innovative, and in being so they set higher standards for their society as a whole, ostensibly changing the culture to make it more conducive to development.

This notion lends itself in support of the idea that the target of development interventions should be individuals, most often based on their role in the market. This is what explains the popularity of microfinance initiatives in the last decade, though the idea finds itself appearing in many other reaches of aid and development work – “investing in people” seems to be the general buzz-phrase for it.

Unfortunately, despite the fact that it’s well-meaning, the way in which “investing in people” is currently done is based on a dramatic misjudgment of how development takes place. The entrepreneurial spirit of individuals does not set trends through which development does or does not occur, but rather, the shape of a society’s institutions determines the trends that will find form in the will and actions of individuals.

Institutions, and especially economic systems, have a profound influence in molding the characters of men and women. They may encourage adventure and hope, or timidity and the pursuit of safety. They may open men’s minds to great possibilities, or close them against everything but the risk of obscure misfortune. (Bertrand Russell, Political Ideals)

In any case, as far as the entrepreneurial spirit of individuals goes, poor countries are leaps and bounds ahead of the developed world. This is simply a result of the fact that people have to work a lot harder, and be more innovative in their work, to make a living. In 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism economist Ha-Joon Chang points out that in Ghana 66.9 percent of the population outside of the agriculture sector is self-employed, whereas the number is only 12.8 percent for the developed world. “What makes the poor countries poor is not the absence of entrepreneurial energy at the personal level, but the absence of productive technologies and developed social organizations, especially modern firms.”

Unlike poor countries, rich countries are able to, as Chang puts it, “channel the individual entrepreneurial energy into collective entrepreneurship.”

[E]xceptional individuals like Edison and Gates have become what they have only because they were supported by a whole host of collective institutions: the whole scientific infrastructure that enabled them to acquire their knowledge and also experiment with it; the company law and other commercial laws that made it possible for them subsequently to build companies with large and complex organizations; the education system that supplied highly trained scientists, engineers, managers and workers that manned those companies; the financial system that enabled them to raise a huge amount of capital when they wanted to expand; the patent and copyright laws that protected their inventions; the easily accessible market for their products; and so on.

Chang insists, as must I, that “we reject the myth of heroic individual entrepreneurs and help… build institutions and organizations of collective entrepreneurship”. Invest in institutions: that’s the right way to go about investing in people. This will involve, to begin with, shedding the unhealthy fetishization of the private sector currently prevalent within the development sector.

The Junior Fellow program and its discontents

My placement with EWB’s Junior Fellow (JF) program has brought me to a community named Diare in northern Ghana. I’m partnering with an NGO named Agribusiness Systems International (ASI) to help farmers in this area establish a new system of storage for their maize. The project hopes to increase the amount and quality of produce that farmers store and sell by improving on current storage infrastructure and post-harvest handling practices.

My role, in short, is to live with the communities where the project will first be implemented in order to gather information that will be used in implementing it.

There are many challenges that confront me in carrying out my work. The biggest is the language barrier because I, of course, don’t know the local language, Dagbani. I have to rely on the few people in the community who speak English well to translate for me if I want to engage in conversation with farmers. I also did not come to the community with a good understanding of the local customs and traditions, and local agricultural practices.

Although there are still two and half months left in my placement, it’s clear to me that the value of the work I do in Ghana will not outweigh the value I gather from the experience. Concern about whether my work could have been more easily done by a Ghanaian (perhaps a graduate from the local University for Development Studies) will no doubt hold considerable weight. Such will be the case for not only me, but likely all the other Junior Fellows as well. For the majority of JFs four months is not enough time to make a worthwhile impact on the ground.

What, then, justifies our coming here? It took a substantial amount of donated money and EWB staff members’ time to bring us to Ghana. Donors, of course, did not want their money to be used in a way that would garner valuable personal experiences for volunteers while, in comparison, providing marginal value to Ghanaians. And the time of EWB staff could have been spent towards initiatives that would create clearer and more abundant benefits for Ghanaians.

The value of the JF program is often questioned in this way within EWB. Responses to such questioning generally lead to justification being given to the program on the basis that it helps Canadians connect with Africa – through JFs relating their experiences to others back home via blogs and other means – and that JFs return from the experience as better “change agents”. These further justifications are not extremely well defined. Though they succeed in giving enough reason for the JF program to continue to exist, they fail to put to rest doubts about its meaningfulness – thus, questions about its value remain ever-present.

I would like to suggest that the current way in which Canadians are connected to Africa and JFs made better “change agents” through the program fails to capitalize on the its full potential. If the terms of these two justifications are more rigidly defined and implemented, they would go much further in settling doubts and, more importantly, make the program more meaningful in forwarding the cause of development.

Connecting Canadians to Africa currently amounts to, in the main, the JFs’ families, friends, and university chapter members learning about their personal physical and emotional experiences, and interpretations of ground realities in Africa with regards to culture, development challenges, economic conditions etc. Out of everything else, primary emphasis is by far given to sharing personal experiences, which also extends itself to relating interpretations of cultural norms. Certainly, spreading awareness about other cultures is a meaningful exercise in itself; to the extent that development should be our main concern, however, there is a certain point after which it becomes rather meaningless to spread awareness about the fact that there are many goats in Ghana, etc.

Furthermore, it must be stressed that any interpretations of cultural norms by outsiders are just that: interpretations. More importantly, in this case they are interpretations made by mostly middle class, white university students who have a dehistoricized and depoliticized interpretive consciousness. Given the power differences in place between them and people in the South, and the dehistoricized and depoliticized framework through which they perceive their surroundings, this class of people is one of the least perceptive when it comes to making interpretations that are close to actual reality. At the same time, as they are part of a class that is one of the most powerful in the world, the interpretations they make serve to be of serious consequence. It’s a dangerous mix.

