Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Meddlesome West, Aid Politics, and Democracy

The Meddlesome West
The West has a bad PR image in Africa.  It is meddlesome in African politics, most recently exhibited by NATO’s involvement in Libya.  Never mind the tyranny of Gaddafi, the real enemy is the unilateral West with its neo-imperialist military agenda.  This image has been powerfully reinforced in the first decade of the 21st Century, with the Bush regime’s involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Anything the West does militarily in Africa is characterized as intrusive.

Aid Politics
The other side of the West’s face is the smile of the Aid Politics.  The vast array of government and NGO aid agencies represent the benign niceness of the West.  The best SUVs in the country are owned by them, and roam the country’s dusty and occasionally well-paved roads, also a product of aid agencies; it is impossible to miss their involvement with their ubiquitous flags.  The evening news consists of so-and-so country initiating an agricultural or medical project.  The fair-skinned dignitaries sit on the front row, half confused by the language barrier, half bored.

It is easy to say NO to the Meddlesome West but incredibly hard to say likewise to Aid Politics.  Although the same entities occupy the top of the two bureaucratic ladders, the two seem to be at opposite ends.  The Meddlesome West never comes with gifts, only bombs.  Aid Politics, on the other hand, is completely different.  It consists of ceremonies, hotel dinners, luxury black sedans, ambassadors, Presidents, handshakes, wives donning expensive clothes, discussion on the best weekend getaways, PR plans, and just a whole lot of jolliness.  How can you say no to that?

The practice of aid is vast enough to make the following obvious: some are good, some are not.  The nature of Aid Politics, however, makes them all good in the eyes of local bureaucrats.  Yet, when these aid agencies do their work, they set the political priorities, and worse, are not accountable to failure.  Recipients let them be, and on occasion, ironically, blast the Meddlesome West.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Stop the ICT (Incredibly Counterproductive Trend)

One of the words that I hear often here is ICT (information and computer technologies), a fancy word for computers.  It is an active turf in the development field, installing and teaching various computer stuff in public bureaucracies.  Benefits exist, no doubt, but now ICT as an incredibly counterproductive trend is entering secondary schools in Tanzania.

Last weekend, three headmasters of Mtwara secondary schools and a colleague went to a conference on ICT.  They were shown the magic and miracles of Microsoft PowerPoint, and were instructed to use this in their classrooms.  A true scientific revolution in the education sector, my headmaster would acclaim.  The schools shall receive five computers, three projectors, and a technician to be shared with three other schools.  Not bad.

Then I look around the school.  There is not a single classroom with its ceiling fully covered.  Teacher quality is low because incentives are low.  The lab is just a large room.  I have to teach 80 students per period because two of my classes were combined in order to accommodate extra space required for national examinations.  Students do not have books because while education may be public service, textbooks are private goods.  In the list of priorities of what must be done to improve public education (80% of my students are failing, when the bar is set low at 21/100), ICT should be on page 4.

One may contend that I am opining a false priority, meaning that several measures do not necessarily need to be lined up in terms of pressing concern, with the second task only implemented when the first is accomplished.  But in this government system where tax revenue is so low and little political will to improve education quality, I wish the ICT money were spent differently.

Reading the news on aid donors in Tanzania, ICT is thrown around like the cure-all pill.  Transfer of technologies is touted by development agencies, because on paper, computers can do no harm.  Unfortunately, these agencies, as the real public policy decision makers of this country, are setting an incredibly counterproductive priority. 

NO-PC, a British NGO that donates computers in Tanzania, shows some of the perils of ICT.  NO-PC has donated five computers to Sabasaba a couple of years ago.  These computers are Linux based, so that costs are low, and came with no instructor.  I had some trouble navigating the unfamiliar OS, but more importantly, I had no interest.  I came to teach math, and I felt no desire to put my energies into a project that I had no association whatsoever.  In fact, the pressure from the administrators to do something about these “gifts” was a personal burden.  Last year on one Friday, a young Israeli volunteer from NO-PC, eating half an orange on her hand (it was the season), came to the staff room to tell the teachers that she will be instructing teachers the very next day.  The teachers replied okay, because Tanzanians have a very welcoming culture, but in reality, it collided with an important seminar most teachers had to attend.  Few went to the training, and I have not seen the volunteer since.  She must have been disappointed.  Although, more importantly to note, even if the teachers went to the session, they would not have learned enough to become computer instructors.  Now, the computers are absolute bust.  I keep on urging the school’s secretary to change her crappy dysfunctional CRT monitor with the LCD that came belong to the NO-PC computers.  At least one LCD monitor will be used properly.  NO-PC, please, no more PC.