Land and ethnic tension

I haven’t flown over the Ituri forest in Congo since I was a child over thirty years ago; Google Earth tells me that it is still there but shrinking.  In my recent travels to the US, I couldn’t help feeling like I was seeing far more trees and forests than I see in fertile Kenya (I have the same recollection of my time in more densly populated Europe—though Africa is supposed to surpass Europe in population density this year.). In my recent flight from Lilongwe and over Tanzania to Nairobi, I looked out over a vast patchwork of farms. Boundaries of a national forests and game parks were clearly demarcated;  they are practically the only uncultivated land anywhere.

In several conversations with my Kenyan friends about the ethnic violence they experience after the last election, I’ve taken out a napkin and sketched out a big square: “This was your grandfather’s plot of land. Let’s say he had eight sons. [“twelve,”—or more—I’m occasionally corrected. I divide the plot up into equal subplots]. Now lets say that each of your uncles had four sons. [I further sub-divide each subplot.] Given the serious Kenyan cultural value of owning your own plot of land (contrasted with West African communal ownership), how do you think you and your cousins are going to feel about each other—not to mention the people from a different ethnic group that arrived generations ago when there was plenty of land to go around?” The imagery is striking.  At independence, Kenya had approximately six million citizens; today (less than 50 years later) it’s pushing forty million! (We are still awaiting the results of last year’s census.)

The following article describes some of the complexities of land, population growth, and ethnicity throughout Africa.

Africa’s continental divide: land disputes

Christian Science Monitor, January 30, 2010

…Land, at the very heart of security and survival, looms behind most of the African conflicts we’ve all heard of and dozens of others we have not. The Rwandan genocide, some argue, was as much about the dwindling land availability in Africa’s most densely populated country as it was about enmity between ethnic groups. The wars recounted in the movie “Blood Diamond” in Sierra Leone and Liberia saw land grabs by warlords eager to exploit commodities like diamonds and timber. The violence following Kenya’s 2007 election reflected generations of dissatisfaction with land policy that favored different ethnic groups over time. Beneath the genocide in Darfur is a broken land tenure system, full of fights over soil that climate change is making increasingly unproductive. Somalia’s infamous pirates gain cover for plundering from political chaos in the country, whose warring clans fight not only for power but primacy on disputed lands, full of resources to fuel ongoing violence. And beneath last week’s Muslim-Christian riots, which killed at least 260 people in Jos, Nigeria, are decades-old grievances about political rights and the land they are tied to.

Africa’s most famous disasters, many argue, could have been prevented with changes in national land laws or better local conflict resolution but for one problem: Prevention doesn’t sell.

What does sell – what gets airtime, aid dollars, and military or other attention – is the violent chaos the world fails to prevent [this last phrase made me uncomfortable; local solutions would probably be better]. By the time land conflict gets an international audience, land is an afterthought; talk turns to tribe and ethnicity or local politics and corruption. News coverage and nonprofits focus on the worst symptoms – refugees, rapes, massacres. Distracted by suffering, they miss the structural problem that can, it turns out, be solved.

Fixing the land problem may lay the foundation for fixing so many others, from poverty to famine to ethnic conflict. If farmers feel their claims to plots are sound, if social groups feel land policies are impartial and just, and if women and men have equal rights to the soil, experts say Africa’s other ills will be easier to treat.

In communities across the continent, that hypothesis is bearing out…

The end of land conflict might just mark the ascent of Africa.

It’s too much to say that land is the cause of all of Africa’s wars. But…

…The stubborn fact, says Brady, is that something must give. Liberia, and the rest of Africa, can acknowledge the importance of custom, or admit that previous power structures have given some groups unfair economic privilege, or argue that everyone with a piece of paper has a right to his plot, even when the papers conflict. But none of that helps solve the problem.

“Some people must make sacrifices. …

Read more.

For Christian leaders, this might highlight how attention to these root (economic) causes (systemic justice) might be far more effective than focusing on individual attitudes about ethnicity—though these are important too.

Thanks for the heads-up: Texas in Africa. Her regular “this & that” posts are probably my best source of good articles on Africa.

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Africa from a marketing perspective (Vijay Mahajan, Africa Rising)

Vijay Mahajan, author of Africa Rising: How 900 Million Consumers Offer More Than You Think (Wharton School Publishing, ) is interviewed in Knowledge @Wharton (pdf; mp3):

…the population of Africa — at about 950 million — is comparable in size to the population of India. And if you look at growth rates, the population could be equal in size in a few years to the population of even China.

The next point is about market opportunity. Are there consumers in Africa who have the resources to buy products like consumers in India and China do? The fact is that the GDP of Africa — that is, looking at the continent as if it were a sort of United States of Africa — is actually higher than India’s. If all the countries in Africa combined forces, they would be the 10th largest economy in the world, one notch above India, and ahead of the other big emerging economies, Brazil and Russia…

…Why has Africa been ignored? That has puzzled me. When I travelled from Southern Africa to Northern Africa, I was surprised that I didn’t see more U.S. or Western European companies than I did. One U.S. multinational with an exceptionally big presence is Coca-Cola. It has been there more than 90 years. Another company with a big presence there is Unilever, the Anglo-Dutch consumer goods producer. So while there are some multinationals, it’s not to the same extent as what I saw in India and China when I was researching my previous book, The 86% Solution.

The other thing is that here in the United States and in other developed countries, we get nothing but bad news about Africa in the press. Not to criticize CNN, but you know how badly the Africa that is portrayed in the media like CNN is. The CEOs I was interviewing were so happy that, for the first time, a professor from America was interested in learning about what they were doing.

But it could just be a matter of time. When I started working on The 86 Percent Solution 15 years ago, I used to hear the same stories from many Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs…

…The market is not different from any other developing country. After speaking with a lot of advertising agencies, multinationals and local entrepreneurs, I decided that there are three major groups in Africa, which I refer to in the book as Africa 1, Africa 2 and Africa 3. The terminology is actually taken from an Indian entrepreneur mentioned in the book.

Africa 1 comprises between 5% and 15% of the population of each country. These people could be from anywhere in the world. They may be senior government officials, expats, people working for [non-government organizations], people working for large, international banks. This segment was not as interesting to me as the others.

The segment that really was interesting is what I call Africa 2. People in this segment are neither poor nor rich; this segment comprises average people living from month to month. They may have some savings. And you can guess that these people are civil servants — hardworking nurses, hardworking teachers and so on — or work in the hospitality industry.

This segment has very high aspirations. These people believe Africa is going somewhere, and they are upbeat. I spend a lot of time in the book on what a big opportunity Africa 2 is. The size of this group is between 35% and 50% of a country’s population, the equivalent of between 350 million and 500 million people. Divide that number by 5, which is the average size of a family in Africa (in the U.S., it is 3; in India it is 4)…. So there is a very viable Africa 2, which is really going to drive the economy and the consumer markets.

Now, Africa 3 — the remaining 35% to 60% of an African country’s population — is the one that is struggling. These are the stories that you typically hear about. But that number is not any different from other developing countries. After all, there are 700 million people in India and 750 million people in China who do not have access to a toilet. What’s interesting about Africa 3 is that many of them work for Africa 2 and Africa 1, as maids and the like, and they aspire to perhaps one day be part of Africa 2…

…Another thing to keep in mind there is that Africa has a young population. A little more than 40% of the population is younger than 15, compared with about 30% in India…

…diaspora is involved in Africa. According to estimates based on formal and informal remittances, Africa gets about $40 billion a year, the same amount that India gets…There are an estimated 100 million Africans living away from home. But the immigrants who are still connected to their homes — like the immigrants from India and China — are sometimes very innovative. I’ve been seeing some very clever ways that the diaspora is involved in talent, in helping their families to start businesses back home…

…if you really want to understand Africa, you have to go on "consumer safari". You have to go and see with your own eyes what is going on…If the top management is not there, they do not really understand the market themselves, and they do not get involved with the local institution. So the good advice that I was given was to "walk the market"…

The situation in Africa is not any different from India and China. You have to really get to know that continent and see for yourself what opportunities exist there.

