Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Good Intentions All the Way Down


Over the weekend I saw a new low-budget film by two young American filmmakers, Landon van Soest and Jeremy Levine. The movie that was shown as part of the Margaret Mead Film & Video Festival here in New York City was called ‘Good Fortune’ and it depicted the story of two separate and very different development projects in Kenya. While the projects were indeed different in both their genesis and execution, they had one thing in common: they were both failing and faced strong opposition from the local population.

One of the projects was a government initiative supported by UN-Habitat to ‘upgrade’ the huge slum, Kibera, on the edge of Nairobi. Kibera houses the poorest third of the city’s over three million inhabitants. They are mostly people from the countryside who have moved there in search of jobs. Kibera is an enormous shantytown with no communal services, running water or sewage. The improvised shacks are hooked up to electricity through impromptu connections to the grid by the inhabitants themselves. The place is enormously densely populated and dirty with muddy roads. As the well-intentioned young UN-Habitat programme officer, Sara, declares in the beginning of the film: Kibera should not exist!

Yet it does. And it provides shelter and livelihood opportunities to the poor people who otherwise would not have a place where they could afford to stay in the city. And despite all the problems, there still are many more opportunities to earn an income in the city than in the impoverished countryside. The film follows the struggle of Silva, a midwife, and her family as the ‘housing improvement’ project slowly but surely threatens the place they call home, the place that has allowed Silva and her husband to earn a decent living.

There had been earlier projects to provide housing to the inhabitants of Kibera, but few had benefited them. The flats in High Rise, a project built near Kibera with European aid, had been sold on the market by the Kenyan First Lady. Another project stood empty, as it turned out that the politician who had been the developer had embezzled millions of shillings from the government during construction. Having seen it all, the denizens of Kibera were naturally sceptical. But the government was pushing for the slum removal with the help of the UN. I felt somewhat sorry for the young Italian UN official, who came across as hapless and naïve in the film. At one point she did raise concerns about what to do about the people who had to be removed while the slum was being erased and new housing would be built. But she, like everyone else, had no answers.

The other project—and the conflict around it—was unfolding in the western part of the country, where an American-owned firm, Dominion Farms, had leased 2,300 hectares to be developed into a huge rice farm. The founder and owner of Dominion Group of Companies, Calvin Burgess, was interviewed telling how the goal was to transform the area and the people’s lives—in fact, their entire worldview—into something modern, so that they could live like people in America. All that was needed was resources, hard work and a change in the mindset so that, with the help of God, this “worst part of Africa” would be turned into a Garden of Eden. With its grand ambition, Dominion proceeded to dam the Yala River, thus flooding the area the firm had purchased, alongside most of the adjacent land that they hadn’t, where farming families had been living for ages. With the flooding, the families lost the crops they had planted and their cows and goats died because of the inundation of the grazing lands. The Dominion Farms manager suggested that the farmers should just think differently and change their livelihoods from cattle and become fishermen instead.

The film depicted the struggle of Jackson, a school teacher whose parents had come to the Yala area in Siaya forty years ago. Jackson lost his crops and cattle to the flood, but he decided to fight back. He started mobilizing his neighbours and was determined to remain a thorn in the side of Dominion Farms as long as there was life in him.

The two projects were very different on the surface. Their philosophical starting points also differed considerably. While the Kibera project was based on a concept of the government and the public sector helping the poor, the Yala project was unashamedly construed as a private sector development project. God helps those that help themselves, seemed to be the motto. Dominion Farms made no bones about being in it for a profit (the Oklahoma-based Dominion Group of Companies states on its website that for over 20 years they have “responded to opportunities to privatize governmental functions and projects for which state and federal agencies lacked the funding or flexibility to deliver themselves.”). In both cases, the reformers with lofty goals of transforming the lives of the ‘backward’ unwilling people worked closely together with the corrupt authorities. Dominion Farms was in cahoots with local politicians, many of them MPs from the disadvantaged district, who clearly had a stake in the proceeds. In Kibera, UN-Habitat appeared to have been co-opted by the Kenyan government and Nairobi elites into demolishing what had long been perceived an eyesore.

In neither case, were the affected people consulted regarding what their needs were or what they wanted. Politicians, businessmen and bureaucrats knew better what was good for the people. Yet, it was also obvious that the local people were well informed, resourceful and active in confronting the threats to their livelihoods.

The film struck in the middle of a longstanding and at times heated debate about development and the role of external assistance. Can external interventions transform how societies work and the lives of people? Can the Millennium Development Goals that call for the end of poverty by 2015 be reached if we just have bigger, more comprehensive and visionary programs? If only the citizens of the rich countries would open their hearts and their purse strings to the plight of the poor, we would all be able to share in the abundance of the world! The good citizens in the North are outraged by the poverty and deprivation in the South they see on their TV screens. They demand results from the programs funded with their tax money.

