The Great Manhattan Africa Luxury Coffee Tour

Welcome to Manhattan, tourists! Today's tour will accomplish three things: (1) you will find great coffee places, (2) you will find great coffees from Africa, and (3) you will end poverty in Africa. OK, both coffee people and aid people tend to exaggerate, so don't take (3) literally, unless you are from the Earth Institute.

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What better place to begin Manhattan coffee mania than at Stumptown Coffee Shop? This place takes African coffee so seriously, there are two varieties from Burundi and two from Rwanda, and if you give up your first born child,  you can take back a pound of beans to Ohio.

Next is Café Grumpy, where they have a $10,000 machine to brew the clean, sweet, complex $12 cup of coffee from Nekisse, Ethiopia.

Down 7th Avenue to Irving Farm (Go Rwanda!). {Full disclosure: I have a personal connection to Irving, but they're great anyway.} On to Third Rail, rated the best coffee in Manhattan by somebody, and also selling killer Yirgacheffe from the birthplace of coffee. And no, they don't have a bathroom -- this is Manhattan, you can pee when you get back to Iowa.

Moving east we get to La Colombe, accidentally discovered by coffee-illiterate Chris Blattman next to his office. They sell coffee labelled Afrique, which I am pretty sure is in Africa. Sometimes there's a bit of a wait. What part did you not understand about "no bathroom"?

And then just a little further east is Gimmee Coffee, which turns Rwandan coffee into espresso so delicious and thick that you stir it with the hunting knife you brought from Idaho.

Even farther east is the Roasting Plant in a gentrifying former immigrant slum on the Lower East Side.  It embodies the coffee-phile obsession with fresh roasted coffee, so your $24/lb Ethiopian Harrar turned brown right before we walked in.

Now that you've drunk enough coffee, reach with your shaking hands for your Gold Card to buy yet more coffee beans. Whole Foods, Dean and Deluca, and even Murray's Cheese Shop sell Fair Trade, which is almost as good as Unfair Trade for transferring income from rich NYC to Kayanza, Burundi.

If you want to keep things simple, tourists, our last stop is Porto Rico Coffee Importers, which sells many African coffees,  but no spiel on "helping the poor Africans".

Manhattan's pampered and discriminating coffee fanatics don't buy from African producers out of pity, they buy from African producers because they supply wonderful coffee.

Thanks for coming, tourists, have a nice trip back to Indiana. Don't forget mail order.

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Barefoot on Broadway (Warning: gross feet pics)

Vivek Nemana is an NYU graduate student and a student worker at DRI. I’ve been working at DRI long enough to recognize bad aid, and yet my skin still tingles when I watch the TOMS Shoes’ One Day without Shoes video. I know, I KNOW…but I just can’t help being swept away by montages of beautiful young people “taking action” set to a backdrop of a dramatic Matisyahu song. So I bared my feet for the cause:



Sure, this whole event really just helps TOMS sell more shoes, and sure, it was cold and raining in New York, and sure, I solicited bewildered stares, watched mothers shield their daughters from me, and possibly contracted hepatitis, but wasn’t I raising awareness about the real, complex challenges facing developing countries? Because wouldn’t African people hate to be shoeless on a rainy day in the Village, too? Also, do you think I could be a foot model?

TOMS, a for-profit shoe company, likes to use highfalutin’ NGO buzzwords like “accountability,” “awareness” and “change” in its marketing. It just published its first “giving report.” Which is fantastic…except that the campaign reinforces the stereotype that Africans are so pathetically destitute that they need anything we can give them, while allowing us to ignore both the condescending implication that the only hope for the poor is our charity, and the negative impacts of gifts-in-kind on local economies.

I also attended a One Day Without Shoes event held by the TOMS Shoes club at NYU. When I prodded my fellow students a bit about why they supported TOMS, the main message I came away with (and here please note my sample size n=2) was that people should buy the shoes because, with little time and disposable income to spare, it’s an easy way to be charitable with the things we do already.

In a way the attitude itself makes sense – it’s a fundamental economic principle -- but it manifests itself in a giving model (and this goes for BOGO and gifts-in-kind in general) that runs backwards. Instead of taking a fundamental problem that people face – say, unsafe conditions for children – and thinking of what they need to help solve it, this model takes a solution – shoes – and staples it to some problem that people have. And by attempting to view the whole spectrum of issues through this single-dimensional proto-solution, it’s easy to forget about all the unintended consequences.

It’s obvious that the TOMS aid-vertising works, that it can successfully generate a huge grassroots-style movement of well-intentioned people by not only playing into their sense of justice but also providing them with a way to “do something.” But, as I ended my own half-hearted participation in One Day Without Shoes, I remained unconvinced that easy aid could ever be good aid.

What I am certain of, however, is that nobody should EVER have to walk around barefoot in Greenwich Village.

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The Negative Highway

UPDATE 1:30PM: More "Breezewood"s! See end of post UPDATE 11:15am March 9: the Negative Subway (see end of post)

I used to drive often from Washington DC to Ohio and would pass fuming through  Breezewood PA, victim of a hijacking. Where there should have been a simple interchange of Interstates 70 and 76, the locals had conspired with the road builders to dump you on a short stretch of a stoplight-heavy road, PA State Highway 30, in between.

This generated a lot of jobs for the locals, of course, in all the motels, gas stations, and fast food places clustered along this road,

I am just in the middle of reading Bourgeois Dignity by Deirdre McCloskey and was amused to learn there what an ancient practice Breezewood was emulating.

The city of Bordeaux in the 1840s demanded that a railroad designed to go from Paris to Madrid break in Bordeaux to create jobs for porters, hotels, and cabs. The great liberal economist Frederic Bastiat pointed out that EVERY city along the way would want the same thing. Taken to extremes, most of the economy of France would consist of "job creation" for porters, hotels, and cabs working every few kilometers of what Bastiat called a "negative railroad," in lieu of workers producing rather better things like wine, cheese, and railroad cars.