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Read or listen to the whole interview in Knowledge@Wharton (pdf; mp3):

American hypocrisy, exploitation, and the future of African economic thought (Stiglitz and Texas in Africa)

For the lay person like myself—someone who has never taken a course in economics, Nobel laureate Joseph E. Stiglitz provides a great metanarrative of the past and future of global economic thought in light of the recent crisis: Wall Street’s Toxic Message (Vanity Fair). (BTW, this was my introduction to Stiglitz, so don’t feel bad if his name doesn’t ring a bell. Maybe I should feel bad ;-). Before getting to Stiglitz, I need to quote Texas in Africaobama goes to ghana (where I originally got the Stiglitz link):


…a dispassionate analysis makes it virtually indisputable to claim that Western policies hurt African economies. [Obama’s] speech earlier this week came at the summit of the G-8, an organization whose trade policies have done far more to hurt African economies than to help them. Through the G-8, the WTO, and the Bretton Woods institutions, the United States and other Western countries engage in horribly unfair trade practices against most African states. My government’s subsidies to American farmers makes it virtually impossible for African farmers to compete in American markets; the insistence by World Bank that African states not subsidize domestic industry is a double standard of the worst kind… What’s more, African states often have no say in the economic policies they are forced to adapt …Economic neo-colonialism is alive and well…

…watching the U.S. refuse to use the same sorts of measures it forces on other countries during their economic crises on itself may push some of those elites towards other economic systems that will lead to human suffering. Obama would do a much greater service to the continent’s people by acknowledging how deeply unfair my country’s trade practices are and by committing to moving toward negotiations that treat African states not as children to be disciplined, but as mature countries with educated elites who know how to run an economy.

[I (Ben) think that politics in the US would probably make this a form of political suicide for Obama—business interests (legalized corruption), and politics in Africa (more traditional corruption) keeps African economists from being able to shape their own economies.]

[Back to Texas] Obama claimed in his speech earlier this week that he probably knows more about Africa than any previous president. That’s true, but it’s also not saying much. American policy makers have a long tradition of almost willful ignorance about what really happens on the continent and how the U.S. should – or should not – be involved there. I am not hopeful about this administration’s policies towards the continent; sending weapons to Somalia and suggesting that noticing the effects of neo-colonial and paternalistic policies amounts to excuse-making suggests that Obama is headed in the same direction as his predecessors.

Bill Easterly grades Obama’s speech; Chris Blattman grades and then collects other graders of Obama’s speech:  Michael Kevane, Mark Goldberg (part II), Elizabeth Dickenson, Sean Jacobs, and Gregg Zachary

Now to Stiglitz Wall Street’s Toxic Message

…no crisis, especially one of this severity, recedes without leaving a legacy. And among this one’s legacies will be a worldwide battle over ideas—over what kind of economic system is likely to deliver the greatest benefit to the most people. Nowhere is that battle raging more hotly than in the Third World, among the 80 percent of the world’s population that lives in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, 1.4 billion of whom subsist on less than $1.25 a day…The fall of the Berlin Wall, in 1989, marked the end of Communism as a viable idea…

…In truth, historians will mark the 20 years since 1989 as the short period of American triumphalism. With the collapse of great banks and financial houses, and the ensuing economic turmoil and chaotic attempts at rescue, that period is over. So, too, is the debate over “market fundamentalism,” the notion that unfettered markets, all by themselves, can ensure economic prosperity and growth. Today only the deluded would argue that markets are self-correcting or that we can rely on the self-interested behavior of market participants to guarantee that everything works honestly and properly…

…The World Bank and the I.M.F. said they were doing all this for the benefit of the developing world…Not surprisingly, people in developing countries became less and less convinced that Western help was motivated by altruism. They suspected that the free-market rhetoric—“the Washington consensus,” as it is known in shorthand—was just a cover for the old commercial interests. Suspicions were reinforced by

Continue reading

Guilt is like pity . . . more on the poverty tourism debate

“Guilt is like pity, it stops you from seeing people as they actually are, as normal human beings. What we wanted to do is say: ‘What you’re seeing is poverty, you’re not actually seeing people. People are the same all over the world, whether they have a penis gourd on or a three-piece suit with a gold watch chain.’”

– Robert Finlayson, Volunteering for International Development from Australia, quoted in Taipei Times: Slum tours provide hard dose of reality.

. . . Entering Jakarta’s Galur slum, Poluan takes his tour group through deepening circles of privation. At the outer edge, tourists drink Fanta in the stifling heat of the home of Rumidja, a pint-sized, 69-year-old grandmother who lives cramped alongside 14 other people. She poses excitedly with the foreigners and complains of pains and lost sleep, and worries about how to pay for her granddaughter’s education. She shows off photos of herself as a much fatter teenager.

It is this contact with the everyday, rather than unmitigated suffering, that impresses Australian Martin Roach, a 39-year-old who makes his living in share trading and poker tournaments: “Many of the things she’s worrying about are the same as us.”

But moving deeper into the slum, . . . By the time the group reaches the train tracks where Sana has her weekly conflict with the city, the mood darkens. Upset by what they see, some in the group kick off an impassioned debate with Poluan [tour operator], arguing for the right to give money to anyone they come across in the slum.

“You can pass the other stuff as okay, it’s reduced from our lifestyle [but] they’re happy. The people on the railway lines, that’s not okay,” Larry Stringer, 54, said.

It may be unsettling at times, but coming face to face with the reality of poverty is an important step in getting rich Westerners to see the poor as equals, says Robert Finlayson.

A critique of poverty tourism says,

“If you come with money then it’s a complete language of money. It doesn’t develop the understanding [among the poor] that they are powerful, that they can help themselves.”

Apart from the whole debate about poverty tourism, I know a similar debate is conducted among micro-finance groups here. Should we bring in outside capital to help get projects started, or should we limit the investments to what can be generated locally? Why can’t we do both? Why not reward some proven initiative with outside capital investment to boost capacity?

My guess is that it probably depends on a number of variables including, how the individuals and community respond to outside capital. If it boosts their entrepreneurial capacity, great! If it fosters dependency and complacency . . . it’s better to do nothing.

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Poverty tourism (Christian Science Monitor) & short term missions?

I’ve written about a similar topic before in relation to short-term missions (missionary tourism and the poor). Here is an article that I think anyone planning short-term missions might want to read.

Jina Moore (Christian Science Monitor) – June 29, 2009: Does peeking at how the other five-sixths live preserve culture—or comodify it?

. . . From the favelas of Rio de Janeiro to the townships of Cape Town, well-to-do Western tourists are plunking down serious dollars to see how the other five-sixths live. Like all tourism, this experiential off-roading can be a mixed bag for the local people, damaging the environment and threatening the authenticity of culture.

The bad kind has earned a seedy-sounding nickname – “poorism” – that means to suggest what experts say can be little more than a voyeuristic excursion to see just how poor the poor really are.

