Sep 30, 2010

Smart Aid

Until such a time that all people living in developing countries have access to quality education, full employment, clean water and sanitation, adequate housing – the basic means for one to better one’s life, we are going to keep hearing the call for individuals and organisations to open their wallets and provide help through any means possible.

In this raging aid debate let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Yes, there is good aid and there is bad aid. Instead of turning our heads away from the neediest in our societies, we need to be smart. Research the organisations to which you are sending your money. How is the money spent? What percentage goes to their overhead versus what is actually spent on the people that need it? And when you look at the projects they are funding, are they sustainable or are they just a flash in the pan? When the aid workers have left will buildings and equipment remain unused because no one bothered to train the local population on how to use them appropriately?

Another part this to consider, is this – what is the local/regional/central government doing to address the problem we are seeking to solve? Are they actively engaged and are we disincentivising them when we step in with our good intentions?  This one is a little more complicated but worth looking into nonetheless.

In a nutshell we should be looking at endeavours that give people a boost up the ladder to success in their lives. Just a few things to think about before jumping on the "let them pull themselves up by their bootstraps" wagon, not everyone has the boots to begin with. 

Sep 28, 2010

Gallivanting leaders

What’s wrong with this picture?

Situation A

South Africa’s civil service goes on strike crippling the nation’s hospitals, schools, and other areas of the public sector. Reasons: the government’s inability to meet their labour demands for improved pay, working conditions, and the like.

While this is happening, President Jacob Zuma leaves for China towing a delegation of 11 cabinet ministers and more than 350 business people. Reasons: a means to improving trade relations between the two nations. Before he leaves he slams the trade unions for what he calls excessive demands and jets off to Beijing.

Situation B

Doctors at all Zambia’s government hospitals go on strike. Reasons: the government’s inability to meet their labour demands for improved pay, working conditions, and the like.

At the same time, President Rupiah Banda is about to leave for Nigeria. He’s been invited to celebrate that country’s 50th anniversary of independent rule since the collapse of colonialism. He takes with him a delegation of cabinet ministers, senior government officials and 50 business people.

His delegate, the Minister of Health, states that the government is baffled as to why the doctors have gone on strike. He is sending a team to investigate. Say what?

Zuma was widely criticised for not postponing his trip while the crisis was reaching a crescendo in South Africa; and he’s probably suffered some irreparable damage since his power based lay largely with the labour unions who now feel aggrieved by the ANC. The same criticism will be heaped on Banda, especially if he doesn’t excuse himself from this trip and the strike lasts longer than a few days.

When critical personnel such as doctors and nurses walk out because of unresolved labour disputes the whole country suffers. This may not mean much to a President and his cabinet ministers who exclusively use private health care abroad, but what is their job if not to provide services for the people?

What’s the point in securing trade relations with China or reinforcing diplomatic ties with other African countries when your country could easily be cut down at the knees when workers strike? If you have no stability in critical areas like healthcare and education just where do you think the country is headed? Certainly not towards sustainable development.

Mr Banda, do you need to hear about babies being delivered in parking lots because expectant mothers got turned away from hospitals as a result of staff shortages before you realise that your priorities lie at home? Oh wait, that didn’t happen the last time. How could we forget the witch hunt that ensued to prosecute the journalist who highlighted this very problem?!

Please don’t counter with the argument that your Minister of Health is more than capable at handling this issue. No, he’s not! He just stated he don’t understand why the strike is happening. Just where are these people recruited?

Perhaps someone needs to show me the job description for a southern Africa president that indicates that primary duties are “visiting other countries in pursuit of <insert politically correct term for time wasting endeavour>”.

Mr President, even if you’re not personally involved in the labour negotiations it is vitally important for you to be there, as you are the face of the country’s leadership. When you shirk these responsibilities, it shows that you do not care about Zambians and are out of touch with their plight; send your foreign minister to go and dance vimbuza with Goodluck Jonathan. 

Sep 27, 2010

A new story

Malawi’s Bingu wa Mutharika gave an interesting speech last week at the UN General Assembly in which he talked about how  the “international media reports on Africa of extreme poverty, widespread endemic diseases and human suffering…they glorify Africa of underdevelopment and hopelessness”. He went on to talk about a new Africa with new hopes and possibilities, and how this story remains largely unheard.

Good on you, Mr Mutharika, for bringing this oft talked about topic to the fore. This is a real issue and must be addressed responsibly. With that said, if African leaders such Mutharika are committed to telling ‘the new story of Africa” the work must begin locally.

