Poverty – another response (Blog Action Day)

15 10 2008

Well, after being in a developing country for a year working for a development NGO and having read lots of books on development I feel a lot less qualified to talk about how to help the poorer world than I did a year ago. Reading far clever people than me who’ve spent years studying the problems bickering about solutions makes me a little more humble. Seeing the development process in place makes me realise just how difficult it is for well meaning people to actually make a difference. Spending time with people makes me understand that teachers who don’t turn up to teach may not be lazy or corrupt, they may simply not have been paid for 6 months and need to make some money elsewhere to feed their family. I also realise that some actually are lazy or corrupt, but the systems which catch laziness or corruption in our country cost more than Ghana’s education ministry can afford. If it were simple or easy then the cleverer and better qualified people than me would have sorted it out long ago.

Not that ignorance has ever stopped me from speaking out. That I realise the situation is far more complex than I’m ever capable of grasping won’t stop me from trying to explain it – you just need to take what I say with appropriate dubiousness. I recently read an excellent, even and well balanced set of blog posts by an ex-Peace Corp in Cameroon bravely entitled “What’s wrong with Cameroon”. I don’t think I’m capable of producing anything quite like that but I’ll have a go at explaining what my current understanding of development issues in countries like Ghana is. Please note, these are my general opinions, I haven’t researched supporting links etc and they don’t reflect any other organisations views.

When I first arrived in Ghana I decided two things. That poverty is an economic problem, and that all actions to interfere need keep to the Hippocratic principle of “First do no harm”. I haven’t significantly moved from there.

Poverty is economic
Poverty being an economic problem isn’t as trite as it sounds. There are people who argue that poverty is a social problem, and comes from social issues. In a way it’s a bit like the nature vs nurture argument – do social problems create poverty or does poverty create social problems? And much like the nature vs nurture argument I think it’s a bit of both, but that while social problems feed economic ones their solution requires an economic improvement. A poorly educated population is definitely a social problem, but it’s also an economic one and the solution needs a level of economic progress. Poor infrastructure (roads, electricity etc) is clearly both a cause and a result of economics. Poor health levels contribute to lost work days and hence a loss of productivity so is an economic as well as a social problem. Corruption is an economic problem with economic causes whose solutions cost money as well as systemic and attitudinal changes. My impression is that on individual level Ghanaians are more honest than the British. That corruption is more apparent is partly an indication that systems fail and partly an indication of the relative scale of the different corruptions. Ghanaian policemen bribe taxi drivers a few Cedis while Western bankers hold entire economies to ransom for hundreds of billions of dollars.

A simplistic analysis would say that Ghana is poor because Ghana doesn’t have enough money to stop being poor. That doesn’t mean the solution is to simply pour money in. My understanding of economics is that that would simply create an inflationary situation where the value of the money was reduced to reflect the actual value of goods and services available, as well as creating massive bureaucracy and corruption problems. Instead the value of the goods and services in the country needs to be improved. This needs to be done intelligently and is probably best done by Ghanaians. Some directed help will be needed – improving the road from Accra to Ouagadougou will benefit Ghana and Burkina Faso as well and needs a capital investment that neither government can immediately afford. There are other areas that could do with outside help, and I do think that both well directed aid and the assistance of long term placement genuine experts who can take time to understand the reality and provide the benefit of their experience could be useful. I’m not convinced that expensive consultants “parachuted” in for a few weeks handing out pre-cooked solutions help, and neither do twenty one year olds doing the jobs that locals would benefit from having, holding babies in an orphanage or working as labourers. Ghana has too many unemployed labourers and care workers to need to import some from Europe or America.

The other area that I think Ghana would really benefit from help is building the private sector. I don’t (just) mean women’s cooperatives of basket weavers, although they are crucial, but, for example, the software industry. There’s no reason that Africa shouldn’t have its own Infosys or Wipro. To grow Ghana (and other African countries) need business of all sizes and across a variety of sectors. If I volunteer again I want to work in Ghana’s software industry.

