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Africa’s “missed opportunity” at the Aid & International Development Forum June 2012. By Lambert Mbom

Aid and International Development ForumFor the last three years, South African companies in the business of international development have “saved” Africa’s face at the Aid and International Development Forum. In 2010, The Standard Bank of South Africa and Enviro Lo showcased their prowess in banking and hygiene and sanitation respectively. Both did not return in 2011.

Among the newcomers this year to exhibit was “Kwikspace” that manufactures, erects and furnishes prefabricated buildings for quick deployment in Sub-Saharan Africa. Found in 28 African countries, the South African company has 40 years experience under its belt setting up personnel camps, site offices, kitchens, clinics to oil & gas industry, power generation, construction, mining and government sectors where short deadlines and rapid deployment oblige.

ADESO (African Development Solutions) – a Kenyan based NGO rebranded from Horn Relief –which promotes a cash-based approach to development also had a place at the exhibition. Its central philosophy is based on the principle that cash empowers poor people especially women to be able to make decisions. Ubah Hamud, Program officer is based in the organization’s DC office.

Besides NGOs, there are always individuals present from Africa. Among the handful present at the 2010 event were Ugandan citizen, Francis Bainomugisha, director of Copiange Education Initiative and Joseph Peters, Country director of Make Poverty History, Nigeria. Both sponsored themselves to the event and both did not return in 2011 and 2012.

Taking advantage of the scandalous absence of Africans and African organizations in the aid and international development forum, Femi Akinbi, a DC based Nigerian born entrepreneur and trade expert quickly convened an impromptu meeting of all Africans he could convince in the room.

The presence of such a high level personality as Mrs. Malango, Chief of External Relations and Partnerships, UN OCHA gave an incredible boost to the meeting. She described the forum as “wasted opportunity” for Africa given that Africa happens to be at crucial and strategic point in her development. Seven of the ten fastest growing economies in the world are in Africa, she said. Africa needs to play a more robust and active role in developing capacities.

It was regrettable that local governments, which are often the first responders to various crises were absent from the such events where they could forge badly needed public private partnerships, Rosa added.

Times have changed and the global environment too. Countries that traditionally defined Aid and development are no longer in charge. The example of the BRICS must stand out to African countries who unfortunately rely too much on foreign aid.

We need more people at the table and not just governments but also civil society and regional organizations. The missing piece is the private sector.

Malango cautioned the group to avoid the lame duck distraction that says, “It cannot be done.” This is not true “for it is already being done even though not by the usual suspects.”

She also recommended that policy leaders must come to such forums to see the actual solutions. Ministers should come and meet with decision makers and learn about opportunities in energy such as electrification of villages etc.

On a grand scale, experts from the UN and the World Bank should be brought to the table so they can discuss and share ideas with local government partners on cost effective ways of responding to crises.

Femi floated the idea of the creation of an African Trade Center in DC, which could help broker some deals and also look for opportunities for African governments.

The enthusiasm in the air was palpable and the commitment real. This coterie resolved to continue the discussions online and help put Africa on the map of the Aid and International development forum.

Aid & International Development Forum Returned to DC for 7th Year: June 6-7, 2012 by Lambert Mbom

Aid and International Development ForumOver 2000 persons attended the 2012 Aid & International Development Forum (AIDF) at the Washington Convention Center where over 135 exhibitors showcased their innovative work.

This annual event now in its seventh year brought together NGOs, governments, intergovernmental organizations, aid and development agencies and the UN “to share best practices, debate key issues in the aid and international development sector, exhibit new technologies and services, and create new partnerships.”

Historically based in Geneva, and now a UK registered charity, AIDF organizes this annual event in Washington DC. Roopi Woodall, marketing manager of Aid and International Development Forum explains that one of the motivating factors for this is the fact that DC is the nerve ganglion of international aid and relief with over 200 NGOs and aid agencies in DC.

“What is more, DC is the center of policy and decision making with regard to humanitarian aid and the U.S. is a leader in global spending on aid,” Woodall added. “And there is the general movement from Europe to the US market given that Europeans do not trust private entities.”

One significant part of the conference is the education combo with conferences and workshops on contemporary issues complemented by an interactive zone.

In the first of two keynote addresses, Patrick Fineman, Vice President, Millennium Challenge Corporation, captured the difficult prevailing circumstances during which this year’s forum is convening.

“This 7th edition of the Aid and Development Forum convenes when the landscape for development and humanitarian work is rapidly shifting,” Fineman said. “In the United States, we’ve been through the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression of the 1930s. Europe is in the midst of a debt and currency crisis. A group of new world powers, led by China, is exerting increasing influence both economically and politically.”

