I came across the blog post of a new Kiva Fellow, James Allman-Gulino, who recently came to Uganda to work in micro-finance. James points out that the public infrastructure in Uganda is so poor that perhaps big picture issues like proper roads and health care must be addressed before tools like micro-finance can truly work to alleviate global poverty. I’d add education to that list as well.
I’ve had this conversation a few times recently and it ultimately comes back to the same broader problem. I’m no expert on African politics, but my understanding of the situation is that taxes on the wealthy are not always collected and distributed properly (to put it very mildly). This leads to schools that must be funded largely through private tuition, which easily costs $800 USD per student per year at the high school level (this may include room & board plus supplies). For a typical rural family earning less than $1,000 USD per year, it makes sending the children to high school and beyond exceptionally difficult if not impossible. The result of this is a massive population that is not adequately educated in topics like health, science, math, and business. It’s therefore not surprising to hear people in the villages tell me that they know their water is clean because they don’t see any worms in it, or that they didn’t do the analysis to realize that there are cheaper alternatives to boiling water or risking typhoid. It’s also not surprising that many people don’t have the skills to grow their small businesses or develop products and technologies they can sell to wealthier nations to grow their national economy.
The other problem with the lack of tax dollars going towards infrastructure projects is that it blocks the creation of tens of thousands of jobs nationwide. How many people does the American government directly or indirectly employ through public works projects? Those payroll dollars then circulate throughout the broader US market, enabling economic growth and a relatively good standard of living. Of course there are the other benefits of more efficient distribution of good and services that lower costs and increase the serviceable market of businesses.
Sadly, I don’t have a solution to this problem. Shy of the African governments and upper class deciding that they’re ready to make large personal sacrifices to help their countrymen or organizations like the Gates Foundation building thousands of schools and funding them for several generations, I’m not sure how this core problem gets corrected.
I think the international development organizations are commendable in doing what they can to try to alleviate poverty and suffering. I believe that they do make a real difference in people’s lives, though they may never fully eradicate social injustice. That said, I do believe their is room for improvement in the non-profit sector in terms of working together to achieve economies of scale. I wonder how many different small organizations are working in Africa right now to improve access to water, education, health care, and financial opportunity. I also wonder how much more effective we might be if we formed stronger partnerships. Why should a hundred groups spend a small amount to each educate a few hundred people on clean water when we could pool our funds and launch a massive campaign that would reach a whole region? If I spend money building a water kiosk to promote clean water, why should someone else spend the same money building a stand down the road selling mosquito nets? Couldn’t we just build two stands that sell both, enabling us both to double the reach of our program? It’s certainly sometime I’ll be thinking about as I proceed with my project.
Sorry for such a long and preachy post. I’ll try to stay more upbeat in the coming week. In the meantime, I very much welcome your thoughts on this or any related topic. If you want to check out the Kiva blog, the link is below.