Protecting the Somali Fishing Industry


Watch the Full Video Series on Securing Somali Fisheries

Waiting for scraps at Al-Faxti Fishing Company.

Berbera is a town filled with fish, and therefore, over-run with cats. Over dinner with Yusuf Abdilahi Gulled, the country director of FairFishing in Somaliland, stray felines purr around our table out on the patio. Eventually a bold one leaps into our plates to pick at the bones and spill the shigni, signifying the end of our meal.

“Tss! Tss!” Gulled swats at the beast with a small stick he came with to the restaurant. The animal lets out a corresponding hiss and retreats back into the shadows to lick its wounds.


The humble hangool.

“Have you ever seen one of these before?” Gulled asks as he waves the stick. It’s about two feet tall, carved with a hook on one end and two prongs on the other side.

“Yes,” I reply. “I see men walking around town with them, but they are too short to be walking canes. What are they?”

Gulled explains that in urban areas the stick, called a hangool, is more of a fashion statement. Elders carry them to gesticulate mostly, but they are a nod to the Somali’s nomadic traditions. However, the hangools are still being used to herd camels Gulled tells me. They are too small to subdue the massive animals on their own. Instead, the forked sticks are used to pull thorny branches called ood together in the desert to create make-shift corrals. Without the aid of this simple tool, pastoralists would seriously cut their hands on the thorns.

Camel Dairy

U Soo Godol Camel Dairy.

The sticks, along with entrepreneurs, form the backbone of Somaliland’s economy: the livestock industry. Culturally and economically, the camel is central to Somali livelihood. Gulled’s work signals a shift from this mindset. FairFishing’s mission is to contribute to the development of the fishery sector in Somaliland. That may sound conventional, given the Horn of Africa’s long, continuous stretch of coastline along the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean, but it is a revolutionary idea. As recent as a couple of years ago, most Somali’s considered eating fish to be taboo.

Shakila Sadik Hashim, an employee at Alla Amin Fishing with the morning catch.

Shakila Sadik Hashim, of Alla Amin Fishing, with the morning catch.

“Before we were saying that the man who eats fish, or works with the fish; we were calling him jaa’ji,” said Abdiwahid M. Hersi, former director of Ministry of Fisheries, Puntland. “We were not even going to marry his daughter.”

Since 2013, that has started to change. UN FAO has launched “Eat fish” campaigns to combat hunger and promote the nutritional benefits of seafood to the Somali people. A fledgling industry has begun to pop up in the coastal towns and the major cities, but the fishing sector is still challenged by the ungovernable waters that it casts its nets in.

“Starting in the early 1990s, frustration with illegal, under-reported, and unregulated (IUU) fishers became a justification for attacks on foreign vessels, setting the stage for piracy against the entire shipping industry in the Western Indian Ocean,” says Dr. Sarah Glaser, lead author of the report, Securing Somali Fisheries.



Piracy off the coast of Somalia not only affected global maritime trade, but further kept Somali fishers from making a livelihood. While pirates are still ransoming off hostages in Somalia, successful attacks in the Indian Ocean have declined dramatically. This is due to sustained coordination by the Somali government, the international community, private industry, and Somalis themselves.

Abdiweli Farah is owner of Hodan Fishing. The company is based in Eyl, a town depicted in the film Captain Phillips and once known as Somalia’s “pirate capital,” until community groups ousted the pirates. When I ask Farah about it when we visit his retail shop in Garowe, he is nonchalant.

Making nets at FairFishing.

Making nets at FairFishing.

“It was difficult for me to fish before,” he says. “Now piracy has declined to almost zero and now I can go fishing.

In Farah’s mind, the real pirates are the illegal fishers that continue to undermine the Somali domestic fishing industry, currently valued at $135 million.

“When the boats that no one can control like the ones from Yemen come in, you lose like $15,000,” he says. “You put specific nets and hooks on the ground and they come and take them. There is nothing that you can do except cough up a lot of money.”

Foreign vessels are responsible for 70% of the fish caught in Somalia’s waters.

Unloading fish caught in the Gulf of Aden.

Unloading fish caught in the Gulf of Aden.

Omar Osman of Zakia Fishing in Maid, Somaliland explains the disadvantage.

“They use GPS systems to find where those fish are located. They have special equipment like traps, nets, hooks and lines,” Osman explains. “Each fish type has special equipment. They have these tools and they have the knowledge. They come from a place where the government supports the fishing sector so they have the skills.”

Somalia is starting to fight back. Last year, in an attempt to combat IUU fishing, the Somali Federal Government laid claim to Somalia’s 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), in line with the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Anchoring a fishing boat in Berbera harbor.

Anchoring a fishing boat in Berbera harbor.

“But, despite all our progress in strengthening fisheries’ management domestically, we lack the ability to police our vast waters,” writes the President of Somalia, Hussein Sheikh Mohamud in Project Syndicate. “I call upon the international community to collaborate with my government to ensure that IUU fishing in Somali waters is stopped for good.”

The President is correct that his country needs global assistance to overcome IUU fishing. However, addressing the problem must start at home.

Moving fish into cold storage at Dur Dur Fishing.

Moving fish into cold storage at Dur Dur Fishing.

“If Somalis wish to sustainably develop their fisheries beyond current levels, foreign fishing (both legal and illegal) must be limited, licensed, recorded, and regulated as soon as possible,” says Dr. Glaser. “Careful licensing could result in millions of dollars in revenue each year that could be invested and distributed to benefit Somali people, especially fishers.”

This practice must be done quickly however. Last month, pirates captured two Iranian fishing vessels off the coast of Somalia, marking the first successful hijacking in these waters in the last three years.

Weighing in at Alla Amin Fishing.

Weighing in at Alla Amin Fishing.

“The level of illegal fishing is prompting these sort of attacks — and the potential for bringing piracy back,” says John Steed, an anti-piracy expert from the group Oceans Beyond Piracy.

The Somali fishing industry is key to the region’s future security and prosperity. To protect this emerging sector, Somalis need a maritime hangool like the one that has helped pastoralists thrive for so long ashore in their desert environment. Before the international community, who bear the brunt of responsibility of IUU fishing, can intervene, Somalis must start the regulation process themselves by licensing their fishing vessels. If this is not done immediately, the incentives that drive piracy will soon return.

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Solar Power in the Horn of Africa

Camels on the beach.

Pastoralists bring their camels to the beach in Berbera.

It’s late but Abdikarim, an investment broker, agrees to listen to one more pitch from an entrepreneur. The heat continues to linger over Berbera, Somaliland even though the sun has been down for hours.


“I started with nothing more than forty dollars in my pocket and I have become the owner of a successful fishing business,” the businessman tells Abdi as they sit outside at a café.

“Now, I want to try something different,” the man continues. “I am starting an ice cream business and I’m looking for investors to help me purchase panels. I will use solar power to run the refrigeration.”

During the hottest months, the population of Berbera, a coastal town, shrinks when its residents seek refuge from the heat by fleeing to Hargeisa, the slightly cooler capital city.

FairFishing is one of Berbera’s cold storages.

If there were more air conditioning or even a few strategically placed ice cream stands around town, Berbera would be a much different place. The challenge for entrepreneurs is affording the electricity to start businesses that could address Berbera’s heat wave. At $1 – $2 per kilowatt hour, electricity is prohibitively expensive to most Somalis.