  1. Stop stifling independent media. Reporters should be given the freedom to travel across the country and report on issues they feel are relevant to their readers and/or viewers. This should not be censored to get the government spin because it does a real disservice to the stories of the citizenry that need to be told. These stories will vary, be they of human suffering or human triumph – let them be told!

    If used responsibly this freedom could be a means for the local media to gain credibility at home and abroad, and the positives stories you want to see of Africa would have a better chance of being seen by a larger audience.

  2. Encourage cultural exchanges and participation in international trade shows. What better way to show the residents of Wichita, Kansas that not everyone is one empty rice bowl away from hunger in a country like Malawi, than to have university students or working professionals visit that area and share what life is like for them, how things are improving (if they are indeed improving), and what work remains to be done. 

    We are always talking about needing to trade with western countries. But are there any programs that encourage business owners to seek new markets or partnerships through the numerous international trade shows that happen with great frequency? How else will people outside of southern Africa know that Malawi produces some of the best tea and sugar in the world?

  3. Improve your governance. No one is going to take you seriously as long there are lingering problems with deeply entrenched corruption, vote rigging, nepotism at the highest level of government, etc. You can have a 10 percent growth every year for next 20 years, but it’s all meaningless as long as the majority of the country’s citizens continue to languish in poverty while the political elites get fatter and wealthier.  
    There are obviously other areas that can probably help improve the news coverage of African countries, but these are the most obvious that came to my mind. If you can think of others, please share. Perhaps we could even forward them to interested parties. J

    Sep 24, 2010

    Failing to try

    A while back I posted information about Elias Chipimo Jr and the political party he launched in March. So, just what is the fate of NAREP and its intrepid president eight months after the launch of the new political movement? I would say both have gone nowhere and are just another worthless political endeavour on the Zambian political scene. I typically don’t pay any mind to all the little pretentious political parties that seem to spring up like wild mushrooms in the rainy season, but for some reason Chipimo caught my attention.

    His father is a veteran politician, and he has name recognition. He’s a young, successful lawyer, heading his own law firm these last seven years or so and seemingly has professional credibility. He hasn’t been elected to public office before, and this would indeed be his maiden voyage.

    At the launch of NAREP Chipimo pitched himself as a leader seeking to bring back values based politics in Zambia, and to bring Zambians back into the fold of development through increased economic activities in various sectors. This certainly isn’t a new platform but he caught our attention, certainly mine of course, with his exuberance.

    He visited the U.S., meeting with the mayor of Sacramento and other community leaders in what he billed as a means of learning how to run a successful political campaign as a young politician. He also spoke with people living in diaspora about his mission, and was interviewed on one of the blog radio shows.

    So, he said all the right things and seemed to getting himself in order but what happened after that? Did anything happen? It would appear nothing happened. Did he think that setting up a party website and facebook account was going to be enough to replicate Obama’s unparalleled grassroots movement that saw millions of new voters get excited about a presidential election for the first time in their lives? Can he show that he has actively engaged the Zambian voters especially the youth, and brought them on board to show up and VOTE for him and other members of his party who may be contesting parliamentary seats?

    I am disappointed not because I had necessarily had high hopes for NAREP, but because I find this to be a missed opportunity of epic proportions. The MMD has been government for 20 years and is flawed in many ways. We keep talking about bringing in new people, with fresh ideas to replace the old guard with their washed up ideas, and yet when you look at the young ‘leadership’ they just seem to be clueless on how to even begin. Do they even talk to each other, trying to formulate a plan of action? Perhaps it would help if they actually had a clear vision for where they want Zambia to be in the next 10, 20 and 30 years.

    So, where does this leave us? Well, the current president has officially declared his intent to run for re-election. If he wins, he’ll leave office at the ripe old age of 79. And more power to him, since the opposition remains weak and disorganised! I won’t even bother talking about the main opposition contenders for obvious reasons. 

    No, “Yes, we can” euphoria here…it’s time for a comforting cup of hot tea and biscuits. 

    Equality discussion

    This has been a hectic week with the events taking place in New York surrounding the Millennium Development Goals at the UN General Assembly and the Clinton Global Initiative. On yesterday’s Talk of the Nation program on NPR, Mary Robinson (former president of Ireland), Ngozi Nkonjo-Iweala (former finance minister in Nigeria) and Nicolas Kristof (NY Times columnist) were discussing the topic Equality still elusive for World’s women.