It's not much of a stretch to apply the metaphor to other forms of protectionism, like protecting inefficient domestic industries against imports to "save jobs."

Fortunately today, most special interest protectionism is defeated most of the time, so  there are not a huge number of Breezewoods in the US interstate system, or metaphorically, in our rich modern economies as a whole. The political economy of why poor countries stay poor includes Breezewoods.

I no longer do the drive, so I've finally escaped Breezewood PA. Next time you pass through, please cuss them out for me.


Tim Ogden in the comments below identified another on the same PA turnpike. I then checked out the rest of the PA turnpike and found also another one at I-99 and I-76. Moving on to my home territory, the Ohio Turnpike around Toledo used to have something even worse than "Breezewood" to get from I-80 to I-75. I remember long ago my uncle arriving at my home in Bowling Green and launching into a tirade about this. There must have been enough people like my uncle to change things, and now there is a direct interchange. However, there is still a "Breezewood" to get from I-80 to I-475 south of Toledo.   

Wait, I'm supposed to be writing a paper! get back to work!

UPDATE 11:15am March 9: the Negative Subway. A reader points out another mis-function similar to a Breezewood -- public transit systems that don't reach the airport. This could be explained by the airport being out too far, but there are plenty of examples of nearby airports without transit access. The brilliant designers of the New York subway managed to send no less than 7 separate subway lines near or close to LaGuardia airport (which was built eons ago), but none of them reach it. New York's taxi drivers are extremely grateful for the Breezewood Subway.

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Don't forget the Congolese who helped tell the Congo story

When Western  journalists report from the front lines in Africa, the reader may not be aware how much these reporters depend on Africans as sources, guides, translators, fixers, and intermediaries. The curtain has just parted a bit to see one of these locals, a Congolese hero who helped get the story of the Congo out to the rest of the world (quoting CPJ):

Pastor Marrion P'Udongo has been called the "Oskar Schindler" of Congo...In 2003, as militia sacked the town of Bunia in northeastern Congo and executed hundreds of their ethnic rivals in the streets, the pastor sheltered scores of people in his home and miraculously guided them to safety. ...In order to finance {his} mission and support his family, Pastor Marrion has worked as a translator and fixer for the world's leading news agencies who cover the conflict... If you've read a story about Congo in recent years, or seen one on television, the pastor probably helped produce it.

The reason for the belated recognition of Pastor Marrion is that he is now dying, and journalists who have worked with him have started a fund to finance a kidney transplant to save his life.

In a dizzying role reversal, Nick Kristof kindly agreed to ME interviewing HIM on this topic. He did not know Pastor Marrion, but he said:

local interpreters are unbelievably important absolutely everywhere in the world, from Afghanistan to Congo. The Western reporter gets the credit and the prizes, but the hardest work and greatest risk is typically undertaken by the local interpreter. And then we have some protection because we’re foreign, and in any case we bounce out, while the locals stay behind and must deal with disgruntled warlords and governments when documentaries/articles come out. Local interpreters truly are the heroes of international reporting, especially in more dangerous places like Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Sudan, Ivory Coast.  So I hope the upshot is not only a new kidney for Paster Marrion but also a greater appreciation for the courage and contribution of people like him.

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Deep in the Sahara, listening to “Feelings”

Perhaps it’s a sign of ambivalence about Development that one periodically wants to flee the most developed places and go to the least developed place on earth.

One candidate for the latter is the Sahara desert in southwest Libya, around the Akakus mountains. The few local inhabitants are the Tuareg, with apparently very traditional ways (including great courtesy and hospitality). Bread baked in the sand with hot coals. On foot from one place to the next, with navigators who follow unknown traditional methods, who never get lost. Going six days and five nights without electricity, without roads, without water except for drinking (yes, that DOES imply no bathing for six days).

Hours and days without seeing another human being. The never-altered beauty of dunes and mountains and pitch-black nights under the stars.

Ancient paintings of giraffes on the rocks that date from 8000 BC when the Sahara was still green, before the failure of the 5000 BC International Summit on Climate Change.

Of course, the forces of globalization are not stopped that easily. The Tuareg guide wears Nike sneakers. Toyota 4WD Land Cruisers can bring even the least mobile tourists to see the rock art. And one guide has brought along a tape of Western pop music played over and over again at camp every night, including the official Worst Pop Song of all time mentioned in the title.

It’s still good to get away from Development on occasion, but you can never completely get away.  Indeed, don’t forget about all the planes and automobiles and a thousand other products, services, and communications technologies that make a trek in SW Libya possible. It’s only Development that makes it possible to get away from Development.

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Sometimes it IS about the money

There's widespread agreement that more aid and more NGO donations are not a simplistic panacea to solve development problems. Judith Tendler  35 years ago wrote about the paradoxical phenomenon of aid abundance, in which donor agencies have trouble finding enough ways spending the money they already have; it's still true today. Yet things look very different at the other end of the aid delivery system. During a July trip to northern Ghana, I talked to a community leader in a  small farming hamlet outside of Bolgatanga, Ghana about availability of bed nets. The nets are working to prevent malaria for those who sleep under them, he says, but the town does not have enough nets to go around. "Everybody cannot sleep under one net," he says.

When you reach the end of the road, it IS about the money. More money that reaches the end of the road means more malaria nets, fewer cases of malaria, fewer tragic deaths. The debate has never been about THAT,  it is about WHETHER the money reaches the end of the road.

So it comes to how likely it is that different official aid agencies and NGOs are to make the money reach the end of the road. This is a bit different than whether different aid interventions "work" according to randomized evaluation (RE). Even if the interventions pass the RE test, how do you know that one hundred additional dollars given to one particular agency will translate into additional interventions? 

