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Chico Mendes

23 Dec

A little while ago I heard from a friend I hadn’t seen or heard from in about 20 years. He happened to send me an instant message on Facebook while I just happened to be online myself – Facebook is funny that way.

My friend, Gomercindo Rodriguez, was typing on his keyboard from Acre state in Brazil, just near the border with Bolivia, and I was in Ontario, Canada, trying to dredge up my long-unused Portuguese (battling autocorrect the whole time) on my iPad. But ever since then, we have been Facebook, and not just historical, friends. And yesterday he posted about an event that affected both us tremendously.

I’m talking about the shooting death of Francisco ‘Chico’ Mendes exactly 28 years ago.

I learned about it at a Christmas party, from someone who had heard it earlier that morning on CBC radio. Gomercindo was the first person to arrive at Chico’s tiny wooden shack in the town of Xapuri after his wife, who was home at the time with their two small children, raised the alarm.

A rancher named Darli Alves had sent his son, Darci, with a shotgun to murder Chico Mendes when he stepped out of his house, and the news went around the world. But for each of us personally, Chico’s death was shocking, horrific, deeply saddening and impossible to accept. It also, I believe, had an effect on us that in some way made its mark on both of our lives.

For me, the thing about Chico is that he was a truly nice person, kind and empathetic, generous and determined to change the world for the better without being authoritarian or arrogant about it.

Changing the world, above all the world of impoverished and disenfranchised forest dwellers, by changing the way we understood the environment around us, was like a normal, even unremarkable goal for Chico. It was just something that needed to be done, something logical and sensible and fair. Actually – let me highlight the fair. Thousands of families earned their living by extracting the natural products of the rainforest, and at the same time, the forest was a global resource that belonged to all of humanity. Destroying it to produce meat was an injustice. And that fight for what was fair, what was right for all of us, cost him his life.

Chico’s death – and the lackadaisical judicial response to it – bothered me for years. It seemed to symbolize the powerlessness of the average person, and the way people with money and influence but no ethics can so easily ride roughshod over our collective rights like an out-of-control steamroller. It could almost have made a person turn cynical and bitter.

But the legacy of Chico Mendes’s life and ideas also had its influence (and not just because Google featured him on its search page recently).

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In the case of Gomercindo Rodriguez, it led to him becoming a lawyer. One of his first, most significant cases involved the defence and eventual liberation of three young men falsely accused of rape in order to protect the real culprit, the son of a local mayor.

For me, it made me increasingly curious about the way poor and disenfranchised people are actually coming up with collective, positive solutions to powerlessness, all the time. It got me looking at the way this happens, and for more examples of people doing this. It’s what made me write Broke but Unbroken: Grassroots Social Movements and their Radical Solutions to Poverty, and, looking at it another way, looking at the essential problem of top-down, First World aid, The Anatomy of Giving.

Yesterday, on the 28th anniversary of the murder of this kind man who was our friend, Gomercindo emphasized the fact that Chico Mendes is still alive because his ideas are still among us and are gaining strength. There are now protected Extractive Reserves throughout the Amazon. The fact that burning rainforest is a big part of the potential destruction of the entire planet is common currency. Most of all, though, the notion that people with few resources can come together and fight against what’s wrong and win – that too is more true than ever.

Chico Mendes would have been 72 years old now, if he hadn’t been murdered. None of us can say what he would be like. But I tend to think that the years wouldn’t have changed him much. After every and any victory for forest dwellers and for the forest itself he always thought about the next step. He would always say ‘the struggle continues.’

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And now, a word about Honduras

7 Mar

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People always refer to Haiti, the country I write about in The Anatomy of Giving, as the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. But not too far away from it on the poverty stats list is Honduras.

Canada gives it about $30 million in foreign aid; its biggest donor, the U.S., more than $80 million. That sounds like a lot.

Yet like Haiti, it remains a nation where no amount of foreign aid can make up for the lack of democracy and government accountability that keeps people poor, disenfranchised – and dependent on that foreign aid. Try to stand up and demand the kind of basic rights that will allow the poor to earn more and have more, and you can get yourself killed.

