Walk, Pedal, Drive

Some of the assumptions built into the mainstream international aid and development movement are puzzling. Among them is the faulty assumption that the comparison that matters most is how the developing world is doing in relation to the developed. Not surprisingly, this kind of comparison tends to make the gains in developing countries seem small, inscrutable, or nonexistent, and end up reinforcing the myth that progress is never achieved.

What’s more important than how a country like Zambia is doing in comparison with a country like Belgium is instead how Zambia of today is doing compared with Zambia of 3, 5, 10, or 20 years ago. The comparison that’s most important is to how bad things have been and how they are relative to now, not how things there are versus here.

You see the outworking of this first kind of comparison, however, in the paradigms adopted by aid and development experts. As Stephane Fitch writes, the other model of comparison (not between developed and developing nations, which among other things feeds envy and despair, but rather between how it was and how it is now in a particular place) can inspire surprising gains from seemingly modest proposals. In a recent issue of Forbes, Fitch writes about the work of F.K. Day, a bicycle company executive who has done extensive work in Zambia.

As Fitch writes, Day complains that “World Bank types…tend to favor (and fund) paved roads and train tracks.” They tend to favor (and fund) those things they assume to be marks of development and progress, based on comparison with the existence of those things in the developed nations. But more important for a country like Zambia than paved roads, train tracks, or even internet access and affordable laptops, are simple and reliable means of short-range transportation: bicycles. In this case, bicycles that don’t, in Day’s words, “suck,” mean much more for the typical Zambian farmer or weaver than a paved road or WiFi service. His charity produces bikes that are much more reliable, sturdier, and appropriate for the Zambian terrain.

Fitch describes Day’s vision:

Through his World Bicycle Relief charity the ponytailed entrepreneur hopes to put millions of sub-Saharan Africans aboard special heavy-duty bikes designed to withstand the continent’s rugged roads while carrying 200 pounds of cargo–enough for a weaver to bring his rugs, or a farmer to tote his produce, to market. Moreover, he aims to promote a self-sustaining bicycle economy with regional operations assembling the bikes and area mechanics trained to repair them.

Sometimes you need to walk before you can run, and pedal before you can press down on the accelerator. This is as true for an individual as it is for a national economy.
Day is focusing on encouraging and fostering entrepreneurship and sustainability (e.g. profitability), and he does so with an explicit acknowledgment of the power of markets to transform lives: “You can have all the goodwill in the world,” he says, “but if what you do isn’t driven by the invisible hand of Adam Smith, you’re doomed to fail.”

That’s another way of saying that good intentions are no substitute for sound economics, and the wedding of both is what you see in Day’s work.  As Fitch concludes, “It’s amazing too how a charity with a small budget ($2.5 million) and a staff of 24, including 19 in Zambia, can change thousands of lives, two wheels at a time.”

For more information on Day’s charity, his brand of “ponytail capitalism,” and the “bicycle economy” he’s trying to build in Zambia, check out the Forbes slideshow.

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