This notwithstanding, Fineman highlighted the fact that because of aid and international development, the world is more prosperous. There has been momentous progress, both for nation-states and individuals, in terms of more income, better health and increased opportunities.

The changing landscape brings with it a new set of challenges and the following three factors will shape the industry over the coming years requiring many to rethink business models and operating principles. 

First, a “new era of austerity” with plumetting funding for development and humanitarian relief; then new rules of engagement with a focus on country ownership. This will cause “a shift in procurement and implementation responsibilities to partner governments and local implementing organizations leading to increased competition and increased opportunities. 

Conferences of the first day focused on stream partnerships with presentations on global partnership for development, Food security and sustainable growth, empowering women as a development tool, post-disaster governance systems and NGOs and civil society working in Harmony with the military.

Workshops focused on streams providing basic human needs such as water & sanitation, education, nutrition, health and shelter.

The Interactive Zone presented solutions for each of the phases of emergency management such as prevention, mitigation & preparedness, disaster and response, early recovery & reconstruction

Zainab Bitrus, from Kaduna in Nigerian who was part of a delegation from St Paul’s Episcopal Church, Pennsylvania was very much appreciative of the conference on empowering women as a development tool. What brought me here is not what has impressed me, she said. She was particularly fascinated by the condom for women. This was her first time of seeing it. “Practically if people know about it in Nigeria, they are few. We were taught how to use it and I would like to get this project and share it.

 Rosa Malango, Chief of External Relations and partnerships at the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) graced the second day of AIDF. She highlighted the work of OCHA asserting its responsibility for coordinating the work of United Nations’ humanitarian agencies – including UNICEF, the World Food Programme and UNHCR, the UN refugee agency – as well as international and national humanitarian NGOs.

“Our mission is to mobilize and coordinate humanitarian action, in partnership with national and international actors, to alleviate human suffering in disasters and emergencies. 

Malango stressed the fact that partnerships are the central factor in aid and development. Managing diversity and innovation are key elements that must inform our relationships and partnerships going forward.

She cited the examples of the partnership between OCHA and Ericsson for the provision of communications and related services and expertise to support humanitarian relief operations. Ericsson response is the company’s volunteer programme which works to help the UN in emergency situations by setting up mobile networks for voice and data communication.

OCHA’a partnership with DHL’s GoHelp programme included the establishment of Disaster Response Team. More than 400 DHL staff are able to deploy within 72 hours of a disaster to manage warehouses, sort donations, repackage items and work with all those sending and receiving aid.

“If we are to ensure a more effective response to the challenges ahead, a wider incorporation of the private sector, academia and individuals into the humanitarian family must be given top priority,” Malango added.

Further more, given that aid agencies must learn to share their experiences, the emerging reality is that all actors who seek to assist people in need can and should learn from each other to strengthen collaboration for more principled and accountable preparedness, response and risk management.”

“One of the biggest assets the private sector can bring to the table is its capacity for creativity, innovation and cost effectiveness.”

“If we are to make the most of the opportunities for growth, it is important that partnerships are established in non-emergency situations. This will allow for familiarization and time to explore possibilities and options that are relevant and sustainable. Partners who are familiar with each other and understand each other’s vision, ambitions and strengths are more likely to act in harmony.

Joanne Kennard, director of Mum And Kids Enterprises (M.A.K.E.) placed a premium on the partnerships she established through the event. “You cannot meet the people I have met by phone. I met the guys who make the decisions. It was a lot of work contacts, business deals, great excitement and new ideas for adaptation. It was absolutely worth the trip flying 26 hours, simply brilliant,” she said.

As part of the evolution that each year brings, the forum hosted the first Washington D.C. Projection of the Tribeca film festival commended documentary, ‘Baseball in a time of Cholera.’ Directed by aid workers David Darg and Bryn Mooser, “the film is a powerful insight into the tragedy of Haiti’s cholera epidemic as seen through the eyes of a young baseball player.”

At the level of innovation, two that impressed Goodall were the brick building machine and the Talking First Aid Kit. 

For the organizers one of the take home lessons this year was to work more with local partners. One of their greatest partners this year was Society for International Development (SID). Others include, Team Rubicon – a 21st approach to aid and development from Ex marines, Business Fights Poverty and INSSA among others.

A Synopsis of International Relief and Development’s Recruitment and Professional Networking Event. By Lambert Mbom.

