Friday, August 7, 2009

Development with a Healthy Dose of Conservatism

I would probably sound like too much of a cliché of myself if I were to tell you that this guy who spent his days until recently stomping his sandal-clad feet around campus, spouting incendiary rhetoric about Democracy and Socialism and rousing the masses to the barricades, has spent a year in the Peace Corps and has since been so violently mugged by the cruel realities of human nature that he has transformed into a Conservative.

So I’m not going to tell you that. It is very difficult for those of us who have come of age during the intellectual leadership of George W. Bush, Tom DeLay and Sarah Palin to respect Conservatism with a capitol “C” as a coherent ideology. To me and so many members of my generation, the history of the past decade has utterly discredited the movement which seeks to build a double-layered fence across the Mexican border, to amend the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage, to defend "real Americans" and Western civilization itself from illegal immigrants, homosexuals, atheists, French people and the United Nations. Especially in the midst of this prolonged recession, with their hostility to any sort of government intervention in anything to do with the economy asides from more tax cuts and more bailouts to the banks, the dogmatic amalgam of supply-side economics and right-wing Christian fundamentalism that is the American Conservative Movement is rapidly atrophying into an obscure cabal as completely divorced from matters of this world as is the Church of Scientology or Zoroastrianism.

But nevertheless, I must sheepishly admit that my after one year in the Peace Corps, my experience so far has made me substantially tempered my faith in our power to “remake the world anew”. Living in a real-life African village and seeing first-hand the innumerable failures of past governments and foreign NGOs to revolutionize Malian society, I have unintentionally come to terms with the fact that one can only do so much. If after two years I can walk from my house to the center of town without having to tiptoe around puddles of human waste, I will consider my service a roaring success. Not only have I come to appreciate the values of prudence and restraint, but experience has taught me that private property, capitalism and individual responsibility are remarkably more effective in achieving long-lasting institutional change than any socialist principles of collective ownership. It would be fair to say that I have become significantly more conservative with a lower-case “c”; as defined by Merriam-Webster:
“con•serv’a•tive, adj. 1. skeptical of change. 2. avoiding excesses. 3. of or relating to a political philosophy based on tradition and social stability, stressing established institutions, and preferring gradual development to abrupt change.”

To be a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali is in many ways like being bashed over the head with a hardbound copy of Atlas Shrugged all day, every day after day after day. Part of it is for the first time in my life having my own house and plot of land which I can call my own, and being completely and utterly responsible for its upkeep (technically I don’t own the property, but we’ll get to that in a minute). Part of it is the realization which comes with biking way out into the bush where its just me, sand, trees and scrub as far as the eye can see and realizing that if I were to fall and crack my head open on a rock, no one is ever coming to get me. Technically there is the Peace Corps Medical Unit in Bamako – but that’s two provinces and 400 kilometers away. If I get a nasty cut, if my latrine is dirty, if my house is full of termites, no one else is going to do anything about it out of the generosity of their heart – I have no choice but to be completely responsible for maintaining my own health, my home and garden. In this neck of the world, it’s really every man for himself.

By no means can my sharp veer towards rugged individualism be attributed to my having adopted the values of my host culture. The Bambara society amongst which I currently reside is tremendously more communalistic than anything I have known in America – even the semester I lived in the Vegan cooperative house. Here in the village of Sanadougou, every man and every woman share almost every daily activity with their family; they plow their fields together, they plant their seeds together, they reap their harvest together and then the women cook it together, it is unthinkable that anyone would ever eat a single meal alone. Though the dugutigi assigns each plot to certain families as determined by their historical usage, the fields are officially held amongst the whole village. There are even a handful of fields which are explicitly shared, and every couple of weeks during rainy season a man marches through the streets beating a drum to hail all the men to till the commons. There is a significant degree of familial autonomy – the head of each household has their own indivisible property and is responsible for feeding his own progeny, but no Bambara man would ever his relatives go hungry while stores remain in his own granary. And since 90 percent of all the families in this town share the last name Sogoba, the traditional family safety net for all intents and purposes extends throughout this entire society.