What the film showed was of course nothing new. Like everyone else working in the field, I had witnessed much of the same for decades. When in the late-1980s I was working as rural development consultant in Zambia, the goal of the projects was to create a European way of agricultural production and marketing in the remotest and most inaccessible parts of the country. The rural cooperatives were to transform the lives of the peasants and to modernize the economy, so that subsistence farming would no longer be necessary. At the same time, we wanted to tie the aid to Finnish exports. I had many a fight with the development agency people back in Helsinki as we were shipping out trucks and tractors from Finland to the cooperative that we had established in Mongu in Zambia’s Western Province. I had seen too many of them broken down on the bad roads—or not been able to reach the villages at all—because they were not built to operate in the African bush.

Today the battle lines have been drawn between those who believe that Africa needs a ‘Big Push’ to get out of poverty and the others who argue that master plans brought from the outside just don’t and won’t work. In the first category are politicians, such as those gathered in the 2005 G8 Summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, that promised a doubling of aid to Africa, spurred on by NGOs and incensed celebrities like Bono. Their intellectual leader is Jeffrey Sachs, director of Columbia University’s Earth Institute and a special adviser to the UN Secretary-General. He argues that the only reason why the billions of dollars in aid have not helped Africa is that, well, the money was too little. (Bono actually wrote the foreword to Sachs’ 2005 book The End of Poverty: Economic Possibilities for Our Time). They call for comprehensive solutions that will transform the society—a veritable Marshall Plan for Africa. In a recent US News & World Report (November 2009) interview, the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Judith Rodin, summarizes the approach. According to the article, the foundation has committed $150 million to launch a “full-blown agricultural revolution aimed at lifting millions out of hunger… (and) … has developed a comprehensive plan that includes tackling such disparate challenges as improving degraded soils, opening access to markets, and combating government corruption. ‘A more piecemeal approach,’ says Rodin, ‘will not get at root causes.’”

Others argue that such hubris is reminiscent of the utopian dreams of the 19th century and will not work. Last year, the Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo gained significant publicity through her book Dead Aid: Why Aid is Not Working and How there is a Better Way for Africa (see my blog of 22 April 2009). The book was quite simplistic in its fervour but it hit a chord, having actually been written by an African who had experienced the problems firsthand. A more systematic and nuanced argument of why such grandiose top-down schemes to change entire societies with a Big Bang have consistently failed is put forth by the New York University professor William Easterly in The White Man’s Burden: How the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (2006). Unlike Moyo, Easterly does not condemn development aid wholesale. He makes a convincing case for well targeted projects that, based on consultation and feedback, address the actual needs of the poor people they are intended to benefit. Instead of all embracing unattainable ideals, the projects should have measurable outcomes so that they can be evaluated for their results and for learning lessons. Donors should be held accountable to the people who are the intended beneficiaries.

Easterly contrasts the people with the great plans (‘planners’) with ‘searchers’ who find out about local conditions at the bottom, adapt to local conditions, match supply with demand, receive feedback from the ‘client’ (i.e., the people who need the service), and accept responsibility for the results.

An astute observer, albeit not a development professional, the travel writer Paul Theroux in his 2003 book Dark Star Safari: Overland from Cairo to Cape Town comments on the efforts of aid workers (whom he calls agents of virtue) in Africa:

“It is for someone else, not me, to evaluate the success or failure of charitable efforts in Africa. Offhand, I would say the whole push has been misguided, because it has gone on too long with negligible results. If anyone had asked me to explain, my reasoning would have been: Where are the Africans in all this?”

Building upon people’s own initiatives and empowering them has been at the core of participatory development thinking for decades. Grameen Bank, the ‘bank of the poor’ that provides microcredit against group collateral to tiny enterprises often managed by village women, has been able to demonstrate significant results. The Grameen Bank and the force behind it, the Bangladeshi economist Muhammed Yunus, received the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize for "for their efforts to create economic and social development from below.” Such participatory approaches building upon the local people’s own initiatives are unfortunately often missing from the high-flying schemes to change the world in one big swoop.

Inevitably, in the Q&A session with the filmmakers after the screening, the question came: Did you see any aid projects in Kenya that actually worked? Landon, the thoughtful young man who said he had spent virtually his whole adult life in Kenya and studied international development and public health, immediately answered in the affirmative. But he added that the projects that he thought were having positive results were generally small ones, close to the ground, working with local people.

So what happened to Silva and Jackson’s ordeals? Towards the end of the film, Jackson thought he had won, at least temporarily. A major flood had destroyed the dam that Dominion Farms had built and the project was back to square one (there was spontaneous applause in the audience). However, a look at the Dominion Farms website gives the impression that the enterprise is back in full force. The website boasts that:

“Today Dominion Farms is the most celebrated example of technology-based, irrigated agriculture in western Kenya. It is a model for long-range planners who seek to develop the water resources and expand the land under cultivation that is needed to sustain the fast-growing Kenyan population.”

Silva and her husband decided to leave Kibera when the bulldozers came. They returned to the countryside to try start anew there. However, the filmmakers were able to report that they were back in Kibera and had fallen onto bad times as the husband had lost his job as a night watchman.

Meanwhile, planners in the capital cities of the world are busy devising ever more ambitious schemes to solve the problems of the developing world. After all, the deadline for reaching the Millennium Development Goals is just six years away and we still have a long way to go to end poverty.

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