With a staggering unemployment rate and the search for jobs (fulltime employment for many), Virginia-based International Relief and Development (IRD) decided to contribute to the recovery effort and relieve some distressing citizens. It organized a networking event, a job fair of some sorts on Tuesday January 11, 2011.

The conviviality and camaraderie evident in the exquisite Palomar Hotel Conference Center in Rosslyn, Virginia generated more than enough heat to beat the wintry snow gathering outside and even more sooth the unemployment stupor.

A reception desk staffed by four of IRD’s corps served as initial point of contact. Each guest received upon arrival a sign-in sheet for data collection; upon completion, one had the opportunity to present one’s resume and to receive literature on IRD’s mission and activities. This arrangement was simply classy and helped a lot to ease traffic in the Vivace Room.

Just at first contact, one could decipher the true hallmarks of IRD. Rooted in its DNA is the desire to help and to be of help. This was amply borne out by staff that showed they had imbibed IRD’s philosophy.

Looking rather perplexed, as I waddled through the crowd, a young woman walked up to me and inquired if I needed help. I was too shy to say so; she left me, not without describing to me where the different sectors of IRD were located in the hall.

Each guest received a “cheat sheet” at the entrance entitled “recruitment outlook.” It was a panoramic view of the job opportunities available at IRD. I quickly scanned through in search of what even remotely resembles my sphere of competence. True to the advert for this event, IRD ‘s eyes were on “business development professionals and seasoned chiefs of party, engineers, program and finance professionals with 10 years or more of experience.” There were opportunities in business development, infrastructure, security, health, community stabilization, democracy and governance and finance.

My face fell for my initial inspiration for this event was an opening in the communications department – communications associate to be specific, listed on IRD’s website. As I fidgeted with the list, my heart throbbed for some strange reasons and I could feel a cold rush of sweat down my spine. It was just devastating when I did not find anything on communication.

Not wanting to feel disappointed, I tried hard to convince myself that may be security could be a good alternative. This too did not fare well as the available positions had to do with security risks an area I have neither expertise nor experience. I was counting on the fact that security jobs are common among African immigrants in the US.

Then I said let me try healthcare, another popular employment source; after all, with the avalanche of experience working in a group home and as a residential counsellor could be relevant. This self-brainwashing or consolation was short-lived as I discovered the positions available were mainly senior level management in nature.

I turned next to Community stabilization and the sheer number of aspirants lined up to present themselves made it evident that mine was going to be a very long shot in deed.

Having learnt to always be upbeat, positive and make the best out of every situation, I decided I was going to write a story on the event. While I made up my mind on this self-assigned task, yet another lady approached me. She quickly asked my country of origin and I said Cameroon. She joyfully indicated she too is Cameroonian. Then she inquired to know what my interests are. Imagining she was also job-hunting, I paid scan attention to her, reluctantly telling her I am a freelance journalist. As would be imagined, I was too ashamed to let her know that in fact, I had no place in this event. The cynicism of a disgruntled job seeker was in display.

By some stroke of luck, I met the IRD’s Communications guru Jeffrey Grieco fondly called Jeff. I waited in line to introduce myself to him. He seemed to have been the most popular person everybody wanted to chat with or get his attention. I clinched a spot and asked him a few questions.

As to the raison d’etre of the event, Jeff quickly pointed out that such events were normal within the DC metro area and given too that IRD has new interests and new contracts, the event was necessary. IRD deployed its entire ‘etat-major’ with the different sector leaders cheerleading the event. He also indicated that the event provided an opportunity for IRD to fill its resume bank from where it shall pick out qualified candidates to staff various missions abroad and IRD’s headquarters in Arlington, Virginia.

In answer to whether the event had lived up to expectations, it was a resounding yes. Even though intended for mid-level and senior level, many of whom had come in earlier on in the evening, Jeff noted that this was a home run far above expectations. More than 250 persons showed up, he revealed, majority of whom were below the mid-level, yet relevant to IRD’s mission.

In terms of IRD’s priorities, Jeff jocularly harped on building infrastructure, community stabilization programs around the world especially in conflict and post conflict countries like Yemen, Pakistan Iraq, Afghanistan etc he added it is also IRD’s business to provide healthcare; and one crucial area for IRD is working for democracy and good governance.

Jeff was quite confident that in spite of the Republican controlled house and the party’s agenda of fiscal responsibility bent on cutting spending, US international development effort and agenda would neither be thwarted nor affected.

The high point of this event came in when I met with IRD’s President and CEO Dr Arthur B Keys Jr. He is the brain behind IRD’s success story. He defined IRD’s mission as one intent on helping people honourably attain self-sufficiency. IRD accomplishes this through its multi-sectoral engagement of development. Essential to the distinctness of IRD’s work, he opined, is the fact that IRD seeks to go to where everybody else has not been or would rather not go.

