Monday, April 13, 2009

The Micro Difference

In a comment regarding yesterday's post, my friend Safiya wondered what can be done to make a difference in peoples' lives if one does believe that Aid is Dead. This is a really intersting topic, because for all of my cynicism and burned-out state, I still believe there are ways to have a positive, meaningful, sustainable impact outside the traditional "development" model.

In my personal experience, the successful models are all on the micro-scale, grassroots in the true sense of the word. While the notion of micro traditionally refers to the amount of money at hand (micro-lending), or the size of a business (micro-enterprise), I believe the successful models are micro in the sense that they are from individual to individual, with two or perhaps three people involved in the "program".

Rico and I have one great, crowning "development" success story - that of our taxi driver, Zeca. In our minds, there is no doubt that the small intervention we did (with the help of our friend M.) is the most significant impact we will ever have in our work here in Mozambique.

Alas, I have to go to a meeting, so I can't tell Zeca's story right now. I will, however, as my next post.


Brandie said...

Like you, I am cynical about this development field that I am in. Burned out, at the end of my line, need something new etc. In fact, I was recently at a grad school happy hour between alum and current development students and I literally felt like I had nothing to tell them, except "run for the hills!!"

But I do agree with you that the micro-level is the place to be. Even big programs that have the grassroots at their core are better able to "help" some people.

What do you think of social entrepreneurship? Do you think that's a better strategy?

dead aid said...

micro-level is very good, but you have to be realistic about the level it's operating in. For example for helping out at a local level, micro is the way to go, small loans here and there supporting a villages economy, people get enough to build a little market or business and in turn are able to support themselves within a local economy. so individuals are helped who in turn help their local economy but for the most part it ends there. So then you have to step it up, that's where the macro comes in, now we have to bring the local to the national, and whats the best way to do that, direct investment into the micro to support the macro, for example buying food for aid from countries your helping to stimulate the economy rather than import it from elsewhere, or instead of donating mosquito nets made in China, the aid agency buys them from a local producer. its a full economic stimulus effect, eventually the goal is to have the money being made and spent by the people, with local industries taking the lead, less imports and more domestic production.

but doing this means going off the big aid grid. that's not what they want and rua and the train station would close due to lack of business at the same time.

Ali la Loca said...

~Brandie - Sorry you are also feeling cynical, but at least I am in good company. I do thing social entrepreneurship is a better strategy than traditional development aid...just about anything is. In my opinion, private sector is the way to go, although I think it is important for companies to take into consideration the health and development of their workers and their communities via simple CSR initiatives.

~Dead Aid - For sure...but the funny thing is, what you describe here I don't associate at all with aid or development - it's simply an efficient private-sector market that isn't dependent upon donations. Like I said above, I believe that the private-sector model is the way to go, however it is hard (and in some cases impossible for at least a couple generations) to get this kind of thing going when you have a country that's been aid-dependent for so long. It takes a long time to get away from the institutionalized "Estou a pedir" mentality.

Ali la Loca said...

~Dead Aid - Ah, one more thing regarding the "less imports and more domestic production" bit in your comment. I agree, as long as said production is coming from sustainable industries and businesses. Obviously much training and buisiness development is needed still in a country like Moz, but at the end of the day it's just a different aid model to blindly support industries/businesses that will not survive on their own (i.e. without massive subsidies) and have no inherent competitive advantages. Not that you were advocating the subsidy of inefficient businesses, I just wanted to make this additional point in the discussion.

Brandie said...

I'm actually at a really good company as far as working for the development MAN goes.

I'm really interested in social entrepreneurial work but I think it really depends on the context. Most post-conflict countries have so many challenges esp. lack of infrastructure (esp. roads) and access to markets which can prevent even the best intentioned business person from turning a profit. Some places have been in conflict for so long, it almost feels like one is starting from zero. In this context, there seems to be a gap between the country getting stable and the private sector being able to flourish. I was recently at a social entrep. conference and while there was a lot of discussion about helping entrep in places like S. Africa and Brazil or body was talking about the Afghanistans, Iraqs, Sudans, or even communities in Colombia where there are few alternatives to growing coca and where there is still the threat of major violence. It is interesting to see where private sector at the grassroots level fits into these types of environments.