    I’m deducting points for Neal Conan and his inability to practice pronouncing Dr Iweala’s name ahead of time!  J

    A minor quibble I would like to note is my irritation with callers who always talk about going to ‘Africa’. Where in Africa did you go, we have 53 countries all very unique and diverse? While our human experience is generally similar across borders each country has a unique set of circumstances, and it's unfair to lump one's experience in say Benin to being one of Africa as a whole. 

    Sep 23, 2010

    Random stats

    Random stats...

    Zambia registered 44 percent awareness of MDGs, while in the U.S. "more Americans believe that Barack Obama is a Muslim (18 percent) than those who have heard of MDGs" (5 percent). J

    Sep 22, 2010

    Girls are at a crossroads

    Another powerful video from The Girl Effect...

    Sep 21, 2010

    Clean cookstoves

    Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton announced that the U.S. will providing $50 million in seed money over five years to a new initiative called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. The aim is to produce clean burning stoves for Africa, Asia and South America. This is driven by the health and safety risks faced by women and girls who routinely prepare meals over open fire in many parts of the developing world.

    It will be interesting to follow the progression of the project. This is not a new idea, and has been tried before. Unfortunately previous ventures have been met with failure. If successful though, this could have some major implications for those who need it the most. I really hope the designers look at the failures of the past, work with their target customers to come up with the right kind of product that will meet their needs; if not this could be colossal waste of money. 

    See more information in this flyer (pdf) 

    Sep 20, 2010

    The Future We Make

    If you missed the live transmission of the TEDxchange webcast: The Future We Make recognising the 10th anniversary of the Millenium Development Goals (MDGs), here it is. Among the speakers were Gra├ža Machel and Melinda Gates. Where are we ten years down the road? Have improvements been made in maternal health, infant mortality, healthcare, etc?

    Enjoy it, it's well worth setting aside the time to watch and listen. 

    Sep 18, 2010

    High impact projects

    In talking with many African peers a lot of our conversations centre around how we would like to see improvements in our home countries, and what we can do individually or collectively. There are many grand ideas that need massive capital outlay, and other resources that take a lot of time and coordination to put into effect.

    How many of us are thinking about smaller scale but high impact projects such as drilling boreholes/wells? See the video below to see how such projects are much needed and change the lives of many. Some of these are so basic that we tend to overlook them. 

    Sep 15, 2010

    15 minutes of fame

    Over the last few weeks the national (and international) media has been reporting about a pastor of an obscure little church in Florida who was planning to burn the Qur’an on September 11 to protest the proposed building of a Muslim community centre near ground zero. His actions drew sharp criticism from President Obama and his inner circle to Muslim clerics around the world, and even triggered violent protest in Afghanistan. He called off the burning ceremony and has since travelled to New York to speak with the group planning the community centre, and we await news of the outcome of that meeting (if it indeed took place).

    15 minutes of fame…check…

    In 2008, Senator John McCain selected the little known female governor from the state of Alaska as his running mate for the presidential elections. She was subsequently panned as an adle-minded politician with little knowledge of national and international politics and basic geography after a number of embarrassing public appearances. Many social and political conservatives took great offense to the criticism accusing liberals of elitism, and have since catapulted this would-be vice president into a position of national leadership within their political movement.

    15 minutes of fame overextended…check…

    With our 24-hour news cycle, and the advent of blogs and social media many of us are now able to not only consume news stories within nano seconds of them been reported but we can also pass them along, adding our own commentary, etc. This quick turn around allows stories to gain traction fairly rapidly, and I credit this for the explosion of many new celebrities (and I use that term very, very loosely). 

    If mainstream media largely ignored attention seekers like Terry Jones and political opportunists like Sarah Palin would they indeed fade into obscurity never tasting their 15 minutes of fame?  One would like to think so. With that said, there has to something said about the conversations that come up as a result of such loony bins being in the limelight.

    With the Qur’an burning, it brings an opportunity to talk about the need to respect other religions; and how freedom of speech should not trump good sense and common decency. What do you gain from burning someone else’s holy book other than looking like an ignorant hillbilly?

    It’s unfortunate that rational and calm voices are often drowned out by loud and empty tins. And yet, we still don’t learn! We overexpose these characters giving them more credit than they are due, and we often lose the opportunity for teachable moments within the flashpoint. 

    Sep 14, 2010

    Random thoughts

    Random thought today: 

    In talking about empowering young girls and boys we often stress the need for a higher level of self worth, respect for self and others, self determination, etc. But how can we get there, when we set poor examples in our own homes.

