Mobile phone banking and poverty, part 2

Part 1 available here.

In the Washington Post, Uzodinma Iweala argues that all the attention on "saving" Africa from starvation, poverty, disease, warfare, etc., is based on Westerners' need to feel good about themselves rather than any good they will actually be doing - a new version of the "white man's burden." The way I see it, there are several problems with Western aid:

1) It fosters dependence - elites in African and other third-world countries become accountable to the sources of Western aid, rather than their own citizens/subjects;
2) It is non-scalable - if $100 feeds 100 people, $200 will feed 200 people, as opposed to a scalable system in which $100 would feed 100 people, but $200 would feed 5000 people;
3) It can be used as a weapon - both the threat of its withdrawal and selecting who receives aid can, while portrayed as benevolent aid to Western audiences, be used for less benevolent purposes;
4) It is vulnerable to corruption - some aid will inevitably be siphoned off the top;
5) Blowback - Giving aid to dictators, while sometimes in the best humanitarian interest, can have negative blowback if a Western regime is seen as supporting an undeserving government.

Instead of dumping millions of dollars on the African continent in programs with marginal impact, shouldn't we concentrate our dollars on helping locals build platforms and infrastructure? It is similar to the old saying, "Give someone a fish, they'll eat for a day, teach someone to fish, they'll eat for a lifetime." Traditional aid doesn't seem to be building up any capabilities in African states because we are just handing them fish. Contrast that to USAID's facilitation of a local company building a successful mobile banking network in the Philippines that helps both the business and the customers who pay a marginal fee to get previously unaccessible services.

While it is true that people aren't able to use economic infrastructure if they are busy dying of dysentery from unsafe drinking water, it seems to me that

a) Africans can get their own drinking water (the point of Iweala's op-ed and of James Shikwati in the interview linked above), and

b) the Live Aid people and Bono aren't stopping to ask what their money and effort is accomplishing, and whether or not they might accomplish more in other ways.

If I had fifty million bucks in aid for Africa, I'd invest it in building mobile banking platforms. It would:

1) NOT foster dependence, as it would instead help achieve economic empowerment for customers;
2) be non-scalable, as after the initial investment and annual upkeep, the growth potential is really limited only to the number of people who can afford mobile phones (which in Africa is exploding);
3) be difficult to weaponize, as it would be open-access (I suppose it'd be theoretically possible to restrict access to certain classes via a minimum deposit, but that would be bad business and I'd be in this to make money!);
4) be difficult to corrupt, as its a piece of infrastructure, rather than a heap of cash;
5) Would only get blowback from LiveAid people who chastise me for making money off of Africa.

In conclusion, I'll contrast the two ways of helping Africa. The LiveAid/Bono view sees William Kamkwamba and sees a tragedy (the guy had to drop out of school). The Iweala/Shikwati view sees a massive business opportunity, money to be made, with the betterment of local society developing as a natural consequence.

My thoughts on this are embryonic, feedback is encouraged.


Chirol said...

It is indeed a good idea, shame the man didn't listen to you with regard to Iraq.

I'm not sure what's a bigger problem with implementation, slow or no government response or overcoming the feel good Live Aid crowd with their short term immediate-results oriented thinking.

CurrentConductor said...

Surely any discussion of this should mention Geekcorps!