Archive by Author | Pete Larson

KLM Lounge time

The KLM Lounge in Schiphol is a great place. There’s decent coffee, free papers that I might read, food and you can take a shower. Then there’s the odd 60’s futurist decor that makes you think you’ve stepped onto the set of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

In trying to suppress my ambivalence about going to Kenya, boarding a domestic flight the next day and then flying to Japan four days later, I’m reading Joe Stiglitz’s new book, “Creating a Learning Society: A New Approach to Growth, Development, and Social Progress (Kenneth J. Arrow Lecture Series).”

Though I’ve just started the book, I’m finding it quite interesting. Stiglitz and others attribute development to the sharing of innovations rather than the mere accumulation of capital. Societies grow because their people learn new things, and some countries do better because they are better at learning how to learn.

Noting that private firms often entrench themselves in particular modes of operation which discourages innovation, Stiglitz argues that government investments in education and R&D and the guarantee of a legal framework which protects property can allow innovations to flourish.

In reading the book, I kept thinking about this 2km stretch of road in Nairobi which has been under construction for the past five years. It’s absolutely pathetic. Buses have to pass through a one lane mud road next to the construction site, while workers move at a snails pace, slowly pouring concrete by hand. Though the reasons for the slow tempo of road construction most certainly include corruption and mismanagement (the contractor is Kenyan), one also has to notice that nearly all roads in Kenya are built by foreign companies.

The Japanese built a masterpiece of a road, complete with cross walks, bike lanes and dedicated pedestrian ways in a tenth of the time. To Japan’s credit, they use local workers, unlike the Chinese.

Building roads isn’t complicated, or, at least, the complications have been worked with over and over and road building is now an established discipline, with text books and training programs available all over the world.

So why hasn’t the knowledge of road building been successfully transferred to Kenya? What the hell is wrong?

Perhaps this is what Stiglitz is talking about. Without beating up on Kenya too hard (but why not?), Kenyan schools are a shambles and the government is only marginally interested in improving the educational fortunes of the country. Schools are designed to train low level clerks for the civil service, and don’t aspire to train kids for science, math or engineering. Though many, many technologies are already established the world over, perhaps the poor state of education hampers technology diffusion.

Back to my coffee.

Who pays for development?

I was just reading this on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog:

First, identify the most important issues. One of the main problems of the MDGs, as noted in countless analyses, was their failure to bring the major structural issues to the table. I know of no one who thinks that aid is the most important contribution that wealthier countries can make to development, but the vague terms of MDG eight allowed politicians to get away with aid promises (which in some cases they didn’t keep) rather than setting a bold agenda for transformational change in global financial governance, dealing with illicit financial flows, for example, taking bold steps towards international tax reform, and introducing fairer mechanisms for working out debt repayments.

Well, yeah, very true, but again this type of reporting skirts the issue of where those illicit flows are coming from and who took out the loans. The problem with the MDGs was that it failed to put any pressure on leaders of developing countries to stop being parasites. Worse yet, they didn’t allow for the provision and protection of basic individual rights to free expression, judicial rights and economic freedom, instead opting for a few vague and unverifiable targets which failed to address structural problems WITHIN developing countries.

In Kenya, at least, the government is bleeding the populace dry. Evidence from countries such as Botswana and Korea has shown that countries who want to develop can. The biggest obstacle (among all the other obstacles) to development is a lack of political will to do it.

To its credit, the article goes on to point out that domestic ag subsidies in wealthy countries are distorting the world market and preventing developing countries from being competitive on the world market. Eliminating these subsidies will be a real challenge, at least in the US. First, subsidies control price and market volatilities. The US electorate would go bonkers if the price of food went up and down like the price of corn does in developing countries. Second, Americans simply like subsidies and enjoy protecting agricultural interests at all levels. The right likes to pander to farmers for the rural vote while the left is somewhat bummed out because their favorite organic farms don’t have access to them. Though the left loves to pay lip service to ending ag subsidies, I can’t imagine they’d be all that sad if they were offered to their local hippie farmers. That’s speculation for another day, however, and I’m no expert on ag matters.

I hate to be pessimistic about development, but the barriers to progress are hobbled by forces both within and without developing countries and no one seems to be tackling the right issues to improve matters.