But there’s a more compassionate kind of poverty tourism, known by a spectrum of labels, that delivers more money to the countries tourists visit and puts more of their cash in impoverished locals’ pockets. The best of these programs take foreigners into local communities and expose them to authentic, indigenous ways of life, while taking heed of the cultural and environmental costs of tourism. . .

. . . “Often, rich Western tourists are interested to see people who have a strong cultural and social ethic – which they often don’t have themselves,” he says. “One thing that’s clear is … that the economic poor are often culturally rich.”. .  [or faith]

[Keep reading]

Thanks for the tip: Scarlett Lion who writes: “The debate about “poverty tourism” rages on the blogosphere on the pages of the HuffPo, Bill Eastery’s blog, and elsewhere. But, as Jina Moore (previous Context Africa feature), who wrote a great, nuanced piece about this for Christian Science Monitor, says,

If it’s that easy to be flip, you’re probably missing something.

Gordon then features the work of photographer Samantha Reinders, who is currently based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her take on Township Tourism shows that nothing is as straightforward as it might seem and even something as divisive as “poverty tourism” can be looked at with nuance. [Great interview and photos as part of the Context Africa series!!]

Township Tourism, especially when it just became popular in the mid 90s, got really bad press in South Africa. And admittedly I was swept up in that. I thought the concept was horrible. A Brazilian friend in town was determined to do one of these tours and I went along with him and had a surprisingly good experience. So I decided to do a story on it and investigate the industry in a little more depth. As time went on I changed my mind about Township Tourism. Whilst there are definitely negative impacts on the communities involved when tours are run badly and mismanaged, I saw the positive impacts out way these in many cases. I left the project with a more 50/50 view of the industry. . .

See previous Context Africa posts:

What aid agencies can learn from missionaries

From Blood & Milk (Examining international

10 ways to make development work better:

1. Evidence-based development
2. Fund people, not concepts
3. More, smaller programs, more flexibility to change.
4. Longer funding cycles.
5. Focus on self-interest in international development.
6. Get real about donor coordination; it occurs primarily through individual relationships.
7. Recognize not all governments have the best interests of their populations at heart. You can’t have general policies for host country collaboration.
8. Tags, not categories.
9. Forget the private sector; learn from missionaries. Cultivate regional and technical expertise.
10. Kill off the development studies programs.

What we can learn from the missionaries:

I’m going to start with #9, because a lot of you asked about it. And I don’t want people thinking I was suggesting we convert people to, well, anything. No pith helmets, bibles, Korans, or books of Mormon here.

But missionaries do have a model we can learn from, at least the ones that I have met. They come into a country with a long-term commitment. They don’t just want immediate results; they want souls. Missionaries bring their families and children with them, and those children go to local schools. They live in houses that are nice by local standards, but not in the expat palaces your average foreigner lives in. They bring their stuff with them in suitcases, not container ships. [I’m not too sure about some of the details in the last two sentences–local schools and containers.]

Missionaries don’t try to do any soul-saving at first, spending a minimum of six months learning local language and culture. Mormons are renowned for their language skills. And once they have learned it, they stick around, spending years or even decades in country [Mormons??]. They devote themselves to work in one particular place.

Compare that to your average expatriate working in development, for a donor or implementing a project. The expat lives in a little bubble of fake-home, cushioned by consumable shipments, huge shipping allowances, and hardship pay. With air conditioning and heating to ensure they’re even in a different climate. And they stay in once place for approximately 35 seconds.

. . . I’ve seen USAID country directors come in and kill programs that they thought weren’t working. And they were, but they were also hard to understand. Too hard to figure out in a couple weeks of reading reports.

Host country donor staff make a major difference in institutional competence, but it’s a rare donor who lets national staff run their programs. The fear is corruption, mostly, but there is also a capacity problem. The people with the education and skills to really run a donor program aren’t working for USAID, World Bank, or CIDA salaries. . .

. . . More often than not, your funder’s representative doesn’t speak the local language and doesn’t even know the nation’s major cities before they land. No matter how smart or committed you are, you don’t have time in a few years to get up to speed enough to be really useful. One of the very few things we know about what works in development is that your interventions need to be precisely targeted to the local context. We can’t do that if nobody knows enough about the local context to make that happen. And how do you take a long view on development when no one stays for enough time to think that way?

So that’s what we can learn from missionaries. Stick around until you know what you’re doing. Project managers, and donor representatives, should have regional knowledge and language skills. They should be deeply steeped in local culture. We need incentives to get good people to stay in one place and become experts at it. . .

Read the  Whole post: What we can learn from the missionaries

HT: Texas in Africa who says in the comments of the above post:

You can’t learn local context on a two-year contract, so bad decision after bad decision after bad decision gets made. If you look at the work missionaries do, it tends to have a lasting impact. I study Congolese hospital systems that are still around after 70+ years (lasting through the collapse of colonialism, the euphoric post-independence years, nationalization, the collapse of commodities prices, the end of Cold War financial support, several wars, and a full-on state collapse), whereas the average NGO-supported water management/microfinance/whatever project tends to fall apart not long after the grant runs out.

A couple of other thoughts:
1. Part of this is possible because missionaries aren’t dependent on fickle trends in development and government funding; . . .

2. Missionaries often try to work themselves out of a job. The best ones look to turn over the management of programs and institutions to local leaders who’ve had the opportunity to get good training. And a lot of them leave when they know that locals can handle the institutional management on their own, with that consistent financial support from outside. The reason those hospitals I mentioned above are still around is that they’re run by locals who know what to do when horrible things happen.

If you want to be in the know about Africa and development . . .

. . . subscribe to the following links in Google Reader:

More general economics, but often hits on Africa

(Plus the links in the blogroll under Kenya and Africa)

What other ones would you add??

I don’t know anything about economics (I’m a New Testament student), but I’m very interested in economics and social justice –  especially as it relates to Africa and American attitudes and actions towards “Africa.”

In response to my post yesterday,  I was ambushed by two friends – Eddie (Kouya) and Rombo (What an African Woman Thinks) – to get on Twitter.  I guess they got tired of clicking on my “Links of the Day” on the right sidebar (maybe the most useful aspect of this blog). I gave in without too much of a fight, but I thought it would be more helpful to point you to the sources of all my great links regarding Africa, aid in development. (Besides, I’m going to magically “disappear” next week.)

Side note: sometimes I feel a little schizophrenic. I wonder which group of my friends I’m going to drive away first – the biblical studies friends or the Africa friends.

In other news: For two days this week, I introduced two friends from One Horizon Foundation to people I know here so that they could explore things like how microfinance programs are working, how NGOs (Christian and otherwise) are meeting basic needs (health, food, education), and how churches are functioning both in terms of   outreach/discipleship/nurture and justice/development ministries.

Here are a few of the reflections I had coming out of some of these conversations and visits.