My visits in northern Ghana were with local volunteers from the international NGO Nets for Life . Their basic idea is to use the trustworthy network of the Anglican church, including  local bishops, priests, and church workers to deliver the life-saving bed nets. I have been involved with Nets for Life at both ends now: both in board meetings in New York and at the receiving end in northern Ghana. I can't claim to have performed any kind of systematic evaluation of Nets for Life, and even if I had, it would hardly be cost effective to for every concerned individual to perform their own time-consuming and costly evaluation of every small NGO program.  We need a much better system for identifying who is doing better reaching the end of the road, where it IS about how much money the agency can raise. 

Until then, I have a very favorable opinion of Nets for Life, based on hearing about their mode of operation, seeing them in action in the field in visits to their intended beneficiaries in northern Ghana,  and also based on the impressive attitudes, knowledge and dedication of everyone I have met involved with Nets for Life.

So to bring closer the day when we know more about NGOs, get to know your NGO as well as you can, using every method possible, and share the information you collect with other actual and potential donors to that NGO (which is what I am doing in this post).  Again, this is all to assess the essential question: do donations reach the end of the road?

If the answer is yes, then yes it really IS about the money.

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Between the Massive Middle and Ivy Elite

UPDATE 9am, Oct. 27: commenter says too rosy a picture of Middle? see end of this post There has been a lot of talk this political season about Ivy League Elitism. My own background—of belonging and yet not quite belonging to the elite— makes me very conflicted.

On Monday, I gave a seminar (not for the first time) at my undergraduate alma mater, Bowling Green State University, which is located in my hometown of Bowling Green, Ohio. It was a very good audience, and I enjoyed as always interacting with my old professors, my first mentors in economics, Charles Chittle, John Hoag, and Leo Navin, as well as with one of BGSU’s new generation of star professors, Timothy Fuerst. I also gave a talk at my old high school (BGHS), and was very impressed with the knowledge and smarts of the students (from the Model UN club) and the Social Studies teacher who hosted me, Theresa Dunn, on development topics.

Earlier this year, I attended an awards ceremony where I was one of 100 alumni that were “among the most prominent” of BGSU’s first 100 years, 1910-2010. Some of my friends teased me that getting an award like this was a bit easier at BGSU than it would have been at, say, Harvard, and I played along with maximum self-deprecation. Yet at the awards ceremony, I felt very humbled by how impressive the rest of the 100 were, with high-achieving entrepreneurs, scientists, actors, artists, and athletes.

My Bowling Green experience always reminds me how American economic development is not just built on a bicoastal elite that went to the elite high schools and universities, but on a very broad and deep Middle America (usually dissed as “flyover America”). The bicoastal elite itself is not a fixed hereditary class, but is constantly renewing itself with new recruits from the same vast Middle, of which I am originally one.

The Massive Middle also provides upward mobility to the poorer regions. My family had lived in one of the poorest regions of the US, the Appalachian Mountains of western Virginia and West Virginia for seven generations. My father grew up in southern West Virginia during the Depression, after having lost his own father at age 2 to tuberculosis. Yet thanks to his hard-working mother and his own hard work, he got a Ph.D. at West Virginia University (WVU) and then got a job as a biology professor at BGSU. Government-funded education like WVU, BGSU, and BGHS is also what helped create the Massive Middle.

So after all this, I am a bit conflicted about the Ivy League Elite. I don’t like the anti-intellectual attacks on this elite (from the Middle); I respect very much all the incredibly smart and creative people I know who belong to this elite.  Contrary to the perception of the attackers from the Middle, the elite universities do a great job producing world-class ideas and achievements.

At the same time, I don’t like the pretensions of some in the elite who look down on the Middle and who think they are the only ones qualified to contribute to our development.

Having been on both sides, Middle and Elite, it looks to me like BOTH are success stories in themselves and BOTH have played their own important part in America’s Miracle of Development.

UPDATE POSTSCRIPT 9 AM, OCT. 27: a commenter suggests my portrait of the Middle is too rosy and mentions the "cult of mediocrity."   I agree that this exists. In Bowling Green, the Junior High and High School periodically face threats of cutbacks to their (already limited) programs for gifted students. And yes, I perceived that many people in Bowling Green had anti-intellectual values, both when I was growing up and now, which does feed a "cult of mediocrity."  But Bowling Green is diverse (check out the coffee shop Grounds for Thought as the HQ of the local intelligentsia), and there were and are many who recognize and encourage those who do well in school.

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Diary of a serial summit attendee

One week. Two development summits. Hundreds of heads of state, development luminaries, CEOs, and social entrepreneurs. Celebrity star power. No poor people. Aid Watch spent three days trying to make sense of the greatest show on earth to help the world’s lowest. TUESDAY

0930 hrs: I am crammed into a press box at the back of the world’s most glamorous development meeting, craning over the photographers to catch a glimpse of this year’s distinguished guests as they file into the room. At last, the charismatic master of ceremonies takes the stage, and the annual Bill Clinton Admiration Clinton Global Initiative comes to life. The meeting is to match people with big ideas with people with big money, and the pace of networking is furious.

1230 hrs: USAID administrator Raj Shah speaks at a CGI lunch on the topic of agriculture. While the Green Revolution saved hundreds of millions of lives in Asia, it never spread to Africa because aid agencies “actually just failed to try.” That doesn’t square with the World Bank’s finding that “Much energy has also been wasted in trying to replicate Asia’s Green Revolution model in Africa….”

1330 hrs: Introducing another “new” solution to world poverty, Hillary Clinton announced a $60 public-private partnership to replace dirty cooking stoves that spew toxic smoke with healthier, environmentally-responsible ones. (Read Alanna’s ideas on what this initiative will need to do differently to succeed where many previous efforts have failed, and these reflections from experience in India and rural Africa.)

