On my long journey to Nairobi, I picked up two fictional books based on real-life events in Nigeria. The first, Little Bee, is about a Nigerian girl who escaped the Oil Wars in her country and became an asylee in England. Written by journalist Chris Cleave, it paints a story that many of us have read in various permutations on the tragedies of Africa. While it certainly brings light to an issue that many of us have not been aware of, it tells a familiar tale of African victims who are mistreated by a foreign other and then abused by the Western powers that be. In an unsurprising turn of events, this young black woman befriends a white woman who learns so much and finds that they share more than they could ever know.
I found myself once again enjoying what I can only describe as a “real page-turner”, yet questioning the assumptions and simplicities with which it described a complex situation. Like so many books that came before it, it portrays the main African character as the wise old soul; saying the perfect thing at the perfect moment, often at the bewilderment of her English friends.
I was forced to compare this book to my other travel companion (I had a 14-hour layover in Heathrow) Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngoze Adichie, one of the books featured in IPSA’s Summer Book Club. I know that the books cover two completely different topics, the latter focusing on the Nigeria-Biafra War, but I couldn’t help but be struck by the differences with which the authors profiled characters and described events. Each of Chimamanda’s central characters is deep and complex, often horrificly flawed. She takes time and care to go beyond the surface and portray all sides and psychologies not only of her characters, but of the contexts in which they acted.
Now that I’m in Nairobi, I’m left wondering whether these books represent the attitudes and tones with which people view Africa and the “African Problem”?
As an Ashoka Africa Summer Associate, I am working with the Center for Rights Education and Awareness, a local NGO that promotes a free and just society for all men and women. In addition to supporting its core operations, I will be exploring economic and livelihood development opportunities for women survivors of gender based violence, which means that I will be interacting with businesses, development partners, microfinance institutions, and faith based organizations. While each organization carries a unique mission, I wonder if each also ascribes to one of the general views on Africa. These views undoubtedly shape development efforts. This question will be a theme of my posts and I hope to unpack at least a little bit of this complex question while I’m here. I’d love to hear your thoughts.
By: Chris Pederson
Warren Buffett, known in the finance world as the “Oracle of Omaha” turned many heads yesterday when he bought the 131-year-old Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corporation. Buffett is betting billions that future U.S. transportation will be carried out by railroads. The newly acquired railroad, traveling throughout the Midwest and to both borders carries grain, timber, and imports from Canada and Mexico. Although the east coast is littered with passenger and cargo trains, the vast Midwest and western coast has great potential for a more development and growth regarding railroad infrastructure. What does this mean for America and our future? Buffett, who has invested in oil and natural gas all over the world, has now looked for alternative ways to invest. As investors from all over and bankers on Wall Street obsess over each of Buffett’s moves, this could be a great sign for railroads and other alternatives to cars and trucks. With Buffet financial backing in the railroad industry, great strides and innovation can be made so that the U.S. can start diversifying the way goods are transported. It also sends a clear message to the world of oil investors, hinting that this might be the right time to diversify your investment. As the investments trickle into non-automotive companies that are looking for ways to move people and cargo, the U.S. can finally start moving in a direction where tires are not needed, only track.
Often times, when I go on a search for the latest news in Africa, I am often met with the most unfortunate of headlines.
“Seychelles captures 11 suspected pirates”
“UN condemns violence in Guinea”
“Congo children relive terror of rebel abduction”
It is somewhat rare that the Western masses are exposed to positive news that comes out of what was once called “The Dark Continent.” Africa, like all of its continental counterparts, has its share of unique issues. However, the focus of my blog postings will not only focus on the developmental setbacks that Africa and other parts of the developing world have faced and continue to face, but will also focus on the stories of victory and hope that emerge from the continent every day.
Thus, we’ll start with the recently publicized story of a young man from Malawi named William Kamkwamba. Kamkwamba was an ordinary schoolboy who was dismissed from school after he could no longer pay his school fees. He spent his days at the library, and one day, he came upon a picture of a windmill. He decided to build his own.
Despite the naysayers, those who thought he was possessed or just downright crazy, Kamkwamba persisted. And, after three months and countless scouring sessions for discarded material from his local junkyard, Kamkwamba constructed his first windmill. To date, William has built five windmills and now supplies the same people in his community who doubted him with electricity and running water.
The author of a CNN story about Kamkwamba says that he is “part of a generation of Africans who are not waiting for their governments or aid groups to come to their rescue.” I find this to be a complex observation. Whereas no individual, community, or country should find themselves at the mercy of aid groups, if a community is in developmental peril, then the government should step in – after all, government should do for the people what they cannot do for themselves.