  1. I have really incredible friends doing amazing things here. Some of them are world-class experts on things like microfinance, peacemaking and reconciliation, and worldview transformation (I feel very blessed.)
  2. We are going to have major poverty with us for a long time; the poverty stricken informal settlements (slums) seem to have the biggest baby booms and the capacity to provide jobs seems to be lagging far behind.
  3. The most effective efforts seem to be when local, entrepreneurial visionaries mobilize their community resources and get some boosting from outside “friends” for building construction, boreholes, generators, workshops, etc.
  4. Changing worldviews and mindsets is as important as anything else – opening their eyes to the realm of possibilities. As a Christian, I feel like ethics, self-sacrifice, and dependance on God are also important – freedom from fear.
  5. The most dramatic stories I hear always seem to have a little bit of  “miracle” in them; God rewards their efforts with a big break of one kind or another.
  6. A little bit of money can go a lot further here than it can in the US.
  7. Nairobi is an easy target for foreign donors – easy access, developed infrastructure, the “glamor” of a “Kibera,” a growing middle class (examples to follow right before your eyes), competent entrepreneurs, numerous churches and christian organizations active locally, etc. Plus the people here do a really good job of marketing their dreams.
  8. It’s a good thing that people don’t believe in the adage “If you can’t do it right, don’t do it at all.” A lot of people have just started with what they have and have done as much as they can. The results are pretty remarkable.
  9. We tend to demand much more from the poor than we do from ourselves. We want them to be self-sacrificing and entrepreneurial. (I don’t know about you, but I’m not much of an entrepreneur and I like my comfort.)

Feel free to add additional thoughts below.

Food aid for Africa: “From America; for America”

Owen writes:

The US imports food aid to Ethiopia.  It is bought from American farmers and shipped by boat to Djibouti, then brought by road to where it is needed in Ethiopia.  The cost of all this works out at $568 per metric tonne.  Here in Addis Ababa, today’s market price of wheat is $489 per metric tonne.  It is cheaper out of the capital.  So America’s generosity could buy 16% more wheat if it were bought locally.  From that difference alone, another 190,000 people could be given a full ration of food for four months.  Furthermore, buying the food locally would increase the incomes of farmers either in Ethiopia or in neighbouring countries and the improve livelihoods of other parts of the economy (e.g. haulage companies) needed to make the agriculture market work.  Their livelihoods, which are undermined by imported food aid, would be improved if the food were bought locally.  If there is sufficient supply response among local farmers (which there probably would be) so it does not have to be imported, then the generous aid would also provide $50 million of much needed foreign currency for Ethiopia.

This is not possible at the moment because American legislation requires that food aid be bought in the US, that  50 percent of commodities be processed and packed in the US before shipment, and that 75 percent of food aid managed by USAID and 50 percent of the food aid managed by the US Department of Agriculture be transported in “flag-carrying” US-registered vessels. The result is that only 40% of money spent on food aid by the US actually goes towards buying food; the rest goes to US transport companies. . . .

Corporate welfare under the guise of helping the poor Africans? Why not kill two birds with one stone?

Read some of Owen’s suggested alternatives. (See comments too.)

Development is not hard (Moyo)

Dambisa Moyo – Aid Ironies:

Dambisa_Moyo. . . Development is not that hard. We now have over 300 years of evidence of what works (and what doesn’t) in increasing growth, alleviating poverty and suffering. For example, we know that countries that finance development and create jobs through trade and encouraging foreign (and domestic) investment thrive.

We also know that there is no country — anywhere in the world — that has meaningfully reduced poverty and spurred significant and sustainable levels of economic growth by relying on aid. If anything, history has shown us that by encouraging corruption, creating dependency, fueling inflation, creating debt burdens and disenfranchising Africans (to name a few), an aid-based strategy hurts more that it helps…(Read More)

HT: (Eddie Arthur)

A piece of advice for Westerners wanting to do micro-lending in Africa

“Among the poor here, as long as a loan is seen as coming from the west, or is seen to have the backing from a western organization, it will be considered ‘relief.’; you will never see that money again.”

– Carol Makanda, Africa Leadership and Reconciliation Ministries (ALARM), Kenya

This was in the context of a conversation about how one of ALARM’s microfinance projects had been transforming the lives of women in the Nairobi area.

How to help the poor have more money? Well, give it to them

Laura Freschi on Aid Watch: (Thanks: Michael Kruse)

In 2007, people in the Western Province of Zambia lost their homes, their livestock and their crops when heavier-than-normal flash floods swept through their area. USAID’s office of disaster assistance stepped in with $280,000 worth of with seeds and fertilizer, training for farmers, and emergency relief supplies.

Two NGOs working in Zambia, Oxfam GB and Concern Worldwide, tried a different approach: they handed out envelopes stuffed with cash—from $25 to $50 per month per affected family, with no strings attached. Anevaluation found that common fears about cash transfers—that the cash infusion will cause inflation in the market, that the money will be squandered, or that men will take control of the money—were unrealized.

What did people buy with the money? . . . 

. . . Unconditional cash transfer programs can be fast and cost effective.  .  . 

. . .Cash transfers also acknowledge that poor people are capable of making good economic decisions without the help of outside experts armed with needs assessment checklists. . . 

. . .As Duflo and Banerjee document in their study on the economic lives of the poor, the rich often assume that poor people have few choices about where to spend their money. . . 

. . .Cash transfers have plenty of potential drawbacks, as these studies also point out. . . [Two studies by Innovations for Poverty Action and thePoverty Action Lab at MIT in Morocco and Indonesia (See also studies collected by the UK-based Overseas Development Institute).]

. . .This gives people who have lost their livelihoods, belongings or loved ones a new feeling of control over their lives, builds money-management skills, and restores to them their power to make economic decisions. If you were in their shoes, which would you prefer? . . 

In our personal experience, when we know the recipient is hard-working and and self-motivated, we always try to give them the cash directly. Even when we are only providing a scholarship and could more easily pay the school directly, we prefer to give our friends the cash in hand – giving them the dignity of paying their own bills. Occassionally, the funds don’t get used exactly the way we designated them, but our friends usually have a good reason, and we think they should have that prerogative – even if we wouldn’t quite agree.

A lot of times, we  try to include a little “bonus” and encourage them to spend on something they will enjoy. Don’t we do the same for ourselves when we can?

As the above article pointed out, giving cash directly:

  • It’s simply easier; they handle all the logistics of what to get, where to buy, at what price, etc.
  • It can be empowering (next few points).
  • It shows that you trust them and expect them to manage their own affairs. Expectations are key. (If they need advice on some aspect of the management, they’ll come ask for it. . . if you have that kind of relationship.)
  • It helps level the relational field; it puts us both on the same team. True, I have access to more resources (connections), but we are both about finding ways to solve their problems. I’ll try to do my part; they will do the rest. They reciprocate in other ways that enrich us  – relationship, knowledge in certain areas. 

The key here is  some kind of relationship and track record. For us, this means we have to be involved in peoples lives in ways that take us outside our own comfort zones. Usually these kinds of needs come up in the normal course of real-life conversation. We know that money isn’t the basis of the relationship because most of the time we talk about other things. If we dont’ know the person well, we try to find a trusted person who does know them well.

With some friends, if they even hint at a need, we try to give immediately – no questions asked. (We know they value our relationship too much to let money get in the way.) Others, we find any excuse we can to say, “Sorry, we can’t help you this time” – no matter how heartrending the story sounds. Reasons? We don’t know them well enough, they are showing signs of a “dependance mentality”, they have a poor track record of past financial choices, etc.

Like all of life, you win some; you lose some.

Sometimes in this context, as a “rich white person”, I know it’s better to give money through an intermediary (especially if it is a loan – microenterprise). Some individuals simply feel more accountable to a fellow Kenyan than they do to a mzungu, to whom money obviously means a lot less ;-).

This same dynamic can be true for my wealthier Kenyan friends. Last night, close friends were telling me how overwhelming the requests for money from relatives have become lately. My friends  believe deeply in social justice, but they are also wise to the ways of the world, so I am learning a lot just by watching how they negotiate these tricky situations – especially relationally. 