That is not to say that Bambara society is a Socialist Utopia for the whole world to emulate. The sharing of food is a practice born out of evolutionary necessity in this culture where death by malnutrition if not outright starvation is fairly ordinary. If Boubacar sees that Amadou’s millet granary has gone empty, he is probably going to invite his neighbor to na duminike until the next harvest – not just because Boubacar is such a nice guy, but because he would like Amadou to reciprocate the next time that he suffers the same fate. If there were a few more months of precipitation, if agricultural production was more efficient and food were not so scarce to begin with, food-sharing might not be such an indispensable bedrock of Bambara culture.

There is a fair argument to be made that Mali is so poor, that the output of its primarily agrarian economy is so diminutive precisely because of the traditional practices of communal land ownership. There’s plenty of land, and there’s certainly no shortage of labor – but there is not enough capital to spur significant economic growth. Almost all planting and harvesting is conducted with simple manual plows, hoes and scythes made out of wood and iron; no matter how hard and how long a family works with such limited tools, it will always remain a challenge to eke out a subsistence diet – let alone see enough windfall profits to invest in new physical capital and expand agricultural output. In the history of American and European economic development, farmers were able to escape this poverty trap by using their real estate deeds as collateral to take out loans and invest in tractors, irrigation pumps and other machine tools which expanded yields many times over. But such innovation will forever remain elusive to Bambara farmers who have only the dugutigi’s word to their parcels of the communal fields, who technically have no landed property to their name, and will continue to be shut out from the credit which they need for investment and growth.

During the heady days after independence in 1960, the nationalist revolutionary President Modibo Keíta tried to take Mali’s communalistic ethos even further and institute a People’s Republic modeled after the Soviet Union and China. Keíta aimed to establish Malian Communism on the organic village level; every man was ordered to harvest a pre-assigned quota of millet which was to be stored in village-wide granaries – which were in turn distributed back to central granaries in the capitol city of Bamako, and then redistributed back to each village and to each individual in order to ensure a perfectly egalitarian division of wealth. It goes without saying that the government kept the lion’s share of each harvest for in Bamako for its own purposes, Communism eviscerated the private incentive for industry, millet production plummeted and famine was the order of the day. Since it was widely accepted that the only way for many individual subsistence farmers to survive Malian Communism was to shirk their national obligations and fend for themselves, the People’s Republic soon became a parody of itself. By 1968 it was clear to all that the centrally-planned economy was so mismanaged and public opinion had so turned against the Communist regime that Modibo Keíta was overthrown in a coup d’état led by General Moussa Traoré – who would dismantle the state-run agricultural economy and institute one of the World Bank’s first structural adjustment programs.

And yet the most jarring aspect of Malian culture to my Western bourgeois sensibilities is not this country’s land ownership practices or its short-lived membership in the Communist bloc, but something which I encounter at least every day I take public transport or walk down city streets. Here – as in all of Muslim West Africa – there exists a class of religious beggar-children known as "garabouts". Picture a 12-year-old boy, barefoot and gaunt, rushing to shove a plastic bucket in your face while mumbling some fusion of Bambara and Arabic “prayer”: Allah ka dumini di n ma/Allah ka I deme ka n kongo dogoya... There are blind men and widows begging for coins in every country without a welfare safety net. But the garabouts are different in that they are fully capable, able-bodied boys who should be in school learning how to be a productive member of society, or rather, in the fields with their fathers learning how to farm. Ostensibly, these garabouts are instead begging on the street in order to learn humility and submissiveness to their Lord as a part of their “Islamic education”.

I often find myself duly offended by these garabouts – and not just the ones who yank on my arm and scream Tubabu! Donne-moi un cadeau! It has less to do with religion than it has to do with child labor, slavery and exploitation. These pre-pubescents are not begging for money because they have chosen a life of poverty in order to be closer to Allah – they are begging because their “Quranic teacher” commands them to bring in a certain amount of cash each day with the threat of a stiff beating if they fail to deliver. The garabouts are assigned this Dickensian fate by their parents, some of whom sincerely believe the marabout who comes to their village and promises to teach their boys the way to enter Paradise. But a good portion of all garabouts are praying for coins because dad did the math and realized that this year’s harvest was too paltry to feed the mouths of his 17 children, and so he decided the time is right to send his sons to the closest city’s Quranic teacher. And thus a not-so-insignificant number of Malians use the institution of the garabout as a fig-leaf for their own lack of responsibility as parents, and to pass the buck for feeding their children onto society as a large – all under the respectable and even admirable pretense of “Islamic education”.