Erik Cleves Kristensen said...

Thanks Ali, interesting discussion, which you know interests me :-)
As to the dead aid debate, I think it misses some of the main points as it does here in Denmark, when so many talk about "more aid": it is not about more or less, but how it is allocated. After having worked on both macro-level and micro-level, I have become much more convinced of the latter, with the private sector development; but it's so much more challenging than the report writing and macro-level support and nice meetings at a fancy hotel of macro-level support... When at the micro-level, it is the real issues that suddenly explode in your face, and I agree with Brandie that the context is everything, and would there like to add to your comment that it takes generations, most often, to create the "real" changes. I think any historical examples would underline that, and in that sense, although any person working with these issues (for government, NGO's or private sector) must realize that it is not about seeing immediate change, but that it is a job of two steps forward and three steps back.
That doesn't mean that it shouldn't be done; if that was the case, nothing in the world would ever change.

Ali la Loca said...

~Brandie - You make a very valid point about the unique situation of post-conflict countries and communities. The challenges of rebuilding infrastructure and the most basic services is massive, and I agree that it's impossible for the private sector (or anyone else for that matter) to immediately step in and function efficiently when you are talking about starting from zero.

I am very interested, for example, in seeing what happens when the situation in Zimbabwe changes. How will the country be brought back to a functional level? One way - the path taken by Mozambique post-conflict - is to become the recipient of massive donor aid and have a flood of NGOs setting up shop. Depending on the perspective, this was successful in Moz (just look at the GDP numbers, the stable democracy, the growing levels of foreign investment, etc.!) or it was the country shooting itself in the foot, so to speak, because such a massive dependence on aid was created that there seems to be no way out of that hole...

~Erik - Ah, I know you love a good development discussion, my friend. I agree with you that it's all about allocation, but I confess I've lost my faith that aid can be effectively allocated on a macro-scale. Admittedly, I've got my gray-lensed glasses on these days, but it just seems so difficult to find a project that works, that is sustainable, that has made an impact, etc.

I'd love to hear your thoughts on what constitues a good/better model for allocation, if you feel so inclined. You can even do a guest-post on my blog if you are interested in sharing a bit of your perspective in this forum.

Erik Cleves Kristensen said...

Thanks Ali, I think I more often than not I dont think about it coherently enough to say that I could write a guest blog, anyway, I can ramble on :-)
You know, the development discours eof today has two extreme proponents: Sachs, who says one can solve all the worlds problems with more monye, and Easterly, who basically says nothing works. Both are well-argued, although too many cynics often cite easterly, and too many pop-artists cite sachs, but I think far most people who think and reflect lie in between, and recently Paul Collier expressed that quite well, saying that they are both wrong.
Pouring more money has in many instances proved counterproductive, but surely there have been interventions that have helped, from the Marshall Plan to Grameen Bank (where stories in Bangladesh about small enterpreneurs getting the head-start they would otherwise never have gotten have abounded - ironically, Easterly mentions these types of intervention as "good aid").
However, there seems to be no blueprint, and that seems to be difficulty. What to do when? Also, what are we trying to "develop"? Is it countries? (in that sense, i think all coutnries are constantly "developing", even little rich welfare-oriented Denmark, as much as the DRC - the problems are just different) Or is it "people"? People where? "Our" people? Also, WHY is "aid" (help...) given? WHo is helping whom? WHo needs help? And WHY is the "helper" helping? Is it for rational own winning? Altruism? Whatever makes people want to help? Why do other need or want or appreciate help/aid/charity or not?
I have no answers to any of these, but I often thought about them in Ghana, but even more in Mozambique. Cynicism is often the desperate path to take when questions have no definite answer, but at the same time, asking those questions constantly when one does something (anything, being voluntary work for elder people in Denmark or working for an NGO in Africa), may just be one way to not become too cynical and keep working at least for one selfs esteeem!
I do keep rambling :)