Development and the Cash Economy

I spent some time this summer in Uganda with a few different undergrads, many of whom were on their first trip to a developing country. One conversation that came up several times (admittedly, I kept bringing it up) was the difference between a Western conception of development versus what Ugandans might actually want. I’ve been thinking about these conversations, and others, because I’ll be teaching a course on development this fall, and I’m likely to have these conversations with some of my students over the remainder of the year. Pardon the disjointed narrative below as I plod through a few things that are still taking shape.

In 2010, when I was on my first trip to Uganda, a friend told me that sometimes the organization she worked for had trouble keeping staff employed because, once people made enough money for the time being, they would quit. While in the U.S. one may work hard to earn a raise, and continue working to earn more, several people in Uganda, it seemed, were working long enough to make a decent amount of money and then choosing to not work for as long as that money would last.

I don’t know if this is true, but it surprised me when I first heard it as a naïve twenty-year-old. But, true or not in this specific instance, these types of stories are commonplace in the developing (and development) world. The capitalist mindset and assumed motivation for accumulation and profit are far from universal, and yet are part of the baggage that many practitioners from the Global North carry with them, often without even realizing it.

But why work more when you’ve made enough to just spend time with family, or drink, or tell stories, or do literally anything but work? The literature in the anthropology of development (and anthropology of capitalism) is rife with these types of stories. Six years, many books, and two more trips to sub-Saharan Africa later, these types of stories are expected. Capitalist wage labor gets equated with slavery1 or tied to devil worship2, just to cite some examples. People don’t focus on wealth in money when they could strive for wealth in cows. They might not strive for individual independence, but rather seek “wealth in people”3. The forms of development we see often have waged employment as a goal, through vocational training, for example. Desire for employment is assumed. Some of the people I met this summer were working on internships or applied research projects that made similar assumptions – that wage laborers wanted to make as much money as possible, that people could be incentivized through bonuses.

I mention all of this not to point out that these students came to Uganda with their own set of assumptions (although that’s certainly true, just as it is with me and everyone else). After all, these assumptions are what make up the foundation of the IMF, the World Bank, and the entire global development regime. I point it out because all of these experiences – my own and those of countless others, from undergrads and newly minted development professionals to those of established scholars, practitioners, and critics – have yet to undermine capitalist development as it is experienced. Even when IMF economists say that neoliberalism isn’t all it’s cracked up to be [here’s a pdf of the report], it’s a half-hearted apology from an institution that is still 100% behind capitalism (see Chelwa and also Hengeveld). I mention this because the assumption of a capitalist desire to make profit is an enduring one, and one that informs virtually all of development, despite development being implemented in societies whose history of capitalism is much briefer than the U.S. or Western Europe, and despite capitalism being a system that is more likely to exacerbate inequality and poverty rather than reduce it.

* *

In Gulu town since the war shifted across the border, things have changed remarkably. Just in the three intervening years since my MA research and this summer, the town has changed a lot. Roads are paved, a new market has opened, the town has grown. This is, some would say, development.

I was walking with a friend a few weeks ago, and I mentioned to him that I enjoyed living in town. He made fun of me for liking town so much, and told me that he didn’t really like staying there. When I asked why, his answer was simple. “People here are trying to make money.” This was a young university graduate who had multiple jobs and was aspiring to gain a state salary, but he was adamant that life in town was hard (“kwo town tek,” if I remember correctly), and that life in town was marked by people being preoccupied with earning money. Life in the village, though, was simpler and more enjoyable. Several of my friends in town mentioned either yearning for or being in the process of cultivating land outside of town.

This all hearkened back, pretty much explicitly, to Adam Branch’s study of Gulu town during and after displacement [gated, here’s an earlier version as a pdf]. In it, Branch discusses how town changed as displaced people went back to the villages, the region’s poor and returnees ostracized by village life were funneled into town, and the cash economy came with urban development and the NGO influx. While many women and youth saw positive changes in town, many elders (those who were on top of the old system) were wary of these changes, arguing that they eroded Acholi society and values.