Finding ways to lower that cost could change the way the city is able to do business. Fishing is a staple of Berbera’s economy, for example, but without widespread access to ice machines and refrigeration, much of the daily catch is lost before it can be transported to lucrative landlocked markets like those in neighboring Ethiopia. Fortunately, relief may not be too far away.

Berbera Hospital is the primary health center in the region.

Berbera Hospital is a signal of the coming change.  Solar panels crowd the facility’s rooftops, supply the hospital with energy during the day, and feed the electric company’s grid in the evening.  Before the panels, electricity was expensive and unreliable, now the hospital can keep the lights on during surgeries.

A women waits for her appointment in a hospital courtyard.

Until recently, affordable electricity was only achievable with large-scale infrastructure development to capture the economies of scale needed to bring down prices. In Somaliland, the energy sector is typically filled with independent power producers who buy diesel generators and set up small distribution grids. Relying on imported petroleum based fuel, traditional energy suppliers find it difficult to make a profit and stay sustainable.

Now, micro-grid and off-grid systems that draw on renewable sources, particularly solar, are changing the energy landscape. Internationally, the prices of photovoltaic solar panels and battery storage have plummeted in the last five years. Just as cellphones have found their way into the majority of Somali’s pockets, avoiding the tedious steps of building landline infrastructure, renewable energy seems poised to be Somaliland’s next leapfrog technology.

A portion of the hospital’s solar farm.

Berbera Hospital’s solar powered operating room.

A boy looks up at a solar installation in in Sahil region.

In Somaliland, solar panels have popped up across the country on top of public buildings like health centers and international agency compounds, but also on private homes. The new installations aren’t just limited to urban areas either. In Ber Village, in Togdheer region, solar panels sit next to farmers’ aqal Somali homes, fashioned from branches and woven mats.

Many of these new solar installations can be traced back to one company: Golis Energy. Successful business enterprises in Somaliland are usually run by diaspora. Golis, however, is homegrown.

Sayid Ali Abdi, founder of Golis Energy, with his solar panels on a rooftop in Hargeisa.

“I was born here, I grow here,” said Sayid Ali-Abdi, the company’s founder.  “I got the electrical training from FAO in 2000 and the renewable energy training from USAID in 2002,” said Sayid. “Most of the companies that produce products, we get training from them. Homer [Energy] is the best. We participate in every webinar they produce.”

Trainings that increase local technical capacity are key if Somalis wish to expand their renewable energy sector.

The Golis Energy team at their store in Hargeisa.

Checking the meters at Berbera Hospital.

Another is financing.  Even as the price of solar energy declines, the initial purchase of panels remains out of reach for the average household. Globally, countries have addressed this problem by offering government subsidies and creative financing mechanisms.  Yet, Somaliland faces financial challenges that not only make policy-based incentives difficult, but that also pose obstacles for attracting capital.

Somaliland has no central bank, and therefore has limited access to credit. Much of the capital that is infused into the region arrives in the form of remittances sent from the diaspora abroad. Lately these cash flows have been put in jeopardy as Western governments have cracked down on money-transfer companies that they worry may be funding terrorists.

Creating a surplus is key to Golis’s success.

Golis, however, has been fortunate to connect with private investment brokers outside of Somaliland. This funding allows Golis to procure a surplus of panels and batteries, giving the company the ability to respond quickly to consumer demand. In this way, the company has created a credit facility that allows its customers to pay for solar panels in installments.

Golis’s market now spans across Somaliland and into Djibouti, Ethiopia, Puntland, and South Central Somalia.  The company has entered into partnerships with the Somaliland government, electric companies, and international organizations like the United Nations. The company has expanded into other types of renewable energy as well. The turbines of a massive wind farm installed by Golis spin outside the Hargeisa airport.

“Many people are coming to us at the moment,” said Isahak Ahmed, operations manager of Golis. “This has increased our sales 43%.”

These days Faisa Ibrahim Said doesn’t worry as much about her electricity costs.

Said paid for her solar panels in installments.

Faisa Ibrahim Said, a homeowner in Hargeisa, purchased her Golis solar panels with four payments.

“What we have done so far is pay 50 percent from the general cost that we have estimated based on my need,” said Said, describing how she financed the panels for her home. “Then from there you can give other installments: 30%, 20%, and the final will be 10%.”

Now that she has solar panels, she is less concerned about affording the costs of her energy needs.

“When I was using electricity from the grid it was very expensive. This house, the cost at this time could be $150 (USD) a month,” said Said.  “Simultaneously, I use the TV, the Internet, the refrigerator and the lighting as well, including the security lights outside,” she said.

Somaliland will likely not have to wait for large-scale projects to renovate the city grids or extend into rural areas.  With the right technical training and access to financing, solutions to the energy deficit can come through the resilience and pioneering spirit of local entrepreneurs.

Download a PDF copy of this report.

(1.28 MB)

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In the Shadow of the Hot Sun: Aid Effectiveness & Informal Economies in the Digital Era

The shortcomings of foreign assistance, the potential of new technologies, and what the First World could learn from the Third.

The Price of Assistance

Even with the stopover in Switzerland, the ride from Dulles Intl. to Jomo Kenyatta was a long one. Somewhere over the Sahara I began to reflect on the project I was embarking upon.  As a health worker, I was sent by an international NGO to teach better hygiene practices to those living in Kibera, an informal settlement located in Nairobi, Kenya.  Last summer fuel prices were on the rise.  The $2,300 price of the plane ticket was shocking.  When I was told that the population I would be assisting lived off of a dollar a day I calculated that the same money the NGO spent on my travel could have sustained a Kibera resident for six years.  Yes, I  possess a few specialized skills.  Yes, my experiences and education have given me some understanding about the field of international development.  But how much of an impact would I truly make on the people I was so eager to help?  I started to evaluate my effectiveness.

Window shopper.

Kibera certainly has its share of problems, ranging from weak governance to crippling poverty, but it’s not completely destitute. One prominent feature of the slum is its bustling marketplace.  Even though the government does not recognize the settlement, residents are able to live and work in Kibera  by exchanging goods and services amongst each other and out of these transactions unofficial institutions are created. How does the informal economy drive indigenous innovation to keep its participants afloat?  How effective is it compared to foreign assistance?  The answers to these questions could help to define the murky underbelly of globalization.  In addition, emerging new technologies have the potential to flattened traditional hierarchies and provide new opportunities that accelerate economic development in impoverished regions around the world.

First World Interests

The emerging global social network.

Why offer foreign assistance to developing countries in the first place?  The economist Paul Collier notes that, “a cesspool of misery next to a world of growing prosperity is both terrible for those in the cesspool and dangerous for those who live next to it”  (Collier, 2007).  The United Nations Millennium declaration echoes this thought.  “Responsibility for managing worldwide economic and social development, as well as threats to international peace and security, must be shared among the nations of the world and should be exercised multilaterally” (UN, 2000).   The world is becoming more interconnected every day.  Constraints on food, water, and energy, quickly change from local to transnational issues (NIC, 2008).  As a response, governments and non-government organizations promote economic development and welfare programs in developing countries (OECD, 2008).

An old joke.

How effective they are is another matter all together.  Foreign assistance boils down to an etic intervention.  The efficiency of an outside party solving the societal problems of another population should be considered.  Domestic policies and institutions primarily shape development and aid plays a minor role at best (NSC, 2009).   Solutions can only be achieved by deep understanding of the challenge at the local level.  Often development workers encourage reform policy by working with host governments to build schools, distribute drugs, organize elections, train the military, and disperse loans.  Yet, critics of foreign assistance point out that this in not an effective approach to administering aid.  Instead of promoting growth, recipients who are handled with kid gloves are nurtured into a culture of dependency (Easterly, 2006; Moyo, 2009).