A problem of scarcity occurs not just when these garabouts are on the streets praying for subsistence farmers to part with the fruits of their labor – eventually, these beggar children grow up to be adults with wives and children of their own. And a lot of them seem to have taken home some valuable lessons from their “Islamic education”; namely, you don’t have to work to eat, you can just count on other people, and in the end Allah will figure it all out. Talking to so many farmers in my Malian village who spend eight months every year sitting, drinking tea and complaining about how poor they are, these guys know very well that they can plant a vegetable garden, but don’t bother because of such deep-seated fatalism and renunciation of control over their own destiny that has crippled their sense of personal initiative. “If Allah wants me to be poor, then that is his command.” “If Allah wants me to find money, then Allah will provide.”

The sense of fatalism and helplessness perpetuated in this society is downright jarring. There was one Peace Corps Volunteer who recently watched as her host father more or less let his daughter die of what was probably simple pneumonia. As the Volunteer noticed that this 5-year-old girl was having trouble breathing and her wheezing was becoming worse and worse, she suggested that the man give his daughter some medicine. “No, there is no medicine for this illness.” The Volunteer insisted that there was, and offered to pay for it. “No, Allah will heal her.” A few days later the girl was dead, drowned in her own mucous. The father concluded: “She is gone. Allah has taken her.”

What it all comes down to is that a good share of people in Mali are poor – not just because the government doesn’t provide enough social services or because they are being oppressed by Global Capitalism – but because they and/or their parents have made some really irresponsible decisions. In the past I have written about how overwhelmed I became after seeing my neighbors’ gaunt kids with their black rotten teeth and their bellies protruding with protein deficiency and realizing they looked so sickly that they probably wouldn’t make it through the year. I was so beset that at one point I considered buying a sack of beans and condensed milk and giving it to their poor parents. But my attitude changed after I saw that these kids’ dad had a brand new Yamaha motorcycle. And you can only imagine the sound system at the party a month later when this guy married his second wife. And they’re almost certainly going to have many, many more offspring. As callous as it sounds, for me to intervene and provide these children with protein and calcium would only further enable their father to blow his money on toys and parties.

The bleeding liberal in the left ventricle of my heart is inclined to giving money, write a check as a knee-jerk reaction. This attitude is nothing new; to my recollection, there was this Judean rabbi back in the day who healed the sick and gave eyesight to the blind, who gave a big sermon about giving alms to the poor, clothing the naked and feeding the hungry, and how this moral obligation of selflessness is so absolute that it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye than for a rich man to enter Heaven and so anyone with surplus wealth must give it all to charity. Judging by the African development scene today, apparently a lot of people still believe that this is an effective means of conducting economic development.

It is difficult to drive down any major road in Mali for any considerable distance without passing by a school built by Christian NGO X, a water pump built by Muslim NGO Y, or a clinic built by International Relief Organization Z – the road itself was probably financed by the Belgian Embassy. When missionaries and secular-minded do-gooders parachute in for Spring Break, distribute medicine and shoes and soccer balls and candy, take the mandatory photo-op of themselves hugging skinny black children, and within a week or two hop on the next plane home, they can then brag about their superior worldliness to the Save the World Club and put another chit on their résumé to help with grad school applications. Due to the sense of satisfaction derived from building schools and handing out goodies to poor malnourished Africans, there is no shortage of humanitarian relief programs on the ground here.

There is a shortage, however, in any sort of humanitarian relief programs that do anything more than perpetuating the sense of helplessness and instilling a mindset of inferiority among the Malian people. Imagine how a typical Bambara millet farmer might feel when he has been breaking his back in the fields for months just trying to eke out enough grain to feed his family for the coming year – maybe if this year’s harvest was particularly bountiful he can buy them all a new pair of cheap plastic sandals – and he sees a bunch of white people drive up in an SUV, distribute brand-new Nike high-tops to all the kids in the village, and leave. He’s probably going to think “Hamd’allah! And to think that I was almost going to buy my kids shoes! How foolish of me! Now I can blow that money on tea and sugar!”

And a few years down the line when that Bambara millet farmer sees that his kids’ Nike high-tops have all fallen apart and they’re walking around in the mud barefoot again, do you think he’s going to buy his kids new pairs of shoes? “Of course not! I can just wait for the next SUV full of white people to come!” No one in this village is ever going to by their children shoes again.