But beyond the social structures of life in Acholiland before, during, and after the war, there are also fundamental difficulties that come with a more urban, more capitalist way of life. Branch quotes one women as saying that “village life is better than town life. Life in town needs money at all times and every day which is not the case in the village. In the village you can just dig and eat well even if there is no money there” (p. 3158). Life in a cash system doesn’t come with a safety net.

Development has often focuses on the rural poor, trying to “modernize” people’s farming habits, provide education to those far from schools, etc. But many NGOs now work in cities as well, often with similar goals of bringing people into the economic system. And surely there are a number of entrepreneurial people who embrace this way of life and excel at opening up shops, building up successful businesses. But not everyone wants to make money. What will development offer them?


1. Graeber, David. 2007. Lost People: Magic and the Legacy of Slavery in Madagascar

2. Taussig, Michael T. 1980. The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America

3. Mier, Suzanne and Igor Kopytoff, eds. 1977. Slavery In Africa: Historical and Anthropological Perspectives, cited in some excellent recent books that look at why people seek to be dependent on others: Jim Ferguson’s (2015) Give a Man a Fish: Reflections on the New Politics of Distribution and China Schertz’s (2014) Having People, Having Heart: Charity, Sustainable Development, and Problems of Dependence in Central Uganda.

Branch, Adam. 2013. “Gulu in War… and Peace? Town as Camp in Northern Uganda.” Urban Studies, 50 (15), pp. 3152-3167.

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The High Costs of Microcredit

I’m in two seminars this semester – Anthropology of Development, and Capitalism and Neoliberalism – which often overlap in, as you can imagine, some pretty depressing and enraging ways. From the complicity of NGOs in reinforcing the social networks in Rwanda that were mobilized in the genocide to the ways that U.S. bases employ migrant workers in slave-like conditions [pdf], development and neoliberalism have their share of horror stories on their own, and it’s no surprise that the neoliberal mindset makes its way into the development apparatus.

In my class on development, one of the ethnographies we read was Aminur Rahman’s Women and Microcredit in Rural Bangladesh, which outlines how microcredit programs such as the Grameen Bank actually send their clients into cycles of ever-increasing debt as interest mounts. In typical microcredit schemes, peer pressure acts as collateral as peers in microcredit groups ensure debt repayment in order to continue qualifying for loans. Other forms of pressure, from women of higher status trying to form lending circles or from husbands who want access to capital, also force women into the system and into debt in the first place. Rahman outlines how a program seeking to empower women by providing them with loans actually uses patriarchal mechanisms to enroll them and then ensure debt repayment at all costs.

One of many aspects of neoliberalism has been how people increasingly view things in neoliberal, economic terms that had previously been outside of the market. My class touched on a variety of these issues, one of which was the growing black market for kidneys, where the world’s poor are turning to sell organs in exchange for meager amounts of money and poor health while the wealthy jump over everyone waiting on a donor list, and Nancy Scheper-Hughes’ work to try to document and stop it. As this trade continues, the poor who are scammed into selling a kidney (or who do so out of desperation) wind up with poor health, little money to show for their troubles, and sometimes the stigma of having sold a kidney.

These two specific topics came together in a recent episode of Vice. Featuring anthropologists Scott Carney and Monir Monirauzzaman, the second half of the episode focuses on the kidney trade in Bangladesh, where there are many towns or even families where numerous people have sold kidneys to get by (the first segment, on LBGT rights in Uganda, is also worth watching). The segment, titled “Kidneyville,” features interviews with some the residents of the town of Kalai who have sold kidneys out of desperation. And here’s the connection:

We weren’t surprised to find out that people regretted giving up their kidneys, but we were shocked to hear many say it was to pay off serious debts from microfinance loans which were given to them by local non-profit organizations.

“I took one loan,” one man says, “but that loan wasn’t fully repaid so I took another loan. I became deep in debt.” Another man describes how a non-profit literally took the roof from over his house since he was behind on payments. He then sold his kidney and then bought his roof back from the NGO. One woman describes how the NGO came after her when her husband killed himself because of his indebtedness.