The latest is a woman named Berta Cáceres. A coordinator of the National Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, she campaigned for indigenous and environmental rights, in particular helping to organize protests against a hydro-electric dam project that has displaced thousands and will prevent impoverished peasant farmers from irrigating their land. Her murder is particularly tragic because she had denounced the death threats, on the one hand, and because she had the support of many social justice and environmental organizations. In many ways, Berta Cáceres was not alone.

But none of that stopped the people who wanted her dead.

Worse, the official response to her campaigning is not an anomaly. More than 100 people have been murdered in Honduras between 2010 and 2014 for defending the rights of the poor. That number, according to a study by the NGO Global Witness, represents of the world’s highest death tolls relative to population.

Honduras has been plagued with social unrest and by extraordinarily blatant attacks on the poor by their governors for a while now. And by “a while” I mean since the 2009 military coup against former president Manuel Zelaya, who had been taking a few modest steps towards improving things in the country. That coup was wholly supported by the U.S. government, including President Barack Obama (something I still can’t quite understand) and his then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton (which I can.)

The current president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has been described thus by Dana Frank in Foreign Affairs magazine: “In the past six years he has proven himself to be a terrifying thug. Now, a little more than a year into his presidency, it’s clear he is perpetuating an ongoing human rights crisis while countenancing a cesspool of corruption and organized crime in which the topmost levels of government are enmeshed.”

So, despite the foreign aid flow, poverty has increased; impunity and violence has grown – and no one is connecting the dots.

I highly recommend Dana Frank’s article for a full accounting of the terrible things happening in Honduras. It sets the context in which the murder of Berta Cáceres is one more detail in an ongoing saga of land grabs, economic chaos and a kind of war against the Honduran people.

Yes, it’s time to mourn the tragic end of one woman’s story of courage and selflessness. It’s also time for people to get angry about the appalling price of such hypocrisy. It\s a price both the people of Honduras and we, the taxpayers of the richest countries in the Americas through our official aid agencies, are paying.

In Honduras at least, there has been a pushback, with anti-government protests throughout the country. We can support them by demanding our politicians and representatives stop coddling Cáceres’s killers.

Canada’s development aid: will Trudeau make a difference?

15 Feb

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So maybe they weren’t the unequivocally happiest people in Canada when the Tories lost the elections last October.

But they had to be among the most relieved.

As Liam Swiss, a sociology professor at Memorial University who studies Canada’s development assistance, put it, many international aid people “had been waiting with bated breath” for a new government. And while he preferred the New Democratic Party’s aid-policy platform, it didn’t even matter who won in the end. “The notion was that things couldn’t get worse than they had been in the recent years under Harper,” he said.

Now the development community is cautiously optimistic that, with Justin Trudeau in power, things will change. While it is still early days, “the mandate letter that the Prime Minister sent to [Marie-Claude Bibeau] the Minister of International Development is very encouraging,” said Ian Smillie of the McLeod Group, “because it starts with poverty eradication, poverty alleviation, as being the basis for her mandate. And that is as it should be.”

But for the Conservative government it wasn’t. And while this was taxpayers’ money they were spending, their blatant attempts to win back benefits for Canadian corporations with money meant for the poor didn’t get much play in the press.

Yet the new policies, practices and funding cuts created havoc within the international charity sector. Every NGO had to make do with less but small- and medium-sized organizations were adversely affected, losing out in favour of the bigger players. Support for social justice advocacy disappeared pretty much completely.

“If you look at some of the organizations that were defunded, or have ceased to exist as a result of the collateral damage of that decision,” said Swiss, “it’s a really sad story.”

Then, in what used to be called the Partnership Branch, there was “ a move,” said Chantal Havard, spokeswoman for the Canadian Council for International Cooperation, “from responsive, predictable, long-term funding mechanisms to a call for proposals, a competitive process, more in line with priorities identified by the government. There were fewer opportunities for organizations to make proposals and the bureaucracy was quite heavy as well.”

Indeed as one anonymous respondent to a survey carried out by the CCIC described it, “this new system has been a colossal failure in every way for the development sector in Canada, and has devastated partnerships with civil society overseas.”

Harper also had the Canada Revenue Agency carry out tax audits, questioning whether what organizations were doing actually even amounted to “charity.” “There was a trend where organizations that were more critical of government policies were targeted,” said Havard, (a trend I wrote about last August).

