Consider the Address: Systemic Challenges to Development

Posted on July 19, 2011

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Consider the address.

It’s an impossibly elegant innovation, when you think about it—the use of a few basic numbers in a simple sequential pattern used to lay bare the logic and secrets of a city. Even without the simplicity of a gridded city, the art of navigation becomes a hundredfold simpler a task when one is granted the ability to navigate using directional patterns of digits towards a general direction, closer and closer to the target obscured by a poorly planned urban past. There’s unimaginable utility in the address. I find I miss it dearly here.

Driving through Nairobi requires a near-Talmudic knowledge of the streets. A series of vague and malleable neighborhood borders and well known streets are used to approximate the location of specific buildings, each with their own names. Some this is logical: Mpaka Plaza is on Mpaka Road. But so is Mpaka House. And if one is not familiar with the Westlands neighborhood, it’s unlikely that one will know how to reach Mpaka Road in the first place, much less be able to puzzle out how far down or up the road one must go to find the CopyPro storefront.

Get into a Taxi on Mombasa Road, and you can expect a ten minute delay as the driver engages in a series of phone calls with friends and associates, stops passers by on the street, trying to negotiate some series of landmarks and memorable directions by which to stumble the way through knotty traffic, trick roads, and incomprehensible, obstructive roundabouts that will dump you out at something close to the right point.

Thank the powers that be that taxi prices are negotiated before the trip, not based on a meter fee. Although that in and of itself does create a few perverse incentives: overpricing the ride in anticipation of delays, while deincentivizing efficiency and knowledge and any interest group pushes for address systems.

And when you finally reach Mpaka House, you wish to send a package. But you realize there is almost no reliable return address except for a P.O. Box in the center of town, about an hour away, that does not accept packages. Coupled with the unreliability of the postal system (packages of assumed value are often stolen), and the lack of addresses, inefficient reception facilities, and encrypted streets make the shipment of goods for individual consumption haphazard at best, infeasible more often, more so the lower one falls on the social ladder.

Consider the debit card.

It’s a basic piece of banking technology, not nearly so complex as credit even. It’s just a simple lifeline into one’s account that allows for large transactions with minimal risk. And it also allows for the purchase of goods from a source that’s not immediately proximate to the consumer.

But there’s a critical mass that needs to be reached in a nation before debit can become a functional mode of transaction. You need enough businesses with enough wealth to invest in reading and processing machines, need a reliable electrical grid, need, at least a critical mass of businesses to run on a legitimate basis and not as semi-legal street vendors or family operations. And you need a critical mass of citizens to hold their savings in a bank.

To be sure, banks are trusted enough in Kenya to encourage savings and larger banks, like Barclays, issue debit cards that can be used at certain high class malls. But the utility of the debit card for most consumers in Kenya is not high compared to the utility of cash, nor is there much incentive at the moment to popularize and spread the debit system.

Consider the 56kbps modem.

It’s functional for basic operations, and to be honest it’s surprisingly cheap. Kenyan providers, tricksy private sector geniuses that they are, have established a system by which one can avoid a plan (which would require a host of things from the internet user) by simply purchasing a cheap modem and restocking it with money for usage, which is more effective for most than a plan and often more profitable than the same for the companies if plans don’t become widespread or the population more suited to a plan system.

But it’s slow. To give you perspective, you can’t really use Google Maps with any practical functionality on a 56kbps. And many sites, especially in the west, are built with a certain degree of expectation of a higher speed modem. Video footage, flash animations, even pages with a good deal of banner ads or running unwieldy and clever scripts for interactive content are just not functional for a mass of the limited internet user pool here.

Consider the information gap.

We like to think that the availability of the internet is a consumer’s (material and information) wet dream. Given the ease with which we access it, it’s basically a given that one should be able to overcome the limitations of, say, the book market (which I have discussed previously on this blog) in Kenya via online media and via markets like Amazon that allow any purchase. And it’s true that Amazon and other sites do a good job of shipping to the whole world—I’ve just send a package to Goa, India myself (although it will take some time)—at an affordable price. (Although to be fair, to set a comparison, the price of shipping a package to Kenya at regular speed, no matter the object, via Amazon is equivalent to the price of one weeks’ unlimited internet on a 3G modem).