The fact is that African subsistence farmers might be poor – but they sure aren’t stupid. They are rational beings who respond to economic incentives just as much as anyone in the developed West; rather, since they have so little, and the simple act of receiving a free pair of shoes is so relatively generous, they respond to these incentives much more dramatically than the bureaucrat sitting in an air-conditioned office on the Upper East Side might ever imagine. Oftentimes these perfectly benign donations can lead to the most sinister repercussions.

This is not a phenomenon unique to Western donors. There is a village by the name of Yelemani located way up in the desert near the Mauritanian border; the economics of this village are drastically different from that of most communities in Mali, because a few years back a number of local men went off to France to find jobs and by some stroke of luck they succeeded. The men of Yelemani all live together in a one-room apartment and they are doing menial labor and custodial work that no Frenchmen would ever want, but compared to the mud hovels and hand-to-mouth existence they knew before the blue collar life in Europe seems to good to be true. They can afford to eat meat and drink Coca-Colas and watch TV every day, and what’s more, they are making such a surplus that each year they can send a big wad of cash back to their families in Yelemani.

During the first few years that these Yelemani families were receiving remittances, the problem was not that their expatriate sons were insufficiently generous; in fact, it was that they were too generous. When their subsistence farming fathers who made monetary incomes of less than $400 a year went to the bank and received checks worth ten times what they could ever make cultivating millet and peanuts, they had so much money that they didn’t know what to do with it. So they splurged on motorcycles, TV sets, cell phones, iPods, and fancy new clothes for themselves and for their wives. Yelemanikaw felt so rich that they didn’t even bother going to the fields during rainy season. Of course, they burned through their fortunes quicker than you can say “MC Hammer”. By the time they realized this, their granaries were empty and it would be months until they could even start planting again. And their children, the little brothers and sisters of the men of Yelemani who had made it, they ended up far worse off than the children of those who were not receiving remittances – while the latter were merely malnourished, the intended beneficiaries of such a liberal cash infusion were literally starving to death.

The best/worst example of this half-baked liberalism is a building which I see almost every day, Le Jardin d’Enfants (kindergarten) built by a perfectly well-intentioned Christian NGO named WorldVision. In addition to two classrooms for three- and four-year-olds, they also built two latrines, a well and a playground complete with three swing sets and a merry-go-round. The benefit of this Jardin d’Enfants to the education of Sanadougou’s youth, acclimating these children to sitting in a structured environment classroom environment is beyond doubt. However, their inept attempts at construction and ensuring simple maintenance practically negate any social benefits which might accrue from the existence of a Jardin d’Enfants in the first place.

To begin, WorldVision told Sanadougoukaw quite explicitly that after a given period of time they would be gone and the people of this village would be wholly responsible for conducting and financing any maintenance themselves. Within a year, the hinges on the metal doors to each of the latrines and also the large double-doors to the entrance rusted to the point that they could hardly open. This problem could have easily been fixed if someone in town had been willing to pitch in some simple axel grease – but that costs money, and few people feel like donating above and beyond their taxes to pay for public education. So they just took all of the rusted doors off the hinges entirely.

The latrines happen to be placed in an end of the schoolyard where the kids like to play. Without doors to these latrines, any child who wants to urinate or defecate there during the school day has to do so in plain sight of his or her classmates.

WorldVision also failed to build a storm drain in the walls enclosing the schoolyard. We’re not talking about anything complicated here; all they had to do was put a little piece of plastic piping into the wall at the lowest point where rainwater flows - like in every single family's concession in Mali. This slight omission was a humongous mistake, because without a storm drain the torrential rainy season downpours would flood the schoolyard and turned it into a giant pen of mud. So a teacher at Le Jardin d’Enfants had to take a pickax and pound a makeshift storm drain into the wall. Of course, he overcompensated and knocked out a whole much too big to only let out water runoff. Now even when one teacher might be watching the front gate, the children can easily crawl out the storm drain.

Controlling the children’s free movement in and out of Le Jardin d’Enfants’ schoolyard is so very important for reasons of public health, because now that the kids are too scared to pull down their pants in the latrines without doors, they either scurry out the front gate or crawl through the storm drain and urinate and defecate behind the perimeter wall. When school is in session, this area is covered with the children’s feces.