So now that sorry picture is improving. Last month the government announced that the tax audits would be stopped. And at December’s climate change conference in Paris, it pledged $2.65 billion to help developing countries with adaptation and mitigation. For Smillie, “This is certainly part of the long-term development perspective. It’s not very clear how much of that money will go through normal machinery, or how much would go some other way – I don’t think they’ve figured that out yet either,” he added. “But I think that is a promising sign.”

But aside from revitalizing the agency the Tories re-christened with the anodyne name ‘Global Affairs Canada,’ will more be done to make our collective response to the global poor more useful? Isn’t it time to think about why its help, along with that of most wealthy countries, has done so little to really fight poverty?

Ian Smillie thinks so. “In addition to supporting NGOs for the good work they do overseas, I think government should also pay attention to the kind of work they do in Canada,” he said. “And this business of showing fly-blown children sitting in the dirt and tugging at heartstrings is not really about development. It is not a good way, it’s not an adult way, of portraying the challenge to Canadians.”

It is practically the default image to appeal for donations, “almost like a drug,” he said, but does a huge disservice to the people of the developing world and simplifies a complex problem.

“It is almost counterintuitive to promote good development overseas through NGOs and ignore this retrograde message they are putting out in Canada,” he said. “Diaspora communities in Canada hate it. African Canadians hate that kind of message. I’m sure governments of African countries don’t like it either.”

So while, as Havard and others have pointed out, the aid community has high hopes that the Trudeau government will stick to a promise made by the previous minister, Christian Paradis (who, in fairness, was somewhat more sensible and approachable than his Tory predecessors) maybe those consultations should take on this aspect as well.

“I think it is definitely something the government could and should do,” said Smillie. “As far as matching grants are concerned, look at what value NGOs are adding to the development question, and the value added is not only overseas, it is here. We want Canadians to understand why development assistance and poverty eradication, why all of that is important to Canada. It isn’t just to get short-term contracts. It is to make the world safe for everybody in every way, healthier and better able to trade and all the rest of it.”

Past Liberal governments have also struggled with the purpose of Canadian aid, and used it for goals other than straightforward development.

Maybe this time they will be different. Maybe they will be open to better, more effective, approaches to aid.

“It shouldn’t be a question of going back to where we were before the Harper government came in,” said Smillie. “I think we can move forward in a more intelligent way.”

When Less is More

8 Dec
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Photo Courtesy thethreesisters via Creative Commons

It may all be very nice of Facebook’s young Sun King to donate a big swack of cash – some $45 billion at current market value in company shares – to charity. It might encourage others to think about donating something, or to at least think about the very issue of inequality. It might even annoy Bill Gates that his $41-billion philanthropy earmark is no longer the largest such donation ever.

Yet somehow Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan’s announcement brings out not only the skeptic in me but also the critic. And that’s because previous flashy donations of big money designated to in some way confront poverty often seem to miss the whole point.

I realize that other observers of billionaire philanthropy have come out with criticisms already. One of them, Linsey McGoey was recently interviewed here on CBC Radio. She wrote a book about the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, called No Such Thing as a Free Gift, which exposes the way its vast trove of funding actually ends up enhancing the same systems that made these philanthrocapitalists billionaires in the first place.

In a recent Guardian column, she pointed out how the three items wealthy people like Gates tend to fund – microfinance, impact investing and growing grants to corporations – “there is little direct evidence of positive outcomes for the global poor and considerable evidence that such trends tend to enrich the wealthy at the poor’s expense.”

In fact, the Zuckerberg billions aren’t even going to a charity as such, or even into a foundation, but into a limited liability company. It will, presumably, disburse funding to efforts the young couple deem worthy – not that you and I will ever know necessarily what those efforts are and whether or not they achieve anything. That’s the way such companies are set up.

And for me, this is the point.

When wealthy donors choose to support certain projects and initiatives, those choices are always based on their on their world views. It is, after all, their money.

It may provide medical care or save lives, but it won’t do anything to ensure that the poor will have a more permanent system, a state system, to provide such essential services.

Or it may, like the Gates foundation has, push a lot of investment into charter schools for American children. But it fails to consider the fact that maybe disadvantaged kids would have better educational opportunities if their parents earned a decent wage.