Policy intended to spring developing countries into the global markets of the industrialized world such as the structural adjustment programs of the International Monetary Fund has often created the opposite effect.  Recipient countries like Jamaica have become vulnerable due to interventions, multinational organizations have exploited their weak economic environment, and the average citizen is worse off (Black, 2001).  International markets are a reality, but quickly introducing fledgling economies to the same markets used by industrialized nations creates a shock to local industry instead of tempering it.  Injecting foreign investment into a country does not necessarily mean that funds will trickle down to the bottom of the pyramid.  Before the Arab Spring, Egypt was seen as a favorable trading partner with Europe and the United States even though newly available goods and services were prohibitively expensive to anyone but the wealthiest Egyptian.  As a result, Egypt was home to a booming black market (Nelson, 2010).  The situation proved to be unstable and the civil unrest that came as a result toppled President Mubarak’s government.

Local leaders are often blamed for nepotism and corruption.  Literature on Africa points to tribal cleavages that create the traditional patrimonial brand of feudalism that exists today.  Foreign assistance pours in funds for democratic reforms and elections are held, but the same corrupt leaders continue to remain in power for years to come (Hyden, 1999).  More efforts are made on the part of the donors to remedy the situation, but little changes.  It’s not that the plans are not brilliant, but who is approached in the partnership.  So often development interventions are political agreements between elites.  Donors broker deals with existing government officials and the beneficiaries are not the underclass majority, but the patronage system that leaders must rely on to stay in power (Nye, 2011).

US oil exported to the developing world.

That’s just the foreign assistance that ends up overseas.  Much of the funding stays within the donor’s economy. When Palestine won a seat in UNESCO in November, there was an outcry from the international community because the United States froze $200 million in foreign assistance to the Palestinian Authority.  However, most of that money was earmarked to stay in Washington to compensate US contractors and fulfill oversight requirements (Levy, 2011).  A bureaucratic machine must be satisfied domestically before any project can be implemented overseas.  If foreign assistance was seen purely from a business point of view, the costs far outweigh the benefits.  How can the fidelity of such development interventions go on for years?  Assistance is not motivated entirely by the empathy of altruistic donors, but strategic security and economic interests (Nye, 2011).

Some critics of foreign assistance like Dambisa Moyo call for a complete pull out of aid (Moyo, 2009).  This is an extreme suggestion because war and epidemics transcend borders and are rightfully a global concern.  In addition, we are all inextricably linked to a global market.  Isolation and protectionism will not create development as we have seen from the import-barring commodity markets of the past (Collier, 2008).  Yet, theorists like Moyo have a point.  Native innovation will provide far more sustainable solutions than self-serving foreign interventions.  How can we empower the impoverished to rise above their current conditions?

The heart of the informal sector: Cairo bazaar Pre-Arab Spring.

Innovation Under the Hot Sun

One area of great potential is the informal economy.  There seems to be an inverse relationship between governance and the black market.  As governments grow weak, often through corruption, they are unable to provide basic social services to their citizens.  As conditions worsen, the disenchanted population chooses to exit the system and create their own unregulated sectors that run parallel with the formal economy.  The informal sector satisfies community needs that the government can or will not (Gerxhani, 2004; Schneider, 2005).  It is difficult to precisely measure the size of the informal economy, but SIDA estimates that in 2000, informal employment in Africa, Latin America, and Asia was 78%, 57%, and 45-85% respectively.

The average share of the informal enterprise sector in non-agricultural official GDP varies from a low of 27% in Northern Africa to a high of 41% in Sub-Saharan Africa. The fact that such a large number of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa have such estimates reflects recognition of the importance of the informal sector in total GDP. The contribution of the informal sector to GDP is 29% for Latin America and 41% for Asia.

(Becker, 2004)

Undereducated and marginalized groups such as women and children perform most of the duties in the informal economy, but have little control over its management (Becker, 2004).  The result is a system that allows workers to sustain themselves at subsistence level, but little room to develop larger scale markets that create profit.

Shining a path towards property rights.

The potential of the informal economy’s cheap and prolific workforce has attracted economists and development workers alike who wish to harness its power.  The most well known is Hernando de Soto, whose Institute of Democracy and Liberty, is credited for reforming his native Peru.  By identifying parties that operate within the country’s informal agricultural sector, Soto’s organization partnered with the local government to issue land title documents to farmers.  Once land claims were formally acknowledged by the government taxes could be collected. By formalizing land use and taxing it, more Peruvians began to participate in governance, demanding accountability, and the country became more democratic.  Soto believes that by legitimizing the informal economy other social problems plaguing Peru, like the Shining Path guerrilla movement disappeared (Soto & Orsini, 1991).  One of the main reasons that the implementation worked so well in Peru was because it was the brainchild of a Peruvian and was endorsed by the local government.  De Soto refers to other countries including El Salvador, China, Russia, Thailand, and South Africa that have benefited from his model, but not all who that have adopted the plan have enjoyed the same success (Andelman & Voigt, 2011).

Bucolic splendor.

One obvious shortcoming to the Soto method is that one must be attached to land to be eligible for a title that the government can tax.  This may work to get the ball rolling in rural Peru, but to say that most of those living in poverty are land owners is not reflective of the global demographic (Andelman & Voigt, 2011). Populations move to the city from the countryside in search of better economic opportunities.  When they arrive they possess little material assets, let alone land ownership.    Reforming land rights certainly can have an impact on the rural informal economy, but how does the bottom billion survive in the cities?   Soto doesn’t account for urbanization other than to say that increased land rights will discourage migration over the long term (Andelman & Voigt, 2011).

Treasure chests.

Enter the Jua Kali.  The term is Kiswahili for Hot Sun and it explains the conditions that the majority of Nairobi’s micro-manufacturing workforce must endure to make a living.  When faced with little resources at their disposal, the Jua Kali will collect the bricolage of any scrap material available and construct it into every day commodities ranging from household items to car parts to refurbished electronics.  Kenya’s light manufacturing industry was formed organically in the slums when individuals took the knowledge learned by the Indian mercantile class and decided to strike out on their own (Daniels, 2011).  The results are clusters of manufacturers who make do with what they have and invent what they don’t.

Click to read for a tweet "Making Do" by Steve Daniels.

Groups are formed along tribal and family lines and tend to strengthen productivity rather than inhibit it compared to patrimonialism in politics.  Familiar relationships create a vast horizontal network that is more egalitarian than top down hierarchies.   The collectives start when an individual becomes good at putting out a product and makes enough money to hire an assistant who eventually decides to start their own independent enterprise.  Unfortunately, lack of intellectual property rights means that the apprentice will set up a shop next door to the master and offer the same exact goods and services. However this allows each party to share ideas and responsibilities with the one another (Daniels, 2011).  It also creates fierce competition and a kind of Social Darwinism that makes the Jua Kali industry an example of free market capitalism in its truest form.  Innovation flourishes amongst the Jua Kali, but it is centered on the means of production rather than the finished product.  If a tool is unavailable, a worker will gather what resources are available and invent a contraption to get the job done.  However, because of lack of credit and patent protection, risks are too high to create diversity amongst the products themselves (Daniels, 2011).

Foreign assistance in the form of business and vocational training would be useful in this area. Many of the Jua Kali report improved productivity when they receive access to education and microfinance (Daniels, 2011).  Yet, other forms of development charity have been harmful.  Donations of used clothing to the developing have wiped out emerging garment industries in Kenya and Tanzania (Kenny, 2011; McCormick, Kinyanjui & Ongile, 1997).

