Kony 2012: Capitalism at Work

I’m never going to die of old age.  Long before I’m reading the news by the light at the end of the tunnel, I’ll OD on irony and drown in a pool of my own WTF sarcasm.  The latest attack on world congruency comes from the cutthroat capitalists in the marketplace of International Aid.  Last week, in a brilliant bit of modern marketing, a new product was introduced and everybody from South Africa to Somalia is now scrambling to reposition themselves.  It’s an industry shift worthy of Apple’s introduction of the iPad3 and the ramifications are going to be felt for a long time.  Brace yourselves, folks!  It’s going to be a bumpy ride for the sympathy business south of the Sudan.

For those of us old enough to remember The March of Dimes, Hallowe’en UNICEF boxes and Lotta Hitschmanova, it always comes as a shock to be reminded that compassion has become big business.  Back in the day, charity began down the block and travelled on pennies and pop bottle deposits.  The Red Cross always showed up first when all hell broke loose somewhere in the world, and to cover things in between disasters, Miss Anderson’s second grade class sponsored a child in Guatemala who dutifully sent back drawings for the bulletin board.

These days, however, charity (especially the international variety) is no longer a nickel and dime operation.  As traditional industries dry up or find themselves outsourced or regulated out of business, new not-for-profit enterprises are taking their place.  The empathy industry has attracted some of the best and brightest of our recent graduates who are now boldly exploring this new capitalist frontier.  These young entrepreneurs have taken to the emerging marketplace of International Caring and Sharing like 19th century railroad barons.  Their NGOs work on integrated multinational webs that stretch from offices in New York, London or Chicago through various lines of communication to villages and crossroads all over Africa, Asia, South and Central America.  Their corporate reach is vast, and their financial power on the ground huge.

The irony is, of course, that the trade in compassion may be the last bastion of pure capitalist thought outside of China.  It is one of the few industries left that lets the marketplace decide who thrives and who does not survive.  Here’s how it works.  There is an ever-decreasing limit to Western middle class discretionary spending.  That money can only be split so many ways.  Every charity is in competition with every other charity for a share of it.  (Right alongside iTunes and the local Cineplex, I might add.)  The organization whose message is clear and compelling will increase their market share, but usually only at the expense of someone else.   If this continues for any length of time, that someone else might just as well fold up their laptop and go home because, without donations, you’re out of the charity business.

That’s why when Invisible Children introduced their new product, Kony 2012, into the marketplace, everybody in the industry sat up and took notice.  Kony 2012 came with a kick-ass video that went viral, trending in the millions on Facebook and Twitter.  It even has its own app: “Joseph Kony 2012.”  It was a game changer, and overnight all the other charities were playing catch-up.  A murderous warlord with “What About the Children?” credentials and insane social media stats will suck millions away from those “oh so-o-o last week” causes established in Darfur, Rwanda and the Congo.  Kony 2012 donations, grants, poster and t-shirt sales will go through the stratosphere.  For the foreseeable future Kony 2012 is a license to print money — and that money has to come from somewhere.  .

I have a friend who got hopelessly trapped by Marx (back when Karl was still groovy.)  She maintains that the capitalist system was built on, and can only be maintained by, the misery of the masses.  Oddly, this week, I think she may be right.

Western Aid isn’t Working in Africa Part II

If there’s anyone on this planet who doesn’t think Africa is totally screwed, I haven’t met them.  At any point in the last fifty years all you had to do was mention Africa and somebody would say, “Oh, those poor people!”  Trouble is to Africa what fire is to Beelzebub: they’re inseparable.  Ever since the colonial powers packed up their oppression and went home, Africa’s been falling apart.  If it isn’t the AIDS epidemic: it’s famine, and when there isn’t enough famine, there’s always good-old-fashioned civil war.  And all this is covered with a layer of soul eating poverty so thick it defies belief (unless you see it, you have no idea.)  To wax poetical, the history of post colonial Africa is written in the ink of despair.

In the West, the prevailing wisdom is Africa’s problems come from a combination of neo-colonialism, corporate greed, despicable leadership and …  What else?  Oh, yeah!  Did I mention neo-colonialism?  Any discussion of Africa eventually works its way back to European exploitation – whether it’s the slave trade or the rubber plantations of the King Leopold’s Belgium Congo.  This kind of talk makes people in the West uncomfortable.  They tend to get quiet and reach for their wallets and, after half a century, that has become an automatic reaction.  The standard solution to African problems is financial aid.  It’s almost as if the people in the West think that if they throw enough money at Africa it’ll just kinda go away.  Unfortunately, that’s not going to happen.  If aid to Africa worked, we wouldn’t be having this same conversation we’ve had since before Patrice Lumumba was delivering mail.

Recently, however, there have been a few people who are saying, “Hey, wait a minute.”  They’re looking at Africa with a critical eye.  They see the disaster and the perpetual ineffectual response and wonder what’s going wrong.  One of those people is Dambisa Moyo.

Moyo says that institutionalized aid to Africa has created a Frankenstein of dependency and corruption.  African governments simply don’t have to act responsibly because they have a goose that continually lays them golden eggs.  They can waste Western money; it’s reliable and free.  They can toss quick-fix dollars at problems rather than building long-term solutions.  They have hundreds of millions of dollars flowing into their counties every year — with minimal accountability attached.  The temptation for corruption is too great for local authorities (legal or otherwise) to pass up and it’s no wonder ordinary Africans see little or none of it.  In essence, Western dollars pouring all over the continent have, according to Moyo, made good African leaders bad and bad ones even worse.

