Let’s trade in these old stories

Roll the tape from my childhood TV screen: image of a 4 year old Ethiopian girl, ribs visible, distended belly, flies on her face, and a voice over, “For just 50 cents a day, you can feed this child.”

This story is  emotional, concrete, personal…and effective.  It accomplished its goal (getting people to donate).  But the aid did not get to the root of Ethiopia’s problems.   And the image of the poor, suffering, African child who needs to be saved is tremendously destructive.

This story, and its many cousins (the emotional appeal, focused on pity) were in vogue in the 1980s, and they got people to dig into their pockets to donate to international charities.  They also did a lot of harm.  They dehumanized people, creating an us/them mentality.  They fed on and into a  power imbalance.  They created distance rather than connection.   All of this in the service of getting someone to do something good.

The good news is that this storyline is mostly dead.  But there’s a newer version of this story that’s still pervasive, and it’s more subtle.  It’s the “here is what you’re buying with your money” story.  “For $10 you can buy a bednet that will save a life.”  “For $120 you can buy a goat that will feed a family.”  “For $5,000 you can dig a well that will provide safe drinking water.”

Here’s what worries me.  It is true that you can buy and deliver one bednet, one goat, or dig one well for $10, $120, or $5,000.  And as a donor you absolutely want to know that your money is being used well, and a concrete connection reinforces that feeling.

But just because the one story is true doesn’t mean it remains true when you play the same reel 1,000 times.  When you want to dig thousands of wells or provide livestock to millions of families, don’t things get a whole lot more complicated?  And, by the way, who came up with the technology to create that mosquito net?  Who is funding innovation to create the next, better solution?

We need better stories, ones that recognize that we are all interconnected.  Ones that put dignity and creativity and innovation at the center.  And ones that give space to create complex solutions to complex problems – while still giving people a sense that they are part of the solution.

I think part of the answer comes in replacing the somewhat misleading concreteness with membership and inclusion.  Your $15 is helping solve this problem.  And better yet, here are a bunch of other people who are also interested in being part of this same solution.

Let’s share our stories, why we care, what we hope to see accomplished, and what else we are doing to make the world a better place.

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The need for genetically modified food in Africa

Here is an excerpt from an incredibly interesting piece by Paul Collier in the Guardian.  Simply put, he is arguing strongly in favor of genetically modified foods for Africa.  (The ban on GM food in Europe is just one in a litany of actions by first-world governments to subsidize and protect domestic agriculture at the expense of the developing world.)

My only question for Collier is, what the likelihood is of widespread adoption of GM foods in Africa if there is not a major policy shift in Europe?  Put another way — isn’t the risk of adoption too great for the foreseeable future, given the level of uncertainty around the ability to export GM crops into first-world markets?

Africa cannot afford the GM ban. Its cities, fed by imports, need global prices to be low. Without cheap food the children of the urban poor will be malnourished. Africa’s farmers, broadly self-sufficient, need higher productivity. Productivity per acre has stagnated, so rising production has depended on expanding the area under cultivation. But with population growth this option is running out.

On the horizon is climatic deterioration due to global warming. The semi-arid parts will get drier, and rainfall variability will mean more droughts. In southern Africa, the staple food – maize – is likely to become unviable. Whereas for other regions the challenge of climate change is to reduce carbon emissions, in Africa it is primarily about agricultural adaptation.

It is conventional to say that Africa needs a green revolution. The reality is that the green revolution was based on chemical fertilisers, and even when fertiliser was cheap, Africa did not adopt it. With the rise in fertiliser costs as a byproduct of high energy prices, any green revolution will perforce not be chemical. What African agriculture needs is a biological revolution. This is what GM offers, if only sufficient money is put into research. There has as yet been no work on the crops specific to the region, such as cassava and yams.

Hat tip to Owen for the heads up on this one.

Forget the Olympics: another barometer of China’s rise

I just came across this great post in Chris Blattman’s blog. Chris and I overlapped in graduate school, and he’s now a rogue Assistant Professor of Political Science at Yale.

Apparently, across certain parts of Africa, the ubiquitous greeting of foreigners as “mzungu” (“white person”) have begun to be replaced by “mchina!” (“Chinese person”), regardless of the foreigner’s country or origin.

It is amazing to see the increased investment by China into Africa, which no doubt has both positive and negative effects. The flood of cheap goods is good for consumers but may be undermining the nascent manufacturing sector. This is significant since manufacturing has such significant job creation potential, and it is hard to move large numbers of people out of poverty without following the path from agriculture to manufacturing to services.

I could never get over, when I was in Indonesia, being called an “orang blanda” (Dutchman), which has stuck as the catch-all term for foreigners regardless of provenance (despite the Aussies in their midst), thanks to Indonesia’s colonial history. This also serves as a reminder that in many places in the world, globalization is still nascent, foreigners are still a novelty, and the divide between “us” and “them” is wide and clear.