Searching for greener pastures.

The Jua Kali successfully service the informal economy, but is there potential to reach larger, formal markets?  Simple products are traded back and forth between the two and some artisans are able to penetrate the international marketplace with traditional crafts.  However, because the nature of the Jua Kali is fragile past levels of subsistence, it has a difficult time expanding.  Foreign and government interventions have attempted to strengthen the sector by encouraging unions and coops, but this has backfired. Formalizing and politicizing the Jua Kali has only made it prone to corruption that is neutralized by the chaotic wheeling and dealing of its original form (Daniels, 2011).

Keep sucking.

The Jua Kali way of life is an example of organic innovation based on appropriate technologies.  Westerners organize sustainable development design fairs and museum exhibits that showcase inventions that boast the ability to accelerate economic growth.  They claim that, “if well-established stakeholders mutually benefit from cross-sector collaboration over a long period, then the other 90 percent will actually reap the benefits from products designed with them in mind” (Ju, 2011).  While, some ideas have merit, many of the devices are unfeasible beyond academic exercises.  True sustainable development must come from indigenous solutions at a grassroots level.  The genius of the Jau Kali is that their work is built in direct response to the local environment.  Likewise, proponents of globalization often discount the information that flows South to North, but they could learn a lot from those deemed eligible for foreign assistance.

The jua kali provide important lessons for Western economics that compel us to revise our notion of efficiency. Economic and environmental efficiency can be gained from resource constraints, rather than boundless choice, and from linkages among small, independent enterprises, rather than from vertical integration. Indeed, instating these notions of efficiency will be necessary to foster a more sustainable and equitable form of development around the globe.

(Daniels, 2011).

Gold Farming Cyberpunks

By incorporating the Jua Kali philosophy into Western economic theory, paths between formal and informal economies could be easier to access.  Mutual growth and legitimacy should be promoted.  Whether the West chooses to participate or not, developing world entrepreneurship will still leak through.  The horizontal hierarchy of the informal economy is very similar to the decentralized architecture of the Internet (Saveri, Rheingold & Vian, 2005).  It may be difficult for informal economy actors to successfully export their material goods to the formal markets of the developed world, but there is increasing access to the fast growing knowledge economy.

"Can you hear me now?"

A few years ago, the developing world was isolated from industrialized nations, but the ubiquity of mobile telecommunications has changed all that (Radelet, 2011).  Remote communities can talk and text to anyone on the planet and the Internet is creating further connectivity.  The barriers of entry are still high, but it’s becoming progressively easier to access and benefit from this evolving virtual space.

Will Bitcoin one day dwarf the Gold Standard?

It may be that as the world becomes more connected, an unregulated formal economy will only grow instead of contract.  The prevalence of pirated DVDs, music, and software applications on the Internet is a testament to that.   However, online economies can incorporate both developed and emerging economies simultaneously.  Over 400,000 Asian workers and prisoners collect virtual gold in video games and exchange it with 10 million consumers for real currency in a trade worth over 700 million pounds a year (Davis, 2009).  Online games like World of Warcraft award players virtual gold for successfully completing tasks.  The gold is redeemed for armor and weapons that allow the players to progress faster through each level.  Asian players collect gold, but instead of powering up, sell it to Western players for real cash.   The industry is certainly exploitative.  Asian gold farmers work in sweatshop conditions, but the practice illustrates how emerging economies are able to participate in the new frontiers of the digital economy.

Lil' Bow Wow.

As the digital age evolves, residents of the developing world may use Jua Kali methods to extract money from the pockets of their colonial masters.  One example is the Sakawa Boys of Ghana.  When Western computer owners decide to recycle their old computers, they wind up in dumps in places like Accra.  Locals go through the rubbish to salvage anything of value.  Bits and pieces of hard drives and CPUs are reassembled into new computers and they often contain information about their old owners.  In a scheme that the Ghanaians learned from neighboring Nigeria, unemployed youth laboriously rebuild the machines and phish the World Wide Web pretending to be women in search of love.  Using the old data found on the hard drive, they exchange e-mails, photos, and even phone calls with gullible lonely hearts in the developed world until cash changes hands (Vice Media, 2011).

Masks reveal as they conceal.

What makes Sakawa unique from all the other Internet scams is that the conmen appeal to a local witchdoctor for success in a job comparable to finding a needle in a haystack.  Whether or not the charms of juju actually work is beside the point.  By incorporating indigenous ritual into the Internet scam, Sakawa has become something distinctly Ghanian.  Sakawa is a term that has extended beyond animistic Internet fraud and is now used to describe any aspect of Ghanian economic mobility.  It’s spawned spin-offs in the legal, local music and film industries that have led to an explosion of cultural and economic growth.  Sakawa songs and movies are favored over American imports and even government officials are reported to be involved in the ritual.  By developing its Jua Kali sector and tapping into the black market, Ghana has gotten its mojo back.  Yes, the practice is illegal, but national identity has been revived and the country is profiting from the 21st century global, digital era (Vice Media, 2011).

No juju required.

Digital Emergence

Naturally, the informal economy’s initial forays into the Internet will not last.   The Chinese government cannot tax the virtual gold trade and has made the exchange for cash illegal (Davis, 2009).  In Ghana, government leaders are compelled to suppress Sakawa after foreign investors have pulled out of the country and formal, international e-commerce is now seen as too risky (Vice Media, 2011).  That’s not to say that either of the practices have stopped, only that the schism between formal and informal sectors widens.  However, the knowledge economy of the Internet is still in its infantile stages and this makes it a perfect place for international actors to address poverty alleviation.  The Jua Kali are proving to be Internet savvy and if legitimate economic opportunities are presented online, the poor can interact with the rest of the world in mutually beneficial peer-to-peer trade.  Money earned over the Internet can flow directly into local communities, without the sluggish bureaucracy and disingenuous politics of foreign assistance middlemen.  Those who make their fortunes off the World Wide Web can buy the property rights in their communities, as Soto suggests, needed to influence governance and build stronger social institutions.  The challenge remains to legitimize the online informal economy so that government can tax and regulate income.  Foreign assistance is needed at the global level to petition actors like the World Trade Organization to reform e-commerce so that it benefits everyone from the top to the bottom.  It is in the interest of the industrialized world to include the developing countries.  This is not a zero-sum game.  An increased labor force can boost productivity globally in a virtual environment nondependent on limited natural resources. Yet if the poor are discounted, schemes like Sakawa will only become more sophisticated and threatening than just spam in the inbox.


I’d like to thank Rene Botta, Janet Ballantyne, and Frank Young for helping me to conceptualize my ideas about international development and assistance.

My conversations with Tim Edwards, Fred Oelsner, and Mark Sevier continuously provide insight into life in the field.

But most importantly I’m in gratitude to my countless friends who live and work in the informal sector including Bonface Mutukaa, John Ssentongo, and Robert Muwonge (seen below shortly past 2:41) who always gave me a good deal on water from the borehole.


