27 November 2009

Stronger Than Karma (A Thanksgiving Post)

It would seem obvious—to be thankful. Especially here, in Africa, where we are reminded everyday that we won the lottery ticket of birth in a rich country that affords better prospects in health, wealth, and opportunity.

Yes, sometimes we are thankful.

But sometimes, we're just struggling to live here. In the furnace heat, horns honking and crush of the street. Haggling for fares, caked in dust and dirt, trying not to snap when the internet and electricity go out. Fighting stomach ache, a fever. When food is no comfort, and you’re itchy from mosquito bites. When the ATMs are broken, your clothes smell like mildew, and you can't remember that Swahili phrase you practiced yesterday. Feels like the engine won't start. Feels like banging your head against the ground.

Overload. Exhaustion.


Even at 7am, it felt claustrophobic, alone in my apartment. I needed to be around other people, to fight off the loneliness that had been following me around Dar like a stray dog. But the cafe was mostly empty when I arrived, and I sat down in a huff, frustrated that my ankle still hurt, frustrated at the money I was about to spend, frustrated with everyone.

When the waitress, Deborah, took my order, I was curt: coffee please. After she brought it, she stood against the wall in the shade. While I wrote in my notebook, she said shyly: excuse me, are you the one who was robbed?

I looked up. Yes, I said, it was me.

She said: I'm sorry, pole, so sorry. And gently: I hope you will be all right.

I stammered a little, embarrassed, and said: I'm fine. She brought me some cold water to drive back the heat of the morning.


I needed a break from the cafe where I'd been staring at my computer, so I walked outside into the sunlight towards the sea. Tangled in thoughts—regrets about the past, worries about the future—I didn't realize I was frowning at the people I passed. Then a hotel guard, a tall, thin Maasai I’d talked with once, called out to me from across the street, smiled, and waved a greeting. I thought: he remembers me? I smiled and waved back.


I was lost one morning, and carrying a heavy bag on my shoulder. I didn't want to ask for directions, so I kept on nervously. After a while I knew I'd never make it on my own so I cleared my throat: sama hani, I said to the man walking ahead of me. He stopped and pointed the way.

—I will walk with you? he asked.

—No, it's okay.

But we kept walking, nearly side by side. Eventually, he cajoled me into conversation. Where are you from, what do you do? On emptier, quiet stretches of road, I wondered if I should be walking with a stranger. Perhaps he will rob me, I thought.

But he safely dropped me where I needed to go, and left me with a "no problem" and a wave.


Sometimes, even in the sweltering symphony of an East African city like Dar es Salaam, it’s not the clamor and din around us that keeps us from seeing. Sometimes, like everyone, we're buried under the weight of our own lives.

But then, a catch at the back of your throat. A flash, like light in water. The kindness of strangers. The kindness of friends. Utterly undeserved.

And then I see it again—what Dostoyevsky said. That life is paradise. And "we have only to understand that and it will at once be fulfilled in all its beauty, we shall embrace each other and weep."*

*(The Brothers Karamazov)

25 November 2009

Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander

It was hard to tell if her cheeks were flushed from the heat or anger. Over a beer on a rooftop dive off Kimweri Road, Jen, an American from North Carolina who has worked in the poverty reduction business in Dar es Salaam for two years, derided the sins of development aid—hopelessly arrogant, self-interested and patronizing. Not to mention ineffective. “Do you know how much money we’ve poured into this country?” she fumed. “Show me an example of where it actually reaches the end user.”

Around us, Tanzanian men and women sat on blue and red plastic chairs, some watching television, others talking quietly. They had greeted us warmly (and with amusement—we were the only wazungu around), offering us chairs in the shade, but Jen had protested. Little beads of sweat dotted her forehead, and her face glowed in the sunlight. “It’s worse in Washington,” she said. “I don’t know if I’ll work in development when I go home. I don’t know if I can be a part of that.”

The irony, of course, is that she already IS a part of it. We all are. We work in various capacities in poor countries because we want to help—because we feel we need to help—but we are also our own fiercest, most merciless critics. Half in love with our own disgust for the community we are a part of, we derive a strange satisfaction from the assumption that while our particular projects are decent, not too bad, well-intentioned, all around us lie the wreckage of development failures.

—The bilterals are so pitiful it's funny. All politics, you know. Neocolonialism at its worst.

