23 April 2010

The Future Needs a Big Kiss

A year before coming to Tanzania, I had dinner one night in Dupont Circle with a friend. Both of us worked in development—him from the program side in southern Africa, and me from the policy side in Washington. Seated at an outdoor cafe, a bottle of red wine between us, we teased each other:

—Still trying to fight poverty by thinking about it in Washington, he asked?
—Still traipsing around Africa pretending you’re Jesus, I shot back?

While discussing development, my friend was as full of optimism and hope as a spring morning, but when the conversation turned personal—when we began to talk about our families—his mood darkened. He stared down into his plate, moving bits of fried calamari around with his fork.

Uncomfortable with the lull, I said brightly: I think I’ve figured out how we can change our lives.

My friend’s eyes lit up like a struck match. He asked:

—Do you think our lives can change?

I stared out at the sidewalk crowded with people on their way home from work, at the L2 bus zipping up Connecticut Avenue.

—Yes, I said, our lives can change. Tomorrow can be different from today.


The development business isn’t (ostensibly) about changing our lives. It is about changing other peoples’ lives. The question is to what extent those of us in the business (or anybody for that matter) believe that is possible.

But change how, you might ask? What is “development” anyway? Is it a moral duty, to save peoples’ lives, or help them live longer if we can? Is it increasing the number of choices people have? Is it transitioning entire economies and countries? Or is it simply a business—what aid agencies do?

Owen Barder, in his recent blog post Aid Policy Vs. Development Policy, identifies two types of development. On the one hand is the view that “development assistance should help to accelerate economic and institutional change in developing countries. The idea is that temporary support from the outside can be a catalyst for permanent changes.” This is what Owen calls development as transformation and it can be achieved with help from donors who support migration, trade, climate change, and other policies that help instead of hinder developing countries.

Another objective of development is what Owen calls solidarity. It consists of trying to improve peoples’ lives today (by, say, providing aid for health programs or schools) while we wait for the bigger, more fundamental and mysterious transformation to take place.

“I personally have my doubts,” Owen writes, “that aid makes much difference to the prospects for economic and social transformation. Countries change from within, through long, slow, organic processes, and it is hard to see how money and advice from outside can make much of a difference to that.”


My mobile phone says 8:02 a.m., and I wonder if the taxi driver will show. I’m always ready by 7:55, brimming to get out of the house, to get to the office, to have a cup of coffee and open my Gmail and the New York Times.

I grab my bag and walk down the dirt driveway to the road. There, another commute is taking place. Old women and young women, old men and young men, on foot, on bicycles, are on their way somewhere—to guard houses or clean them, to see a friend, or maybe to work at the hotels further down the road. I wish I could walk, like them, I think. I used to walk everywhere in Washington, DC—I’d walk for hours, even in the heat. But here when I walk I feel like a target, I’m always watching my back.

The ride in is quiet—I’m relieved the driver doesn’t want to talk. After seven months, I still know practically no Swahili, which I am both embarrassed about and resigned to. In the silence, I can just stare out of the window at the sea, which we drive by each morning on our way to town. The tide is swept out, so far it seems to recede all the way to the horizon. The tankers parked offshore seem to float just above the water, which is so dazzling, so glittering in the morning sun that it smacks me back into the reality that I’m in East Africa. That I came here because I wanted to come.

At the office a friend, a nutrition specialist, hands me a pamphlet put out by Uwazi, Tanzanian NGO, describing the state of nutrition in Tanzania. Though food fortification is a cheap and (relatively) simple way to save lives, the Tanzanian agencies responsible for moving the process along have spent most of the last decade in meetings and trainings, equivocating and delaying. So, this year, 43,000 more children will die in this country because they are malnourished, it says.

Later in the afternoon I meet a new colleague.

—What work do you do, I ask her?

—Private sector development.

—Oh really, how interesting. What’s happening with that?

—Not much.

And over dinner, a friend tells me that an agriculture program she is involved with, to help poor farmers purchase inputs like seeds, is in a shambles. “It’s just not working like it should. But obviously that doesn’t mean we’re going to stop it.”


That evening, I sit down on the couch and turn on the BBC. Headlines flicker across the screen: a funeral; an election; a flood; a truce. Then two advertisements play, one after the other. One is a general pitch for Africa, full of those familiar, sweeping panoramas of the Serengeti—a giraffe, some smiling Maasai, melodic tribal singing. The other is more somber. An NGO is encouraging viewers to donate money to their cause by panning in on a frail African woman lying on a cot beside a cement wall in a bare room. She is being fed by a nurse in all white, and we are told that this woman is sick but that she will get better. Because she has medicine, which costs only a little, she will live.

As I watch I think: oh yes, I remember. That’s how I used to feel about development.


No matter what you think development is, one thing is certain: it is hard. When we say change ultimately comes from countries themselves, what we really mean is that change ultimately comes from people themselves, and people are a messy lot, slow to change, a bit shabby sometimes, if well-intentioned.

So what you must believe, if you're going to be a part of the development business, is that your own life, that is, that you, can change. An enterprise, tired from false starts and disappointments, needs some new energy, and hope that we can be stronger and braver and better than we are. That's why a movement like Twaweza, a brand new citizen action initiative in East Africa, has caught fire so quickly: because it embodies this kind of optimism. Maybe its popularity is illustrative of the fact that, despite our collective fatigue, deep down we still believe change is possible. Who would have thought?

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