1700 hrs: The best debate of the day is between Mohammed Yunus, who asks that the term microcredit not be used for firms that loan for profit, and Vikram Akula, of SKS Microfinance, who thinks only a commercial model can reach all the people who need and deserve loans, through access to capital markets. Here’s a summary from Forbes.

1830 hrs: My first “Tweetup,” at a bar in midtown, is much more fun than I anticipated. Lots of bloggers, aid workers, entrepreneurs and students whom I knew only by their Twitter handle now have faces and voices.

The best summary post of the day comes from Laura Seay, aka Texas in Africa, who articulates the uncomfortable sense that something essential is missing from these meetings:

… the presence of the poor is limited to pictures in slide shows while wealthy people hobnob over cocktails and abundant buffets. Am I the only one who would rather hear about what life as a poor woman in Ethiopia is like from an actual poor Ethiopian woman?


0900 hrs: The “UN Digital Media Lounge” is where they keep the bloggers who couldn’t get real press credentials to attend the UN summit. There’s wifi, coffee and bagels, but at 47 blocks north of the actual UN building it feels a bit removed from the MDG summit. All day, different heads of state are speaking at the UN on “integrated and coordinated implementation of and follow-up to the outcomes of the major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields; and follow-up to the outcome of the Millennium Summit: draft resolution.” Some of these are broadcast on the screen at the lounge; I browse though others on the UN live feed site.

1430 hrs: The most hyped event of the day is the launch of a new global health strategy for child and maternal health, “Every Woman, Every Child.” Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon promised a “clear road map for making a fundamental difference in millions of lives.” Then he opened the floor to two-minute speeches from practically everybody in the room: poor countries, rich countries, foundations, corporations, NGOs, all making promises and pledges, which the UN announced amounted to “over $40 billion in resources for women and children’s health.”

Oxfam UK questions whether the funds pledged for women and children are actually additional funds or just “promises with a seemingly big price tag in a new shiny UN wrapper.”

1700 hrs: Meeting fatigue is setting in. Since I’m not invited to the MDG Gala, where attendees will celebrate pledges to fight poverty in New York’s swankiest Plaza Hotel, I’m grabbing a beer, going home, and watching President Obama’s speech from the comfort of my couch.

…Wait a minute, did President Obama really just admit the US approach to food aid is creating dependence, not development, and that our aid policies have focused on short term gains at the expense of sustainable development? Did he just become the world’s latest aid skeptic? Did he just pledge to be guided by evidence, “to invest in programs that work, and end those that don’t”? Judging from immediate reactions, people watching are starting to get that some of that old “Yes, we can” feeling.


1045 hrs: It’s Raj Shah again, stopping by the UN Digital Media Lounge. Wow, did you know he’s only 37 years old, a medical doctor with a degree in health economics? The guy is impressive. But he doesn’t address the most obvious follow-up question to Obama’s speech last night: What happens next so that Obama’s hopey-changey speech gets translated into actual change in our 50-year-old aid legislation and at USAID and the 25 other government agencies involved in US foreign assistance? Will development really be elevated on par with diplomacy and defense when the White House’s new policy says that Shah will report to the Secretary of State, and will have a seat on the National Security Council only “as appropriate”?

1400 hrs: And, we’re back at CGI for a special panel on Haiti’s reconstruction. Uh-oh, is Haiti’s President René Préval really inviting Wyclef Jean on stage? President Clinton talks investment climate with the CEO of Royal Caribbean, the cruise line that brought in more than half of Haiti’s tourists last year. He describes a Coca-Cola/IDB/TechnoServe project sourcing Haitian mangos for a new Odwalla mango-lime juice, and speaks movingly about the resilience of the Haitian people.

Coca-Cola is everywhere this week, in the speeches of Melinda Gates, Raj Shah, in multiple panels at CGI. The prominence of corporations in this week’s events led to at least one wry comment about “saving the world with high-fructose corn syrup” and an observation that we’re hearing “more and more about mutual benefit and less about the moral requirement to help those in need.”

Given the overlap in timing, topics and headline speakers (Hillary Clinton, Mohammed Yunus, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, Melinda Gates and Pres Obama all spoke at both events), comparisons between the two events are inevitable, with one journalist suggesting the CGI could be “the new UN.” It does have far better production values, better food, and better (though still spotty) press access. Come to think of it, Bill Clinton would make a bit more inspirational SecGen than the mild-mannered one we have now. But let’s not forget that CGI members fork out $20,000 per year for the privilege to attend what is still, despite the roster of impressive accomplishments, a club for very privileged people.

1730 hrs: The leaders of the MDG summit have issued their “outcome document,” whose long stretches free of content, by custom, were agreed upon before the delegates even arrived:

We underscore the continued relevance of the outcomes of all major United Nations conferences and summits in the economic, social and related fields and the commitments contained therein, including the Millennium Development Goals….We strongly reiterate our determination to ensure the timely and full implementation of these outcomes and commitments.

Clinton is creating more of a pulse closing his show, which I’m watching from the press pen since they couldn’t fit half the press people into the mobbed closing session. Looking out at the audience (Oh my God that’s Mick Jagger!), Clinton quips that while “politics is show business for ugly people,” work in the non-governmental sector is “show businesses for nerds.” For this week, at least, he’s right, it’s been quite a spectacle. Thank goodness there’s 12 months until the next one.

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African Tourism projects: great potential or white elephants?

Not too many people are aware that Ghana has a very good game park, called Mole National Park, about two hours drive from Tamale in the north, which is in turn a short flight from Accra. Like many other African governments, Ghana's government has high hopes for earnings from tourism. Will it happen?