    A husband batters his wife, and she’s spends time in hospital. He claims he acted out of love. She goes back into his arms claiming it was all a misunderstanding and she’s standing by her man.

    Dear woman, what are you teaching your children? Is the lesson to be learned that love does indeed hurt, and it’s okay to suffer physical harm at the hands of the man you love? Should your sons learn that it’s okay to degrade their wives or girlfriends in such a manner because it’s what a man does and a woman should take it as her lot?  

    Dear man...

    Sep 13, 2010


    Who knew that bicycle frames could be made from bamboo, and commercially marketed? A really cool concept, company, and product. You gotta love those Silicon Valley guys! 

    Zambikes Promotional (FULL LENGTH) from Russell Brownley on Vimeo.

    Sep 9, 2010

    A New Project

    I am starting a new project that has me very excited! I am going to document my grandfather’s life story. Grandpa Lyombe (fondly known as Old Phil) is an avid story teller and has led a remarkable life thus far. He was the youngest of eight children, and the only son to boot. He has been our family patriarch almost from the moment of his birth.

    He was one of the earliest and youngest native Zambians to serve as a District Governor, and he also served in many other capacities during the first post-independence government. He ended his career as a diplomat in the Foreign Service, and has since spent his retirement as an indulgent grandfather, church elder and somewhat reluctant farmer. J

    Beyond his impressive professional career I consider him to be the gatekeeper of our family history, and I feel the need keenly to record his stories, musings, and insights before they are lost after his death. This may sound morbid, but it’s the truth. My beloved Old Phil is not getting any younger, and I have to take advantage while he’s still alive and lucid to share his stories to willing (and unwilling) listeners.

    I have recruited my younger brother to sit down with our granddad, and start the process of recording him on an audio recorder. I will follow up with my own interviews when I next go home, and perhaps even go through his old writings to weave the whole fabric together. This man has trunks of books and notes that hopefully haven’t turned to dust.

    I am not entirely sure how long this will take to complete but I intend to put a lot of effort into it. At this point my end goal is have the final product in some written format to share with my siblings, and other family members who may want a copy. I may take advantage of low cost self-publishing services available online.

    I want this project to honour my grandfather’s legacy and to keep his story alive for generations to come after us. I am not ready to officially call this a biography because that that just sounds too serious; I know I’m splitting hairs, but I reserve the right to do so. 

    If anyone has done anything similar, would you be willing to share any tips or pitfalls to avoid or any general words of advice? I want to do this as efficiently as possible, and not bite off more than I can chew.

    So, since I’ve put this out there I’m committed! I pray for continued tenacity to accomplish this somewhat lofty goal… 

    When will it end?

    By now many of us have heard about the over 200 girls and women who were mass raped in North Kivu, DRC. The blame has been placed on the FDLR (Rwandan rebels) and local Mai-Mai rebels in the area. The UN has come under fire for their inability to protect the civilians, since they have a peacekeeping base close to where these heinous acts happened.

    I’ll be the first to admit that I’m foggy right now as to who is fighting whom, and what their grievances are (if any still exist at this point) because there are so many players – the Congolese army, the FDLR, CNDP, etc. However, I do know the central government of DRC has failed its people. In all the news stories and articles I’ve read in the last few weeks about these horrible events, no mention has been made of the Kabila government. Where is their accountability? What are they doing to keep the people of North Kivu safe from rebel attacks? In fact, why the hell was Joseph Kabila in Kigali celebrating Kagame’s inauguration when he has mess in his country that has no end in sight?  I won’t even get into the messy relationship between the Kabilas and Kagame right now because it makes my blood chill.

    It’s not only disappointing and disheartening to see such accounts come up again and again. How much more can the people of Congo take in these conflicts? Will they have to decimate an entire population of women and children before someone realises that the current situation is untenable?

    Update 10-Sept

    President Joseph Kabila has suspended mining activities in areas of Eastern Congo. According to reports this is an attempt to restore order in the area and bring much needed help to the people affected by the conflicts. It's not entirely clear how this ban will enforced since a lot of mining activities are conducted by the rebel groups illegally, and is the main source of income for these groups; not forgetting some members of government are also beneficiaries (allegedly). 

    Sep 7, 2010

    Police Brutality

    A very disturbing report about police brutality in Zambia was just released today. It’s sad to say that most of it isn’t what a lot of Zambians don’t already know about our police force but it does beg the question – what are we going to do about it?

    According to Human Rights Watch, the authors of the report, the Minister of Home Affairs whose ministry oversees Zambia Police was given a copy of the report in June and asked to respond. A copy was also sent to the Inspector General of Police. Both officials did not respond. A follow up request for an official response was also met with silence, and so we have no official response. This is very telling, in my opinion.