Moyo goes on to say that because of all this money kicking around, African countries don’t have to work from the bottom up.  They don’t have to build locally feasible economic strategies or self sustaining infrastructures.   They can, and mostly do, take a random approach to development.  Schools, roads, hospitals, sanitation facilities etc. — the bare necessities of a burgeoning economy – are not part of any coordinated plan.  When Oprah wants to build a school or Save the Children wants to dig a well, they do it — usually without any reference to anything else.  There is no interconnected system of institutions that assist each other.  Roads can be built but not maintained.  There are hospitals with no staff; schools with no teachers etc. etc.  In short there is no big picture.

Nor is there any need for African governments to cultivate an atmosphere that encourages the creation of wealth.  They don’t need a local taxpaying middle class to provide revenue.  They can stumble along on Western handouts.  Therefore, there is no need to build the kind of safe and stable institutions we in the West take for granted.  In fact, a blossoming middle class, no matter how small, would be a hindrance because they would begin to demand standards and facilities their governments are not willing to provide.

Moyo also explains that Western aid is actually killing local initiatives.  Independent craftspeople and artisans are being driven out of business because the goods and services they would normally provide are being given out free by Western aid organizations.  These tiny enterprises are the fundamental building blocks of a developing society.  Without them, there’s no hope of creating wealth, paying taxes, hiring neighbours or modernization.  Individual workers or local family businesses simply can’t compete when Western NGOs roll into town.  The problem is the NGOs go home and the locals have to start all over again.  Usually they don’t.  Moyo uses the example of the Spread the Net campaign which provides free bed nets to Africans to prevent malaria.  While the campaign has worked miracles, cases of malaria are down all over the continent, it has also killed the local bed net industry.  It’s the same with brick makers, transportation, clothing, banking etc. and even, in some cases, farming.  Huge amounts of no-strings-attached money have upset local economies so badly that it could take generations to recover.

Finally, Moyo says that no matter how well-meaning Western aid is, the unwanted consequences are far more destructive than the original problems.  She also says that this situation is well known both in Africa and in the West as well.  Yet, the aid industry is so well entrenched it has become self generating.  No pun intended, but Western aid is now part of the food chain and literally millions of jobs depend on it.  However, Moyo offers a solution.

Friday: Why the West must cut off aid to Africa.

Western Aid isn’t Working in Africa

Last week, I threatened to sit in the summer sun and figure out why we keep screwing up in Africa.  Why despite our best efforts to help, are people still starving to death in places like Somalia?  Why haven’t fifty years of aid changed a thing?  And why don’t the next fifty years look any brighter?  I was prepared to do it, but it turns out I don’t have to.  There are smarter people than me in this world and one of them already figured it out.  Her name is Dambisa Moyo, and she’s an economist from Zambia.  A couple of years ago, she published a book called Dead Aid that explains it all.

Dead Aid is a short book, but it covers a lot of territory.  It’s full of information about the recent history of calamities in Africa and the West’s misadventures in trying to deal with them.  There are cute little details like, in general, the perpetual series of IMF (International Monetary Fund) and World Bank conferences, summits and symposiums that are supposed to be dealing Africa’s economic problems don’t actually include very many Africans.  Curious, huh?  These little tidbits are scattered all over the pages.  They paint a very different picture of Africa from the one we’re used to seeing.  However, Moyo’s theories don’t rely on anecdotal evidence.  Here’s where it gets vastly interesting.  The book’s premise is based on facts and figures available to any Bob, Bono or Robert B. Zoellick with an Internet connection.  And they’re simple and straightforward.

First of all, fifty years ago, somewhere between 10 and 20% of Africans lived in poverty; the kind you see on TV.  Today, well over 50% are crowded into that address, and the number is growing – almost geometrically.  In that same time period, over one trillion dollars worth of Western aid has been pumped into the continent.  These numbers are all approximate because it’s impossible to get exact figures.  However, they’re so massive that ten billion dollars or ten million people one way or the other are not going to change the percentages.  These figures are appalling.  What they mean is that, at the very least, the rate of return on Western aid money is one African life reduced to abject misery for every $33.33 spent.  Moyo looks at these base numbers and comes to the only conclusion possible: after half a century, Western aid to Africa is not working.  Then, she goes on to say that, since poverty has actually doubled in the last fifty years, developmental aid is never going to solve any problems in Africa because, in fact, aid itself is the problem.  And the only way to stop the downward spiral of over one billion people from Cairo to the Cape Town is to stop Western aid as soon as possible.  Wow!

When Dead Aid was first published, in 2009, it was branded heresy.  Moyo herself was accused of everything from shoddy research to “killing African babies.”  Yet, nobody disputes the numbers her theories are based on.  These figures are real.  Africa is not on the verge of a catastrophe; it’s right in the middle of one.  We passed catastrophe twenty years ago.  There are parts of Africa where soul killing poverty would be a relief, and it’s been that way for decades.

Yet, no matter how many times we change the tune, the song remains the same.  Live Aid was twenty-five years ago.  An entire generation of Africans were born, lived and mostly died since Bob Geldof and Michael Jackson turned the celebrity spotlights on.  Before that, it was UNESCO, CARE and an alphabet soup of other NGOs working flat out to feed, clothe and educate Africans.  Plus, since the 50s, African aid has been a standard component of most Western governments’ annual budgets.  The continent is awash with Western largesse.  Yet, it’s blatantly obvious that something isn’t working.  Dambisa Moyo may not have the right solution, but she has certainly identified the problem.  Western aid to Africa doesn’t work.

Wednesday: Why Western Aid is destroying Africa