On the challenges besetting the organization, Dr Keys pointed to the fact that given the exponential growth of IRD within 12 years of its birth, maintaining this robust growth and being able to remain creative and on the cutting edge of international development was central to him.

To Dr Keys, this event is comparable to a funnel through which individuals whose skills and experience match the demands of IRD would be “drafted” and sent to the fields.

Stranded on the floor, looking somewhat dazed and in search of some “occupational distraction”, Dan Puls IRD’s Chief Advancement Officer quickly came to my rescue. Once again, in characteristic IRD style, he engaged me in a discussion. Noticing my passion for communication, he introduced me to IRD’s social media pilot program namely: voices.ird.org. His passion for Africa especially for Sudan was breathtaking as he recounted different events organized for Sudan. In the spirit of the evening, he generously offered to “hook me up” with a pal of his that had links with the African media outlet – AllAfrica.com

As the evening wound down, I got to meet Jim Lanning through Dan. Jim is a man of many worlds, in fact a polyvalent. He saved my evening. Hearing I am from Cameroon, he asked if I had met one of IRD’s cadres of Cameroonian descent, Elsie Tama. Nego, I retorted. He darted across the hall in a bid to connect us. Much to his dismay, Tama said she had already spoken to me. She turned out to be the same person I had snobbishly put away under the mistaken assumption that she too was prospecting for a job. I was lucky she gracefully agreed to an interview.

Having been there from the genesis of the IRD project, she spoke with ease on the mission of the IRD as a not-for-profit, non-governmental organization dedicated to work for the poor and vulnerable. Again, she proudly noted that IRD would go where no other NGO would go. IRD would do whatever it takes to get to the most difficult of places to provide requisite services.

Elsie intimated that one of IRD’s greatest challenges was the lack of enough money to accomplish the great feats IRD would love to undertake.

It was quite heart-warming to learn of IRD’s presence in Cameroon among its worldwide locations. There, she was resettling refugees from Central African Republic and Elsie noted that plans were afoot to expand programs in Cameroon to include agriculture.

When pressed on the issue of good governance as a precondition for development, Elsie was quick to point out that IRD does not let governance issues get in its way or let political issues deter it from accomplishing its mission.

I transitioned then to getting feedback from some participants. For Ivoirian born Kader Cisse a freelance consultant in DC, it was quite a very positive event with great people, good discussions, good networking.

Cameroonian born Patrick Elat, a consultant within regulatory environment and finance, described the evening as wonderful and very interesting. He noted that IRD’s personnel were very available and ready to help. The event proffered him an avalanche of very useful pieces of information. He rated it as 4 on an ascending scale with 5 as excellent. This initial stage had been very successful and he hoped the efforts would bear fruits in follow up. He stressed that follow up was critical for him.

Luna Liu, Graduate Assistant, Executive Master of Public Management Program of the University of Maryland thought it was a good event. She however left quite discouraged albeit. She did not get the chance to talk to senior level management. She was forthright on the fact that IRD did not care about junior professionals like herself and found much to her dismay and discontent that there were few to no opportunities for international students.

I might not have gotten a job offer but in its essence this event expanded my network or circle of friends. One thing is certain – it was a golden opportunity to think outside my regular box and surely if something comes up, I can count on these folks. Thanks to IRD and kudos for the event. Its level of professionalism can only be described in the superlative and this is indicative of the calibre of work IRD accomplishes in the field.

IRD desribes itself as ” a non-profit humanitarian and development organization dedicated to improving the lives and livelihoods of the world’s most vulnerable people. IRD specializes in conflict and post-conflict environments and works in more than 40 countries. With the help of local groups and donors, IRD builds sustainable, community-based programs that address relief, stabilization and development needs in the areas of health, agriculture, infrastructure, emergency response, and governance. For more information on IRD, visit http://www.ird.org.

Emerging from the Global Crisis: Growth in African Low Income Countries(LICs) – December 17th 2010 event at the Brookings: A Precis. By Lambert Mbom

From L to R: Ben Leo, Dr Suruma, Mwengi, Hugh BredenkampHow did the African low countries fare in the face of the recent financial meltdown was the theme of a recent event at the Brookings Institution. Organized by the Africa Growth Initiative of the Brookings, the framework for the event was a recent paper published by the IMF on the impact of the crisis on low-income countries(LICs) in Africa entitled: Emerging from the Global Crisis: Macroeconomic Challenges Facing Low-income Countries”.