It’s clearly not the priorities of poor people that inform the choices made by these wealthy donors, business tycoons who have little idea of what it’s like to live as a disenfranchised person in a Third World country – or even in a rich country.

In my new book, The Anatomy of Giving, I devote less time that I would have liked to the fact that the Gates Foundation initially supported, then withdrew their support from, a very worthy organization – Slum/Shack Dwellers International, or SDI.

I write about the SDI in my previous book about grassroots social movements. Their affiliates in places of desperate urban poverty like India and South Africa work to empower the urban poor within grassroots social movements to demand tenure rights, land and better services, and also to recognize the capabilities and responsibilities of the poor. In fact, organizations like SDI, or the Indian Alliance, are not charities at all. So I was surprised when I learned that, some eight years ago, they got a big boost from the Gates’.

I felt less surprised and more cynical when I learned that, a few years later, the foundation decided to place their funding elsewhere. No real explanation for that from Melanie Walker, who directed that project: Mr. Gates and his board had simply decided that it “was no longer the best use of foundation resources for the kinds of poverty alleviation we were seeking.”

For people who consider themselves on the cutting edge of technological innovation it is disheartening to see how un-innovative their ideas on poverty, and the causes of poverty, are. They may talk about inequality, as Zuckerberg and Chan do in their announcement. But they don’t seem to understand that poverty has political roots. Change means changing the system. And changing the system means changing the way people think, and the relations between poor people and local elites.

The thing is: there are many movements and approaches that do make a difference in the lives of the poor. But they don’t seem to get much attention, or support, from the world’s billionaires.

Rather, each new super-donor comes to the table with not just a lot of money but with his or her own ideas of what needs to be done with it.

In that sense, would it not be a lot more helpful, a lot more revolutionary and innovative, if philanthrocapitalists actually gave away less money, but did so in ways that recognize the notion that there are already a lot of great solutions out there?

Those solutions don’t usually include the inflation of some important person’s ego, however. Maybe that’s why they don’t get the support they deserve from people like the Zuckerbergs or the Gates.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Meet Daniel Tillias

16 Apr

 

 

DSCF1057Daniel Tellias is a person I respect a lot. He  works with young people to counter gang violence and crime in his Port au Prince district, a special place called Cite Soleil.

 

Cite Soleil is special mostly for the wrong reasons. It is a slum where people with no money struggle to make a living; it houses many of the ill-paid factory workers who toil in Haiti’s garment industry; it’s right on the Bay of Gonâves so all of the trash from the upper parts of the city come flowing down into the St. George Canal from which it spills out onto the street and into people’s shacks; its neighbourhoods are divided by pointless, usually violent rivalry; and it is the go-to place for unscrupulous politicians for all stripes to buy gang support that makes them look like “Men of the People.”

But as Daniel says, it is also a place of resistance and struggle.

I first met Daniel two years ago, when I went to check out the organization he founded, the Community Centre for Peace Alternatives, or SAKALA, to use its Creole acronym. SAKALA had organized a soccer team, called Union, built a community centre, and established a community garden on a piece of landfill using old tires as planters.

This is what it looked like in 2012 ->6758004553_18fcc3c4a3

 

 

 

 

 

 


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<- And this is what it looks like now.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Here are some excerpts from an interview I did with Daniel, who speaks fluent English, last month.

So, what has been happening in the past two years with SAKALA?

I would say that the last two years have been the most difficult because that is when the international community started to forget about Haiti. And a lot has changed for me because I have understood that it would never be the change we want to see, or the improvements we want to see, with the support of the international community. It has to be by Haitians and for Haitians.

I always use this motto that says ‘it’s not about them, it’s all about us.’ It’s us who let this country fall into this trap, into this condition, so it should be about us to have it rise again.

Why do you think the international support has been drying up?

Right after the earthquake, NGOs were mostly flirting with (local) organizations so that they can justify, I would say, money that they have received. Two years later, they don’t have this money anymore. Two years later, people don’t really see Haiti as a country that has been devastated by an earthquake. They just see Haiti as a failing state, so it goes back to Haitians to really make a difference.

You just got back from India, where you went as part of the masters program you are enrolled in with a U.S. organization called Future Generations. What did you get from that trip?

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned, and I’m very grateful, it’s that many countries that really made a difference in their lives, they did it through their own effort.