Andelman, D., & Voigt, J. (2011). This land is your land: A conversation with hernando de soto. World Policy Journal, Retrieved from

Becker, K. Swedish International Development Agency, Department for Infrastructure and Economic Co-Operation. (2004). Fact finding study: The informal economy

Black, S. (Producer) (2001). Life and debt [DVD]. Available from

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Blending In: VS Naipaul’s Masks and Those Who Wear Them

One should never judge a book by its cover, but I chose to read V.S. Naipaul’s A Bend in the River because I liked the photograph on the front of the man wearing a mask.  I’ve always been interested in masks.  Over the years I’ve collected quite a few and my favorites are the ones that I’ve bargained for on the street.  The best one I have is an ancient looking piece carved out of the side of a tree trunk and painted with thick red and black stripes.  I bought it from a man in Gisenyi, Rwanda.  After a crude exchange of French I got the mask (and three hand rolled cigars thrown in) for $5.  He pointed across the lake towards Bukavu, DRC and told me that it came from a spot of bush on the horizon.  In A Bend in the River, masks symbolize the post-colonial tension between foreigners and Africans.  Who controls the path of the continent?  Is it determined by Africans acting under the mask of Europeanism?  Or is it the Europeans who continue to lead under a mask of Africanism?  What is the true face of African development?  Characters like Father Huismans, Raymond, Ferdinand, and Salim add insight to these questions.

Father Huismans is an early character in the novel who, at first glance, is at ease with traditional African society.  Even though he is a priest and an outsider he reveres the masks he collects.  To him, Africa is a world of discovery.  The feeling does not originate in Father Huisman alone, but a sentiment that goes all the way back to the beginnings of Western civilization.  Its value lies in the fidelity of exploration.

…An ancient Roman writer had written that out of Africa there was “always something new” —semper aliquid novi.  And when it came to masks and carvings, the words were still literally true.  Every carving, every mask served a specific religious purpose, and could only be made once…  He looked in masks and carvings for a religious quality; without that quality the things were dead and without beauty.” (Page 61)

At first the narrator, Salim is puzzled that the priest is not loyal to his Christian beliefs.  Why would anyone take the costumes of the village witch doctors so seriously?  While Father Huismans is deeply involved with the masks, he is disinterested with the political strife of the Africans around him.  He believes that this discord will pass as Africa becomes developed.  His school provides a Western  education that will create an enlightened consciousness in the African people.  They will soon evolve out their primitive, animistic ways.  The masks are important to the priest because they encapsulate a moment of time when the villagers of the bush came into contact with the superior Western civilization.

The masks and carvings looked old.  They could have been any age, a hundred years old, a thousand years old.  But they were dated; Father Huismans had dated them.  They were all quit new… So old, so new.  And out of his stupendous idea of his civilization, his stupendous idea of the future, Father Huismans saw himself at the end of it all, the last, lucky witness. (Page 65)

The cataloging is purely for the benefit of the foreigners.  Ferdinand, one of Father Huismans’s African students puts it best when he says, “It is a thing of Europeans, a museum.  Here it is going against the god of Africans.  We have masks in our houses and we know what they are there for.  We don’t have to go to Huismans’s museum” (Page 83).

The Africans themselves can sense the selfishness behind Father Huismans’s interest in the masks.  When war comes to the town, Huismans’s headless body is found drifting down the river.  The priest’s masks remain in the school’s basement, but detached from their native environment they begin to lose their meaning and rot.  When the town regains its peace, foreigners start to visit again.  They discover Huismans’s collection and continue his ethnographic interpretation of the cultural objects.

We began to receive visitors from a dozen countries, teachers, students, helpers in this and that, people who behaved like discoverers of Africa, were happy with everything they found, and looked down quite a bit on foreigners like ourselves who had been living there.  The collection began to be pillaged.  Who more African than the young American who appeared among us, who more ready to put on African clothes and dance African dances? (Page 84)

Foreigners believe that their interpretations of Africa offer more insight into the continent than the Africans themselves.  Just as Father Huismans archived his mask collection, the foreign Africanists start recording African history to give it a grand narrative that fits cohesively within the context of Western civilization.  Raymond, a school teacher from the capital, is a historian who becomes an advisor to the new president.    “…Raymond keeps a low profile, but he runs the whole show here… He’s the Big Man’s white man… They say the President reads everything he writes… Raymond knows more about the country than anyone one on earth” (Page 125).

Even though foreigners like Raymond appoint themselves as authors of the African story they are sympathetic to the plight of the continent’s people.  Raymond completely empathizes with the hopelessness that the young Big Man has experienced his entire life.

“… It wasn’t just a matter of poverty and the lack of opportunity.  It went much deeper.  And, indeed, to try to look at the world from his point of view was to get a headache yourself.  He couldn’t face the world in which his mother, a poor woman of Africa, had endured such humiliation.  Nothing could undo that.  Nothing could give him a better world.” (Page 132)

The Big Man’s pain is understood better by Raymond than the Big Man himself.  Raymond identifies the problem as one of self-esteem.  If Africans were perpetually playing catch up to Western civilization they would never be on the same footing as their European counterparts.  “…Those clubs and associations are talking shops, debating societies, where Africans posture for Europeans and hope to pass as evolved.  They will eat up your passion and destroy your gifts…” (Page 133).

Raymond denounces the foreigner’s superiority in Africa even as he, a European, whispers guidance into the Big Man’s ear.  He promotes the ideal of African autonomy and seems to recognize the futility of his role as an outsider. “…It takes an African to rule Africa– the colonial powers never truly understood that.  However much the rest of us study Africa, however deep our sympathy, we will remain outsiders” (Page 135).

Yet, Raymond continues to carry on advising the president on what is best for Africa.  It is as if  the European hides behind the mask of the Big Man to take up the White Man’s Burden.  He may look African, but his words still have a colonial accent to them that legitimizes the role that foreigners play in the country.   As Salim observes, “He made us all men and women of Africa; and since we were not Africans the claim gave us a special feeling for ourselves…” (Page 137)

The Big Man is more than a mask or a puppet of the Europeans.  He is a genuine African leader, but when Raymond urges him to represent the Western ideal of Africa it creates an identity crisis.  Simultaneously a slave and a master, the Big Man becomes a paradox.

“…He is a great African chief, and he is also the man of the people.  He is the modernizer and he is also the African who has rediscovered his African soul.  He’s conservative, revolutionary, everything.  He’s going back to the old ways, and he’s also the man who’s going ahead, the man who’s going to make the country a world power by the year 2000.  I don’t know whether he’s done it accidentally or because someone’s been telling him what to do.  But the mish-mash works because he keeps on changing, unlike the other guys.  He is the soldier who decided to become an old-fashioned chief, and he’s the chief whose mother was a hotel maid.  That makes him everything, and he plays up everything…” (Page 138)

In the end, the very anti-colonial sentiments that Raymond romanticizes also destroy him.  The Big Man’s cult of personality grows into it’s own cartoonish entity and he casts Raymond out of the capital.  The European historian literally grows impotent and detached in the bush.  Eventually Raymond disappears, but the essence of his faulty plan to Africanize modern Africa, symbolized in the novel by his house, remains.   “One afternoon I saw that Raymond and Yvette’s house had a new tenant, an African… The doors and windows of the house were wide open now, and that emphasized the shoddiness of the construction” (Page 259).

The Africans can successfully dispose of foreigners like Father Huismans and Raymond, but they cannot purge themselves of their ideas.  The colonial education that Africans, like Ferdinand, have received will continue to exploit them as a people.

“… Nothing has any meaning.  That is why everyone is so frantic… Everything that was given to me was given to me to destroy me.  I began to think I wanted to be a child again, to forget books and everything connected with books.  The bush runs itself.  But there is no place to go to.  I’ve been on tour in the villages.  It’s a nightmare.  All these airfields the man has built, the foreign companies have built– nowhere is safe now.”