You can sign me up as a zealous booster of Ghana tourism. Mole National Park alone is amazing, as I hope some of these amateur photos convey.The scene from the ridge on which the hotel sits was breathtaking and full of game.

And we haven't even gotten to Ghana's more famous attractions, like Elmina Castle, or even its famously welcoming and courteous citizenry, or just traveling about anywhere in Ghana. My message is unambiguous: come to Ghana!

Unfortunately, not all tourists base their choice of destinations on my recommendations. The prima donnas among the tourist set are going to complain about the not-quite-luxury-class hotel at Mole, or the teeth-chattering ride over an unpaved road from Tamale. Or maybe they will still be whining about the hassles of getting a visa. Some of them might have been a little put off by the welcome sign at the airport, whose principle message seems to be that pedophiles should surrender to the police immediately. (I of course sympathize with whatever problem led to this sign, but calling the visitors perverts is not the conventional way to attract tourists.)

This is the problem with trying to make tourism a major source of revenue. You have to keep the spoiled brats happy from the moment they enter to the day they depart. This chain is only as strong as its weakest link: one bad experience and it scares off the tourist masses. It seems that a lot of tourism projects do not appreciate these realities. The successful large scale tourist earners create at least a welcoming airtight enclave like Cancun. This is asking a lot of a poor country, to make everything fully functional for visitors when even making the basic health system work is a (higher priority) struggle.

Plan B is to attract at least the true  travelers, to whom a hitch in the road is material for an entertaining story to tell their friends, not something to ruin your vacation. Ghana is already doing this with some success and could conceivably do more (the hotel at Mole, while not large, was at least full to capacity in mid-July). I don't know how large the traveler market is compared with the mass tourism market, but a rigorous survey of my family, friends, and acquaintances suggests it's non-trivial. Perhaps somebody has already done a study of these various tourist market segments (anybody know?) Bottom line is that I think Ghana does have considerable upside potential, but not at Cancun scale. And maybe they should take down the pedophile sign.

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The Lives of Others

UPDATE: contrasting negative images offered by commentators on Twitter (see end of post) My Ghanaian friends often tell me that if you want to understand Ghanaians at all, you have to understand how religious are most Ghanaians. I believed them of course, but it didn’t really become vivid until I attended the most amazing church service this morning. I am not saying this out of any religious motives, just to point out another side of Ghanaians that outsiders seldom see or appreciate.

The service was at an Anglican church in Bolgatanga (I am myself an Anglican at a fairly tepid level). The Anglicans in in the US (where we’re called Episcopalians) are a pretty sedate denomination, associated with rich, formal, well-dressed, stuffy older people. So imagine an Anglican service with music including a drum-set, Ghanaian drums, a talented organist and a vocalist, dancing, and a congregation made up of all ages (also well-dressed in indigenous clothing). A drum-set would be as out of place at an American Episcopalian service as a vuvuzuela, but the Ghanaian Anglicans were clearly much more into the service than their American counterparts.

Exactly what point am I trying to make in my current travel-addled state with little time to write this? (Insert obligatory academic references to some random research findings on religion and development when I get more time.)

I think it’s something about how to understand people’s behavior, you need to understand how they see themselves. A good guess is that the people in the congregation this morning, in one of the poorest regions of Ghana, do NOT see themselves primarily as “poor” or “developing”, they see themselves as Christians. Another guess is that similar feelings about religious faith would apply to other Ghanaians in other religious services, like Muslims, Catholics, traditional religions, etc.)

Perhaps this fits into the recurring Aid Watch theme about humanizing aid recipients, how poor people have a life, and may not even see themselves as poor at all, and so may according to some other perspective NOT be poor. This is not to deny the material hardships of people around Bolgatanga; in fact, I talked to the bishop afterwards about really bad stuff like malaria and human trafficking in teenage girls. But not all the comparisons with rich Americans go one way. Just daring to speak for my fellow Episcopalians, Ghanaian Anglicans have something that American Episcopalians could envy and learn a lot from.

UPDATE: got this comment on Twitter:

@auerswald Noticed that too. RT @JaneReitsma: The absolute opposite of @bill_easterly's post today - "#Africa’s unsung heroines"

The Economist article cited is a description of a few women in Burundi, whose husbands are depicted as follows:

As for the husbands... Many of those who stay are drunks with syphilis. Women are forbidden to inherit land. They are often beaten and raped.

I'm not sure how a random example from Burundi is the "opposite" of the post above on personally observing one congregation in Bolgatanga, since I was not trying to establish the definitive portrait of "the typical African", which would be a ludicrous enterprise. I certainly would not deny the very real existence of abusive husbands and victimized women, but it does bother me that there are a lot more of the extreme negative anecodotes  in the Western media covering Africa than any positive anecdotes.

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Is &%# allowed in aid?

My wife and I visited the village of Goyire yesterday, about 30km from Bolgatanga in northern Ghana, home to the Builse subgroup of the Talensi ethnic group. We were looking at a malaria bed nets project that I will discuss more in a future post.  The community had organized a skit to dramatize why bed net utilization is so important to prevent malaria. The amateur community Thespians doing the skit really hammed it up and the villagers and us almost died laughing. Hilarity increased further when everybody started performing music and dancing after the skit. A certain middle-aged white male blogger displayed a deplorable lack of self-restraint and attempted to execute various jerky dance maneuvers that might have not been perfectly in time with the music, which most of the audience seemed to find deeply amusing.

A certain three-letter word not usually associated with aid projects seemed to be happening: f-u-n. We were all having a lot of fun, and I think malaria awareness increased more on this occasion than on other deadly boring health education lectures I have seen other times. As someone once advised me, take your work seriously but don't take yourself seriously. Fun is allowed in aid.

