The World Turned Upside Down

  • From: Think.
  • Published: June 17, 2013
world upside down.jpgTraditional aid casts the global North as benefactors, the South as helpless victims. A Tanzanian development expert argues that the rise of new thinking and technology will help Africa to solve its own problems

Written by Rakesh Rajani

I live and work in East Africa and, while I follow global developments in poverty reduction, my perspective is that what is significant, exciting and powerful is happening here. Even from the beginning, Make Poverty History was something we looked at from a distance. It felt very much like an attempt by people in the North to bring some justice to the South and to the world.

It certainly helped some people in need – all our work relies on aid dollars, so we could see its importance and usefulness. But at the same time we saw the G8’s commitments as being more about the responsibility of the North than about what was crucial for development.

From my point of view, what really matters is how we in East Africa get our act together, how we organize ourselves, how we create states that are more responsive to their citizens, and whether we put institutions in place that make use of our own resources, rather than whatever is going on in the North. The elements of Make Poverty History that are most interesting to us are parts of the trade agenda. This is not to be anti-aid, but it is to say that in the larger scheme of things the role of the North in doing good – particularly with regard to aid – is a more marginal one.

Engaging with these global campaigns, however, is always useful. At the moment there is a lot of work taking place on the post-Millennium Development Goals framework, and what I like about this is that we are talking for the first time about global standards. We are talking about, for instance, what fiscal transparency means not only in a place like Tanzania, but also what it means for banking in central London, and this somewhat subverts a deep unease about the paternalism of the old campaigns.

It is no longer about how privileged people should be good to poor people – this is about the North also bearing its share of the responsibility. The North must understand that when our plutocrats steal and siphon resources away from the poor, part of the problem is that they can get away with it and that Swiss or Isle of Man bank accounts facilitate this. In this sense, on the bigger trajectory, I am optimistic about how I see things moving.
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On the smaller details of aid effectiveness, I think the glass is half full and half empty. One could write volumes about how often funds do not make the difference they are intended to, and sometimes this is for the kinds of reasons that suit a Northern lens, such as corruption. But some of the time – and, in my opinion, a lot more of the time – aid is not effective because of a lack of political imagination about what is needed to make a difference: the institutions of aid, the feedback mechanisms, and the fact that the voices of the so-called “beneficiaries” are not loud enough to inform and influence aid practice.

This is a less headline-grabbing problem than tackling corruption, but it is in some ways the real challenge. We also need to accept that pontificating from above is easy, but actually bringing about change can be much more difficult in practice. Making bureaucracy change, for instance, is extremely hard.

But new thinking around aid and development is emerging. One strand of work that has been particularly valuable involves randomized controlled trials. While this approach is only one part of the solution, it brings a discipline, a rigor and an evidence-based way of thinking that often challenges some of our most cherished assumptions. One of the most entrenched ones is about improving participation and results in schooling. The standard approach was to build classrooms, train teachers, provide books and reduce class size. But what we have found is that some of these factors have very weak effects.

Reduced class size, for instance, helps, but not much, and it is extremely expensive. Trials involving teacher certification showed that a teacher with a bachelor’s degree performs on average not much better than one with far fewer formal credentials. Many of the things that we thought were important, and which were also highly costly, weren’t producing the results we expected.

On the other hand, studies have demonstrated that deworming – simply setting up processes to give children pills to eliminate the worms in their body – can have a huge impact on improving school attendance. Who would have thought that deworming was so crucial? And these kinds of insights apply to other problems. The question of how you motivate and inspire a teacher to help a child learn is another example. We are now beginning to find that the old ways of doing it, which consist largely of one form of training or another, actually tend not to be very effective; instead we need to think much more about incentives.

The other factor that is changing the face of development in East Africa is the explosion of technology in the last decade. There are two important points here. One is that we are now able to amass, crunch and visualize data in a way that was unthinkable 10 years ago. The other is that technology has become much more democratic. In the area where I work in Tanzania, 15 years ago less than one percent of the population had phones, and now we’re at 90 percent.

Technology is not a panacea – it is still subject to political and human constraints – but it opens up avenues based on a dynamic that is much more citizen-to-citizen than one powerful controller to the many. With television, one figure can amass a lot of control and decide what programs millions see. But tools such as the mobile phone are not easily susceptible to such monopolization.
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I’m also delighted that transparency is so high on the agenda at the G8 this year. Transparency is important because it makes other things feasible. It is a public good and an end in itself – people should have the right to know what is going on. But if you want to evaluate anything, if you want to know whether one intervention is improving healthcare outcomes or if another is raising standards in education, all you used to have to go on was guesses and pronouncements rather than data and evidence.

Transparency suddenly makes that all possible. It is as if you are in a locked room with no windows. It is very hard to figure out what is going on in there: and transparency is like switching on the lights. You still then have to analyze the data and you still have to act. But the switching on of the lights allows you to see things and make connections that are otherwise impossible – in both the Global South and the North.

Rakesh Rajani is the Head of Twaweza, a 10-year initiative to enhance access to information, citizen agency and public accountability in East Africa.

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