A deductive methodology with a general picture of the situation in Africa preceded a presentation on one of these LICs’ handling of the crisis. Uganda was the case study. It is also worth noting that by way of style, the IMF paper was comparative in its analysis in terms of the past and projections into the future.

Hugh Bredenkamp, IMF’s Deputy Director in Strategy, Policy and Review department and head of the Low-Income Countries Strategy unit, was just the right person to discuss the highlights of the paper. The IMF specialist focused on three questions namely: Why did the dire predictions of the impact of the financial crisis on low-income countries not come home to roost? What predictions for the future from the lessons learnt? What common themes going forward emerge from this crisis?

The gist of Hugh’s presentation was the fact that Africa was able to weather this crisis better than three previous crises chiefly because of strong buffer policies. Unlike before, Africa also registered a comparative v-shaped recovery. During previous crises, the growth trajectory tended to remain extremely depressed if not negative for some years; With this meltdown, LICs have also followed the sort of V-shaped recovery trajectory.

The context of this paper was the sad reality that in the face of the economic downturn, the global focus was on its impact on advanced economies and to some extent emerging markets and very little on the implications for poorer countries. The familiar scenarios of cutting aid budgets, evidence of an already downturn in foreign direct investment and remittances already playing out, warranted the IMFs call for and on behalf of the low-income countries not to be left out.

The unexpected did not befall these countries and Hugh proffered five reasons why this crisis was different for low-income countries namely:
1)The high success of the global stimulus effort.
2) Donors heeded the call and did not cut aid budgets. Many of the multilateral scaled up their financing to shore up most of the deficits.
3) LICs were able to participate in the global stimulus effort or at least run countercyclical policies.
4) Unlike with previous crises, not only was the depth of this less severe but so too was the duration.
5) This success story is largely because these countries were in a very different macroeconomic situation going into the crisis than they were in the face of previous crises. This is a reflection of at least a decade and a half of strong policy efforts in low-income countries to put their economies on sound footing.

Hugh spent some time on what he called strong policy buffers. The indicators of these include fiscal deficits, public debt, inflation, reserves and current accounts. In the face of declining revenues during the crises, government spending increased as a share of GDP in 2009.This meant larger fiscal deficits. In contrast to the pattern in previous crises, LICs did not cut spending very much. Instead of cutting spending during a recession due to declining revenues, most of these LICs were able to take the right countercyclical measures.

For the future, given the effective defense the policy buffers provided the LICs in the face of the crisis, they should be effectively rebuilt to relatively strong positions. Chief indicators of this position would include, declining current accounts, recovering fiscal balances, public debt continuing in an upward trend in the short term but resuming downward path over the medium term. Unlike in advanced economies where fiscal consolidation requires austerity budgets, with the LICs increased spending is crucial and highly recommended.

Even though a homogenous pattern as a one size-fits-all is not an adequate recommendation, some common themes however emerge with respect to the future:
1) Countries need to strengthen their domestic fiscal revenue efforts. This they can achieve by fixing the design of their tax systems and in particular by fixing the tax administration. This will pay off in terms of government revenue markedly.
2) A cautious borrowing strategy to cover up the infrastructure gap and meet some other development needs is crucial. This must be accompanied by mobilizing domestic savings through reforms of domestic financial systems, which could include expansion of access to financial services to a broader population.
3) Reforms in the business sector especially with trade are important. Trade not just regionally between the LICs in Africa but also with the rest of the world holds a great promise for growth.

The second part of the discussion focused on a corroboration of the foregoing analysis. This onus fell on Dr Ezra Suruma, distinguished ministerial fellow at Brookings’ Africa Growth Initiative. As a former minister of finance in Uganda, he fleshed out the macro analysis of the IMF.

Dr Suruma indicated that in the morning of the crisis, their initial reaction was to understand the precise meaning of the crises. While some imagined that the crisis would lead to a realignment of the world economic order, in view of the emerging power of China, Brazil, India to name but these, others viewed it as merely an indication of the impact of the financial crises in the West and its loose credit practices.
Of prime concern then was how the country’s banking sector was going to shore up the effects. The fear was that some capital funds would be transferred to help troubled countries weather the storm and this would affect the LICs.

Dr Suruma affirmed the general tenor of the IMF’s paper namely that the pursuit of good macroeconomic policies provided the requisite cushion effect for LICs to weather the crises.

According to this seasoned public official, the major implications of the crises were the depreciation of the Ugandan Shilling, decrease in Foreign Direct Investment and the depletion of foreign remittances. On the exports, flowers market suffered greatly.