—It's the NGOs that really scare me. Some of these people--what qualifications do they have to be here except big hearts? Such a bunch of clueless do-gooders.

—I hate to say it, but the World Bank is the worst offender. A bumbling bureaucracy, totally incompetent. I mean the work you do for them is great, but really, as a whole, it's terrible.

It’s a mystery—how individuals can be so smart and well-intentioned, but put them together in a collective, make them into an institution, and they become arrogant, lazy, short-sighted villains.

The criticism is warranted. Donor assistance is often unpredictable and inflexible; redundant in some areas and feeble in others; driven more by the political/PR/security/economic interests of rich countries rather than by the needs of poor ones; under-evaluated and sometimes wasteful.

We all know this. But our bumper sticker criticisms are useless. They trivialize the complex, and are born out of a gnawing doubt, a nervous cynicism, a ragged despair that secretly wonders: maybe we cannot fix this.

One thing is for sure: we cannot improve aid by trying to change these core dilemmas. Like churches and democratic governments, there are lots of persistent shortcomings and corruptions, but that doesn’t mean the whole system is worthless.

How can we take these realities and produce better development outcomes—people who are healthier, who can provide for themselves and their families, who have more and better choices about how they live their lives? Here are a few suggestions:

Tell the truth

All of us should be more transparent about what we’re doing—what we spend, and what we spend it on (including compensation and perks for our own employees). As Owen Barder notes in a recent blog post: “Under current arrangements, donors publish details of their aid up to 23 months after it has been spent. Donors need to publish detailed information about their current and planned future activities so that governments, donors and the private sector can identify the gaps where additional resources would have most effect.”

We should also be more candid about our failures. Programs that don’t work ought to be written up and discussed just as much as success stories, and the people implementing programs on the ground shouldn’t have to worry that their funding will dry up if they actually show the donors just how hard to implement and messy and riddled with problems many of these programs are. (The World Bank, to its credit, will soon publish a story on such a failure written by yours truly. Stay tuned.)

Cross the ocean

There are oceans—literally and figuratively—separating development professionals working in the field from those working in policy circles in Western capitals. We need ways to facilitate regular and candid communication between the two.


No one really knows how economic development “happens,” but most are pretty sure it takes time. You can debate the motives behind and modalities of aid flows from rich to poor countries until you’re blue in the face—they are not going to stop any time soon. This is long-term redistribution at work, and the sooner we can make this reality a part of the foundation upon which our programs are built, the better. The United States is especially guilty of thinking about aid in terms of ultra-short time horizons.


Our sins are many—but in spite of them, aid can and does improve lives, and it can be made better. But not by simply wishing that things—that we—were different.

*For specific “what to do on Monday morning” suggestions, see Owen Barder's Beyond Planning: Markets and Networks for Better Aid, published by the Center for Global Development.

19 November 2009

Birthday Celebrations

Serena, Winnie, Me, Cristina, and Bruno

Michael, J & K


Irish Steve


Michael and friends

17 November 2009

A Revelation in Washington — A Yawn in Tanzania

CGD research fellow David Roodman (my former colleague) made waves recently with a blog post about Kiva.org, the famed and beloved non-profit organization that promotes itself as a link between individual lenders in rich countries and individual borrowers in poor ones. The reality, David noted, is more complex. Perhaps you want to donate $100 to the farmer and mother of four in Malawi whose photograph colors the Kiva.org homepage. You click on her photo, donate, and voila—the link is made. Not quite. As David explains, by the time the photo is posted, that farmer has probably already received (and even repaid) a loan from the same institution.

This revelation caused a stir—the New York Times wrote an article about it, David's blog received more than 10,000 hits, and there was a flood of Twitter postings.

What's all the fuss about? Steve Rosenzweig, another former CGDer who has worked for the past five months for a Kiva.org partner in Dar es Salaam says: "I really enjoyed reading David's blog, Kiva's response, and the Times article, but the whole thing is kind of funny because what he wrote about is something I could have told you after one week here. There, it makes big news."

Kiva has been refunding MFIs for already disbursed loans for the last two years, but clearly most users and supporters didn’t realize this.

But why do loans need to be “refunded”? Why not fund them directly? "Well," says Steve, “to wait for the loan to be fully funded on the Kiva website would delay the usual procedures for disbursing loans. When clients apply for a loan, they expect to receive it within two weeks, and they often depend on it to buy supplies… If they had to wait for the funding to come through from Kiva (which would require making the transfer, not just getting it fully funded on the site), it would cause a delay."

