Monthly Archives: November 2013

Mishaps and Metaphors, part 2


So I realize there’s been a bit of a hiatus since my last blog post, so just to recap: at the beginning of September, my friends and I attempted to climb Mt. Toubkal, the highest mountain in North Africa, but unfortunately, we climbed the wrong mountain and because of time and energy constraints, had to give up our pursuit of summiting Toubkal that day. We were sad and defeated at the time, but in hindsight it was hilarious that we had made this blunder.

Now as I said in my last blog post, this incident provided for me a metaphor that represents the problems with development aid today—noble efforts are being made to solve the problems of global poverty, lack of human rights, overpopulation, and access to education (among other problems) but a lot of these efforts are missing the mark. That is, people are climbing the wrong mountain, and like us, sometimes don’t even realize it until they get to the top.

To be clearer, let me give you a well-known example. I’m sure many of you have heard of the shoe company TOMS. Well back a few years ago, TOMS came up with the idea that for every pair of shoes a customer would buy, they would give one free pair to a shoe-less child in Africa. Knowing that many of their targeted clientele wanted to both look cute and donate to charity, this marketing plan was genius. TOMS was able to give away 1 million pairs of shoes to poor African children. Now on the surface this sounds great: The children now had shoes to protect their feet from the gravelly and trash-ridden African ground. So where’s the beef? The problem with this scheme and many other donation schemes is that it produces what is known in international economics as a “dumping” problem. Dumping is when manufacturers export products to another country and charge a lower price than the local price or a price lower than the cost of production or just give things away for free. The problem with this is that instead of buying local goods and spurring the local economy, people will buy foreign goods because they are cheaper.

So why is this a problem in Africa and where did TOMS go wrong? Well, the shoes that TOMS was giving away weren’t made in Africa, they were made in China. So even though they were providing a short-term solution to the problem of shoe-less children, in the long run, they were actually hurting the local economy because now, no one was going to buy shoes from local producers. They already had free shoes! Basically TOMS punched the local shoe producers in the groin pretty hard.

This is just one example of many Buy-One-Give-One-Away schemes. This article talks about many more. There is no question that donations can help needy people. But before you give your next donation, think very carefully about the way you do it. For example, if your local church asks you to donate used clothing to send to needy people in Cambodia, think twice about this! Though you may be clothing a poor person, you are essentially dumping free goods into the economy and hurting local clothing producers. Instead, it would be more beneficial for you to donate money to a local clothing producer in Cambodia who will then give clothes to those in need. This is the reason why Fair Trade goods have been such a huge success and are actually one of the better international development aid ideas. While there are critiques about the Fair Trade system, the point is that by purchasing fair trade items, your money is going directly to local producers whose production will benefit the local economy.

So getting back to my point about international development aid—all aid is well intentioned, but most of it only focuses on short-term goals instead of long term solutions.

As you know, most aid is financial and much of it is known in international economics as “conditional aid.” Put simply, if Malawi does X, Y, and Z, they will receive aid money. Or, if Malawi fits into a certain category (e.g. has low rates of education, high mortality, low levels of production) it is qualified to receive aid. While this might seem intuitive it can also be counterproductive. Travel writer (and ex Peace Corps Volunteer) Paul Theroux explains it perfectly in his book “Dark Star Safari” in which he travels overland from Cairo to Capetown:

Some governments in Africa depended on underdevelopment to survive—bad schools, poor communications, a feeble press, and ragged people. The leaders need poverty to obtain foreign aid, needed an uneducated and passive populace to keep themselves in office for decades.” (Theroux, p.318)

Basically, some governments have no incentive to improve their country because if they do, they’ll stop receiving aid.

Another problem with international development aid is that it’s exactly that—international. The problem with foreigners swooping in to the rescue is that then the locals have no reason to help themselves. I mean, would you try to solve your own problems if someone else told you they’d solve them for you, and for free? You probably wouldn’t. This is the problem with organizations like the Peace Corps (yup, I’m guilty too) and other international service organizations. They’re taking jobs from locals and enabling them to become lazy. Again Paul Theroux explains this phenomenon in a quote from a local African man:

The donors are making us lazy. The Japanese volunteers are doing what the city council used to do—mending potholes. It is better for us to have potholes. We would be forced to do something about them. We’d have to think for ourselves.” (Theroux, p.484)

Efforts have been made to fight this problem. One is example is an organization called CorpsAfrica that was started by a former Peace Corps Volunteer named Liz Fanning. The idea is basically that Africans should be volunteering in Africa—not foreigners. The program is designed to “recruit men and women from developing countries of Africa to move to high-poverty communities within their own country. Each volunteer will stay in a host community for one year to create and support small projects that eliminate barriers to economic growth and prosperity.” The program is currently being launched in its pilot phase right here in Morocco.

The problems with international development aid are numerous and not likely to be solved overnight. Many efforts are already being made to put international development on the right mountain (so to speak). CorpsAfrica and the Millennium Challenge Corporation are two examples and I’m sure there are many more. One thing that needs to change for sure is corruption in developing countries.

So like I said in the beginning, I’m not sure that I want to work in international development aid, at least not in its current state. I’ve always wanted to help those in need, for about as long as I can remember. That’s why I’m in the Peace Corps. But I don’t think that donating money, or volunteering internationally are necessarily the right ways to help. That’s why, I’ve been working harder to not work—but instead, to make local Moroccans volunteer their time and help their community themselves. That’s why I’m refusing to teach computer classes in my computer lab; there are qualified people here who can do it themselves and will benefit from the pay. And I’m going to try to hand over my aerobics teaching job to one of the women in the class and convince the gym owner to pay her to teach, instead of having me teach for free. As I said in my blog post Between a Rock and a Hard Place—Or, Between the Moroccan Way and My Way, the best thing I can do here is to put myself out of a job.

So I’ve been ranting about this problem for a while now, and sadly, I don’t have many solutions. But I think it’s important for people like me, who dream of solving the world’s problems, to realize that there’s a right way to go about it, and a lot of wrong ways. I’m not giving up on my dreams, but I am going to work hard to put myself on the right mountain.