I don’t envy these friends; their social network is much more deeply embedded in areas of true poverty, and, unlike me, they have to make these tough decisions every day. They have all my respect; they’ve made some huge differences in a lot of people’s lives.

Out of Africa?: 2 African Women on Aid & Politics

In Slate, Francis Fukuyama reviews two important books by Wangari Maathai (Kenya) The Challenge for Africa and Dambisa Moyo’s Dead Aid .  (HT: Africa Unchained)

Maathai - The Challenge of Africa. . . In The Challenge for Africa, Maathai offers a diffuse array of conclusions. She argues that there is no inherent trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection and that African governments should pursue both. She blames Western colonialism for devaluing African identity and culture but blames Africans as well for their bloody attachment to fractured “micro-nations.” She criticizes aid dependency and yet has no strong objections to the Sachs-Bono agenda of ramping up Western development assistance. She believes that change will have to come through grassroots activism and that Africans must embrace their own traditions.

Moyo - Dead AidMoyo’s book, Dead Aid, by contrast, has a very simple message: that outside development assistance is at the root of Africa’s underdevelopment and ought to be stopped quickly and totally if the continent is to progress. She is in favor of private-sector development, even if it comes from China, and inveighs against agricultural protectionism in the North that prevents trade from becoming an engine of growth. Not surprisingly, her book will appeal to a crowd very different from those who awarded Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai and Moyo might indeed seem to be headed for a polarized Sachs-Easterly style shootout over approaches to development.

But the truth is that these books have more in common than their authors may admit. Both women see sub-Saharan Africa’s fundamental problem not as one of resources, human or natural, or as a matter of geography, but, rather, as one of bad government. Far too many regimes in Africa have become patronage machines in which political power is sought by “big men” for the sole purpose of acquiring resources—resources that are funneled either back to the networks of supporters who helped a particular leader come to power or else into the proverbial Swiss bank account. There is no concept of public good; politics has devolved instead into a zero-sum struggle to appropriate the state and whatever assets it can control. . . 

. . .So the question is: If bad politics is at the heart of Africa’s development problem, how did it come to be that way, and how can the region evolve in a different direction? Here the two authors, obviously, differ markedly. . .

. . . But Moyo’s case that Africa would have good government if it weren’t for the influx of aid stretches credulity. The roots of Africa’s political malaise go far deeper than the post-independence foreign-aid regime. Unlike East Asia before its encounter with colonialism, more than half of sub-Saharan Africa was not governed by a state structure at the time of the European scramble for Africa that began in the 1870s. The Europeans built colonial institutions on the cheap, seeking to govern vast tracts of territory with skeleton administrations. The big man of contemporary African politics is in many ways a colonial creation, since Europeans sought to rule indirectly by empowering a series of local dictators to carry out their purposes. And, finally, colonialism imposed a set of irrational borders on their colonies. South Sudan fought a 30-year civil war with the regime in Khartoum only because a long-dead British administrator in Cairo didn’t want to offend Egypt by giving it to Uganda, where it more naturally belonged. . .

Moyo’s blanket condemnation of foreign aid also fails to discriminate between, say, military assistance given to Zaire during the Cold War, and anti-retroviral treatments dispensed by the Global Fund or PEPFARS (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, initiated by the Bush administration), which get virtually no mention in her book. The fact is that the aid business has learned something, particularly since the end of the Cold War

. . . If ending foreign aid will not cure Africa, does Maathai’s Challenge for Africa present a better alternative? Grassroots activism can galvanize local solutions and put pressure on governments to perform better. But civil society is ultimately a complement to strong institutions and not a substitute for them. Toward the end of her book, Maathai points to the need for visionary leadership and nation-building from the center, as Julius Nyerere did when he knit Tanzania’s multiple linguistic and ethnic groups together through the use of Kiswahili as a national language. But historical nation-building projects have often required much stronger medicine than she or most other contemporary Africans are willing to contemplate, including changes of borders and the sometimes forceful incorporation of “micro-nations” into larger wholes. . . 

. . . both at least focus on the real core of the problem, which is the region’s level of political development. In this realm, solutions are going to have to come from within the region itself. It is a positive first step for the discussion to shift away from what the outside world owes Africa and towardwhat Africans owe themselves. [Links to other posts by Okafor –Africa Unchained

Read Fukuyama’s Slate Review

What are we doing here? The multimillion dollar relief industry . . . results?

4 brothers film the multimillion $$ relief industry (promo video.) We’ve raised similar topics a number of times.

HT: Kruse Kronicle

BTW: This is my first attempt at a video embed. (It’s a holiday here, so the internet is actually working.)

UPDATE: Whenever I post something, my brain tends to work on it for the rest of the day (which I suppose is why I temporarily quit blogging seriously). Here are some other thoughts I had while I was hanging out with the kids yesterday. 

  • African poverty as a spectacle yet again? (Read What an African Woman Thinks: I went to a zoo and I saw a . . . ). 
  • Is dissing relief work becoming the latest Western fad? (Could it wind up being just as dangerous as throwing money blindly at African problems. Either way our main objective seems to be to feel better about ourselves. Aren’t most wealthy westerners just as happy ignoring the poor wherever they might be? )
  • Could this be just another example of a white folks “making their news” on the backs of the poor Africans? (This really struck me when I went to . Notice where most of the attention is on this site.) Note to self: Am I trying “make my news”  (e.g. on this blog) by painting myself an “Africa expert” to my Western friends? 
  • Whose interests are being served?
  • Need to suspend judgment till we see the full product. 

More info from what are we doing here?

WHAT ARE WE DOING HERE? explores why the charity given to Africa over the last five decades has been largely ineffective and often harmful. The film tells the story of Brandon, Nicholas, Daniel and Tim Klein who travel across Africa in an attempt to understand one of the great problems of our time; the failure to end poverty.

In the film, the Klein family travel 15,000 miles via public transportation from Cairo to Cape Town. They cross war torn and famine-ridden regions where aid workers, politicians, and inspiring individuals tell about the incredibly complex and often misunderstood issues that affect hundreds of millions of people across the continent.

Daring to ask the questions no one else will, the filmmakers invite the world to rethink the fight against poverty in Africa.  Could our good intentions be causing more harm than good?  Have humanitarian interventions prolonged suffering? Who is actually benefiting from our good intentions? These questions and many more are addressed for the first time ever in this groundbreaking feature length film.  If you ever wanted to know what happened to the $10 dollars you donated to charity last year, look no further.  This film will change the way you look at charity in Africa forever.

The petition:

. . . The United States of America has a long history of giving aid to African nations in various forms. A bulk of this aid has been given in the form of food aid from U.S. farmers and transported on U.S. carriers. We the undersigned believe that this strategy not only is ineffective in reducing hunger and poverty but is often harmful to African agriculture markets and should be changed.

We the Undersigned request that USAID food aid be delivered in the form of food purchased from within the recipient African country. If the country receiving the food aid is not able to produce the needed food, then food should be purchased from neighboring countries that have a food surplus. The costs of growing and transporting U.S. grain can be reallocated towards greater purchase of food in the recipient country or put toward other areas of development particularly those that strengthen local agriculture.

We believe that the age of allocating aid dollars towards a strategy that has proven to be ineffective is over. The time is now to promote real change in Africa and that means empowering and supporting African farmers and their markets through local purchase of food aid.

My Prejudgment: It looks like an important expose of the “Relief Industry”, which is often (usually?) a self-serving venture.  It’s an important conversation; complexities are apparent to all who are genuinely involved.