Development programs that send people into debt in the name of helping them get out of poverty, instead committing them to debt cycles that lead them into another incredibly asymmetrical exchange. And selling a kidney still doesn’t get people out of debt to the microcredit groups, but it could cause health problems, making it harder for the poor to then find work and pay off what’s left of their debts.

Data, Research, and Economics

“Beware the analysis of economists” is pretty much always good advice. It’s advice that I’ve held close whenever I encounter scholarship, especially on the developing world, because I find the reliance on “data” and “numbers” to be somehow more reliable than people to be a farce. Data is, after all, recorded and analyzed and interpreted by people.

That’s why I was intrigued when I saw that Kim Yi Dionne and Laura Seay wrote a short review of Morten Jerven’s new book, Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong. Here’s an excerpt from their review:

Jerven argues that economists have fundamentally misunderstood the trajectory of economic growth in Africa because they mistakenly emphasized the poor patterns of growth in the 1970s and 1980s and ignored the incredible growth in African economies that took place in the 1950s and 1960s. While economists focused on “a chronic failure of growth,” Jerven notes that this phenomenon is “something that never actually happened.” Furthermore, many economists treated Africa as more-or-less a coherent whole, looking to explain differences between African states and those elsewhere in the world rather than comparing African states to one another, furthering the narrative that “Africa” wasn’t growing while ignoring relative growth among African states.

Out of the desire to explain non-growth (even though it was a faulty premise), economists started to focus on income gaps with other parts of the world, which led to studies of other factors that came along with low income. These findings led to neoliberal economic policies mandated by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund in the 1970s and 1980s, which had negative consequences for African economies and people’s livelihoods. In short, poorly done economic research led to devastating policies.

I’ll definitely be taking a look at Jerven’s book, for what looks like worthwhile analysis of how economics has treated the continent. This review also reminded me of my usual go-to-economics-critique, a brilliant book review from Mike McGovern that I first encountered a few years ago. While technically a book review of Paul Collier’s work, McGovern’s “An Anthropologist among the Mandarins” is a thorough look at a genre, or even a field, that includes points such as:

By insisting on the credo of “just the facts, ma’am,” the books introduce many of their key analytical moves on the sly, or via anecdote. What an anthropological approach to these same questions would insist on is the attempt to see the dynamics of bottom billion politics and economics through the actors’ points of view. This attempt has the positivist objective of fact checking both one’s facts and one’s categories of analysis, so as to be sure that there is some semblance of fit between the motives, incentives, and rationales attributed to actors and those they may actually be using. Collier expresses disdain for such attempts as a kind of misplaced humanism that is easily manipulated by greedy dictators in search of “useful idiots.” However, it is precisely the epistemological solipsism of his morality tale that exposes its greatest analytical weaknesses at the same time that it best explains why it appeals to a broad audience that has genuine interest in understanding suffering in poor countries even while it has little interest in having its sense of its own well-merited success questioned. This is one explanation of how he comes to the point of effectively arguing for an international regime that would chastise undemocratic leaders by inviting their armies to oust them—a proposal that overestimates the virtuousness of rich countries (and poor countries’ armies) while it ignores many other potential sources of political change.

And:

The other

is that the self-assuredness of economists such as Collier may be a part of the problem and not, as they suppose, a part of the solution. For an outsider, the strangest thing about the field of economics is the fact that although it appears to be wrong much of the time, rather than becoming chastened and introverted, most of its practitioners seem to become bolder, drawing strength from their failures as the mythological Antaeus did by touching the ground. Though Collier as iconoclast writes as if prior development policies have been mired in preconceived notions and misplaced sympathy, the advocates of those same policies also thought that they were acting on the basis of sound data that did away with the misrecognitions that had mystified their predecessors. Looked at over the fifty-year span since the publication of W. W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, development economics as a field looks far more like literary criticism than like those natural sciences it emulates… The difference between poets and economists, however, is that for poets, as for literary critics, there are rivalries and certainly individual claims to preeminence, but as a general rule, there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points.