    I know there are some detractors of Human Rights Watch, who see them as troublemakers with a western-driven agenda to make developing nations look bad. Frankly, I think that’s nonsense, and here’s why:

    In a country such as Zambia we have many weak systems of oversight in our public sector. Many public offices are run as fiefdoms where money and power are used recklessly with impunity. For recent examples see the Auditor General’s 2008 report; which ironically to date has not been acted on because of the lack of political will (and perhaps funding). L

    We find it very difficult to not only audit our systems for efficiencies, financial transparency, etc but often the follow through is lacking. This doesn’t foster good will among the people or bring a higher level of credibility in our institutions. So, then what is left but to have an independent body with no vested interest in the systems to do that sort of work, bring their findings in the open and demand recourse? 

    Those in charge have been given an opportunity to respond, which could have been used to either rebut some of the findings or show that improvements are already underway or to even acknowledge there is a problem! But that hasn’t happened, and probably won’t until someone in a western government starts asking questions and hinting at aid withdrawal for lack of compliance with our own constitution and international obligations that prohibit the use of torture and ill treatment of inmates.

    In many ways we are our own worst enemy – behaving like a recalcitrant child who refuses to play nice until he is threatened with harsh punishment, and then cries foul!

    I hope I’m proven wrong, and that our government does respond accordingly. Abuse by the police should not be an accepted form of “doing business” and we need to put such abhorrent practices behind us. We ought to do better.

    Update 11-Sept

    The Home Affairs Minister has responded to the HRW report. He denies the reports of abuse but says the government is currently working to improve prison conditions.

    Sep 3, 2010

    Feeling the love

    A while back I sent an email to Ng’andu Magande, Zambia’s former Finance minister, asking whether he was going to use his position as an MP to re-introduce the scrapped windfall tax. He was on a media blitz at the time talking about the merits of the tax, and why it was in Zambia’s best interests to re-introduce it. So, like a good little citizen I wrote my letter and waited for a response.

    Well, I didn’t hear back until today. In my mailbox now sits an invitation to visit his new profile at Netlog. My email evidently arrived, someone opened it, took note of my inquiry but instead of receiving an answer to my questions I was added to a bloody mailing list! Should I assume I’ll be receiving regular correspondence in which matters such as I ones I raised will be discussed or perhaps the new site will have this information? Highly unlikely...

    I am caught somewhere between being peeved and dumbstruck…time to serve up a margarita!  

    Sep 1, 2010

    New month, new challenge

    My mind has been working in overdrive the last couple days, so brace yourselves as I work through this! I’ve been involved in conversations with a variety of people about personal goals, upcoming elections, and business ventures. And I’ll tell you what; I am surrounded by some very intelligent people with fantastic ideas!

    Where the rubber hits the road though is with implementation. How many of us are courageous enough to take our ideas to the next level, placing our bets on the 50-50 chance that we’ll succeed or fail? Now of course no one sets out to fail at something; many of us are risk adverse and will do just about anything to avoid failure. But in being overly cautious some ideas that could bear considerable fruit if implemented correctly die a premature death, and our world loses out immensely.

    The rallying cry from many Africans (young and old) is that our countries are inhospitable to new ventures and new ways of doing things. There is truth to that, but what are we doing to change that? How many of us are willing to set aside some of the luxurious we have grown accustomed to in suburban America or urban England to take a chance at making things different for the better?

    These are obviously personal decisions that each of us must think through critically and cannot be made lightly given family, financial and work commitments. With that said, we need to stop sitting on the fence. To put it crudely, it’s time to “shit or get off the pot”.

    Many of us have gained valuable skills and knowledge through our education, work, and travels that are lying fallow because we have no outlet to implement our ideas either through the lack of trying or because of past experiences. But I truly believe now is as good a time as any to get moving.

    On an almost weekly basis articles or research findings are released touting Africa as the new frontier for development or some variation of that title/subject. This is evidenced by the increase in mining activities, rehabbing of once shuttered factories, road network development, etc. So, why are so many of still just philosophising over cold beer and michopo (variety of roasted meats)?

    It is vital for those currently involved in ventures to share their experiences and show that things can be done – we need mentors and role models. And on the flip side, as listeners we need to shed our scepticism, and eagerness to be overly critical and disparaging of other people’s endeavours.

    So, how many of us are going to lay claim to Africa’s future success, our future?