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Fitting Kwame the cabbie into the brain drain equation

The following post is by Yaw Nyarko, a Professor of Economics at NYU and founding director of Africa House. Not too long ago I got in a cab in New York with a Ghanaian taxi driver named Kwame. He remembered picking me up several years ago. What a memory he has. Anyway, he told me he has four children: one is a doctor and the two youngest are in private school. He said his kids were doing exceptionally well, and he is paying for elite schooling from his taxi driver salary.

Aid Watch has blogged about a paper I co-authored which argues four ways the benefits of brain drain could outweigh the costs to African countries. Kwame made those arguments real to me. I wondered again why we rarely consider the gains to the migrants themselves when talking about the African brain drain.

Kwame said he was glad to see me, but he nearly died this year. “Died?” I asked, not sure I heard him clearly through all the Manhattan traffic. Yes, he explained, he got malaria while in Ghana; it was cerebral malaria which was not properly treated. Clearly, this was one brain drainer who still went back to his home country and cared about public services there.

I was going to dinner with the Minister of Health for Ghana that same evening. I thought to myself that I should tell the Minister that Kwame believes something should be done about the open sewers in the country and there should be more insecticide spraying as was done in the Nkrumah era.

I got out of the taxi and left a huge tip. I felt very proud of Kwame as I thought of his four children educated off his taxi earnings. I also reminded myself to redo the calculations on the pluses and minuses of the brain drain to account for the Kwame’s.

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Universities in Africa: the forgotten link?

The following post is by Moussa P. Blimpo, who just received his Ph.D. in Economics from NYU, and has recently returned from conducting fieldwork in Benin and The Gambia. He is from Togo. The working conditions are very poor in many African universities. I had a chance a few days ago to attend a class at The University of Lome, in Togo. My high school buddy, Zakari, is an assistant professor of mathematics there. With a meager salary, he has a daunting task to accomplish every semester. When he started teaching over a year ago, he was assigned to share an office with three tenured professors and another assistant professor. There is one computer and one printer to share, no copier, and no internet.

Zakari teaches four classes this term, with about 18 instructional hours per week. This year, he says, he has graded over 7000 exams already, and the academic year is yet to finish.

I attended one of his classes. It was a lab session with third year biology students. I could count over 120 students in the classroom. As you can see from the picture here, some students in the back of the room were kneeling down to take notes and many others were standing. The room was fairly large, but there were not enough seats to accommodate all the students.

I am not complaining for Zakari. Two of Zakari’s officemates left last year for Europe and they have no intention of returning.

My concern was for these students who are so eager to learn. As I stood there, I asked myself a few questions: Why is it that so little attention and funding is given to universities?  With practical training, wouldn’t these young men and women be the one who will create jobs tomorrow? Shouldn’t African universities be strengthened to enable Africans to think about African problems?

Andrew Mwenda suggested, at the Best and Worst of Aid conference, that aid might be more effective if it is more often targeted to reinforce the strengths of a country rather than focusing on weaknesses all the time. He made a similar point here on TED.

I believe that universities may be one place where aid, coupled with a smart higher education reform, could be very productive.

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A warning from Tajikistan

The following post was written by Alanna Shaikh. Alanna is a global health professional who blogs at UN Dispatch and Blood and Milk. A polio outbreak is underway in Tajikistan. 12 people have died of the diseases since March. 32 cases of polio have been confirmed, and 171 cases of acute flaccid paralysis (a signal of possible polio) have been identified. That’s a full-fledged outbreak in a country with an 82% vaccination rate. Until this January, there hadn’t been a polio case in Tajikistan for 13 years; Tajikistan was certified polio-free in 2002.

Tajikistan should simply not be seeing a polio outbreak – an 82% vaccination rate is enough to achieve herd immunity and protect even the unvaccinated. And we know this is not one of the rare vaccine-caused outbreaks because the WHO has done genetic analysis on the polio strain – it is wild polio.

Something has gone wrong in the health sector in Tajikistan. There are several ways that the health system could fail on vaccination. Vaccine records could be inaccurate, causing unvaccinated children to be missed by the system. Or the cold chain is not being maintained and the vaccines are losing effectiveness – the oral polio vaccine is especially vulnerable to warm temperatures. Whatever happened, it’s a sign of health system weakness and the Ministry of Health of Tajikistan will need support to improve it.

This outbreak calls into question the disease eradication approach to public health. Tajikistan has shown genuine commitment to polio eradication and that commitment has not been enough. Without a health sector strong enough to ensure effective vaccination coverage, a single-disease focus just doesn’t work. That idea is slowly being accepted. Eradication proponent Bill Gates called the eradication approach into question in his annual letter, mentioning slow progress to date in Nigeria.

If disease eradication is not the key to promoting global health, what is? Successful immunization against dangerous childhood diseases requires the same basic health sector resources as fighting HIV, protecting maternal health, and preventing chronic illnesses: a sufficient number of trained staff, useful data and the ability to act of it, health infrastructure, and effective financing methods. Support for those resources therefore strengthens a nation’s health as a whole.

Moving to a health systems approach for supporting global health will maximize the impact of global health spending. Every dollar spent will battle more than one disease. A broad systems approach also directly supports the goals of disease eradication by making sure that health staff are available, and trained, to provide vaccinations, and that the logistical system is in place to keep vaccines cold.

A systems approach will also support the structures needed to maintain disease elimination. Even after polio has been eliminated from a region, vaccination for the disease needs to continue as long as it still exists in human patients anywhere. And surveillance is necessary to watch and prepare for new outbreaks of the disease, like the one we are seeing in Tajikistan.

Tajikistan’s polio outbreak is a warning sign. You can’t eliminate a disease without also building a health system that ensures the disease stays eliminated.