Rachel Strohm deserves a hat-tip for finding an open access link to McGovern’s article, the lack of which is the main reason I hadn’t written about it here earlier. In her post, she highlights McGovern’s call to bring ethnography back into policy-writing, another useful argument in the piece.

As economics continues to train its eye on developing countries, it runs the risk of such myopia. And as political science does the same, it has also been taking an increasingly quantitative bent which can encounter the same risks. As Dionne and Seay state, the rise of large data-sets in Africanist political science could require Jerven’s warning that such data is not perfect, and can lead academics astray. This is where I say I’ll try to stick to qualitative research, and when I use numbers, I’ll remember that they’re not guaranteed to be any more right than people’s anecdotes.

The Next Chapter of TOMS Reads Like the Last One

So, this week TOMS made a huge announcement with a coordinated, nation-wide reveal: their expanding beyond shoes. The idea is to expand the One for One model to fit everyone’s needs – not everyone is in need of shoes, but some need eyeglasses, for instance. And, as one might guess, with TOMS revealing a new campaign I thought about revealing a new blog post about it.

The One for One model has spread around, despite TOMS having trademarked the phrase. There are many companies that match purchases through giving, but TOMS still feels like a rock in my Converse. While others have contacted partners in developing areas to work with, TOMS continues the shoe-drop model. As before, my main gripe about TOMS is the lack of sustainability involved in handing out shoes to tons of people who need them. It does nothing to buttress the economy or to help recipients improve their livelihoods – save adding shoes to their wardrobe.

If the next chapter for TOMS included opening manufacturing centers in developing countries and employing people to build and sell the shoes instead of handing them out, that’d be an improvement. Training local people to become business leaders allows them to rise up by their own bootstraps and it provides a new service to the community (if there is a gap in that sector, which there isn’t always). If you decide to add finance training, micro-loans, and other services you’d really be in business.

But the next chapter of TOMS included eyewear. The One for One model shifted slightly with this expansion. Instead of just glasses-for-glasses, it’s eyesight-for-eyesight. You buy a pair of shades and TOMS will either give out glasses, provide prescription medication, or perform eye surgery on those in need. Pretty sweet, right? Well, only kind of. I see some improvement in providing health services, but TOMS isn’t building anything sustainable here. They say that giving people sight will improve education, health, and economy but really, it’s only improving eye sight. The members of these communities will only be impacted in that they can see better and that they will depend more on the next development NGO to roll into town.

Back to that paragraph about sustainability: if you want to buy glasses that do something more than help you see better, try Warby Parker. It’s a company I only recently heard about, so I am not endorsing it, mostly because in some instances they give glasses at the conclusion of a free eye exam, which isn’t really sustainable. But their partner is. VisionSpring does more than provide the glasses – they also train low-income women to sell glasses to people in their communities for $4, even providing them with a eye-care-business-in-a-bag.

The co-founder of Warby Parker used to direct VisionSpring, where he first put together the idea that you can avoid aid dependence if A. the recipient makes the decision to get glasses, and doesn’t just have them given to him or her, and B. the recipient gains ownership over the glasses literally by paying for them. On top of all of that, they help train and employ women who are in need of income. Win, win!

Warby Parker partners with VisionSpring, which is an amazing group – so if you feel like making an impact with your glasses that seems like a better option. If you’re feeling good you can even donate directly to VisionSpring! And – as usual – if you’re going to try to make a difference in others’ lives, make sure it’s a positive difference.

For-Profit or Not-For-Profit?

So, there are two or three things in the Africa/philanthropy/activism field I’ve been meaning to rant about.  This is one, and at least another will follow sometime.   Since they are rants, I apologize for any rambling or over-impassioned writing. Now, onward to companies I refuse to support.

In the philanthropic world, there are a couple of things that are all the rage.  One, is Toms Shoes. A lesser one is Ethos Water, a sub-group from the giant Starbucks Foundation. I have grievances about these two companies.