As for the playground, since no one could lock the proper entrance with its doors off the hinges, adults were able to enter and exit at their own leisure and cut the chains which once composed the swing sets. And they lifted the merry-go-round off its rotor and sold it as scrap metal.

No one has ever asked me to help them buy a new playground. The people of Sanadougou never asked for a playground in the first place – kids here are content to play with sticks and rocks. The idea that children need thousands of dollars worth of playground equipment which then needs to be shipped from France for at least another thousand dollars certainly never originated in the mind of a Malian who provides for his family's livelihood with simple hoes, picks and plows which cost no more than a few dollars.

Every day when I walk out my garden in Sanadougou, I am greeted by the enormous 2,000 square meter dongeyuro - “dance hall” – which was also built by WorldVision. I can only surmise that they had a conversation with a couple of teenagers who complained that there was not a lot to do here on weekends – et le voila, local demand! So WorldVision shelled out about $20,000 and bought enough cement and rebar to build sustainable, sanitary latrines and conduct top-well repairs for perhaps 40 or 50 families, and instead the hired masons from out of town to build a dongeyuro. Over the course of the year that I have lived here, there has been exactly one single event held there. I really don’t know where to begin on this monstrosity of a cadeau...

One would like to think that maybe giving out presents could serve some societal benefit if they came with strings attached. I am told that WorldVision wanted to do something about female genital mutilation, so they organized a meeting with the bolokomuso – the lady who makes an income on the side as this village’s go-to gal for circumcising little girls’ clitorises with a shard of glass and thus rendering them “marriageable”. WorldVision asked the bolokomuso, “What tools do you want us to give you so that you can have a new source of revenue? If you promise to stop this horrid practice, we’ll give them to you.” She wanted a donkey cart, two donkeys and a big wad of cash. WorldVision gave them all to her. And do you think she stopped bringing girls out to the fields and hacking away at their vaginas? Of course not – it’s the only job she’s ever had.

Other development agents are more liberal than I. In the town of Tominian, an NGO – let’s call them Basketball Court-Builders without Borders – swooped in and realized that this town was severely lacking in its basketball-playing infrastructure. Everyone knows that black people love basketball! So they gave the people of Tominian – whose wells all go dry for a good quarter of each year – what they most certainly needed more than anything else: a basketball court. Within a few years, the blacktop weathered under the extreme elements into a hardly-recognizable remnant of itself. In time the rim and the backboard were unscrewed and sold as scrap.

By then, another NGO rolled into town and realized that the public basketball court was in shambles. Instead of conducting repairs, they decided to start from scratch and build a brand-new basketball court next to the vestiges of the old one. And it was only a matter of time until it too decayed and the men of Tominian – it was probably the same ones as before – unscrewed this new basketball rim and backboard to sell as scrap.

When the new Peace Corps Volunteer rolled into town and started looking for projects to organize, you can probably guess what the young men asked him, “Hey, can you help us build a new basketball court?”

I suppose that the most cursory rule of sustainable development which one can surmise from these anecdotes is that 1) Giving people toys is not development. Even without foreign NGO and development agency intervention, people in Mali are perfectly capable of entertaining themselves. It is already somewhat obscene to see how men who live in mud huts – who cannot provide their families with adequate water, food or medicine, whose children might wear the barest of rags on their backs if anything at all – can somehow manage to scrounge enough money to treat themselves to iPhones and televisions. Philanthropic-minded Westerners swooping into Africa and building playgrounds, soccer fields, basketball courts and dance halls only makes things worse by teaching people that they can get something for nothing, that white people are bottomless sources of money, and that if Tubabs are spending all their cash on big, expensive toys then we should just continue to do more of the same.

2) No one should ever be in the business of simply giving people money – with or without strings attached. Money is perfectly fungible, and even if an NGO distributes cash to be spent on basic necessities, it is just as much if not more likely to be blown on tea, sugar, cigarettes or an iPhone (and thus violating Rule #1). This might sound quite paternalistic – it is – but for all their shortcomings professionally-run charities tend to be much better at spending their money in a constructive manner than individuals who have no sense of budgeting or even the basics of a monetary economy. If you are for some reason adamant about giving directly to a particular individual, it is best to give in the form of an in-kind transfer such as tuition at a private school or credit at a cereal bank; i.e. something which cannot be traded for booze and cigarettes.