It raises some important questions (from the teacher’s guide – pdf):

• Has foreign aid helped or hurt Africa?
• What are the root causes of poverty in Africa?
• What should the role of the West be in Africa?
• Are good intentions enough?
• Why has western aid failed to reduce poverty in Africa?
  1. Is foreign aid helping or hurting Africa? Should aid be increased or decreased?
  2. If aid should be decreased or stopped, what should the role of the US be in Africa and how should we respond to the millions of people living in poverty? 
  3. If aid should be increased, how can we make sure that it isn’t wasted or doesn’t cause harm?
  4. What do you think should be done about poverty in Africa?
  5. If someone has good intentions and is trying to help, is it correct to criticize their efforts and say that they are hurting instead of helping?
  6. Would you ever give money or work for an NGO/charity fighting poverty in Africa? Why or why not? 
  7. Do Africans need foreign aid?
  8. doesn’t the USA have the same level of poverty that Africa has? How is poverty in Africa different from poverty in USA? What does our government do to help people get out of poverty?

Related Resources:


  • – Global Issues has information on poverty and development around the world, including Africa. Facts, studies, statistics, articles on the root causes of poverty, food aid,corruption, foreign aid, and world hunger. Full of short articles that are easy to read.
  • – International Crisis Group has up to date information and analysis on conflicts around the world. Some of the most in-depth information available, but is written at a slightly more advanced level.
  • – Africa Unchained is a platform for analyzing and contributing to the issues and solutions surrounding Africa. The discussion focuses on the issues raised by George Ayittey’s latest book ‘Africa Unchained’.
  • – BBC Africa page – there is a lot of general information on individual African countries, good for basic background information.


The quiet coup in Washington; America’s legalized corruption (the Atlantic)

Having divested myself of all expectations of regular or thoughtful blogging; I freely offer some of my Sunday evening reading to you – pure parasitic blogging. Links to some other great “Sunday evening reads” can be found on the right in my – Links of the Day. I highly recommend the Truth about Forgiveness from last Sunday’s Washington Post; it’s not the kind of thing you can excerpt quotes from. (HT: Scot McKnight who always has good links in his Weekly Meanderings: e.g. Is America Losing Faith or the future of leadership: The Facebook Generation vs. the Fortune 500 by Gary Hamel. 12 values you will have to take into consideration.)

Simon Johnson, formerly of the IMF has a fascinating article in the Atlantic (May?). This falls under the topic of of what I frequently refer to as the “legalized corruption” in the West, which seems to be far more lucrative than the illegal corruption we rightly condemn here. (I seem to be on an economics kick lately):

[Intro:] The crash has laid bare many unpleasant truths about the United States. One of the most alarming, says a former chief economist of the International Monetary Fund, is that the finance industry has effectively captured our government—a state of affairs that more typically describes emerging markets, and is at the center of many emerging-market crises. If the IMF’s staff could speak freely about the U.S., it would tell us what it tells all countries in this situation: recovery will fail unless we break the financial oligarchy that is blocking essential reform. And if we are to prevent a true depression, we’re running out of time.

In a primitive political system, power is transmitted through violence, or the threat of violence: military coups, private militias, and so on. In a less primitive system more typical of emerging markets, power is transmitted via money: bribes, kickbacks, and offshore bank accounts. Although lobbying and campaign contributions certainly play major roles in the American political system, old-fashioned corruption—envelopes stuffed with $100 bills—is probably a sideshow today, Jack Abramoff notwithstanding.

Instead, the American financial industry gained political power by amassing a kind of cultural capital—a belief system. . . . Over the past decade, the attitude took hold that what was good for Wall Street was good for the country. The banking-and-securities industry has become one of the top contributors to political campaigns, but at the peak of its influence, it did not have to buy favors the way, for example, the tobacco companies or military contractors might have to. Instead, it benefited from the fact that Washington insiders already believed that large financial institutions and free-flowing capital markets were crucial to America’s position in the world.

One channel of influence was, of course, the flow of individuals between Wall Street and Washington. . . These personal connections

Continue reading

Why Foreign Aid is Hurting Africa (WSJ)

DAMBISA MOYO in today’s Wall Street Journal: Why Foreign Aid is Hurting Africa

Money from rich countries has trapped many African nations in a cycle of corruption, slower economic growth and poverty. Cutting off the flow would be far more beneficial

[After a lead-in describing Kibera] . . . Giving alms to Africa remains one of the biggest ideas of our time — millions march for it, governments are judged by it, celebrities proselytize the need for it. Calls for more aid to Africa are growing louder, with advocates pushing for doubling the roughly $50 billion of international assistance that already goes to Africa each year.

Yet evidence overwhelmingly demonstrates that aid to Africa has made the poor poorer, and the growth slower. The insidious aid culture has left African countries more debt-laden, more inflation-prone, more vulnerable to the vagaries of the currency markets and more unattractive to higher-quality investment. It’s increased the risk of civil conflict and unrest (the fact that over 60% of sub-Saharan Africa’s population is under the age of 24 with few economic prospects is a cause for worry). Aid is an unmitigated political, economic and humanitarian disaster. . . .

. . .  Aid-supported scholarships have certainly helped send African girls to school (never mind that they won’t be able to find a job in their own countries once they have graduated). This kind of aid can provide band-aid solutions to alleviate immediate suffering, but by its very nature cannot

Continue reading

The global middle class: economics changes values, reduces religiosity – except in the US (Pew)

The Economist: Special poll on middle class attitudes and Pew: Global Middle Class:

As economically developing countries grow prosperous, their middle classes understandably become more satisfied with their lives. But many of their basic values also appear to change.
middle-class-life-satisfactionOver time, the values of the middle classes in emerging countries become more like those of the publics of advanced nations. This is the overall conclusion of a new analysis by the Pew Research Center’s Pew Global Attitudes Project, conducted in partnership with The Economist magazine. . .
The study finds that in 13 middle-income nations from regions around the globe, people tend to hold different opinions about democracy and social issues once they reach a certain level of wealth.

Compared with poorer people in emerging countries, members of the middle class assign more importance to democratic institutions and individual liberties, consider religion less central to their lives, hold more liberal social values and express more concern about the environment . . .

. . . previous Pew Global Attitudes research has shown a clear link between wealth and religiosity at the country level – as a country’s overall wealth increases, its level of religiosity generally declines. There are, however, some exceptions, most notably the United States, which is both wealthy and a religious nation. What this new analysis illustrates is that within countries, wealthier individuals are often less religious. . .

Generosity around the world

From John Hobbins:

Click Here for Statistics on “Volunteering and giving as a share of GDP”
(Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector Project).

I’m not sure how the data was collected, but here’s what I noticed:

  • Tanzania is #4 in “all private philanthropy”; #3 in volunteering
  • Uganda, Kenya, and Tanzania appear to be holding their own in giving percentages (top 11/top quarter).
  • USA is #1 in giving $$; #8 in time.

A different analysis of American giving breaks it American giving down into different categories and demographics. Notably, charitable giving is strongest among “born-again” Christians. Low-income employed Americans give the highest portion of their income, 4.5%.

John asks:

Is it because the US economy has less mandatory redistribution of wealth that its citizens give more voluntarily, a suggestion made, not surprisingly, in a Forbes article?

But notes:

. . . that does not explain the relatively high levels of giving in Israel and Canada, which have, if I’m not mistaken, governments which “level the playing field” through taxation far more than is the case in the US.

See also A Nation of Givers (At first glance, it looks like Brooks’s analysis doesn’t exactly line up with Johns Hopkins statistics above; maybe we are comparing apples and oranges.)