Toms Shoes is a for-profit company that’s selling point is this: If you buy a pair of $40-90 shoes, we’ll donate a pair to a needy child in South America or Africa. One for one. It’s that simple, and it sells like hotcakes to hipsters wanting to help.

My beef with Toms Shoes has several dimensions to it. When I first  heard about Toms Shoes, it was because my friend Mike was explaining his grievances to an Invisible Children roadie. Since then, I’ve looked more and more into the company and have come to pretty much the same conclusions as Mike.

  • First of all, giving shoes to kids is just not sustainable. When that pair of shoes wears out, they’ll just be waiting for the next trip Blake Mycoskie makes with free shoes. It’s be much better if community development helped empower people with jobs and maybe they could buy their children shoes themselves.
  • But the company is giving away shoes! That’s so genuinely kind of them! NO.  Since it’s a for-profit company, they don’t release credible numbers. But we do know that they outsource production, meaning these $40-90 shoes probably cost a fistful of dollars. The positive press they get for giving cheap shoes away more than makes up for the loss.
  • Want to make this a better model? Make the shoes fair trade. Employ locally here so that American parents can buy their children shoes; or  even better, employ on-site, so that  the local residents get jobs and their children get shoes. Maybe give them some personal finance lessons so that now they’re kids can wear those donated shoes to school. There are so many roads to improvement, but they cost this altruistic for-profit too much money to consider.
  • Youngsters wanting to be a part of something truly good volunteer to work for Toms or to promote the company in places like college campuses. As my friend Mike put it, it’s like Nike having volunteers. A company uses its “good deed” which doesn’t really cost it anything and it gets free promotions and even some free labor out of it, so giving shoes away in Argentina actually saves them a lot of cash.
  • Also, the shoes look okay, but those boots are hella freaky.

Ethos Water is that bottle that you see in Starbucks stores that boasts, right on the bottle in blue letters, “helping children get clean water.” For every bottle sold, the company donates $0.05 to a water-related aid agency that is helping some of the billion people without clean water get clean water.

My gripe with Ethos Water is probably even greater than with Toms. It is also multi-faceted, and I was introduced to my problems when standing in a Starbucks one day waiting to meet a friend. I picked up the bottle, read the label, saw the price, and just about kicked somebody (maybe Peter Thum).

  • For starters, each bottle ranges from $2-4. For one bottle of purified water. I could buy a 24-pack of bottled water at Fry’s for about $3.50. The equivalent in Ethos would be about $100, of which $1.20 would go towards real change-makers. Or I could buy said carton of bottled water and donate $96 directly to programs.
  • With all this eco-friendly craziness going on, you’d think they would at least be good in that regard. Even though it’s made by Pepsi Co, who uses recycled plastic in all their bottles – Ethos Water doesn’t. They introduce new plastics into the world.
  • Starbucks bought Ethos Water for $8,000,000. To date, Ethos Water has donated $6,000,000. That’s just a fun fact.
  • Another fun fact: one could donate $100 to Charity Water and do some good. To get $100 to affiliated groups through Ethos Water, you’d have to buy 2000 bottles, or spend $4000-8000 dollars. And you would be creating all that  plastic waste in your wake.

Now, I don’t mind for-profits that send a little to a charity, like when Yoplait collects yogurt-tops for Breast Cancer awareness (my grievances with the Breast Cancer awareness cause [re: industry] aside) or others. These are companies choosing to send a portion  to a cause. I don’t support companies founded on pathos and espouse this cause and misuse the disadvantaged to get your cash. My favorite, of course, is the non-profit sector. These non-governmental organizations actually do work, and many are transparent about how their money is spent. Not all are ethical, many have too much overhead (but that’s a blogpost for another day) but they  at least have a mission statement and are  restricted by NGO requirements.  So, if you feel like giving shoes to kids or building a well in a rural village, do it in a better way please. Or just don’t tell me about it.

EDIT: All links should be fixed. Sorry, I’m forgetful about HTML rules.