Regional trade especially within the East African trade bloc helped a lot especially compensating for the declining European markets.

With respect to Hugh’s recommendations, Dr Suruma noted that these were no novelties. Uganda like many other countries has been struggling to increase its revenue and had moved from 5% in the 80s to 14%.

Being part of the East African community, there is a yearly attempt at harmonization of the tax codes and there are enormous challenges involved. Lastly, attempts are afoot to extend financial services to the rural areas.
Dr Suruma noted that even though LICs did not suffer as much as they could have in terms of real per capita income, one real challenge still remains namely that the number of people still suffering from poverty has increased and probably as a result of the crisis. He noted that according to the African Development Bank there was an increase of 50 million people living below $1.25 per day in 2009 and an additional 30 million people in 2010 because of the crisis. The poverty puzzle thus remains a great challenge.

Ben Leo of the Center for Global Development then synthesized the previous discussions. First, he delineated a larger scope situating within a larger historical perspective the African LICs response and coping mechanism with the crisis. Historically, the first decade of the new millennium stood out tall relative to the other post independent decades. This very strong performance is verified in three cardinal indicators namely: The GDP per Capita growth was up by about 2% during the 2000s; inflation was at an all time low below 7% as well as fiscal deficits.

Three factors facilitated this economic buoyancy of the 2000s namely: government reforms that greatly enabled institutional capacity, benign macroeconomic environment with the commodities sector showing a steady upward trend in spite of their volatility and lastly, the resolution of conflicts. In the previous decades, over half of the LICs were embroiled in conflicts of some sorts but in the 2000s, none of these had active conflicts.

In the third part of his discourse, Ben Leo fleshed out why the impact of the crisis was less severe on LICs. Firstly, many of these nations moved towards more concessionary external funding.

Then HIPC and multilateral debt relief initiative helped in creating space for the countries to be able to respond adequately.

Thirdly, the relatively low integration of these countries in global financial markets in spite of the presence of many foreign banks in sub-Saharan African countries helped reduce the ripple and spillover effects of the global financial crises.

Lastly, the resilience of the aid budgets was also crucial.

Ben focused the last part of his discourse on questioning some aspects of the paper. He inquired to know why the low-buffer low-income countries did not expand fiscal spending in a counter cyclical way. Yet another intriguing phenomenon reported by the IMF’s paper was the fact that most of the countries that took countercyclical fiscal policies financed 50% of these domestically. He sought to know how much of this was Central Bank financing? Lastly, why is the IMF projecting that those LIC with lower buffers preceding the crisis are going to build those buffers up faster than the other countries? How are these countries going to achieve this and what practical policy lessons can be learnt across all the countries from this?

As always an intensive interaction followed these presentations with
a question and answer session.

Some Africans in a post event chat.

From L to R: Rumana, Moyo, Asmah, Salela, Tien


Virtual conference via Skype with Young African Leaders – Thursday November 18th 2010 – US Summit For Global Citizen Diplomacy. By Lambert Mbom

Yet another highlight of the US summit & Initiative For Global Citizen Diplomacy was a virtual session on Skype under the distinguished aegis of technology guru David Nassar of Hot Spot Digital between 11 of the 21 scheduled members of the President Obama’s Forum on Young African Leaders representing 11 countries and some American Companies with representatives from IBM, Google, Whitaker group, and CDC Development Solutions.

One of the first interventions from the African side painted in broad strokes the challenges young African entrepreneurs face daily namely, inaccessibility to financial resources, lack of basic skills training in such areas as writing business plans, lack of mentorship. This caller appealed for the creation of internship opportunities to meet this yawning gap.

In response, Tim Docking from IBM, acknowledged the challenges and pointed to an incredible tool, which could help meet some of the challenges. This is the small business tool kit accessible on http://www.smetoolkit.org. This is an incredible resource tool put together by IBM in partnership with the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation. This resource kit is properly tailored to meet the needs of different regions of the world.

Then, from Ethiopia, the cry was for help with women entrepreneurs and the complaints here ranged from lack of access to markets especially US markets, mentoring and coaching, product accessibility to the famed problem of lack of access to financial credit due to the banking policies generally unfavorable to young people who lack the needed collateral securities for loan guarantees

This contributor then shared the example of a Dutch company in Ethiopia that sends experts from Holland to help mentor women and access international markets. She called on the US companies to emulate this example, send business experts to Africa, and help facilitate access to US markets.