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Now Scot McKnight adds:

What is America like? Are we generous or are we the spoiled brat in the global village? How Christian are the Christians in politics? Third Way thinking addresses these issues, and Adam Hamilton’s book sketches ideas for us to think about when we think of America’s image in the world. See his book Seeing Gray in a World of Black and White: Thoughts on Religion, Morality, and Politics.

We have 5% of the world’s population; we consume 22% of its energy resources. We expect other countries to go along with our global and national designs. We are obese while other nations struggle with starvation.

We think we are generous. According to the Congressional Research Service, in 2004, we were the largest dollar donors in the world — we gave .2 of our GDP. 5 times less than we were giving in the 1970s. Our income in that time has increased 5 times. Half of our 20 billion dollars in aid went to the poor — the rest went to foreign militaries. We give the most to Israel. Germany gives twice as much as we do in aid; France gives three times more of its GDP and Denmark seven times more.

But, American individuals are generous, leading many foreigners to like Americans but not the USA. In 2000 we gave away — as individuals — 33.6 billion dollars. . . .continue reading McKnight quoting Hamilton

Scrooge Lives! and the poor give more than the rich

From yet another review (Moll, CT) of Passing the Plate (Oxford University Press).

. . . America’s biggest givers—as a percentage of their income—are its lowest income earners. The widow who gave out of her poverty rather than her wealth (Mark 12:42; Luke 21:1-4) has a lot of company, it seems. Yet so does the rich young ruler.

“Americans who earn less than $10,000 gave 2.3 percent of their income to religious organizations,” Smith, Emerson, and Snell write, “whereas those who earn $70,000 or more gave only 1.2 percent.” While the actual percentages are slightly higher for Christians who regularly attend church, the pattern is similar. Households of committed Christians making less than $12,500 per year give away roughly 7 percent of their income, a figure no other income bracket beats until incomes rise above $90,000 (they give away 8.8 percent).

In fact, in absolute terms, the poorest Christians give away more dollars than all but the wealthiest Christians. We see the pattern in recent history as well: When Americans earned less money following the Great Depression, they gave more. When income went up, they began to give less of it away. . .

Why Americans don’t give more:

  1. They can’t; too much is tied up in houses and cars.
  2. They don’t trust the churches and organizations.
  3. The churches and organizations aren’t giving away much either’ it’s all spent on themselves.
  4. They aren’t asked to.

The Cheerful giver dilemma: “Offering money, many Christians believe, should be like Hollywood’s version of romance: spontaneous, exuberant, and impulsive.” . . . “So we give our money like we spend it: haphazardly and without intention.”

Boring is better: planned, once-a-year, automatic withdrawal.

Other interesting quotes from the review;

American Christians’ lack of generosity might not be as shocking if it didn’t contrast so starkly with their astounding wealth.

. . . A man’s pocketbook, Martin Luther said, is the last piece of him to be converted. Money has a strange power . . .

I know a lot of very generous people, but according to this review, they appear to be in the minority.

Read it all in Scrooge lives!

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Are short term missions turning people into beggars? maybe; maybe not

Kruse Kronicle has just posted Religious Tourism – republished from Bob Lupton’s October newsletter. Here are some excerpts – read the whole story at Kruse’s Religious Tourism.

“They’re turning my people into beggars!” . . .

. . . . Juan was not blaming his people for becoming beggars. He was faulting the affluent, well-meaning U.S. church for its unexamined generosity. His accusations, now pouring forth with considerable force, were directed at naïve “vacationaries” who spend millions of dollars traveling to his country, perform work that locals could better do for themselves, and create a welfare economy that deprives a people of the pride of their own accomplishments — all in the name of Christian service. The unintended consequences of such mission work was undoing the very vision Juan had given his life to — helping his people emerge from poverty through training, entrepreneurship, saving and hard work. . .

For some reason U.S. churches, filled with results-oriented members, seem oblivious to the abysmal outcomes of many if not most mission trips. Perhaps because it feels so good to be giving to those so much worse off, or because unconditional serving seems so Christ-like, the Western church embraces with great pride an unexamined form of charity that our nation as a whole rejected with the passage of the Welfare Reform Act of 1996. We know that welfare creates unhealthy dependency, that it erodes a work ethic, that it does not elevate people out of poverty. Yet, in the name of Christ, we perpetuate this very welfare principle in the way we do missions. And the trend is growing!

A Princeton University study found that in one year (2005) 1.6 million church members took mission trips — an average of eight days — at a cost of $2.4 billion. And the number has grown every year since. “Religious tourism” as some call it has become a growth industry. The web is full of agencies (denominational and para-church) ready to connect churches to a “meaningful mission experience” in an exotic location rife with human need. The Bahamas, for example, receives one short-term missionary for every fifteen residents. . . .

Read the stories of contrasting water projects

. . . PS: Some believe that short-term missions trips whet the appetite for long-term mission involvement. Research does not support this claim however. In spite of all the moving testimonies of “life-changing experiences” by returning short-termers and the occasional example of full-time missionaries who point to a mission trip as the catalyst for their calling, there is no evidence that missions as a whole has benefitted. As a matter of fact, while short-term mission trips have increased dramatically over the past two decades, support of long-term missionaries has declined. Strangely, the correlation seems to be inverse. Perhaps because we have spent so lavishly on “religious tourism” we feel that our financial responsibility to missions has been discharged. Or is it that long-term missionaries do not serve the immediate self-interest of our church?

For more on short-term missions see the earlier post Short Term Missions or Religious Tourism and all the related links from RESOURCE ON SHORT-TERM MISSIONS at the bottom of Kurt Ver Beek’s page, (Calvin College)

I’m pretty ambivalent about what I call “missionary tourism” – Barna’s self reported results. There is even a safari company in Nairobi called “Missionary Tours.” At first I self-righteously scoffed at the concept. Then part of me started thinking why not? As long as people are going to do tourism, why not have some of the proceeds go more directly to some local communities and projects instead of the game parks and Serena hotels. You can start a safari lodge or you can start a community development project; both can bring in foreign income. (It’s just a different kind of capitalism at work; you give your money in exchange for feeling better about yourself 😉 I just get concerned when this kind of tourism comes with a “we are saving the world attitude.” Then again, what about my own motives for being here? (Call of God? Or a something I enjoy doing that makes me feel good about myself?) Don’t we all want to feel like we are making a difference?

More responses to Lupton’s letter:

1. Sometimes local sustainability is a lot more complex than the success story noted here makes it seem.

2. My fear is that if we make it sound too complicated, even well-intentioned people might stop giving at all. There are plenty of other things they will happily spend their money on – e.g. their own new church buildings. It’s hard enough getting people to be generous, and the needs over here can be overwhelming. Every bit of extra cash helps; infusing extra cash into the local economies can’t be all bad. (It’s not like it’s a $700 billion dollar bailout of Wall Street).

3. Why is it an either/or proposition? This particular true of the connection between short-term missions and long-term wealth generation.

Three personal examples:

Example 1: My brother-in-law worked very hard to do all the things recommended in the article on his own water project in rural Uganda – community organization, local investment, sustainability, ideas for wealth generation, etc. Still, until the overall economy of that area of the country rose high enough for parts to be more readily available (as well as water engineers becoming more prevalent in the area – thanks to other NGO’s). He still spent years trouble shooting emergencies to keep it going. It’s possible that some remote parts need a little bit more of the basic infrastructure to be able to sustain these projects.