His face had been like a mask at the beginning.  Now he was showing his frenzy.

I said, “What are you going to do?”

“I don’t know.  I will do what I have to do.”

 That had always been his way. (Page 272-273)

A Bend in the River depicts the stain of foreign occupation on Africa, but it does not blanketly condemn the role of all outsiders.  Salim arrives in the town without imperial aspirations.  He comes not to educate, but to trade.  His business imports essential commodities from the coast and abroad that create economic development within the community.  The interaction between the Indian and the Africans is mutually beneficial.  It is useless for Ferdinand to reminisce about a time when Africa was a harmonious virgin forest isolated from foreign powers.  That is only myth.  Outsiders have been meddling with the continent since Roman times.  However, contact with other cultures can be beneficial under certain circumstances.  Salim’s general store introduces modernization to the town at a rate that allows its residents to adapt.  Unlike the other foreigners, Salim chooses to make his life in the town.  This investment allows for sustainable trade with global markets.  When civil unrest turns all foreigners into scapegoats Salim must leave.  This cuts off connection to the outside world and the town’s isolation spells out its doom.

Many foreign assistance organizations aspire to achieve results like Salim but fail.  Ambitious poverty alleviation schemes appear to be altruistic, but mask a bureaucracy of policy makers and field workers who profit from development at a safe distance.  They address the problems of the developing world from behind the tinted glass of their Land Cruisers and the guarded gates of their compounds.  Salim’s approach will not feed thousands of starving people, eradicate AIDS, or build an uncorrupt democracy.  It’s more humble than that.  It works at a scale that empowers Africans little by little, but gives them the means to make their own choices.  For Salim’s business to survive he must know the needs of his customers.  Salim may be an outsider, but he understands the African people better than any expert and, therefore, does not need to wear a mask.


Volcanic Post Script

Below is a slideshow from a trip I took up Nyiragongo, an active volcano, outside Goma, DRC in 2010.
Click on the green balloon on the lower left-hand corner of the slideshow to toggle the captions on and off.
Slideshow Photos by Chris Baxter, May 1, 2010

Vodpod videos no longer available.

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Developing Dictators: The Problem with Foreign Aid in Uganda

Searching for Sustainability

Uganda, an East African country about the size of Oregon, has often been referred to as the poster child of Sub-Saharan development, but lately this title has been questioned. In the 1980s, its charismatic president, Yoweri Museveni, led the country out of civil war and created reforms that reduced poverty and disease. However, the leader has been in power for over 25 years and his rule has become increasingly authoritarian. Over the last decade, Uganda’s government has run off of a patronage scheme funded by foreign aid, but rising corruption has made donors withdraw. Museveni now looks for revenue in the early stages of a local oil industry and in partnering with the United States military in the war against terror. This may bring economic prosperity and security to the country, but how the Ugandan people will benefit must be critically examined. For quality of life in Uganda to improve, the current aid flows must be frankly assessed and a grassroots approach must be implemented.

A Success Story

At face value, Uganda is a success story of how, with the help of foreign assistance, a country can rise from the shambles of conflict and disease to develop into a modern state. Thirty years of brutal dictatorship and civil war followed after Uganda’s independence from Great Britain in 1961. On its heels came an HIV/AIDS epidemic and twenty more years of guerilla attacks by the Lord’s Resistance Army. However, Uganda’s charismatic president Yoweri Museveni has done much to achieve stability in the tiny East African country. After leading his National Resistance Army and Movement to victory against Milton Obote in 1986, Museveni called for an end to tribalism and for the promotion of democracy (Mwenda, 2007). He embraced the structural adjustment programs of the World Bank and the IMF and quickly became the darling of the international community who guided him towards holding regular multi-party elections (IMF & IDA, 2010; Joseph, 1999). Museveni’s aggressive campaign against HIV/AIDS led to a 10% drop in the infection rate (AVERT, 2011). In 2009, his soldiers chased Joseph Kony’s LRA out of Uganda and refugees have begun to return to their homes in the North. An estimated 2.5 billion barrels of oil have been discovered in western Uganda that could further infuse revenue into the economy (Moro, 2011). The numbers certainly indicate that there has been progress. Uganda’s poverty rate dropped from 56% in 1993 to 25% in 2010, surpassing the Mlllenium Development Goal of halving poverty by 2015. It has also moved forward in reducing food insecurity, providing universal primary education, and gender parity (World Bank, 2011).

Uganda's homegrown Rambo.

Donor Dependency and Inflationary Patronage

Museveni said recently that he is tired of relying on foreign aid and is ready for the nation to become independent (Barken, 2011). Yet, all of the country’s achievements are connected to two factors: Presidential Museveni and Uganda’s donor dependency. What looks like progress and stability to the outside is rotten with corruption from within. Museveni has embodied the personal autocratic character of the dictatorial “Big Man.” He believes that he is Uganda’s savior and the country’s stability is his responsibility. His style of rule has left no room for opponents, and the opposition parties are weak and unorganized (Mwenda, 2007). Although Uganda holds regular elections, they are neither free nor fair. Museveni has changed the constitution to extend presidential term limits and won all four times. The president diverted foreign aid to buy patronage and votes.

Opposition leaders and disenchanted citizens are bullied by Museveni’s tight control of the police and the Ugandan People’s Defense Force (Barken, 2011; Tangri & Mwenda, 2010).
All aid flows through Museveni or his appointees and, as a result, essential social services ranging from public education to provision of ARVs have not been delivered to large portions of the population (Mwenda, 2007; McNeil, 2009). The international community has taken notice and pulled back on its funding over the last few years. This has put Museveni in a tough position. The longer he stays in power the more money he has to spend on his patronage. As the budget grows, Uganda’s reserves shrink, and the country has come under strain (Barken, 2011). In addition, inflation has spiked to 30% over recent months after Uganda was advised by the IMF to not restrict food product exports (IMF, 2011). The results have been higher fuel prices, food insecurity, and civil unrest (Kron, 2011).

Thicker than blood.

Striking Oil and Securing the Region

In 2006, 46% of Uganda’s budget came from official development assistance according to the OECD. While Uganda is still the sixth largest recipient of foreign aid in Africa, receiving $1,786m in 2009, aid is currently 26% of the national budget. The drop came after eleven major donors pulled out due to grand corruption (Nyanzi, 2011). Now Museveni must rely on alternative sources of income to uphold the system. His party, the National Resistance Movement, hopes that one solution will come from newly discovered oil. Petroleum is expected to be exported in 2016, but even at these early stages, the natural resource is believed be more of a curse to the country than a blessing. The dealings, conducted between the UK’s Tullow oil, Heritage Oil, Dominion Petroleum, and Museveni’s family, have been marked by their secrecy (Mbabazi, 2010). In October, 2011, Parliament voted in an emergency session to halt the signing of an agreement with the oil companies, citing lack of transparency and accusing Museveni of accepting millions of dollars in bribes (Kron, 2011).

"How'd y'all like to learn some stress positions?"

Museveni has increasingly isolated himself from both essential donors and his own constituents even as inflation skyrockets. However, Uganda has found some relief in partnering with AFRICOM and the United States backed African Union to fight the war against terror. The $200 million in annual military assistance Uganda has received from the US is not merely a handout. Uganda has sent 8,000 peacekeepers to Somalia and and 10,000 security officers to Iraq. “It is thought by some observers that interrogation centers operate within Uganda exercising the Bush Administration’s tactic of extreme rendition,” says a report by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Uganda’s participation has also invited terrorist attacks against the country. During the 2010 World Cup, Al Shabab bombed, Kampala, the capital, killing 79 people (Barken, 2011).

