Friday, June 29, 2007

Entrepreneurism vs. Aid in Africa

"You're going to give starving kids in Africa computers? What are they going to do with it, eat it? Maybe you can give them some CD players too." This was the response from my brother about my idea of bringing over a number of computer laptops to Africa with me in the fall. It was a typically zippy remark from him, bringing to light the utter idiocy of what I had previously considered an clever plan. All of a sudden all I could say was, "Uh, yeah."

My brother's comments cut to the heart of a larger debate over what is really needed to bring the African continent out of its abject poverty and closer to the type of affluence that we are used to here in the US (although perhaps some might cringe at the prospect of having the world act with the same extravagantly wasteful abandon we do here). It is the same debate that has received some amount of media and blogopshere attention with the occurance of the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha, Tanzania earlier this month. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design. TED is an organization that conducts conferences to bring together entrepreneurial spirits from these three industries in the hope of sharing ideas and resources. TEDGlobal is apparently working to spread this culture of entrepreneurism to help less developed countries. Many African bloggers discussed, covered or attended the conference themselves this past month. Global Voices Online has provided a spread of some of the discussion surrounding the conference, which was altogether positive. I thought a few comments were especially interesting:

Rafiq Philips, from South Africa, summed up the entrepreneurial capitalist spirit the conference seemed to embody with these words: "Screw the handouts to Africa, give us the tools that allow us to solve our own problems."

Soyapi Mumba, a blogger from Malawi, echoed this sentiment:

Before going to TED Global, I kept hearing voices blaming governments for not doing this and that plus several other reasons why African countries cannot prosper unless some one from outside Africa does something.... At TED however, everyone I met was determined to solve Africa’s problems without waiting for governments or donors. So I’ve come back energised and connected to the right community that will hopefully keep me motivated.

The idea of a focus on economic self-improvement is something that Jason Pontin of the New York Times wrote about in his article concerning the TEDGlobal conference in Arusha. He is a bit more ambivalent about what is needed in Africa, noting that there are still many basic needs that can be met much more efficiently and directly through charitable aid than through indirect economic incentives. He even touches a little on what my brother was getting at in questioning whether or not it is ethical to focus on technology and capitalist enterprise when people are starving.

Ultimately Pontin comes to the conclusion that both economic/technological investment and more basic aid will be needed to help Africa. I personally think I am drawn to the technological side because it seems to provide a sense of normalicy to a place that is in many ways quite different (I imagine) from anything I have experienced. It could be that I think it is more decent, less degrading, less pitying to help people understand and utilize a technology, rather than simply provide a service or give them money or aid. The relationship seems more symmetric, the pay-offs greater for everyone. Perhaps I am just convincing myself of my own righteousness, but I believe that the attempt to facilitate the use of technology in Africa is not futile. In fact, I see the potential as much more helpful and hopeful than the altogether mixed success US aid has had in Africa thus far.

Nonetheless, it is refreshing to have someone like my brother putting things into perspective... at least every once in a while.