First do no harm
The first thing the developed world needs to do is to stop being part of the problem. Western companies are keeping details of what they pay to corrupt governments for the rights to extract resources and then western banks are keeping secret the details of the monies stolen by corrupt leaders from subsequent, more legitimate, regimes. Western mining companies are bullying poor world governments into giving them rolling “tax holidays” They’re effectively stealing from those countries what is rightfully theirs. Western banks make huge loans to private companies in the developing world and insist that governments promise to guarantee the loan. With that guarantee they don’t need to take any care in assessing the credit worthiness of the debtors, taking the profits but passing the risk to the worlds poorest. The phrase “moral hazard” has rarely seemed more appropriate. International treaties on corporate governance need to be changed and western campaigners need to shame companies into changing their behaviour. Don’t forget that shareholders no matter how small the shareholding can attend shareholder meetings and make a noise.

Well meaning protectionist anti-globalisation campaigners target “food miles” and jobs being exported to sweat shops, ignoring the fact that the most destructive miles that a packet of beans from Kenya will be those in the back of 4×4 from the out of town mega market to their home, while if Kenya and other countries’ economies are to grow agricultural exports are crucial. The jobs exported to “sweat shops” often pay better and have better conditions in the countries involved than the alternatives. Both China and Bangladesh are driving the massive reduction in absolute poverty partly by using that mechanism. Don’t let a sense of moral outrage harm the world’s poorest.

Quite a lot of aid given by governments is tied to the recipient using the companies or products from the donor country or that specific policies are followed. The worst offender for this is the US. The American government insists that US grain is given in famine relief rather than grain bought in nearby markets which would both be cheaper (fewer shipping costs) and support farmers in developing countries. Another aspect of US aid policy is that money for anti HIV/AIDS campaigns cannot go to organisations that support abortion and a disproportionate amount goes towards abstinence campaigns that have no measurable effect rather than campaigns that work promoting condom use or with prostitutes. Many organisations doing good work in the area of family planning lose funding because they refuse to condemn legal abortion.

One area that hurts countries like Ghana is the distorted market in agricultural products. America is allowed to subsidise its cotton industry with about $40bn a year (four times Ghana’s GDP) while the WTO bans Ghana from protecting its rice growers from Far Eastern imports. Subsidised European tomato paste is on the shelves here while local tomato growers abandon parts of their crop because they can’t compete with the EU subsidised rivals. The agricultural policies of both the US and the EU are transferring taxpayers’ money to huge agri-businesses, who are destroying small local farms in Europe and America while undermining the chances of poorer countries to compete fairly.

Before we do anything we should take some care that we aren’t simply making matters worse. It isn’t enough to just do something, it needs to be effective.

So what can I do?
Make sure you’re not part of the problem. Educate yourself.

Unless you’ve got a skill that’s genuinely needed don’t volunteer, but if you have please, please do. If you’re a teacher with several years of special needs experience, if you’ve successfully run a business and could help a fledgling business in Accra, please, please come, doctors, nurses even tax accountants can be useful. There’s a huge need for a variety of skills to be transferred. If you just want to wield a hammer or look after little children find a project in your own country, don’t steal jobs from locals. Ghana and other developing countries need lots of expertise that people in the developed world can offer, but come as part of the solution, not because you “want to do something”.

At least as important is that you hold your countries, businesses and charities to account; campaign for changes to laws and policies that harm developing countries, embarrass company directors. Don’t just give but see how charities are using their money, are they effective and are they accountable to locals? There are campaigns on the transparency of the extractive industries (a clumsy phrase) and on banking. Get involved.

And do give; just be intelligent and involved in how you give and who you give to.




3 responses

16 10 2008

I have a comment on the matter, but bores me to translate it in English. But rounding ideas, it’s a good concept to do the least harm possible.

21 10 2008
Tim Little

It’d be nice to read it if you do get to translate it.

21 10 2008

Ok, but it would be long, sorry bout that.:

First of all, it’s just my point of view, and I don’t rely on links or another person’s opinion either. I don’t do anything like you do in a major scale, I never left my country for helping purposes, so I can’t compare my own experiences to yours.

Since I began highschool I tried to give a hand in neighbourshoods with a risk of marginality (that’s beyond poverty, they’re people whose income doesn’t provides food to feed all the family for a week, neither the help that gives the Uruguayan goverment improves this situation).

For understanding purposes, elementary school here is mandatory, free, and (in Spanish is “laico”) is independant of any organization and religion. So, if the child is registered as a citizen (they give us a “Cédula”, that every uruguayan has to have for any purpose, it’s like an ID) has to go to school. In there, they receive a meal per day, so this marginality situation is a bit relieved by that.