I’m glad that I know about this and that is why I am really trying to build on this seed, trying to find in Haiti things that are working so that people will remember, again, that it’s about them to make a difference. So I would say that yes, a lot has changed. We know that we can longer depend on the aid promise, or on the international community, so we have to find simple ways to make things happen.

Do you see that as a positive thing?

When you keep receiving you think there’s always going to be a way to get something from someone. Until one day you knock at one door and you have a negative response, you start questioning yourself and saying, ‘hmm, maybe it’s not that easy. Maybe I have to find alternatives.’ When someone can have a chance to really reflect on this, that’s when I think it starts. To me that’s really positive, but we need to find people channeling this positiveness toward great effort. Instead of having people say, ‘oh, we should go look for more in NGOs. Or different NGOs, from a different country.’ They should start thinking about how would we find a way to deal with this on our own.

What about peace building here?

This is a constant challenge because while we do this, government people, business people, do the exact opposite thing, trying to pay gangs, trying to pay for demonstrations in the street and it’s really like, you try to do this with all your strength, while these people are trying the negative way and people tend to try to easiest way.

Cite Soleil is a meeting place, a place that when it rises the whole country feels it should follow, because it is a place of resistance, a place of struggle.

(But) when you have control over the head guy, even if there’s a big mess in the country, you can tell the guy, you know what? I will take care of you. But please don’t have Cité Soleil  rise and mess up everything.

So they want to keep on manipulating the people here? If they have a meeting or demonstration, they want these people to show up and make this person look popular?

Yes.

It’s like they are the extras in his personal movie?

Exactly. It’s really bad because when you try to work with the guys and explain to them that we are not the enemy, that you should be working together so that we can get schools, we can get jobs, and the (politician) says, ‘you know what? I have $50,000 for you, but I need 1000 guys in the street.’ It’s like you don’t tell someone not to get $50,000.

But there have been some good changes over the past two yeas as well, right?

I am very positive about our efforts, and the kids still come from everywhere in Cité Soleil. People really respect them, and value them. People see them as the future. People see them as ambassadors. And the soccer team has even moved now to second division league. People are very excited about that.

So people talk about that, and not just about Cité Soleil as the most violent neighborhood, or the most trash neighborhood or just gangsters. They talk about these talented kids playing with a lot of fair play and a lot of happiness, and taking school and education more seriously. To me that’s good but we need to build on this to get more from it.

You were also on CNN last year!

Yeah, that was good. Coming from CNN, that has always talked about Cité Soleil for the violence and everything, it was definitely positive.  And this inspired people here, as well, to know that people really value what we are doing here.

So what are these trees that I didn’t see the last time I was here?

Those are moringa trees. Mostly they dry the leaves and use them as a food supplement. More and more people come to us and ask if they can have a couple seedlings that they can plant at home. People from all of the neighborhoods come and harvest the leaves which are really good in soup. They can come anytime they want but I really encourage them to plant their own tree.

We’ve spoken before about how international aid tends to encourage people to focus on their needs, instead of their abilities, because that is what their funding is for, and therefore fosters this situation where there is a kind of pay-off in being in need instead of organizing for systemic change.

This is the kind of vicious circle I would like to see broken, so people can start thinking they have the potential to do a lot more than what they’ve been doing so far. And that’s why I am so happy with this garden. Our wish is that we can send an example to the whole country, teach people that this is happening in Cité Soleil so it can happen everywhere. So why don’t you start your own garden? Why don’t you start eating Haiti? Why don’t you start eating what you grow? And to me this is a revolution that will make a huge difference.

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Book Review: The Idealist

13 Dec

9780385525817In April 2008 I visited a Millennium Village in Senegal called Potou with the idea of doing an article on what a bad idea the whole thing was.

Instead, it surprised me by turning out to very different from everything I had read about Jeffrey Sachs’ anti-poverty enterprise: well thought out, collaborative with local government and NGOs, and, in particular, based in large part on gathering community opinions on the project, or what its director, Omar Diouf, called “awareness raising.” Individual peasant farmers and heads of rural unions told me how sure they were that  by the end of the project’s five-year life span, they would be able to go it on their own. In fact, Mr. Diouf told me that what he had seen in Sachs’ other villages convinced him to greatly alter the MVP modus operandi.