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Africa is Rich

…as well as Poor. I don’t dispute, and I do care very much about changing, the well known material and health deprivation in Africa. But Life doesn’t have only one dimension. tukul_sunset_small

These thoughts were prompted by a recent seven-day journey on foot through the highlands of North Wollo, Ethiopia.[1] Going through a district with no roads, no electricity, no wheeled vehicles, no source of energy other than animal and human power, threshing and winnowing grain with Biblical technology, amidst rock-walled villages with tukuls of sticks, mud, and thatch, no signs of “modernity” of any kind, you might think the focus could only be on poverty.

Yet I was struck also by many other things: the centuries-old Ethiopian Orthodox Christianity, with a beautiful church in each village, the coffee ceremony associated with the homeland of coffee, the wonderful cuisine, the tenacious skill and hard work needed to reap a rich harvest of teff, wheat, and barley out of a rocky land, the hospitality of the villagers who invited us to share their homemade beer after church services, and - above all - the dignity of local people proud of their Amhara history and culture, who don’t consider themselves “the poor.”


These experiences were courtesy of a remarkable community tourism NGO called TESFA (Tourism in Ethiopia for Sustainable Future Alternatives).

Some development professionals acted as entrepreneurs with local communities, letting them in on the strange notion that some faranji would be delighted to pay large sums to do the hard work of climbing up and down escarpments. Aid agencies and embassies (Save the Children UK, Irish Aid, Dutch and British Embassies) provided start up capital to build guest camps.


Eschewing the voyeurism of marketing poverty itself (like a few tourism projects criticized on this blog), the villagers gradually realized that they were sitting on a tourism gold mine of spectacular scenery and rich culture. TESFA is now Ethiopian-run, and the emphasis is on local guides and villagers providing all the services to the trekkers who pass through, supplementing their incomes through offering something of great value in the world market for trekking destinations. (Adventure travelers and trekkers everywhere – you can’t miss this. You don’t have to be in great shape either – I wasn’t and was fine.)

Which brings me back to the idea: Africa is Rich, as well as Poor.

image008At home, we don’t value people around us only by their numerical income – we also recognize courtesy, classiness, intelligence, loyalty, familial devotion, community dedication, spirituality, peacefulness, creativity, beauty, style, kindness, athleticism, artistry, and many other dimensions.

So why do we insist on defining Africans only on the dimension in which Africa looks worst – material income – when on some other dimensions Africa compares well to the West?  Wouldn’t it be a lot less patronizing if we recognized the riches as well as the poverty of Africa?

[1] (obligatory caveat that generalizations about “Africa” based on one district are silly, but a way to start a conversation)

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Respecting local values: Western confusion about African orphans


When a remote area of South Sudan was resettling from the long-running civil war in 2001, tens of thousands of returnees were threatened by the upcoming rainy season without food. A small team was dispatched to assess and prioritize the needs of internally displaced people (IDPs) resettling in a corner of South Sudan. (Sudan continues to have the largest number of IDPs in the world, even without exact numbers from half the country.) I was part of the team in a village of 1,000 residents, where roughly 30% were orphaned children whose parents had been killed in the war or died without medical care.

Our team was horrified when we learned that lions actively hunted in this area, killing children daily without protection of shelter or family. As a result, protecting the most defenseless residents became our immediate concern. Elsewhere in Africa, top-down Western aid builds orphanages in such situations, but I knew the Western and African concepts of family and “orphans” are different. There are already so many orphanages that the website lists dozens to solicit donations and encourages readers to check back because “orphanages are being added frequently.” You can even be an orphanage tourist for a week!

Ubuntu is an African concept of interconnectedness, of a collective belonging and understanding of interdependence. In different regions of Africa it has varying rights and responsibilities, and I was unsure of the application in this remote place. I asked the village’s women’s council about who was caring for the orphans and they admitted there wasn’t enough food to share. We went on to discuss food security and our NGO’s role in helping the IDPs resettle. We promised food assistance for their transition and planting resources and asked if they would they take these children into their homes as part of their family, since the orphans were from their tribe. They readily agreed it was their responsibility, as these were the children of extended family members. With this agreement in place, within weeks all but five children were connected to extended family members that cared for them as their own children.

True to our word, our NGO brought in emergency food supplies, then seeds and agricultural tools. A year later, insufficient rain created a temporary food crisis and we again brought in supplemental food supplies to help them get through. Our commitment was to the village, that they survive the transition to self-sufficiency.

Within a short time of our first visit, there were no more lion attacks on helpless children and we never heard another word about the hundreds of orphaned children. The village has grown to about 15,000 people and today they grow the food they need. By making a commitment to this village, we helped the village to take care of its own challenge. And there was no expensive, Western-style orphanage institutionalizing them until adulthood and no long-term expense. Furthermore, the culture of this village has remained essentially undisturbed. The village leaders can be proud that these children have become part of their ubuntu connections and been raised by relatives speaking their own language and taught the ways of their people.

When aid solutions are empowering and consistent with local values and culture, in my experience they are less expensive, sustainable and more respectful. Interventions can help people get back on their feet to find their own way, not one imposed by aid organizations with agendas or expensive, delaying overhead. Let’s stop pretending that aid work can be ignorant of local values and culture; this is an essential part of constructive aid work.

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The Three Worlds of an Aid Worker in Lagos

by Jeffrey Barnes, veteran aid worker I start my day in World One, the world of international flights, business class lounges, laptop computers, four star hotels and Internet. Although power in the country is expensive and infrequent, the hotel management has installed stand up air conditioners in all the public spaces, including the hallways, to ensure that the temperature is always low enough so that clients with three piece suits are comfortable. The hotel generator run constantly to maintain the chill, but this is only noticeable to clients when they smell the diesel fumes in the parking lot

After breakfast, my driver is waiting for me and drives out into the midst of World Two, the bustle and struggle of the city streets. Our trip to my meeting can take anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. We have allotted one hour. I admire the nerves of my driver as I watch him navigate around the potholes, the taxis, the bikes and the pedestrians who jump in front of us. The hawkers congregate at the traffic choke points to sell—kitchen appliances, toilet seats, bootleg CD’s, fresh fruit, clothes, plumbing, tool sets, furniture, toys, rugs and more. The guys selling cellphone recharges are everywhere, with their long strings of cards. My driver needs a recharge, but first insists that the seller open the recharge and enter the code. It works, but the additional time reminds me of costs of doing business in a low trust environment. “Low trust environment” is development jargon for “everyone for himself” that is the core principle of World Two.

