Today I received, from the Globalisation Institute, a press release, which began as follows:
Monday 6 November – A new report released today by the Globalisation Institute says that microfinance is not being taken seriously by the Department for International Development.
In October, it was announced that the Nobel Peace Prize would go to the founding father of microfinance, Dr Muhammad Yunus, who created the Grameen Bank in Bangladesh. However, microfinance remains tiny in Africa and receives scant support or encouragement from DFID.
Okay, cards on the table. I am a big fan of the Globalisation Institute and of its bosses Alex Singleton and Tom Clougherty. I write quite frequently for the Globalisation Institute blog, my latest posting there, about mobile phones (which makes much of a comment at my blog by Michael Jennings on the subject), having gone up there only last Friday. Tonight, I am attending a Globalisation Institute do, to which I have been invited so that I can take photos. David Cameron will be present, and they want to be sure that his presence there is immortalised pictorially, so that they can blog about it and impress their many donors with their political plugged-in-ness. Very sensible.
But… and you could hear that word coming a mile off couldn’t you?… I have severe doubts about these latest pronouncements of theirs. The point being that DFID stands for Department (as in Government Department) for International Development. And, as a general rule, international development has taken place in spite of – at the very least in a manner that is indifferent to – all such Departments.
Consider those mobile phones, that I wrote about for the Globalisation Institute on Friday (I mentioned them here also). Mobile phones have been (a) one of the very few economic development success stories to emerge from Africa in recent decades, and (b) entirely done by selfish and freely trading tradesmen, all trying to make a buck and generally further their own interests. This is absolutely not a coincidence. Mobile phones have emerged as Africa’s way of getting around government departments. The fact that, when mobile phones were first hitting their stride in Africa they were “not being taken seriously” by organisations like DFID is all part of why they were so successful. The right people – the people who really, really wanted them and were willing to pay a lot for them – got them. And the right people – those wanting to make money out of them and hence devoted to the interests of their African customers (note that word) – supplied them, with no input from the likes of DFID whatsoever.
[UPDATE: Er, not so. In fact: bollocks. See first comment. DFID were heavily involved in mobile phone development in Africa. However, I still think the basic argument of this posting just about stands up. Just about. And the final paragraph makes more sense than ever.]
Just imagine what a colossal screw-up mobile phones in Africa might have been if the Development Industry had been in charge of it all, on account of them taking mobile phones seriously. It does not matter nearly so much when these idiots get excited about a bad idea. But when they get excited about what might have been a good idea, they can do serious harm. Development, for instance. That is a good idea. Or, it was.
No, what I want from my politicians is malign indifference. Indifference because I do not want the malignance to be too active, and because indifference means they will not meddle, either by flailing about with regulations or with great and unpredictable tidal waves of other people’s money, and malign also because that means that everyone can depend on this indifference – i.e. non-interference – lasting for a decent while.
As for DFID getting interested in microfinance, well, it seems to me that it will be just as easy for a government department to do serious harm to an idea by spending a large number of small amounts of other people’s money, as it has long done harm by spending a smaller number of larger amounts.
But, the internet is the of all things the thing that means you do not have to take anybody in particular’s word for it. You can read the Globalisation Institute blog posting on this topic here, and the entire report [a 25 smallish pages .pdf file] here.