On the other hand, the 2007’s May, the Government released an “Emergency Plan”, that, in a few lines, was giving some money to this poor and marginal people for a six months period.

It didn’t solved anything, because most of the marginal childs still don’t have Cédulas, so they can’t go to school. If they don’t go to school, they neither get educated, nor have a meal per day.

So, even having money, poverty is a social issue. (Also, the number of cellular phones per family had a rise since the launch of the Emergency Plan, umbelievable, instead of eating or getting education, people prefer to have a new cellphone).

Well, going back to the start, I usually go to help in the public schools located in neighbourhoods with a risk of marginality (this meaning they’re already poor). I go with some friends to play with those kids every friday.

Those kids are usually sent to beg on every house, or to work in the streets, while their parents don’t go to work, or spend that money in cheap wine (Note: Cheap wine sleeps the hunger while you’re drunk, so they rather prefer to be drunk, that to buy loads of food that don’t satisfy the hunger that much). So we go there to let those kids play, even for two hours a week, and let them be children again.

Direct aid from the goverment isn’t helping that much. Social workers only make the situation worst, people won’t adopt childs that have been battered, or didn’t had a good alimentation the first two years of life; so they end up in a State home, or in jail (here it isn’t a correctional, is a proper jail) for a crime, or if the kids say the truth to the social worker, they probably will get battered. Violence is a common currency there.

People that comes out of jail doesn’t bestow a chance to get a decent job, even if they get educated in jail. In there, they have elementary school and high school, and some carpentry, computer engineering, hairdressing, electricity workshops. But private corporations, institutes and organizations won’t hire them, even if they stole electricity to warm up their family.

At the public enterprises and/or institutes and organizations, they need some prerequisites even to apply for a job. Like knowing english at a First Certificate level. Or knowing a secondary language, such as portuguese or japanese. Or handling Windows, Word, Excel, Access, Powerpoint, and Memory Figaro (an accountant’s software, used to keep contability, pretty common in every corporation).

The government has courses, and other stuff, but to get to those, you need more prerequisites. I don’t even know if I meet those prerequisites. So, poor people don’t even have an opportunity to get out of that situation.

ONG’s here have foreign economical support, but they are used to laundry money, and most of them are phantom ONG’s. Same thing with the Foundations, only a few provide real support and help.

Here we have a population of three million people, with 250.000 in a situation of poverty and/or marginality. The economical crisis in 2002 made the rate of emigration far higher than other years in the history of the country. The ones who were educated here emigrated to Europe and the US in search for a better life. And here remains a lot of old people, which thinks that giving some food or making charity does a lot of help, without really getting involved.

(Note 2: High school and Public University are “free” -you still have to pay for the books and other stuff-, and they don’t respond to any religious organization either, but the rates of poor people going even to high school are quite low, the desertion rate is tremendous).

I realised in all of these years that those kids, more than a meal, need social affection, they have to believe that they can improve or else they’ll end up in jail or worse (and they know that).

An eleven years old girl, named Fiorella, told me at the beggining of the year:

F – So you must be rich, you live in the Centre of the city

(In a economic scale, my familiy is an medium working social class).

Me – Nah kid, I’m not rich, I have to save money to pay the bus ticket so I can be with you.
F – And then why are you here? If you are at the university, you shouldn’t have some time to be here.
Me – Well, I like being with you.
F – What do you study?
Me – I’m trying to become a lawyer, and help people with law things that other people don’t understand.
F – Like trials and prison stuff?
Me- Yeap.
F – Dad is in jail, and he’s innocent, so you could help people like dad?
Me – I guess so, yeah.
F – Then when I become older, I wanna be like you, and play with children, and help innocent people, and save the money to the bus ticket, and study, because I don’t want to be at home doing nothing like mom, or be alone again. I will try to make that everyone has something to eat everyday. You do that too, don’t you?

She totally completely really destroyed my heart at the point that I thought 10.000 ways to adopt her. My 4 year old brother doesn’t realise how lucky he is.

Ok, I think I didn’t actually commented on what I wanted to say earlier, but I’m happy to have written this. (Have written? My English grammar is horrendous).

Another day, maybe, I’ll try to comment on the particular issue of “First doing the less harm possible”.

See ya!

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