But when it’s hard to navigate the city and unwise to trust the postal system, this limits one to the use of private sector receptors like the UPS station on Mpaka Road. When only the upper echelon of society has access to debit cards and modems that can run advanced Web 2.0 content effectively, it automatically limits the utility and empowerment that we presuppose in the internet. In other words, if the book is not sold in Kenya, the rich Indian or white resident may be able to afford and ship it, but the resident of Kibera will most likely never see it unless a street hawker manages to acquire one in some way lifted from a shipment to an upper class estate.

It’s a tale to make Evgeny Morizov proud: the internet, practical tool as an equalizer, undermined by the systemic challenges posed by a nation’s infrastructure, and twisted into a potential agent serving to widen the class gap. Or at the very least, the ideal provider of goods and information hobbled beyond belief to the chagrin of the nation as it watches the west’s standard of living zoom ahead (or even western diplomats import the west in bulk) via the internet.

Consider this story.

I cannot remember all of the context to this tale, but I recall I first heard it in a class in college a few years ago from a professor who worked on development politics. The story, I believe, takes place at a soccer ball manufacturer’s facility in Sialkot, Pakistan. The manufacturer was employing child labor in a serious and dangerous way. Conditions were grim for the children. And a group of western NGO advocates got it into their heads that they could change the entire region just by ending child labor in the area, freeing children to attend schools and preventing their exploitation by the rest of society. They had this theory about the ripple effect, the developmental trickle-down, of liberating these children and the slow creation of better wages, better educated citizens, better human rights standards, and better wealth and development for the masses of the area.

They succeeded in liberating the children from their labors. And promptly the children left to, for the most part, become child soldiers in a paramilitary organization. Failing to foresee all the complex interrelations and incentives, failing to understand the lack of government or communal welfare, failing to understand social values and major regional players in the government, community, and beyond, the NGO solved one problem only to create another equally sinister problem. As with job creation in America, it’s rarely the actual creation of jobs, but rather their artful shuffling to stopgap poverty and unemployment from state to state, year to year. So with NGOs, where development is rarely development, but the artful shuffling of woe to woe long enough to create illusory hope.

There are no silver bullets in development. We believe in world changing innovation—the naïve hope that the internet or some equivalent mind-bending invention or discovery can completely redraw a society. We believe because, in part, it is so difficult to focus beyond one zone of specialty. We believe because we have to believe in what we are promoting in order to have the passion and the power to push it forward. But often we believe at the expense of our awareness of the full system, the moving and complex organism that constitutes the society before us. We do not consider the elegance of the address or the debit card and the 56kbps modem when we talk about the power of the internet to change life for all.

The systemic challenges to Africa are so dire, the NGO workers so jaded and aware of the frailty of their own endeavors. But they are spurred on by the wealthy and well intentioned, the intelligent who believe in innovation for what they see at home. But the intelligent are in truth incredibly ignorant in these regards, incapable of seeing past their own brilliance and altruism to view the whole of the system they interact with.

I have no doubt that, given equivalent funding to the NGOs, a respectable technocrat with a few billion dollars in lump sum and a degree of autonomy could, using local experience and respect for the culture and the people, sort this whole systemic mess out. Of course, that would require the freedom of the technocrat from the miserable limitations of the press, the popular mind and pop academia/development ideologies, and from the horse jockeying of politics and from tribalism and a million other woes and complications.

But that’s asking for an abominable vacuum to open up and swallow all the other things that arise from and feed into human nature, civilization. It’s never going to happen. Nor is the prospect of funding such functionaries as sexy as it is to fund Bono—well intentioned but systemically ignorant man that he is. Forget the freedom, the proper projects for development cannot, in the current makeup of society, even get proper funding.

Find me someone—some one man or even a group—that can reach consensus and the level of awareness to visualize and understand all of the factors at play. To predict their interactions with each other and learn how to manipulate them, and to manipulate donors and aid agencies as well. Find me a man capable of curing not just the ills of one section of society, but of the NGO industry as well, and I’ll show you the savior of the earth. Mainly because I’d be showing you no less than Jesus Christ or some other divine figure gifted with omniscience and omnipotence.

It’s enough to make you understand why faith is so important here.

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