The class origins of JFs, as well as their level of historical and political consciousness, are also to blame for limiting the extent to which they can become better “change agents”. “Change agent” is EWB terminology for activist – though, characteristically, unlike the word activist, the term “change agent” is not politically charged. Struggling to make an impact through development work as a JF is supposed to provide meaningful lessons for future activism. Unfortunately, distorted interpretations and EWB’s narrow focus on aid and development work, as opposed to a focus on the larger issue of development (see my previous post), make any lessons learned not easily applicable to other fields of activism, or for that matter, within activism around broader issues concerning development.

How, then, should we move forward from here?

The class origins of JFs can’t be changed. Their level of historical and political consciousness, on the other hand, can be lifted; and with it the negative aspects that accompany their class origins can be quelled to a large degree. The privilege afforded to their class can hence be more surely exploited to serve positive ends.

With a broader and deeper understanding of how the world works JFs can use their time in Africa to survey and understand the implications of far-flung policies and practices on the lives of Africans. (How, for example, did the sub-prime mortgage crisis impact rural Ghanaians?). Having returned home they will be able to connect Canadians to Africa in a way that attaches their personal experiences to grander realities. Also, having a clearer idea of what the big picture looks like will allow them to make more accurate interpretations and learn lessons that will be applicable in disparate struggles.

There is no way to lift the consciousness of JFs to the level being proposed during pre-departure and in-country training. It would require a much larger time commitment, and in fact, an effort to lift the consciousness of not only JFs or potential JFs, but the organization’s membership as whole. Undoubtedly, the argument will be made that with a limited amount of resources, EWB can concentrate only on a limited number of pursuits, lest it become overburdened and the productiveness of its activities affected. What I’m suggesting, however, isn’t that we chase more pursuits, but that we develop a background of the big picture which would inform the foreground of our pursuits.

What would, in a sense, amount to changing the culture of the organization would involve lots of hard work and time. I don’t expect such a reason to turn away interest from this venture, though, because everyone in EWB is a workaholic.

Good development work is not enough

In a book titled The Myth of Aid Denis Goulet noted that “primary emphasis in discussions is given to aid, which is but a single facet of a much larger issue, development.” The Myth of Aid was published in 1971. Forty years on, Goulet’s complaint still rings true. NGOs claim to be concerned about development, but in fact, we concern ourselves mainly with the issue of aid. Questions about how to better apportion Western development assistance, and how to improve NGOs’ on-the-ground development work are the basis of both discussions and action. The fact that the last half-century has not seen this approach lead to development in South is not often dwelled upon.

Back in the days of slavery in the southern US the abolitionists would help small groups or individual slaves escape along the Underground Railroad. Though this alleviated the suffering of a small number of slaves, which was a great thing, the abolitionists understood that this is not how the institution of slavery would be brought to an end. They understood that ending slavery would require them to wage a political struggle. Thus, they engaged the public in order to bring popular opinion onto their side and make ending slavery politically viable. They distributed pamphlets, orated, wrote literature to raise the public consciousness and push for reform. Some even went as far as taking up arms and ensured that the issue could not to be ignored in the media and political circles.

Today, the approach taken by development NGOs in waging a political struggle over issues relating to poverty could perhaps be likened to the abolitionists demanding only that slaves be treated better and their living conditions improved, and not that slavery be abolished. A more complete analogue would have the slave owners partly fund the abolitionists’ activities, and have them come to their plantations as contractors to help improve the living conditions of a very small number of slaves.

Development assistance given by rich countries is not meant to alleviate poverty. Its purpose is to win economic advantage by securing influence over poor countries, and gaining diplomatic and military support. It also serves as great PR; it creates a smokescreen that obscures the West’s true intents and seeks to veil past and ongoing crimes committed against the South.

By jumping onboard the aid bandwagon NGOs end up serving the interests of empire. They help whitewash the criminal behavior of the West and ultimately do little to forward development. In fact, by ignoring the structures that keep poverty in place and insisting that more/better aid and development work will lead to the eradication of poverty, NGOs help further entrench the odious structures and harm the cause of development.

“Good intentions are not enough” is a much-repeated line in development circles. I would like to suggest that the following line also become a centerpiece in discussions: “Good development work is not enough.” Good development work is analogous to, at best, helping a small number of slaves run away along the Underground Railroad. Though, it can more closely be compared with helping better the living conditions of some slaves on plantations. Good development work will not, on its own, lead to the eradication of poverty, just as relying on only the Underground Railroad or helping improve their living conditions would not have led to the abolition of slavery in the US. Destroying the structures that allow the South to be economically exploited will lead to development.

This is not to suggest that development work should not be done. Helping to improve the lives of a few people or communities is a wonderful thing. At the very least, however, development work should be done in a way that ensures it does not further the interests of empire. Though, to be earnest in full it should be coupled with an active campaign against the powerful.

History teaches us that working to make the world a better place is not easy. Doing so can help one make lots of enemies. From Spartacus to Gandhi, those who stood up to fight for change were made into villains, had their activities suppressed , and were tossed into prisons. This should provide us with the insight that if the same sort of thing is not happening to us while we’re working for change, then perhaps we’re doing something wrong. If instead the powerful are showering us with laudations, as tends to happen with development NGOs, then we’re doing something very wrong.

It’s a tough thing to actively challenge power. It is, however, as the abolitionist Frederick Douglass observed, the only way towards progress:

Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters… Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.