Malians and Africans in general need to spend less of their own money on toys and luxuries and spend more on basic necessities like nutritious food, mosquito nets and medicine. Though except in the direst of humanitarian crises - e.g. catastrophic droughts or refugee situations - 3. No one should be in the business of giving to people what they can provide for themselves. Once this precedent has been set, it is nearly impossible to undo. Direct handouts of basic goods completely distort incentives to such a degree that they undermine the natural market forces which need to play out on their own if there are ever to be functioning economies of these necessary commodities. What development agencies and NGOs need to be doing is not giving away the basic necessities of life, but establishing the durable infrastructure needed for Africans to be able to provide these things without any foreign assistance.

Since handing out free rice and mosquito nets distorts markets, you might think that the durable infrastructure which I describe as “sustainable” must be composed of permanent edifices made out of concrete which will last for decades. To a degree, yes, the work of an NGO which parachutes into Africa and builds a schoolhouse will probably benefit the people of Africa longer than a care package of calcium supplements. But even then such development must be taken with a grain of salt. With the erratic climate which shifts between scorching heat and dryness to torrential downpours, termite colonies so ferocious that they will eat through any organic material, unemployed youth ready to steal any materials that can be removed and sold at market, and of course the mobs of children who tend to manhandle the most important tools of public infrastructure as their playthings, here in Mali things really need to be made out of steel and concrete if they are ever going to last more than a few years. And even then, they would require constantly vigilant maintenance and upkeep.

Moreover, once the schoolhouse has been built, who is going to hold classes there? How is a village of 200 subsistence farmers supposed to pay for teacher? Who is going to pay for chalk and paper and pencils? And after a few years when the schoolhouse itself starts to wear and tear – even steel and concrete degrade over time – who is going to conduct the maintenance and repairs? Unless the schoolhouse-building NGO can adequately answer these questions, and if the answer to all of the above is not “the villagers themselves”, then that wonderful school they just built is going to remain empty, unused, and it will eventually be dismantled and sold for scrap or disintegrate into rubble on its own terms. Unless the local population is willing and able to manage this school themselves, it might as well have never been built.

So a year into my Peace Corps service, what do I think is the single best thing that foreigners can do to implement sustainable development in struggling countries like Mali? Waking up in the morning at the call to prayer and spending the rest of the day hoeing dirt and pulling weeds in my garden like every farmer in my village. Sanadougou has been downright spoiled by NGOs who pull up in SUVs, build schools, hand out cadeaux and leave. If I do anything in my two years here, I have made it my personal mission to fight tooth and nail that Tubabs are just a bunch of playboys so rich that we never work, that the only thing we should do is buy more presents. I see to it that when my neighbors walk by and see this hairy Tubab, 9 times out of 10 they see me caked in mud, toiling with a pick in hand.

If entanglement in foreign quagmires is inherently suspect, the most effective development work that Peace Corps Volunteers like me can possibly do is to simply do what the Malians are doing, just tweak their methods a little bit and demonstrate that there might be a new way of doing things a little bit better. Me tending my own banana trees doesn’t directly put any more bananas into the mouths of potassium-deprived children, but by doing so I have introduced this society to the wonders of Nafosoro pumps, drip irrigation and mulching. If I tend the banana trees so well that my Malian neighbors can see that I am producing more and better fruit, if my neighbors are so impressed that they take to these methods in their own garden, then insh’allah next season Sanadougou’s banana farmers might just see that their own banana trees produce greater yields. To date no one has yet to emulate my conservationist irrigation technologies, but I have seen that a couple of my friends have already adopted my compost rotation and urine fertilizer practices. And thus in a perfectly Jeffersonian fashion, the private gardens of Xanadu serve as a shining patch of sustainable water/waste management upon a hill.

And every once in a while when my orange or lemon trees bear fruit, after I have enjoyed consuming the fruits of my labor and composted the peels, there are some remnants which are even more useful still: the seeds. Though I am loath to give away cadeaux, I can see no possible harm in handing out seeds because they come into my possession for free, they can’t really be traded for anything else; in fact seeds have pretty much no economic value at all unless someone invests the time and energy into planting, irrigating and fertilizing them. The seeds borne by my orange and lemon trees are purely positive externalities of my own selfish labor.