Aubrey Hruby, Managing Director of the Whitaker group poked the minds of many with her very incisive and though provoking comments. How is this network of Young African leaders going to change the way business is done in Africa, she quizzed? How is it going to be useful? The network needs to be provocative. Unfortunately, Aubrey opined, the network hasn’t many entrepreneurs and so is hampered ab initio. It needs to expand to bring in more entrepreneurs.

One of the African participants chimed in to say that the problem is not the dearth of entrepreneurs. The network has a vast talent pool laced with incredible potential but like many other things in Africa, many of these entrepreneurs are killed before they are born.

From Gambia, there was an appeal for contacts and potential sources of funding. For this group to become effective, it must coalesce around a common agenda and get the State department to help. This conference is a call to action for the group to come together and set forth a gripping agenda.

Yet another participant pointed to the problem of lack of access to information; Niall with Google Kenya, intimated that two major ways of accessing information in Africa are either through mobile phones or through the web. There is the need to build a tech environment with links to different events for example. Google provides trainings for such projects and he then circulated a link on training opportunities provided by Google to those on the web.

David interjected at this point to sum up that this far the most acute need is for a convening power for the group around a focused agenda and asked who the right conveners for this forum are.

Aubrey once again harped on the flaws of the African Leadership summit saying she was not sure what came out of it. She asked if the group had become an effective partnership.

Discussions now turned on why the enthusiasm that greeted the African Young Leaders forum in DC had waned. One participant pointed to the great problem of distances as many are far apart but quickly added that one should not lose sight of the fact that this is work in progress.

Another said they came back from DC to a different reality back home and back to a different environment. She revealed that at a country level, they are engaged but not at the macro level.

Aubrey chimed in once more to say we know what the issues are lack of mentorship, training etc. She noted rather blandly and bluntly that from its genesis, this group was never founded on strategic grounds; given that the State Department had fixed deadline to get a group together, there wasn’t enough time to scrutinize and get the group organically formed and so the current problems are not surprising.

However, there is an enormous opportunity now to transform the group with a real agenda and measurable outcome(s). The group must seek its value proposition and advance its agenda concluded Aubrey.

Other proposals included a call for members to start meeting at a national level before convening successfully at a continental level. The Gambian experience was set forth as an example to emulate. There is already in place a network of Gambian professionals, which serves as a platform for progressive ideas. As the African proverb has it, we must first dance at home before we can dance abroad.

In conclusion, the question that had dominated the discussions was: is the network really a network and how can the strengths be harnessed to strengthen the network?

Deirdre of CDC Development solutions promised to help relay the concerns brought forth and the fruitful conversations to the State Department.

David rounded up the conference by reminding all that change will not happen organically except participants start figuring out things strategically.

Interview with Ann Olsen Schodde and Dr David Roe by Lambert Mbom.

In an interview with Anne Olsen Schodde, President and CEO of USCCD she defined Citizen Diplomacy as “the engagement of individual American citizens in primarily voluntary, private sector programs and activities that increase cross-cultural understanding and knowledge between Americans and people from other countries, leading to greater mutual understanding and respect”.

She distinguished it from Public Diplomacy which is conducted through specific activities and programs under the auspices of the federal government that promote positive and credible perceptions of the U.S. generally, and of U.S. foreign policy specifically.

In today’s global society, the two are interconnected. The U.S. Department of State supports some citizen-to-citizen exchanges that involve artists, scholars, professionals, government officials, and youth. Those programs are largely dependent on private sectors partners to carry them out. Non-governmental actors – business, academic institutions, non-governmental organizations (NGOs), and individual citizens – play major roles in shaping the attitudes of foreign publics toward the United States.

The major success of this event according to Ann and David is in the fact that:
a) It had energized and excited many people already engaged in citizen diplomacy especially in k-12 and higher education

b) There was the renewal of the importance of the concept of citizen diplomacy and the crucial kick of the campaign to “double the number of Americans engaged in international activities that address global challenges of the 21st century to 120 million Americans by 2020”.

When asked if he thought the conference was racially inclusive enough, Dr David Roe pointed to the plenary session on International Corporate Social Responsibility led by the indefatigable Ingrid Saunders Jones who had moved from Detroit to Atlanta for a student exchange program and had remained there. She brought along with her a group of black youngsters to this conference.

He did not hesitate to remind me also that the current President of the Peace Corps is a priceless jewel brought in from Board of USCCD.

He also pointed to the fact that there were many black faces in attendance from all over the world.

