NASA on Mars vs. Development in Africa?

Better late than never, I’m about to start reading “Dead Aid“, Dambisa Moyo’s much touted book. I’ve already read a few blog posts and reviews – some about her, some about her book – and the Guardian’s “An evening with Dambisa Moyo” seemed worth a look. In an otherwise downbeat review, one statement stood out a mile.

“Africa is to development what Mars is to NASA” – the ultimate development studies essay question. It certainly got me thinking. To what extent is Africa development’s playground, a place to ‘try things’, to experiment? Often with so little accountability – see Bill Easterly‘s “White Man’s Burden” – it’s easy to see why it’s thought of as an easy place to pilot, to test, to try out. “And if it goes wrong, well, let’s try something else, somewhere else”.

During a workshop at IDS a couple of weeks ago, I commented that the development sector in Africa was littered with the carcasses of failed projects, a kind of ‘elephant graveyard’ for the well-intended.

I’d love to see an ICT4D/African technology conference pick up on the “NASA, Mars, Development, Africa” theme. And I’d love to be in the audience. Any takers?

31 thoughts on “NASA on Mars vs. Development in Africa?

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  10. Lucky Gunasekara says:

    ICT4D/African technology conference along the lines of a “NASA, Mars, Development, Africa” theme? Hmm…where could we hold such a thing and find a backer…Oh wait…we can just hold it at Stanford with LibTech as the sponsor :)

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  13. Cynan says:

    Can you imagine the venture-capital sector saying: Silicon Valley is littered with carcasses of startups. It’s a graveyard for the entrepreneurially intended. Therefore we should stop trying to invest there. I doubt it.

    Accountability to ‘beneficiaries’ is a crucial feedback loop that needs closing. But concluding from the existence of past failures, that no further attempts should be made, is the wrong conclusion.

    In response, I guess someone might say: but look, Silicon Valley has a significant track record of successes as well. Africa doesn’t.

    Well, I’d suggest that you look harder. An easy one: ask mobile phone producers and networks how much money they’ve made in Africa in the last 10 years, with mobile access on the continent rocketing from 2% to 33%.

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  16. Davey says:

    Reminds me of the “mobile phone or toilet” talk I read about recently. Interesting comparison of views and objectives — agreed it would make a great panel discussion, maybe even follow-up blog posts

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  20. kiwanja says:

    @Lucky – Do it, my friend!

    @Cynan – The interesting thing is, entrepreneurs usually have several attempts at something before finally getting it right and flying with it. ICT4D projects generally only get one chance – how many great initiatives which may have failed due to no fault of their own, might have succeeded if donors or organisations had stuck with them? And in terms of Africa “not having a track record of success”, you mean outsiders coming in and trying to impose things on the people, or failures by the people themselves?

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  24. Joel Lehmann says:

    …let’s just for a moment assume that development aid (in its various forms) does actually generally NOT work. How come that there is a general tendency to lay the blame on Africa? Why not rather conclude that the whole concept of development aid just simply doesn’t work, regardless of where you try it? I don’t think the Marshall plan is a valid counter example, even if it seems – according to Moyo – that it seems to be at the origin of development aid in Africa. The comparison of development aid with commercial product development (Silicon Valley etc.) is not convincing at all. For example, the jobs of development aid workers depend on their efforts not being entirely successful (polemically speaking), while in Silicon Valley, the opposite is the case…

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