I notice a huge cloud of black smoke in a nearby residential neighborhood. I ask my driver what he thinks it is. He hadn’t noticed it. Later, I hear that the fire was caused by the explosion of an oil tanker that shouldn’t have been in a residential neighborhood. Several deaths, homes destroyed. Apparently tanker explosions don’t merit special attention when you are working the streets of World Two.

Surprisingly close to our one hour estimate we arrive at our destination in World Three—a large ministry of the state government. Although it takes a while to attract the attention of the receptionist who is busy reading her newspaper, my obvious status as a foreigner gives me rapid access to World Three and she directs us to our destination without questioning our purpose or demanding any credentials.

The elevators are not functioning and apparently haven’t been for some time. As we walk up the seven flights of stairs to our destination, I notice that the walls are amply decorated with posters for every conceivable campaign, every vertical program, every pet donor cause—World AIDS day, Roll Back Malaria, Campaign for expanded vaccination, Women’s Day, World Effort against TB, Millennium Development Goals, World Population Day, etc.

When we arrive at our destination, our contact is not there and her secretary seems uniformed of our arrival, in spite of repeated calls to set up and confirm the appointment. When our contact finally arrives forty-five minutes later, she greets us warmly and we discuss the conference we attended together. We discuss another team building exercise for her and her staff. Our conversation is filled with development buzz words, “capacity building”, “leadership development”, “public private partnerships”. Ultimately, the deal we are discussing is about helping the ministry with their internal processes. I wonder what difference it will make to those people working the streets in World Two.

After the meeting, we plunge back into World Two. The traffic has become even more chaotic. Enterprising drivers have added two more lanes by driving on the sidewalk, but the four lanes still have to merge into one as we access the other road, so traffic has slowed to a crawl. A tall man wearing a dirty white boubou limps over to me. He thrusts out both his arms in my direction. His left arm is amputated below the elbow and his right hand is extended in anticipation of my charity. I have no change, and I don’t dare reach for my wallet while we are stuck in traffic with the windows open. I gesture with empty hands and apologize for not being able to help him out. Instead of moving onto the next car as the others have done, he glares at me and thrusts out his arms again. His eyes speak to me: “Don’t you see I am an amputee? Didn’t you come here to help people like me? Why don’t you build my capacity to eat a decent meal? When is World Amputee Day?”

I have no answers. The car finally lurches forward. I am thankful to escape back to World One, but the questions remain. Why are these three worlds so disconnected? Can we international travelers of World One really make the comfortable bureaucrats of World Three more responsive to the struggling masses of World Two? Or are we just making them even less accountable?

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Cry from the field in Nepal

by Scott MacLennan, veteran NGO leader resident in Nepal A few weeks ago I was again trekking the Tamang Heritage Trail with a group of medical volunteers. We stopped for the night in the village of Thambuchet which is a short distance from Chilime. There I found a brand new government building that is supposed to be a birthing center. The government has a big push on to stop home births and get the people to use government facilities. So, it's a really nice building. Problem is that it has never been equipped with anything and has no staff.

Ward 9 in Pokhara, Nepal affords another good lesson. Under UNICEF, the municipal day care center was disgraceful. The barely six-foot high tin roof made the children's home into a sauna during the monsoons. There were no toys or resources for teaching. There was no toilet and the children defecated on the front lawn. Little in the way of funding ever made it to the center. There were too many bureaucratic mouths to feed further up the management (verification) ladder. The NGO that now helps support this day care center in partnership with local government has transformed it on a shoestring budget.

Much of the part of Nepal where I work has phantom projects. Empty health posts and newly built birthing centers without staff or equipment are not uncommon. These are all development assets on someone's balance sheet. The government counts them as part of its national health program. The international community has, at the risk of sounding too critical, for the most part been quite willing to allow this to go on. So long as the donors and the government can say they have this, or they have that, regardless of the reality of existence, everyone seems happy. The verification part of this industry thrives on the non-reality of it all.

Only small NGOs it seems are able to actually get out in the field and get their hands dirty making things happen. Past a certain size (what is that size?) the demands for official looking papers, reports, audits and the like overshadow the demand to actually provide aid. Large donors are just too caught up in the appearance of good business and good government. Form without substance.

Doing an inventory of small NGOs working in the various districts, then giving out small amounts of funding ($10,000-$20,000 a year) probably gets the most done. Skip the audits and heavy-duty report writing and verify with a small team equipped with a camera. A picture is worth a thousand words (or reports) it's there or it isn't and the camera tells you. NGOs with barely enough budget to survive have little motivation and opportunity to corrupt the process. They are community members themselves and the community can police its own quite effectively. Nearly anyone living in a small community in Nepal can tell you in short order who is working for the good of the community and who is lining their own pockets. Snap photos, ask the locals and you'll know for sure that your aid dollars did something.

That's my two cents from the field. I run The Mountain Fund, a very small NGO attempting to keep it real in Nepal. Photographic proof in my newsletters and please, stop and ask the locals about me. Oh, yes, I am taking over the empty birthing clinic and will raise the funds to equip and staff it myself. About $10,000 a year and I will send photos.

Thanks, Scott MacLennan

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