Hence, no article.

But as soon as I got wind of Nina Munk’s book on Sachs and the MVPs, The Idealist, I was immediately curious. While she concentrates on two villages, one in Kenya, called Dertu and another in Uganda, called Ruhiira, the whole MVP set up was already getting a poor marks on the report cards of external evaluators and experts in development. Their main cavil was that Sachs’ claims of massive improvements in the quality of life for people in the poor African communities it had targeted were a) greatly inflated, b) impossible to prove, and c) could not necessarily be attributed to his project. There was no way, they said, to compare what would have happened in those villages had the MVP not come along by without looking at other similar villages that had not received this influx of aid.

And indeed, Ms. Munk’s research only supports their doubts. There were many times when I was reading this fascinating and well-paced book, shaking my head and thinking, ‘No. I can’t believe they did that.’ She describes, for example, the building of a livestock market in the village of Dertu and, in Ruhiira,  the switch from the usual cultivation of matoke bananas to corn and beans, heavily doused with chemical fertilizers — both Sachs’ idea.

The market no one asked for remained largely ignored by the pastoralist community of Dertu, even though their old market was a two-day walk away. And the bumper corn crops in Ruhiira found no buyers, being too far away from anyone who wanted to buy them. Other business ventures — like pineapples and cardamom — ran into similar brick walls.

What stands out in this book, and in the philosophy behind Sachs’ projects, is the way it simply drops its theories and advice into the desperately poor communities that have been chosen. People are persuaded to do things that make sense to Sachs and the experts working at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, only to find that they bring with them too many downsides. Millions of dollars are spent on improving health clinics, schools, and other collective infrastructure, but there is nothing to sustain them. Neither the Ugandan or Kenyan government was exactly eager to take on the expense of running them, and no one was seeing enough growth in revenue to start paying user fees. Education ministries didn’t provide text books, ill-paid teachers still went AWOL, no one cared to clean out the MVP-built latrines, and all the Sony-donated laptops disappeared.

At the same time, Ms. Munk points out, the influx of money in Dertu started attracting new residents to its arid confines, pastoralists who decided to “abandon their nomadic way of life and settle in and around (it).” Trash began to fill the ditches between people’s houses while the money the MVP local director gave  a newly formed “Garbage Committee” to cart it away somewhere vanished. The little local businesses, like Sahlan Bath Hussein’s tea shop, which  sprouted up were inundated by more competitive newcomers.

Yet what we are seeing here, I believe, is not poor people’s unwillingness to embrace progress and think about the collective, but rather a super re-tread of the whole foreign aid paradigm. “That predominant paradigm,” says Gord Cunningham, assistant director of the Coady Institute in Antigonish, Nova Scotia, “has been around fixing what’s wrong with communities. Identifying needs. And then, how we can help fix those deficits.” And while it does represent “a positive and well-meaning evolution from communities not getting much help at all and being completely exploited, the bottom line is that there have been a number of unintended consequences of this approach. One is that leaders in communities really start to look for what can come from outside, versus what they can do for themselves. They also get judged on how many resources they can bring in. That seems to be a measure of success rather than on how good the community becomes dealing with its own issues.”

Aside from the holistic approach identified by Mr. Diouf, the only thing that is new about the MVPs is the concerted push of resources, millions of donor dollars, thrown at one particular micro-region. Like the Millennium Development Goals, as the Earth Institute PR guy told me last year they were “trying to accomplish,” the idea is to demonstrate what the London-based Institute for Environment and Development’s Tom Biggs called the “effectiveness of aid, setting up the hypothetical framework that aid is hugely significant in the delivery of change, when it can only ever be a catalyst, or a significant factor in only a limited number of very poor countries.”

Some reviewers have taken issue with The Idealist for seemingly concluding that foreign aid never does any good, and underline Ms. Munk’s lack of knowledge of development. But I don’t see this so much as yet another cautionary tale about the inevitable pitfalls of the way so much foreign aid works. Sometimes, as Potou would seem to indicate, yes, it can work. It can work when there are lots of existing actors on the ground, a stable government that already provides some limited services — like electricity —  local organizations that are able to take advantage of the money and training, and above all, MVP staffers who, as Mr. Diouf said, “re-visited and reworked the concept to adapt it to our reality.” This was not the situation in either Kenya or Uganda — or Mali, where one project had to be shut down after a coup.