Even as the revelation caused a stir in the countries where Kiva lenders live, the debate doesn't seem to have reached the Kiva-funded MFIs themselves, where business continues on as usual. Says Steve: "It’s amazing. There is such a disconnect between the two worlds."

02 November 2009

Who Needs Whom?

It’s two o’clock in the afternoon and I'm sitting in the World Bank mission room, trying to edit a report. But I’m drowsy and full of lunch, so I put down my pen and just sit. I watch out the window as some men load a truck in the afternoon sun…listen absently to some quiet chatter nearby….take a sip of tea that has gone cold at my desk. And I begin to think about my first month in Dar es Salaam, and some of the people I've met....

The Money Man

Johhny Lee is sitting alone on the rooftop of the Zanzibar Coffee House hotel, looking down at the computer in his lap, sunglasses on. Mid-twenties. American. My friends engage him in conversation: hey man, how's it going? He tells us he's on leave from a post with a U.S.-based consulting firm in Afghanistan. Our eyes widen and we lean in, like we’re gathering around a campfire. Wow, how exciting, we say. How cool.

He tells us about remote villages and tribal elders, about bombings and near misses, about cultural gaffes.

My friends say they'd like to go to Afghanistan, too. Like speculators in the wild west, they have ideas for programs and businesses. Johnny Lee is encouraging: there's lots of opportunity there, he says. And danger. It’s awesome.

We ask him to tell us about his job: what exactly do you do?

He tells us: I go from village to village with a duffle bag full of cash and hand out money to village leaders, as payment for their work/cooperation. They need the money, and we need them, he says, smilingly widely. And then he packs up his things and sets out to catch a flight back to Kabul.

The Criminal

He calls himself Captain Hajj. Rumor has it he just got out of prison. Hard to say how old he is. Clad in torn shorts and a beanie, he roams the beaches of Paje and casually introduces himself to unsuspecting tourists. You want to kite surf, to dive, to buy some pretty things for the family back home? Looking for a restaurant, a bar? Looking for drugs? Whatever you need, the Captain can get it.

Michael and Boris, it turns out, needed to go fishing. Michael is an American from Rhode Island just arrived in Dar where he is working logistics on a malaria program and Boris, an Australian, is in Dar on holiday. For a small fee (US$10 each), Captain Hajj helpfully arranges an early morning boat to take them out past the barrier reef where they can spend a few leisurely hours fishing (with real live Zanzibar fishermen!) and enjoying the view.

I'm in my room sleeping when it starts raining, so hard it sounds like bullets blasting through the roof of my bungalow. Pounding rain, unrelenting, drenches the beach.

Later they tell us how the deep purple storm clouds had approached quickly and with menace, and when the wind picked up and the sky broke open, tossing the small rickety vessel in the waves like a child's toy, they were afraid. But not as much as the Captain, who cowered in the corner of the boat, waiting for it to end.

The next morning we see him on the beach, approaching a man and woman strolling through the shallows. He looks as sweet and innocent as a poisonous flower.

The Local

Winnie Jonathan seems shy at first, tentative. A native of Dar es Salaam, she clicks and clacks in high heels up to the long, narrow table where we--a group of expats, one of whom is her co-worker--are eating dinner. All of us like her instantly and engage her emphatically. We are grateful to (finally!) hang out with a Tanzanian.

After dinner we go to the Sweet Easy for drinks and dancing, and that’s where I discover that Winnie is not shy at all. She leads me with command to the bar and orders us gin and tonic. She gabs about an ex-boyfriend, and about her work as an administrative assistant at an international NGO. We laugh and dance in the crush of the sweaty club.

At 3 a.m. we pack up to leave. An hour-long saga begins when I realize I'm locked out of my apartment. While we sort out another place to stay, she takes me to a 24-hour pizza joint in Oyster Bay. It's a dimly lit hole in the wall--the kind of place no foreigner would ever stop in the middle of the night (or even during the day). But the pizza is cheap, and even better: it tastes good. I thank her profusely, for her help and for the pizza.

The streets are emtpy when we finally make our way out again; the headlights of her Rav4 are thick yellow tunnels in the dark. She tells me about growing up in Dar, about friends who have left, and about feeling lonely in the city that his her home. She is grateful for our company, and wants to hang out again. Me too, I say.