Bad graphic art gets the presidential seal of approval. A strange case of function following form.

Invisible Children and the Hunt for Joseph Kony

A week after Parliament voted against oil exploration, 100 American military advisors were sent to Uganda to hunt down the Lord’s Resistance Army, a guerrilla group that has not attacked the country since 2005. According to the American Embassy in Kampala, the current deployment of US soldiers will not engage in combat, but instead train local troops and build capacity as part of a long-term strategy (Kron, 2011). While their presence is welcomed by Museveni, much of the appeal for military assistance was generated by the American NGO community. Two human rights organizations, Invisible Children and Resolve, lobbied Congress to end the war in Northern Uganda. Invisible Children, in particular, mobilized 230,000 American youth to rally three times. The charity raised over 4.5 million dollars and used the money to persuade President Obama and Congress to pass The LRA Disarmament and Recovery Act of Northern Uganda. The act calls for the arrest of the LRA’s leader, Joseph Kony and his top commanders (Invisible Children, 2011; Considine Considine, 2011).

Wagging the dog, empowering the youth, and giving no more than half the credit to the locals.

Invisible Children started in 2003 when three American teenagers traveled to Uganda to make a documentary about LRA child soldiers. The group has made several more films on the subject, often staging reenactments with former child soldiers, to build advocacy and document donor-reconstruction projects in Northern Uganda. The NGO’s slick marketing campaign has canvased the Internet and volunteers screen the movies at college campuses. Afterwards, the audience is urged to give donations or purchase a dazzling array of Invisible Children merchandise (Invisible Children, 2011). William Easterly’s Aid Watch blog has ridiculed Invisible Children’s brand of American youth who save disenfranchised Africans (Freschi, 2009). However, the charity’s efforts made the Recovery Act the most widely supported African issue legislation in modern American history (Invisible Children, 2011).

Bad memories.

Kony is an easy man to hate. The LRA’s roots go back to the ethnic cleavages of the 1980s civil war. After northeners Milton Obote, a Langi, and Tito Okello, an Acholi, were defeated by Museveni, an Ankole from the west, northern Uganda became marginalized. Factions formed in rebellion (Berhand, 1997). One of these groups, the Lord’s Resistance Army, an Acholi militia supposedly based on the Ten Commandments, routinely raped and pillaged the North; cutting off the lips and noses of villagers as examples of their strength; and most famously abducting children to serve as child soldiers (Chivers, 2010).

A host of international NGOs set up camp in Gulu to provide conflict resolution and humanitarian support for the 1,700,000 internally displaced and families of the 166,000 killed or abducted (Resolve, 2011). Museveni engaged with force and diplomacy, but could never catch the elusive Kony (Pan African News Agency). In 2008’s Operation Lightning Thunder Ugandan, Sudanese, and Congolese forces were backed by the US and struck an LRA stronghold in Garamba National Forest, DRC. The attack eliminated most of the leadership and severely crippled the guerillas. Kony escaped into the Central African Republic where a skeleton crew of insurgents still operates, but since then the LRA has not been a major threat to Uganda (Barken, 2011).

Border security beyond the homeland.

Assisting Regional Stability and Local Instability

Why send American soldiers to Uganda to fight a weak guerilla holed up 1,000 km away in the CAR? The US explicitly states that the mission, has nothing to do with interests in oil or battling Islamic insurgents, but strictly to catch Kony (Kron, 2011). Regardless of the motivation, American presence is strategic for upholding security in the region. If civil war breaks out in the new state of South Sudan an influx of refugees would be devastating to the fledgeling rebuilding process in Uganda where ethnic violence could spread (Barken, 2011). While a stronger UPDF could stabilize Uganda’s northern border, it may create instability on the other side. Uganda has historically been an important gold exporter in the Great Lakes sub-region even though it has no gold resources of its own. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, the UPDF entered Eastern DRC to illegally extract minerals. The army’s actions contributed to the fragility of North Kivu provence and was characterized by extreme levels of gender based violence (Ayogu, 2011; Barken, 2011).

The UPDF carpools to Walk to Work Day.

More US military assistance to Uganda could create further instability within the country. Museveni still has tight control of the army that brought him to power. After losing the elections earlier this year, Kizza Besigye, Museveni’s biggest opponent during the elections, organized a “walk to work day” in April to protest rising fuel prices. Museveni responded with force. The military and police were sent to block Besigye from walking, but their presence incited month long riots across the country. Five protesters and two infants were killed from live ammunition, 150 were injured, and 350 were arrested. Besigye himself was wrestled out of his car by police, subdued with pepper spray, and thrown into the back of a pick-up truck. Members of his staff were severely beaten (Kron, 2011). Every election since 2001, Besigye has been harassed and incarcerated on trumped up charges (Tangri & Mwenda, 2010). This year’s military crackdown during post-election protests was not an isolated incident. Museveni clashed with the Bugandan king, the Kabaka, in 2009 (Barken, 2011). The state’s appetite for regular violence has also brought forth allegations of torture and extra-judicial killings. In March, Human Rights Watch released a report that the Rapid Response Unit, a branch of the Ugandan police and an ally of US counterterrorism, tortured sixty Ugandans and killed six (Human Rights Watch, 2011). As Museveni’s economic patronage dwindles and the US heightens military assistance to secure the region, overall democracy, a key to Ugandan stability, weakens.

Special Forces take a cue from the Love Parade.

The need for a more participatory democracy is widely recognized and even promoted through foreign aid (, 2011), yet a change in leadership is not likely until 2016, the year of the next presidential election, when Museveni will be 73 years old. Oil will be ready at that date and those vying for power over the resource may knock the dictator from his thrown. Having lived by the sword and in possession of a formidable military, the president will probably not step down peacefully. Muhoozi Kainerugaba, Museveni’s son and head of Uganda’s Special Forces, may take office (Barken, 2011), but any fresh leadership will not come easily. Young Ugandans can’t remember a time without Museveni and older ones are tired of conflict.

What’s Next?

For decades the future of Uganda has been determined by President Museveni and donors from overseas. Recently, the country has been influenced by Western petroleum and security interests. What’s missing from Uganda’s development vision are contributions from the Ugandan people themselves. Museveni dictates politics, foreign banks and NGOs provide social services, oil men negotiate the value of the country’s resources, and the American military defines security priorities. There is a lot of talk about how to create sustainability in Uganda, but not a lot of consideration for homegrown ideas if they don’t come straight from the Big Man at the top.

Still digging for sustainability.

Jeffrey Sachs and others may call for increasing foreign aid (Sachs, 2005), but funds intended for poverty alleviation create government corruption at the highest levels. Other economists such as Paul Collier, correctly identify traps that hinder development within conflict, natural resources, landlocked geography, and bad governance (Collier, 2008). Although in Uganda’s case, Collier’s prescriptions of military intervention, foreign aid, laws and charters, and improved trade policy have been exploited by the leadership and outsiders. Still, foreign aid is necessary to keep Uganda afloat and the $10.1m that the US Government spent on military assistance to Uganda in 2010 is only a fraction in comparison to the $355.6m that it gave for health initiatives the same year. In addition, over $90m was given to promote economic development, democracy, education, humanitarian assistance and the environment (, 2011). Yet, when 61% of HIV positive Ugandans don’t have access to essential AIDS drugs (AVERT, 2011); 50% of children are sent to private schools because public institutions don’t function (Barken, 2011); and the military regularly clashes with citizens, aid effectiveness must be questioned.