In Kamkwamba’s case, the government did not help him or his community, and aid groups never found him. However, he used the resources available to him to fuel his interest in windmills and his motivation to complete one, ultimately benefiting his community. Kamkwamba is surely not the only young innovator in Africa who could work developmental wonders, given the opportunity. The question then is: How do we (the development community) find, nurture, and help these young people develop their communities? Do we encourage aid agencies to find the Kamkwambas of the developing world and give them the resources to develop? Do we give governments the monetary and administrative support so that they have the capacity to nurture the talents of those like Kamkwamba? Do we battle the cultural practices that William faced (labels of “crazy and “bewitched”) that could otherwise stop young people from creating the necessary tools to foster development?
The truth is, we don’t know. Developmental scholars have an almost overwhelming array of solutions to questions such as these. Despite the fact that situations like Kamkwamba’s do not hold the key to all developmental problems, this story is of significant value in that it is a testament to the innovative spirit of those who live in the developing world. It is a reminder that, regardless of the plethora of issues a developing country, city, town, or village may face, all is not lost. Kamkwamba is living proof of this, and all the potential that is to come from even the most developmentally challenged areas of the world.
Effie O. Johnson
Master of Public Administration (MPA) Candidate, May 2011
International Public and Nonprofit Management and Policy
Robert F. Wagner School of Public Service, New York University
A.B. Harvard University, 2008
By Nhu Truong
Why have women been counted out of the equation for development? Why is it important that foreign aid should direct more focus to educate and empower women in ways that can allow and create opportunities for greater female involvement in society and the economy? And, finally, how do we identify the invisible pressures of culture and tradition that are visibly tied to prevalent perceptions of women’s place in the family, society, and a country’s development as a whole?
Joined by the Wagner Women’s Caucus and Professor John Gershman, students participated in IPSA’s Reading & Discussion Group on October 15, 2009 for a discussion on these important questions about the effect of development on women. The discussion was grounded on a reading of two articles: “The Women’s Crusade,” and “Rights Versus Rites.”
There’s no shortage of commentary on the impact of colonialism in Africa. So I was surprised last week when I heard two comments that were new to me.*
The first came from Dr. Roselyn Akombe, a UN political affairs officer. She emphasized generational differences: Africans born after independence (including herself) are much less likely to blame the colonial powers for today’s problems. She sees this generational shift as an opportunity to dismantle the bad institutions that are colonialism’s legacy. The second comment was by Dr. Augustine Mahiga, Tanzania’s ambassador to the UN. He described a decision made by the Organization of African Unity in 1963 to respect the colonial boundaries. As dismally as those boundaries served existing communities, ignoring them would have opened the door to greater violence.
These comments struck a chord with me because they share a similar view of change: namely, that it’s more important to find points of leverage than root causes. This difference impacts how we analyze problems. Root cause analysis assumes that we can deal with a problem by identifying the few factors that cause the bulk of it. Unfortunately this ignores the other half of problem solving: the solutions themselves. If the bulk of the problem happened decades or even centuries ago, then there’s not much we can do about it now.
Dr. Akombe and Dr. Mahiga’s comments suggest a different analysis, one that starts with our points of leverage (i.e. our options and their impacts) rather than the problem and its causes. Yes, colonialism drew bad boundaries, but in 1963 the OAU’s best move was to accept and even reinforce them. And yes, colonialism’s exploitation damaged the prospects of today’s African nations, but maybe a new generation with a less vivid memory can chart a new way forward.
For development practitioners — and here’s the kicker — this would mean less time spent trying to fill the alleged gaps in policies and institutions (supposedly tackling "root causes"), and more focus on the actual tools for making positive change. I bet I can trace most of the development industry’s failings to an inability to understand its own points of leverage. But I find this sort of analysis frustratingly absent in the development literature.
* Both comments were made at a panel hosted by the NYU Global Affairs Graduate Society (GAGS).
By: Dave Algoso
It’s been a while since my first post and in that time a lot has happened. As reminder, my capstone team is working for GAIN – the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition. We started work in Delhi on July 13, though I took my time coming to India making stops in England and Bombay to visit family and friends. Delhi – hot, humid, and dull, Delhi - was made all the more bearable upon meeting our capstone clients finally and realizing just how lucky wer are. The entire GAIN-India staff is extremely generous, hospitable, and supportive. I don’t want to jinx us, but I really think we’re a very lucky capstone team based on the stories I’ve heard from previous years.
