By Lauren Bishop
Tanzania looks an awful lot like a democracy. The East African nation has been holding multi-party elections since 1995, which international observers have deemed free and competitive. In Tanzania, votes are not miscounted, opposition parties compete actively, and the ruling party—the Chama Cha Mapinduzi (CCM), which has controlled the government since independence—seems to play by the rules.
But according to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, NYU politics professor and DRI affiliated faculty member, Tanzania is in fact sliding down a slippery slope to autocracy, even as it maintains the trappings of a “transitioning” democracy. A working paper with Alastair Smith describes how Tanzania’s completely legal and institutionalized electoral laws are placing power in the hands of a small and increasingly entrenched elite.
This is NOT the Nobel Symposium panel with Jeff Sachs and others, for which the video isn’t available yet. It IS a 3-minute clip of a talk Bill gave at the Swedish think tank Timbro while he was in Stockholm.
By Lauren Bishop
There has been a lot written about the TOMS Shoes buy-one-give-one (BOGO) model and its shortcomings, but what about other companies that boast BOGO? Take Warby-Parker, for example, the purveyor of hip eyeglasses that advertises “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” at the top of their website. Must we now criticize Warby-Parker for their poor aid practices, too?
Despite their tagline, what the company actually does is donate money and glasses to partner organizations like the non-profit VisionSpring, which turns around and sells those glasses to people living on less than $4 dollars a day in Bangladesh, India, El Salvador, and South Africa.
VisionSpring does this by training their workers in basic business skills and eye exams, then sending them out into their communities to conduct free vision screenings and sell the glasses donated by Warby Parker. According to VisionSpring, it costs a rural customer between $6 and $11 to visit a doctor, purchase glasses, and pay for transportation, while VisionSpring customers get free exams in their own villages and can buy a pair of glasses for $2 – $4.
Both TOMS Shoes and VisionSpring take on the effects of poverty by distributing goods in low income countries. But VisionSpring also gives people jobs and an opportunity to improve their lot in a way which seeks to address the causes of poverty. As we’ve discussed before, TOMS can actually hurt local businesses that produce or sell shoes by flooding the market with free footwear.
Unlike rampant shoelessness, widespread lack of eye care is actually a major problem in the developing world. A study (pdf) in Sub-Saharan Africa found that over 80 percent of people between the ages of 5 and 93 who need glasses have never had an eye examination. An impact assessment (pdf) conducted by VisionSpring and the University of Michigan found that reading glasses improved wearers’ productivity and income. In general, having glasses allows adults to continue working despite deteriorating sight and helps vision impaired children succeed in school.
Shoes, on the other hand, are available even in the poorest corners of the world. In fact, many TOMS pictures and videos show children removing their own shoes to try on a TOMS pair. Giving away free shoes where footwear is sold locally may or may not improve school attendance, as TOMS claims it does, but it’s certainly not supporting independent business owners.
VisionSpring works to alleviate poverty by providing necessary employment. TOMS works to alleviate poverty by providing unnecessary shoes.
Lauren Bishop is Online Projects Assistant at DRI and an NYU MA student in International Relations.
By John Schellhase
Maurice Lim Miller’s innovative idea was that he didn’t know how to end poverty.
He had worked for years for non-profits in San Francisco. One night the mayor called him at home and invited Miller to his office to pitch whichever program he thought would help most. As he prepared for the meeting, Miller grew anxious. Whatever he and others had been doing wasn’t working: “The very first kids I had trained back in the early 80s,” Miller told NPR about his job skills program for at-risk teenagers, “I saw their kids now showing up for programs.”
Miller thought of his mother, a poor immigrant from Mexico who had found her own way out of poverty. He realized he wanted to put poor people in charge of the money usually spent on anti-poverty professionals.
The resulting Family Independence Initiative has no program. Self-organized groups of families set their own agendas, ranging from debt reduction to improved grades for kids to weight loss to home ownership. Families receive a laptop, a $160/month stipend, and additional funding from FII for every success they can demonstrate based on their own targets.
Though still in its early stages, FII’s outcomes look promising. According to reporting by the families themselves with a follow-up audit by FII, in two years the families earned on average 23 percent more, saved 240 percent more, and increased their home ownership by 17 percent.
This apparent success comes from a hands-off approach from FII’s staff. FII did not organize the groups, lead meetings, or give any direction about what to prioritize. Miller believed that outside direction was likely to undermine true innovation. Staff who couldn’t help themselves from offering advice were actually fired.
As Miller has written, “Trusting low-income families with money and connections, thus giving them control and choice in their lives, is what led to their success.”
What would happen if aid agencies and international NGOs extended the same trust to the families they work with in developing nations? Often, the arrogant assumption in development is that the poor can’t be trusted to know what’s best for themselves and their families. The last half-century of failed development projects, however, suggest that it is truly the rich outsiders who don’t know.
Further reading about FII and their approach:
Get Feedback (pdf)
The Uphill Battle to Scale an Innovative Antipoverty Approach (pdf)
John Schellhase is a Program Assistant at DRI and pursuing an MS in Global Affairs at NYU.