I acknowledge that tilling my garden and occasionally handing out seeds might not live up to the incendiary rhetoric of which I am so fond. You might be thinking “Damn, Zac – you have just become the bourgeois reactionary which you used to despise.” Not quite – I never was too keen on smashing the capitalist superstructure to begin with, I've always been critical of left-wing extremism and making pains to accomodate with rational, lower-case "c" conservatism. I still have those same dreams of remaking the world anew, just now I have let go of my more socialist sentimentalisms and want to achieve those same ends employing the power of human nature, market principles and that all-American philosophy of pragmatism.

Sometimes sustainable development can only be achieved by narrow protection of private property. For instance, there is a solar pump-fed robinet used almost exclusively by myself, the two houses of doctors and teachers who live in its immediate vicinity – though occasionally a mob of kids will walk by and stop for a drink. And over time a group of kids manhandled the robinet so badly that they broke the handles right off the faucet heads – all three of them. The doctors, teachers and I pitched in to buy brand new faucet heads. And within a month kids somehow managed to destroy the new faucet heads as well. We could have bought a third, a fourth, a fifth faucet head and provided the kids with potable drinking water and expensive steel toys indefinitely. But instead we decided to cut our losses and buy just a third faucet head – one with locks on the handles which can only be opened by either myself, a doctor or a teacher.

It’s a pity that this privatization scheme must deprive a substantial chunk of the population from using this water source at their leisure – but then again, having a limited scheme in which only 3 key-holders can access the robinet derives a greater good to a greater number of people than the communal scheme under which no one could use it at all.

And every once in a while someone like Etienne Dembele rides their motorcycle up to my concession gate and asks if I know where he can find a man named “Madu Sogoba”. Dembele rode all the way from the neighboring village of N’tonto, 12 km away. He is one of those rare birds who was distraught by the fact that if children in his village wanted to continue their studies past elementary school, they had to walk those 12 km all the way to Sanadougou Secondaire Cycle. He organized the families of his village to try to petition the Communal government, the Cercle government, the Regional and even the National government to build a Secondaire Cycle in N’tonto - to no avail. So Etienne Dembele organized the families of N’tonto to pitch in and build the school themselves. And they did. I was taken aback by his story of Malian gumption.

“So what do you need me for?” I asked.

“We built the school, but we haven’t any nyegens. The children have no choice but to relieve themselves in the bushes. This is intolerable! We must change!”

“Monsieur Dembele, I think you’re the kind of guy with whom I can do business…”

… to be continued!!!


Mike said...

Very cool stuff, man. It's great to see on-the-ground proof/explanation of the whole "fair trade not aid" idea that's been creeping into the mainstream recently.

Keep up the good work,
Mike Schneider

Emily said...

Ahh! I couldn't agree more. I have many mantras in the village, among them WASH YOUR HANDS WITH SOAP! PUT ON YOUR SHOES! YOU ARE DIRTY! DON'T PEE NEXT TO THE LATRINE PEE IN THE LATRINE! but my favorite is probably, "If you don't work you don't get anything. I gave you a chance, you blew it and I'm the last PCV and no NGO is going to help you. Do it now, or get nothing." My village is generally opting for getting nothing. Big sigh. I miss America and insane over-achievers. I can't even get people to dig a hole for a tree I'm going to give them because they killed theirs already.
I COS in April or May. What about you? We should travel somewhere.

pH said...

Jesus Zack this is a fucking great article. A letter I wrote to apparently got destroyed. I will shoot you an email soon.

- Patrick

Unknown said...

As you point out, there's nothing inherently conservative about your observations. But it's a good hook to keep your friends reading on. The private charity you rail against is the fallback conservative position when it comes to global poverty. I should think that a thoroughgoing liberal would favor sustainable institutions of global justice in accordance with what you're advocating. It's painful for anyone regardless of ideology to watch children starve while their parents rev up their new Yamahas and feel that the only prudent response is to refrain from distorting incentives even further. But you're cleared of conservatism as far as I'm concerned.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for taking the time to write this, Zac. And how old do you think this sense of helplessness is? When did it begin, why, and how many generations have had it? Not that you have to know, but if you do I'd be curious. And reading the comment above, don't you think its a shame that the American Right is so nuts that "conservativism" has become a bad word? A charge you have to be cleared of? Good luck with Mr. Dembele, and with your banana trees.