Links I liked

Some links I liked. Believe it or not, I do like things.

1. A dissection of structural vs. indivdual determinants of poverty. Take that Paul Ryan. (Noahpinion)
2. Unhappy cities. Was excited that Detroit is not the most unhappy city in the US. Whew. (WP)
3. A dumb article, but I liked it anyway, at least for its scientific value. Practically speaking, it’s a fairly useless piece. Why hand shaking is bad and we should stop doing it. (NPR)
4. Tough realities for the vinyl market (Pitchfork)

In the Kenya airport again….. and talking of Marsabit, Camels and cell phones

DSC_270222JKIA has to be one of the worst airports I can think of, and my five hour delay has drawn out the awfulness of this place. No wonder someone burned it down!

While I sit here in Nairobi Java House (which now has a branch in Kisumu…. Kisumu Java House?) eating my standard “Chicken and sun dried tomato sandwich with ABSOLUTELY NO MAYONNAISE” I’m thinking about an exchange I just has with a guy in the line for check-in.

The guy was a tall, obviously northern Kenyan who turned out to be from Marsabit, one of the most remote and lawless areas of Kenya. He works at an American university on HIV things in Kenya. We started talking camels and public health and I just couldn’t help but ask.

“How did you….” I was almost ashamed to try and finish the sentence which I kind of interjected since my interest overrode wherever the conversation was going.

“I was sent to boarding school when I was six.” I didn’t even have to finish it. He knew exactly what I was asking.

To be from a place like Marsabit and working for a major American University is no small feat. First, I have never met anyone from Marsabit and the few times I’ve met people from remote places like Pokot and Turkana, I’ve been tempted to just shake that persons hand and congratulate them. Coming up through University in a place where most kids don’t go to school at all deserves a special prize.

“One cell phone is the only piece of technology you’ll see for miles. It’s an oral culture. Communication is absolutely essential and cell phones are the most prized possession a herder will have outside of his camels.”

His brother has 60 camels. I asked if we might go up there and take some blood. I could stand a trip up to Marsabit, even if armed guards have to accompany.

“Kenya is a cash based economy”– Not.

Riding a matatu is one of my favorite activities and without the carbon monoxide and blaring reggae music, the experience is just not complete. Elaborate light shows are just a bonus.

The Kenyan government has partnered with Google to introduce a new Android based transit card system to replace the current cash based “system.” The idea is to standardize price, eliminate volatility in drivers’ incomes (reducing incentives to drive badly) and efficiently tax the ridership.

The NYT did a great write-up on the Kenyan transit card effort, which I won’t rehash here, but one part of the article stuck out to me.

One of the matatu drivers expresses his resistance to the pre-paid digital system by barking “Kenya is a cash based economy!”

Nothing could be further from the truth. Digital payments are common everywhere in Kenya now. People send and receive money regularly through the M-PESA system, with transactions exceeding 6 billion dollars per month in a country where the average person makes less than $5 a day, many much less.

People buy things at the biggest and the smallest stores with M-PESA, as evidenced by a visible placard displaying the shops M-PESA number. I buy groceries with M-PESA, gas and even have paid my rent with M-PESA. Once, I even bought a $.50 bunch of bananas with M-PESA from an informal vendor on the side of the road.

In Nairobi, where it’s always possible to get robbed, M-PESA is great. I don’t have to carry around big wads of cash with me. Even if my phone gets ripped off, I can still access my money digitally.

Cash is a fiction. While it may seem like poor people benefit from using pieces of paper inscribed with pictures of the first president, cash is unwieldy and simply unsafe in many cases. Moreover, the crumpled and worn bank notes are easily lost and change not always available. Try using a 1000 (or even a 500) schilling note to buy bananas. You’ll be waiting a long time.

Nagasaki U./Gembe East Football Match 2014 (in Kenya)

DSC_0060I’ve been tasked with resurrecting and project that has been languishing in the world of neglect for years. As I was brainstorming some ideas to revitalize and reconnect with communities we work in, I invited the chief of one of them out for choma, to discuss some options. Somewhere in the conversation, the idea of sponsoring a football match came up.

