Thursday, August 7, 2008

Who is responsible for "development?"

Big city living.

I haven’t been in Kalomo for the better part of the last couple months. I’ve been working from the head office in Zambia’s capital, Lusaka, on a variety of higher level activities – a mid-term assessment of the project, year planning, and a market research study.

While the hustle and bustle of the big city makes Lusaka one of my least favorite places in Zambia, I must admit that it does have a lot to offer. Lusaka is a (relatively) thriving metropolis that offers many luxuries that are simply not found in Kalomo – a wider variety of consumer products, fantastic restaurants, even a movie theater (where I was able to join in on the global frenzy that is Dark Knight!)

And it just so happened that my time in Lusaka coincided with what might very well be one of the city’s biggest events – the annual agriculture and commercial show.

The event is kind of like Zambia’s version of the Calgary Stampede (without as much debauchery…well, maybe a little). It’s a time when the government, the private sector, and civil society all come together to show off and share their work with each other and the general public. It’s a fun event, full of excitement and optimism.

A promising picture of development?

The theme of this year’s show was “Growth in Diversity”. Organizations from all across the development board proudly displayed the fruits of their labour – plenty of positive, feel good stories. It all sounded so great, if this were one’s first experience in Zambia, they would surely think, “Hey, this country is on the move!”

Perhaps that’s true. But I couldn’t help but feel uneasy about the disconnect between the positive stories and the realties I’ve seen on the ground, away from Lusaka, out in the villages surrounding Kalomo. Here are a few examples:

This fertilized and treadle pump irrigated garden looks like a dream compared to the tiny bucket fed plots the farmers in the village painstakingly tend to. With the price of fertilizer sky high and a chronic lack of water in the Southern Province, is this a realistic picture of development?

Since the lack of robust, locally suitable seed varieties is a major challenge for small scale farmers in Zambia, this stand boasting several sorghum seed varieties looked promising. But how many of these varieties will actually leave the research station and reach the farmers that need them?

There are lots of important messages in this poster…but would they make sense to a villager? To what kind of villager? My supervisor put it well when he said, “Not all villagers are farmers, and not all poor people can be business people.”

The realities in the field are so far removed from the spectacle of the trade show, the relatively wealthy urban centre of Lusaka, and even the 3rd floor of an NGO’s head office. Why the disconnect? Is there value in telling the feel-good story?

The proof is in the people.

So I’m not trying to be cynical. There is value in telling the feel-good stories. There is value in marketing positive pictures. What makes this acceptable, to me at least, are the amazing people behind the stories who are actually trying to make things happen.

I met a number of exceedingly competent and capable Zambians at the show, people who are genuinely excited about seeing and making “Growth in Diversity” happen. Of all the conversations I had, it was a chance meeting with one extraordinary woman that put a perma-smile on my somewhat skeptical face.

Nina and I went out of our way to check out Sylva Food Solutions because we had heard that, in addition to providing food services, they were working with small scale farmers to preserve traditional vegetables and other forest products using solar driers. I knew nothing more than this and entered the stand with curiosity.

I was impressed by the quality and variety of the dried products they were purveying. Wanting to learn more about the company, I picked up a pamphlet only to learn that this was no ordinary business venture. Sylva Food Solutions was started by a most entrepreneurial woman, one Mrs. Sylvia Banda. The extraordinary growth and success of her business had attracted the attention and recognition of the African Business Awards, which put her in the top 6 of all African business women!

“This is pretty cool,” I thought to myself as I looked up from the pamphlet to see none other than Mrs. Banda herself walking into the room. I had to talk to this lady! So I sidled up to her and stuck out my hand, “Mrs. Banda, if you have a moment, I’d love to hear your story.” Though she was likely one of the busiest people at the show, she took a great deal of time with Nina and me to explain her rise from humble beginnings.

The one of 7 daughters of a large village family, Mrs. Banda’s enterprising nature was evident from a very young age. At primary school, she sold fritters to her classmates. At secondary school she tailored outfits for girls attending school dances. At college, she cooked and sold traditional meals from her dorm. “I believe in my hands,” she told us. I believe in her hands too.

An unabashedly shrewd business woman, Mrs. Banda is a shining example of what entrepreneurialism really means, the different forms “development” can take, and the positive impact one individual can have (even if only driven by self-interest).

Down and out or on the up and up?

The development world is full of a lot of doom and gloom, cynicism and gravitas. Years and years of trying have led to very little movement forward. Zambia sits at number 165 (out of 177) on the Human Development Index, which puts it among the 22 least developed countries in the world, all of which can found in Africa.

What will it take to move forward? Who is responsible for it?

There are on-going debates that pit the merits of the public sector versus the private, the collective action of civil society versus the onus of the individual. The current development wave puts the burden on poor people themselves who, once “empowered”, will not only work their own way out of poverty but will build the nation while they’re at it.

I feel the debates skirt the crux of the matter…I’m of the belief that it will require the effort of good people doing good work everywhere in the system:

NGOs who will improve access to technologies, like treadle pumps, to those who both need and want them;

Governments who create pro-poor seed policies so that village farmers can demand and buy the seed they need; and,

Entrepreneurs, like Mrs. Banda, who not only make their own way in the world, but provide products and create jobs for many more.

One thing’s for sure, this ain’t gonna to be easy:

If there is a formula [for development], it is ten per cent foreign inspiration and 90 per cent domestic perspiration. – Michael Edwards, “Future Positive”

Needless to say, I left the show feeling much more energized than when I entered. I’d like to attribute my new found energy to those people whose perspiration I commend. But there’s an outside chance it was just a sugar rush!

Lots of love,

T :)

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