Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Solar Flashlight in Africa - A Good Idea Gone Wrong

OK, I love the idea of a solar powered flashlight that is transforming lives in Africa. Suddenly, at no cost, villagers, whose lives came to an end at night because there is no electrical light, can now read, travel, see their enemies, possible molesters and even scare away animals. In places where they can burn wood for light, he is doing away with pollution. A kindly oil man, Mark Bent, put up $250,000 of his own money to develop and produce these in China, and Exxon, among others is paying to give them out in Ethiopia, Angola and many other places you’ve never heard of.

Not only that, but if you buy one online you can pay extra and buy one for the gipper in Gambia or somewhere nearby, thereby getting light and spreading it.

This is good and someone gets to go for heaven for this. But in the long run it’s really, really bad. Here’s why.

The Talmud said it is not enough to give a man a fish, you have teach him how to fish. My Talmud - and you only have to go to the iBreakfast temple to get this - says that you really have to create a fishing economy. That way, they learn to fish, people learn to eat all kinds of seafood (not just kosher), others get to sell, distribute, store, prepare and maybe export the good stuff.

Sophisticated African leaders talk about this all the time as “sustainable development.” Instead of taking a World Bank loan, paying off a bunch of indunas and building a smelting plant that no one can really sustain while the country winds up saddled with debt, you develop things the locals can fully engage with and develop. The same seems to apply to education, many are educated for Western professions that barely exist out there.

So, back to the flashlight. With LEDs and free solar energy the product is pretty sustainable, so what’s wrong with this picture. The answer is there is not a solar economy. They should be making these flashlights in Africa, and they should be selling them not giving them away. Even if we get paid in chickens or chickpeas, why create another dependency? People always have something to give and both the buyer and the seller will be empowered by the transaction. I’ll buy an extra flashlight if the solar devices can be strung together, add-ons attached and a generation of entrepreneurs set in motion. Otherwise I’m perpetuating the unintended Faustian bargain of self-defeating charity.

BTW Africa’s a funny place. Bono means well but Africans don’t really get him because he can barely sing a note without millions of dollars of equipment behind him. Nor can he dance. Nelson Mandela can do both and does with aplomb whenever called upon to do so. Thabo Mbeki can do neither. Since you probably didn’t know that Thabo took over from Nelson, you’ll get my point.

Bottom line: unless the receivers of our largesse - those local villagers - are engaged, this is just the old paternalism dressed up in new technology. Good ideas must sing and dance with the villagers in order to sustain change. That’s why the microloaners are so much to be admired - they actually require the villagers to engage with each other in all kinds of community-sustaining ways.

Read the full article in the NY Times.

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