Gembe East is a community of approximately 14,000 people just east of Mbita Point in Homa Bay County, Kenya. It is quite poor and filled with numerous challenges, but it’s a mostly pleasant place to be and the Chief of the area has been incredibly supportive of all of the Nagasaki and JICA activities.

We met a couple of times, had a few discussions as to what should happen and who should do what, set up a budget for the event and proceeded to pull everything together. It was a lot like putting on a rock show, but with considerably more politics.

Gembe East is divided into four sub-locations, each of which has a soccer team. It was decided that the four teams would play and the winner would receive a new set of uniforms, some money and a trophy.

In addition, we’d have a match between Nagasaki U. and some older folks from Gembe East, a band and a few speeches from “opinion leaders.”

For the two days before the match, we strapped a sound system to the top of a Land Cruiser and drove around the area making announcements. I love seeing trucks like this do political speeches. It was great to be in the car driving around in the bush on awful roads announcing a soccer match (over Luo music) to people tending their farms.

The day of the match came yesterday, things fell unsurprisingly behind schedule, there were a few planning problems and some usual chaos, but in the end everything kind of fell into place.

The first of rounds went smoothly, though one of the teams was late. At first, the spectators were just a few old ladies, but soon the place filled up. We probably had about 2,000 people over the course of the day.

The old man team from Gembe East turned out to be guys closer to their late 20’s (though there was one guy who must have been 60). I haven’t ever played soccer in my life. Unfortunately for the team, the ball came into my vicinity a couple of times.

A real highlight was the Omena Jazz Band, a four piece outfit who have been together since 1970 and whose members were all born before 1950.

I did some speeches on the meaning and nature of our research and presented some simple results to the community. It’s incredibly satisfying to present research results to the people who are actually being surveyed. We can’t do this research without these people. They have a right to know.

Overall, it turned out to be a great day. It was great to meet so many people from the area and have the chance to interact with them. There were some challenges, but there always are when putting on big events. I hope we can do it again in the future.

After all of the negative stuff that’s happened recently, this was a welcome change.

An injured field worker and unfair labor practices in research projects

Good day and bad day. Good news is that our field manager Paul invited all of us over for dinner at his home tonight. Katie (Masters student) is leaving on Sunday and he wanted to give her a good send off. His wife made us an excellent meal that I’m going to be sleeping off for the next week.

Earlier in the day, though, I was walking up to the office when I saw a couple of our staff outside looking troubled. I asked them what was up and they told me that Lucy, a survey worker who has done projects for me multiple times over the past few years, had just been assaulted by a local drunk while out working for me. He accused her of stealing his cell phone, she said that she didn’t know him at all and he punched her in the head.

People around grabbed him and were about to kill him when a police officer showed up and broke it all up. Apparently, the guy was bleeding profusely and was in terrible shape.

Lucy now suffers from a ruptured ear drum.

It’s doubly painful since she had stopped me early in the day to tell me that she needs to get a loan to help pay for her four kids’ school fees, which total $2800.00 per year. I can’t figure out where she gets the money. She only pulls a little more than half that working for me but the financial lives of people around here are far more complicated that one would normally assume. She’s a single mom.

Lucy works without a contract, only doing temporary work for whoever will hire her, and receives no benefits. Since she, and all of the other people who work around here, have no access to health insurance, I paid her medical bills since they would have taken nearly two weeks pay away from her. She was injured in a work capacity. There is no reason she should have to bear the financial impact of an event which would have not otherwise occurred.

Troubling, of course, is that this isn’t an uncommon occurrence. Lucy was lucky in that I know her quite well and happened to be around. Other people aren’t so fortunate.

Research projects have to start taking seriously the fact that they have human beings working for them. Labor practices by many research projects border on the deplorable, assuming that workers are disposable, uncomplaining and easily replaced. While the argument can be made that we are providing employment opportunities where none existed before, many of us seem uninterested in doing any sort of community development, or creating sustainable work opportunities for experienced and capable field workers.

If we don’t take care of our field workers, our projects can’t exist. Worse yet, it is unacceptable to stick to a double standard of providing generous benefits to nationals, while refusing similar benefits to the people on the ground who work day and night to collect our data for us.

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