It’s three days after the TED conference, and I’ve had two days to enjoy a rainy, but very beautiful, Cape Town and do some digesting of thoughts and ideas. (lots of pictures, for those interested…) I had breakfast this morning with Russell Southwood and our conversation reminded me just how exciting the conference had been, and how unexpected. I’m used to the concentration of amazing minds we see at conferences like TED and Pop!Tech. But it’s rare to feel the sort of enthusiasm, hope and excitement at events anywhere in the world.
After the first panel sessions of the conference, I came up to Emeka Okafor to say hello. He asked, “How do you think it’s going so far?” and before I could even answer, we’d collapsed into a hug, both laughing like hyenas. The idea that Chris Anderson would give Emeka such free reign to make the argument that Africa is open for business, that so many resources had been deployed to make the event possible, that he’d assembled such an incredible group of speakers and audience into the same space seems like a major miracle to me.
The question, for many attendees, is where we go from here. Some of my friends who were fellows at the conference wanted to see us come away from the event with a declaration or manifesto. Some wanted to make sure we replicated the conference again soon. I want to make sure we keep the conversations going. As liberating as it was to air some of these questions in a forum like this one, the challenge is to start answering these questions.
The core debate of the conference was about the effect of aid on African economies. It’s a debate that’s familiar to people who follow African politics, newspapers and blogs closely, but it clearly came as a surprise to many of the conference attendees that so many Africans would make passionate arguments against foreign aid.
While Andrew Mwenda framed the debate, arguing that aid distorts Uganda’s budget and enables corruption, I found that Herman Chinnery-Hesse had the most persuasive attack on the aid business, using examples from his work in Ghana and the ways in which aid ends up being a subsidy for foreign firms to work in Africa at the expense of local firms. Herman’s argument was particularly interesting to me because I’ve run an NGO in Ghana, one that supported his business, providing an experienced programmer to work with his staff and provide training so that he could compete more effectively in the local market. I wouldn’t argue that our collaboration with Herman was particularly successful – and we deserve absolutely none of the credit for his remarkable success – but I am passionately interested in the question of whether the ways we tried to help Herman could constitute “good” aid, or whether there’s such a thing in the eyes of Mwenda, Shikwati or the other thinkers making a strong trade, not aid case.
It’s a shame that Madame Okonjo-Iweala didn’t get to speak until the last day – she did a much better job of defending western aid than Bono and Jacqueline Novogratz did. The conclusion to her story about a doctor saving her sister’s life – “When someone is saving a life, you don’t care that it’s aid – you want the person to be alive.” – rings true to me, and, I think, to the vast majority of the audience. The interesting question is what the long-term effects of that aid are. Until folks like Bono and Jeffrey Sachs are willing to engage with questions from thinkers like Shikwati rather than dismissing these questions as oversimplifications, there’s going to be a camp that resents, resists and critiques aid. If George Ayittey’s contention “the begging bowl leaks” is true – and it is – projects like Jeff Sachs’s Millenium Villages are going to lose an enormous amount of money, line the pockets of numerous politicians and potentially, have dramatic unintended consequences. (It’s worth reading Victoria Schlesinger’s critique of the Sachs effort in the May issue of Harper’s – unfortunately, the article isn’t available to non-subscribers…)
Bono dismissed “the Mwenda plan”, wondering if the journalist had any ideas that went beyond dismissing foreign money and good intentions. I think there’s a way to pull a plan together from some of the suggestions offered over the course of four days:
- Build infrastructure that enables African businesses. This includes roads, railroads, ports, airports, and critically, power generating facilities.
- Encourage trade between African states and between African states and the rest of the world, in part by dismantling tariff barriers and unfair subsidies.
- If you aid governments directly, do so in a way that they use the money to support entrepreneurship, not to enrich “the hippo generation”. Look for ways to support the energetic, young “cheetah” generation.
- Public health, including maternal health and “ordinary” healthcare has to be a major priority going forward, not just AIDS and malaria care.
- Education is critical. A large percentage of the speakers at the conference were brilliant young Africans who’d had the opportunity to study abroad – it’s critical that great opportunities to learn develop on the continent.
- Value your diasporans, not just as investors, but as ambassadors and generators of new ideas.
- Image matters, not just to outside partners but to Africans who are mischaracterized as struggling and weak. Rebranding the continent – or individual countries – has to be part of the continent-wide change.
Assembled together, these suggestions don’t look all that radical – I’d argue that many of them have entered mainstream development thinking. (What was more radical, in my opinion, was the demand to end aid as we know it. I think it’s worth unpacking that demand. There are those, like Shikwati and Mwenda who genuinely believe that aid is distorting economic policy to the point where it does more harm than good. There are others, like Okonjo-Iweala, who argue that aid will be neccesary in the short term but accept that growth will come from markets, not donors. But there’s a second layer to that demand, which I think was echoed by a large number of the speakers: when Africa receives aid, particularly crisis aid, it helps brand the continent as a place that needs help, not an investment opportunity. The harm of that branding, both in terms of international image and in terms of psychological harm to individuals, as Ory Okolloh argued, is a major reason why we might consider changing the nature of aid.)
The problem is, all these ideas are much easier to articulate than to implement. While everyone agreed that infrastructure is important, there weren’t a lot of success stories to point to aside from mobile phones. But building mobile phone networks requires comparatively modest investment compared to building roads and little community cooperation compared to building sewers. Plus, with mobiles, your customers finance your largest costs – the cost of the headsets. There’s a tremendous opportunity to build infrastructure in ways that require comparatively modest investment and leverage user financing – finding ways to have customers help finance electric generation (whether that’s through village scale wind, solar or hydropower, or through energy collectives that help finance power plants) seems like a great direction.
But the sorts of infrastructure that leads to regional integration – a state of the art rail/port integration that allows containerized export of agricultural products from a whole region, for instance – requires massive investment, and there’s no good evidence that the private sector is willing to make investments of this size in an African context. And this infrastructure may not lead to the sort of growth we’d expect unless the Doha Round can be salvaged and campaigns to address US and EU agricultural subsidies can gain some traction.
It’s easy to point to the need for improved education, but it’s harder to get there. I’d love to see dozens of efforts as ambitious as One Laptop Per Child, literally trying to change education in every school on the continent, experimenting with different interventions to see what works. The health projects presented at TED were astounding, but right now they’re the work of incredibly passionate individuals who’ve sacrificed their lives and fortunes to take on challenges in their nations – there’s a level of personal sustainability that needs to be thought through in these efforts as well.
I got an IM from a friend in the States today who told me she’d found the ideas expressed at TED – which she followed through the blogs – inspiring, filling her with hope. I hope that reaction is widespread. I got a different reaction from some Americans who’d attended the conference. One mentioned that he felt like he knew a great deal more about Africa, and he now knows precisely how unqualified he is to offer suggestions and solutions. While that’s not the reaction anyone would hope for, I was pleased, inasmuch as it showed he was listening.
This stuff is hard. Really hard. People work their entire careers trying to help poor people become wealthy – inside or outside their home countries – and many wrestle with the question of whether they’re doing more harm than good. I’m grateful that TED helped put these questions in front of a much wider audience than usually considers them. I have high hopes that Chris and crew will choose to feature some of the amazing people we heard from at TED Global on the TED stage in Monterey, putting them in front of an even broader audience.
But more than that, I hope that everyone inspired by the past couple of days will find a productive way of continuing to wrestle with these questions. Those of us who wrestle with them frequently aren’t getting as far as we need to, and we need the help of everyone who wants to think deeply about them.