Example 2: This August, I was a last minute addition to an entirely Kenyan pastoral training team to rural Western Kenya. In conjunction with this training, a team had come out from the US to do vacation Bible school (VBS), and help build a classroom (naturally). While the women and teenagers did VBS, the two men went to help build the classroom. Over breakfast the next day, I was talking to one of them named John who is a real estate project manager back at home. On the first day, he had rolled up his sleeves to help with the building, and was hustling pretty quickly as he moved bricks over to the wall they were building. Then as he looked around, he realized that all the young laborers had gradually quit working and were sitting under a tree; he had just taken all their jobs. So he went over and sat with them, and eventually they trickled back to work. He spent the rest of the week, talking to various people, learning about their local culture, and visiting several different projects. Most of his time, he just listened and learned about all the local challenges .

John got it right because he paid attention and set aside his own goal orientation, and in the end, he benefited a lot more. He now knows that he has just begun a long journey of learning all the paradoxical complexities – of poverty, economics, culture, and wealth generation. He wants to come back again next year to build on the relationships he started this time, but now he is thinking more deeply about how to be God’s instrument in truly partnering ways that help the community more long-term. Next time he comes, he will come with a completely different set of plans and expectations. That’s the way it should be, but he had to come that first time – “just as I am.”

Example 3: Not too long after Christi arrived, she was asked to be on the school board of the primary school where our kids go. The school always seemed to having financial problems and teacher moral was low – their salaries weren’t always paid on time. Then as the new school board started researching the issues, they discovered that many of the parents weren’t paying their kids tuition fees (about $100 a term). The principle was a soft-hearted women who saw the school as a ministry to poor seminary students, and she always felt bad demanding the payments. Once the school board helped her implement a stricter payment policy, suddenly the school was financially viable, the teacher salaries could be raised, and everything seemed brighter. (It wasn’t easy, after the new policy was implemented and the payment deadline arrived, the principle had to swallow hard and send about half the kids home for non-payment; about 90% of them returned within 30 minutes with the full payment. A staggered payment plan is also available.) Here was an example of a small policy change that transformed the whole ethos of school.

While the the main issue of financially sustainability has been resolved, the primary school still benefits from the largess of short-term missionaries. There is a dramatic difference between the amount of supplies and books this little school has and what the nearby American missionary school has. (Tuition there is about 10x as high; something none of these kids can dream of affording). So this little primary school thrives on short-term missionaries who bring lots of craft supplies and basics such as crayons and markers. A group in the US donated an entire children’s library to the school; excess books are being sold to generate more income. A copier that was donated by a church in the US is now being used to generate the salary of a computer teacher. Had people not freely donated computers, these kids wouldn’t be taking computer classes period (there just isn’t that much up-front cash in the local economy to purchase these kind of modern “luxuries”.) Has it turned the school into beggars? Hardly. All the income to run the core business is locally generated; the generosity of the short-term missionaries goes to improving the quality of life.

Early in Lupton’s letter he says,

What peasant scratching out a bare existence could refuse suitcases bulging with new clothing for his family? What struggling pastor could resist the temptation to accept a steady salary and generous church income in exchange for hosting visitors, organizing volunteer work, and staffing funded programs? What village would borrow money to dig a well or buy books for their school library or save money to build a church if these things were provided for them free of charge? If all they had to do was make their wish lists, show up for the schedule arranged by the donors, and smile graciously until their benefactors head back home, who would blame them for accepting this easy charity?

And I ask, “What’s wrong with that?” Why shouldn’t they get a bunch of free clothes from the affluent West? Why shouldn’t a pastor get a steady salary? Don’t we all want a steady salary? Maybe the issue isn’t the free clothes. Maybe the issue is that they simply don’t don’t know how to generate wealth. In other words, we may be talking about apples and oranges – two completely unrelated issues.

Let’s take the issue of the different water projects. Why can’t Juan say, “that’s great that they got a free water project. Let’s talk about how we can invest their resources in sustaining it or in creating other wealth generating projects.” Surely, there are other ways of generating wealth besides water projects. Or does Juan’s job security play some role in motivating his comments? For the record, I love what he is doing, but someone might cynically make the case that all these NGO’s supposedly setting up “sustainable” projects are primarily about generating salaries for themselves. (They are simply a different kind of capitalistic entrepreneurship, well-meaning as they might be.)

Bottom line: The heart of the issue may have more to do with a changing global economic paradigm than short-term missions per se. (Are long-term missions doing more to generate wealth?) Many of these cultures have had well-entrenched habits of patron and client relationships long before any missionary showed up. A society that has been doing fine for centuries on subsistence farming is suddenly faced with a population explosion and the costs of increased living standards in a globalizing world (all good things.) And mixed into all this is the good news of Jesus Christ – in all it’s different cultural manifestations.

Let me be clear, I’m the first in line to cheer for sustainability and helping people generate wealth. (I’ve tried to make that point repeatedly elsewhere.)  I’m also quite critical of the self-centered nature of short term missions. It boggles my mind when I think how how millions of “missionary tourist” dollars could instead be invested in local, long-term economic growth. But I also know that without the missionary tourism, there probably wouldn’t be any cash infusion at all. The locals all get this, so they just smile and wave. Maybe with a little bit of tweaking, we can have a both-and scenario.

Believe it or not, when I started this post, I didn’t expect to be defending short-term missions. All I’m trying to say here is that maybe short-term missions and their short-term generosity are just an easy whipping boys for what is really a much more complex economic and cultural mix.

8 myths Christians believe about wealth and poverty

I’m no champion of capitalism, and this list seems overly apologetic, but I do think we need to be aware of some of these myths. (Source: JT – Don’t Just Care, Think.)

  1. The nirvana myth (contrasting capitalism with an unrealizable ideal rather than with its live alternatives)
  2. The zero-sum game myth (believing that wealth gained in one place always means that wealth was lost someplace else)
  3. The materialist myth (believing that intellect cannot create new wealth)
  4. The greed myth (believing that the essence of capitalism is greed)
  5. The usury myth (believing that charging interest on money is always exploitive)
  6. The piety myth (focusing on our good intentions rather than the unintended consequences of our actions)
  7. The artsy myth (confusing aesthetic judgments with economic arguments)
  8. The freeze frame myth (believing that things always stay the same—for example, assuming population trends will continue indefinitely or treating “rich” and “poor” as static categories)

– Jay W. Richards lecture: Don’t Just Care – Think: Myths Christians Believe About Wealth and Poverty, (mp3). His book: Money, Guilt and God: A Christian Case for Capitalism. (Forthcoming 2009).

My cautions:

  • [#1] At the same time, this doesn’t mean that the current forms of capitalism are necessarily good; nor does it mean that we shouldn’t try to make capitalism more responsible. Is there room for trying alternatives even if they aren’t currently present? [cf. #8]
  • [Re: #4] while greed may not be the essence of capitalism, I’ve frequently seen capitalism become an excuse for greed.

See also the comments on my source: JT’s Don’t Just Care, Think.

Richards is right on with the following quotes:

For Christians, compassion for the poor is a non-negotiable. Compassion alone, however, doesn’t help the poor. In fact, many ideas that Christian leaders advocate really exacerbate the very problems they were intended to solve. So how do we insure that we not only mean well, but also do good? We have to learn to think economically about wealth and poverty.

Don’t worry. At its base, economics isn’t supply/demand charts and complicated math. Rather, the “art of economics,” as Henry Hazlitt puts it, “consists in looking not merely at the immediate but at the longer effects of any act or policy; it consists in tracing the consequences of that policy not merely for one group but for all groups.”