But it won’t work when there has been no process of placing the reins of change in the hands of the communities themselves — a long process, no doubt about it, that requires a lot of listening and pondering and cooperation — and when there is no consideration given to the sustainability, to real growth, however modest, in incomes, to at least some kind of serious buy-in on the part of local governments. Indeed, aside from  the Coady Institute, says Mr. Cunningham, “there are a lot of people who are trying a more strength-based, or asset-based, approach, that essentially recognizes the power of a community building assets rather than just relying on outside solutions.”

At the end of the book, as we read about new problems, slashed budgets, and staff fired out of frustration, Ms. Munk interviews “a member of Sachs’ inner circle in New York,” who says, “In hindsight it was like we were set up to fail. It’s not that Jeff’s ideas are wrong– he’s a big, inspiring thinker. It’s that the project’s ambition moved more quickly than capacity.”

But more likely, its problems can be laid at the door of outmoded ways of thinking about aid, one that merely talks the talk of community participation and management. As one complaint went — out of a list of 14 compiled by the owner of Dertu’s drugstore — “The project is supposed to be bottom top approached but it is vice versa.”

Even so, Sachs managed to get enough fresh funding to continue his Millennium Village Project for another five years.

Aside from Potou, however, this book also reminded me of Haiti, where Cantave Jean-Baptiste, the director of Partners in Local Development, would be happy to have even a tenth of what the Earth Institute can afford to spend. When he would go to a poor village, he says, “They ask, ‘what are you bringing us?’ And I say, ‘We’re not bringing anything. We have come to understand where you live what are your challenges and together we will see if there is some means of helping you with some of the obstacles.’”

What’s for Lunch?

1 Oct
CC Photo by B.Adams

CC Photo by B.Adams

Well, if you are poor, these little creepy crawlies apparently.

A group of McGill University MBA students won a prestigious award from Bill Clinton last week, for having the best idea for a new social enterprise. This year’s challenge for the annual Hult Prize, which consists of a million bucks and some mentoring from top international business persons, was to come up with a solution to secure food for undernourished communities, particularly in urban slums. Their idea: insect farming.

That’s right. Along with Golden Rice, the urban poor might now improve their diets with ground up insects, which are nutritious, sustainable, already consumed by lots of people in the Global South and, I assume, cheaper than other protein sources like pulses or meat.

But I have an even better idea for Mr. Clinton and the Hult B-School poobahs. Land Reform!

Here’s my business plan: An astonishing number of Third World countries have both big populations of rural landless or land poor and, at the same time, enormous tracts of empty fertile land belonging either to the state or to very rich, absentee landlords. (So much in fact that they can afford to lease such land for mere pennies to multi-national corporations based in other nations.)

Take this land and divide it up among these rural families so that each one has enough to cultivate and earn a decent living. Those families will then be able to feed themselves, instead of being net buyers of food as most of them are, taking some pressure off of markets.

With the money they earn from actually selling to those markets instead of buying, they will be able to send their children to school, helping to end illiteracy and ignorance.

They will also be able to purchase things they need, helping to boost local economies, instead of abandoning their tiny plots and actually swelling urban slums seeking jobs that don’t exist.

Having enough land will also allow them to plant more trees to protect their water sources and help halt global warming. And lots of rural grassroots social movements are already organized to facilitate such transfers in an equable manner and offer agricultural advice and support.

Oh, and did I forget to mention this? It’s also inherently fair.

Maybe my idea is too logical for global decision-makers, because I don’t think any MBA students have ever thought of this. World Bank economists and big donors have also failed to suggest this as a solution to poverty. (Look at Zimbabwe! They say. Look at South Korea! I say.)

No, it is somehow more logical — and let’s face it, the market is based on rational behaviour, right?  — to spend millions of dollars tinkering around the edges of the real issue, the real cause of Third world poverty, which is the unequal distribution of resources.

Those MBA students may be congratulating themselves for their million-dollar windfall by putting bugs on the menu of the urban poor — while fighting off accusations of plagiarizing the research of a fellow student — but I’m not buying it. Nor should you, and nor should the poor. We can do better than this. And if we don’t, it’s because we don’t really want to.

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