We spent less than a week in Delhi and then hit the road to visit several locations in India where GAIN’s partner – Naandi – operates kitchens providing nutrient-fortified meals to students at government schools through India’s mandated Midday Meals Program. (Or, “Middy Meals” as was posted on one government official’s office door.) I should mention that during our time in Delhi, one thing that made me appreciate our client all the more was their willingness to allow us to format the scope of our work with a great deal of freedom. Most importantly, we were able to opt for only one case study, dropping the research related to universal salt iodization. Although that topic seemed immensely interesting and one which could have had a great deal of policy impact, we didn’t feel that we could do justice to both it and the Midday Meal review. In the end, we opted for MDM since it was a more clearly defined assignment and would allow for more field study.
Since leaving Delhi, we’ve been to Udaipur, Rajasthan, and its environs; Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh; Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh; and are now in Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh. Having been to India, it’s been wonderful revisiting some old stomping grounds like H’bad, but also great going to new places like Bhopal and Vizag. This amount of travel is just one more way that we’re being spoiled by our experience.
Now, don’t get me wrong, it’s not all a cake walk for us. Our days are starting at 3:40/4am regularly so that we can arrive at the central kitchens early enough to see the lunches being prepared and the the delivery trucks heading out on their routes. We spend some time in each kitchen speaking with the managers, route coordinators and staff (cooks, cleaners, drivers, et al, as possible). Then we head off to see some of the schools receiving their meals with time to speak with headmasters, teachers, and students. Before and after lunch, we go for meetings with government officials and end the day with debriefings, typing up notes, and prep for the next day. If we’re lucky, we get two nights in one place before flying/training off to the next site.
Overall, my impression has been one of amazement. Amazement at how much India has changed since 2003/2004 when I was here for study abroad and amazement at the work that Naandi is doing. Everywhere I turn there are western or western-style stores. Each city seems to have a brand new airport that puts JFK to shame (not that that is so hard to do). Even though I spent 6 months in Hyderabad, I could hardly recognize the place given all of the new construction. When I first came to India, it was easy to miss the US and understand why those who wanted a better chance in the world to send their children to the States for school or work. Now, though, India has become a much more appealing place to live, at least for those who are upwardly mobile and have the option to attend school.
Naandi. What Naandi does with a staff of five and on a shoestring budget would put any fat American NGO to shame. Providing nutritious meals to children for whom it is often the only meal of the day, in four states, in different languages, with different tastes. All while combatting local prejudices, political tensions and Indian bureaucracy. I can’t help but want to drop out of Wagner and stay on full-time to help out. I don’t think I’ll be that rash quite yet. At least not until I take a look at my fall semester reading list. But, honestly, Naandi, and in particular, the Naandi Midday Meal Director Leena Joseph, are inspiring. Being here and participating in work like this is a strong confirmation that Wagner is the right place to be and that international public service is the right field to be in.
I was at the grocery store today after I paid my internet bill. Outside, there were an exorbitant number of mzungus in suits. Inside, there were also a lot of mzungus in suits. After walking past a few, I realized they were Mormons and, I assume, working as missionaries. It’s certainly not uncommon at all to see missionaries, and I think at least half of the white people on my flight from Amsterdam to Entebbe were church groups.
While I find the general argument about getting to know local cultures and language compelling, some of the others not as much. And, please don’t take my critique of the argument as a critique of religiously affiliated development organizations or missionaries, because it isn’t.
First, I don’t have any experience with missionaries, but I think to compare development workers, in their entirety, with missionaries, only a fraction of what churches do in the developing world, is a little unfair. I’d be amazed to find out if there weren’t development workers who stay in one country for years or decades. But, just like there are development workers who come and go without learning enough about where they are working to be truly effective, I’m sure there are “missionaries” that do the same.
I’m thoroughly unconvinced by the argument that “The expat lives in a little bubble of fake-home, cushioned by consumable shipments, huge shipping allowances, and hardship pay” while missionaries “live in houses that are nice by local standards, but not in the expat palaces your average foreigner inhabits. They bring their stuff with them in suitcases, not container ships.” To start, I don’t find that to be true. Second, I’m not convinced that living a comfortable life makes development workers worse at their job. In fact, you could probably make the argument that it makes them better. Not to mention, the incentives are needed in order to get good people.
I have plenty more thoughts, but I’ll leave it at that. I agree with the overall premise, that spending the time in one place to learn languages, culture, etc. will make development workers better, but am not sure we need to learn that from missionaries.