Progress at the grassroots.

While the leadership becomes increasingly occupied with oil, agriculture is one area of growth that can empower the average Ugandan. Seventy five percent of the population are employed in the farming sector (Feed the Future, 2010) and, aside from an outbreak of hoof and mouth disease in the east, domestic food production is relatively secure (USAID, 2011). USAID programs like Feed the Future invested $50m in 2010 to promote economic productivity, better nutrition, and gender equality in Uganda (Feed the Future, 2010). Even though it does not promise the wealth of oil, improved agriculture can create a surplus that lifts farmers out of subsistence and gives them a taxable income. If the government could capture more revenue, it may rely on foreign aid less, and perhaps be more accountable to its taxpayers (Barken, 2011).

Mobilizing the Resistance.

The Path of the Grasshopper

Of course any real development solutions can’t come from this paper. They must be generated from Ugandans. Any large-scale aid scheme given to a corrupt government strapped for cash will instantly be eaten. Funds for agriculture are no exception. William Easterly says that true change must come from searchers, not planners (Easterly, 2006). Sustainable growth in Uganda will never come from proposals of the international community. Ugandans understand the challenges their country faces best and have strongest incentives to overcome them. What really plagues Ugandans is not war, disease, or corruption, but lack of esteem. Neither the president or the international institutions value the opinion of the Ugandan people enough to hand over control. This dynamic may be changing. During the recent protests, Ugandans started looking towards the Arab Spring for inspiration (Mamamdi, 2011). The increased prevalence of mobile phones and social media have given Ugandans a new platform to peacefully congregate off the street and away from the heavy hand of government. Perhaps, solutions to the country’s current predicament will start here.

When life sends you locusts, fry them up with a pinch of salt.

The nsenene is a local grasshopper that is a pest to commercial crops. Recently, entrepreneurs have illegally tapped into power lines along the highways of southern Uganda to plug in bright lights that attract the insects. The grasshoppers are trapped in barrels, fried in oil, and sold at the local market at a premium. The snack becomes more popular every year and nsenene are beginning to be exported to neighboring countries. If international aid organizations decided to eradicate the insects, they would have probably used pesticides. Corruption within the utility company UMEME, makes electricity prohibitively expensive, but at the same time, illegal tapping is harder to enforce (Gatsiounis, 2011). Harvesting nsenene is an example of informal, local ingenuity that has put money into the pockets of Ugandans where foreign assistance and formal governance fails. It is grassroots innovation like this that may ultimately be the path to Ugandan development.


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Of Crime and Camels


A few days ago, in the late afternoon, two men stopped a taxi driver at a junction in Soweto East, Kibera. They were thieves running from a crime and needed a getaway ride to Kirangari. The driver refused so the men asked him to just take them to Ndugu stage, a much closer destination, instead. He agreed, but by then the thieves had changed their mind. The taxi driver was shot in the head.

Need a ride?

As you can see from the video, I often pass through Soweto East on my way to work. I haven’t seen the story covered in any of the local papers, but I know the junction where the murder took place very well. It’s just a short distance from the school where we’ve been fixing water tanks and the church where we’ve been giving hygiene trainings. From word of mouth, I’ve learned that the crime scene happened at the point where the tarmac on the road turns to dirt. Cars often get stuck there trying to get over an exposed drainage pipe. The incident is typical of the stories of violence I’ve heard about Kibera. Journalist and residents alike weave this element into their narratives of drugs, rape, and filth that make up this slum tragedy.

Nothing tastes better than pineapples sold out of a wheelbarrow.

Your giveaways fuel the global black market.

Yet, this is not my first or even second impression of Kibera. What I see when I walk through the narrow passageways of Kibera are streets bustling with industy. Market stalls are stocked with every imaginable good, from produce to electronics; wheelbarrows are weighed down with anything from bags of cement to three dozen pineapples; the wash is hung out on lines that span the street; metalworkers weld door frames; bags of feed are hauled to small-scale chicken farms; and nyama choma sizzles upon charcoal stoves along the roadside. Kibera is one giant informal market. Everyone is trying to make a buck and the scale of entrepreneurship here is staggering. Before they end up crushing Sub-Saharan Africa with their policies, the Washington Consensus might benefit from learning a few lessons about the free market from a place where it is a fact of life.

The pony had the day off.

It’s clear that poverty has crippled Kibera, but it doesn’t exactly induce the pity-inducing cry for help that NGOs, church missions, and charity groups would have you believe. Yes it has some devastating problems, but some semblance of normal life takes place here. Last week I was at a friend’s house tucked away in a back alley listening to Kenny Rodgers when the screams of children cut through the music. We rushed out to the corner to see what all the commotion was about. A mob of kids cheered as a man led a camel through the street. Three small riders perched on the beast’s hump bobbed up and down. I immediately got excited. I looked over to my friend and admitted to him that the sight was amazing. He shot back a blasé look.

“C’mon now, really? This type of thing happens every week.”

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There’s a Hole in the Bucket

A safe water storage container as interpreted by Bonface, a local artist in Kibera.

I’m sitting in a ramshackle compound in Silanga village, one of the deepest and most neglected areas of Kibera slum, with an impossible task. As one of the Water and Sanitation health workers on this project I’m supposed to be training the locals on how to make safe storage containers for drinking water. Back in the United States our WATSAN team often spoke of employing this simple technology. In the field it would be a core strategy in getting our target population to drink clean water. I’ve got a bucket and a little metal valve, but no way to attach the two. In a place like Kibera resources are hard to come by and tools are no exception.

After asking around for a while, Hellen, one of the residents that we’re working with, disappears and comes back with a hammer and one nail. It’s not the ideal situation, but I decide to make do with what we’ve got. At least I can make a hole in the bucket. I start hammering, but am unable to drive the nail through the plastic. I’m about to give up when one of our partners from a local NGO bursts through the door, fresh from his office in town.

Nobody here but us chickens. A bare compound.

“What are you doing?” He exclaims. “You’re not going to get the nail into that thing without stabilizing it first.”

My partner grabs a large rock from the ground and puts it into the bottom of the bucket. He gives the nail a whack and down it goes. His satisfied grin immediately fades when I show him the valve that needs to fit in the pin-sized hole.

“So what you do now, eh, is make that nail hot, hot,” he explains. “Then you move it around in the hole to melt the plastic.”

I ask Hellen for a candle and this makes my partner scowl.

“No! You need to heat it up on a stove. The nail is going to be really hot so you better get some pliers to hold it.”

Children wondering what the muzungu is doing in there.

Hellen doesn’t have a stove, nor does she have a pair of pliers. I ask my partner what to do and he gestures with his hand to call around. Then he disappears out the door to meet with some community elders and presumably work his way back to the office.

I call the only person I know in Silanga, my security guide who accompanies me into the slum. As usual he doesn’t pick up his phone. I sit on the bucket defeated.

Hellen comes around and asks me why I’m not working on the water container. I tell her that I’ll organize better and we’ll do it tomorrow. She shakes her head.

“Give me the bucket,” she says.

I sigh and stand up. She grabs the bucket and punches at it a few times with a big dull knife that has been laying around the compound. As a crude hole takes shape she takes the metal valve and forces it into place. Then, with a flip of the wrist she splashes the contents of a basin into her new safe water container.

Herein lies a parable.

Hellen demonstrating safe storage containers to professional community health extension workers.

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