Dr David then addressed the question of the perennial issue of fragmentation within International Aid and development agencies. He noted that some agencies had revealed that they never knew USCCD was involved with partnerships. Part of the primary focus of USCCD, Dr Roe went on, is to facilitate interconnections with and between businesses, NGOs etc. Currently, he went on, the US Center for Citizen Diplomacy boasts of 1100 US organizations connected on a central web portal focused on getting these organizations to work together and function properly.

On the question of difficulties and challenges besetting the organization, Dr. Roe pointed to the hydra headed monster of lack of financial resources. He lamented the fact that the organization had four underpaid staffers.

When challenged on how they were going to measure the success of their campaign, Dr Roe indicated that achieving those numbers is crucial but beyond and above this, getting dedicated organizations to address these global issues is cardinal and critical to their mission.

U.S. Summit & Initiative for Global Citizen Diplomacy November 16th – November 19th 2010: A Bird’s Eyeview by Lambert Mbom

Three days of strategic planning, systematic sharing, coordinated networking and intelligent brainstorming marked the summit on citizen diplomacy organized by the Iowa based US Center for Citizen Diplomacy (USCCD).

If one indicator of the magnitude of an event is the grandeur of the site hosting the event, then the summit etched its mark in excellence, by sheer dint of the humongous Grand Hyatt Hotel, where it lodged.

Over 600 people from 41 states and 39 countries gathered in the federal city at the Grand Hyatt to brainstorm on the theme: America’s greatest asset: American citizens partnering with the world to address global challenges of the 21st century. Such global challenges as the Environment, Poverty and Disease, Human Rights, Cultural engagement, Security (food, US and Global finance) were the major talking points.
The conference format was first a plenary session then break up sessions, which were either roundtables or task force. In all, there were 5 plenary sessions, 11 Task forces and 7 Roundtables.

In a sense, it was at the Closing Plenary that things came together as the seeming different and cacophonic asymmetries carefully pieced into a beautiful mosaic.

Prefatory remarks by Ann Schodde President & CEO USCCD set the tone for the ensuing discussions. She described the conference report just about to be released as “reflections of the work of outstanding leaders”. Coming at the end of the first decade of the second millennium, USCCD set forth a new challenge for the next decade namely: Double the number of Citizen Diplomats. The ultimate goal is to ignite a fundamental mindset change in the way we think of selves as American citizens. Drawing from an anecdotal paternal age-old admonition, she had received and kept jealously which advised that, we must make our home the center but never the boundary, Ann gave a distinct context to the work and mission of citizen diplomacy. We must begin to think globally and not only as citizens of the most democratic country. We have an earth to protect and not just a country.

To flesh out the recommendations of the conference were two seasoned erstwhile career diplomats, namely Honorable Ambassador Mark Johnson, founder, World Affairs Council of Montana and Honorable John Menzies, Dean, Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations, Seton Hall University. Honorable Menzeis availed of one of Churchill’s famous lines: Where we are today is certainly not the end but the end of the beginning. In a dialogal exchange, they delineated the following recommendations:
– Call for a global summit for citizen diplomacy in 2012 and US Center for Citizen Diplomacy should convene its stakeholders to make this happen;
– Explore and exploit opportunities for partnership by approaching and drawing in to the forum multilateral bodies like the UN, the EU, OECD, North Atlantic Council;
– Create outreach opportunities with faith-based organizations, youth, women and local states;
a) Outreach to the muslim world is particularly crucial and may be if given a similar opportunity like was given to Europe in the post World War II era especially given that in some of these countries citizen diplomacy is the only available diplomacy and should be vigorously exploited;
b) Engage the young people and encourage every young person going to college to take a check book and a passport;
c) A major stakeholder in this venture is the different states with whom partnerships must be established;

– Given “technology is the ontology of the culture” and holds an incredible opportunity, citizen diplomacy must be incorporate these new social media to stay connected and on the issues. The creation of digital communities is crucial.

– On development assistance – There was the recognition of the incredible role of NGOs and myriad of opportunities in the private sector. Participatory development with respectful involvement of recipients is a key principle to enhance.

– Entrepreneurial skills – businesses should do more in training, mentoring, leveraging business skills and best practices to promote global engagement.

– There was the dicey issue of immigration as a key component to the challenges facing citizen diplomacy. First the US must become culturally sensitive especially at Ports of Entry with its treatment of citizens of other countries coming to the US; then in its issuance of visas, even though progress had been made, a lot still needs to be done. If American citizens need to be safe abroad, Americans must show the example here. There was a clarion call for major immigration reform and not just anecdotal changes. There is the acute need for profound policy change.

– On Education, the stress was on the need for education reforms. There was an outcry that Americans are not being trained to be global citizens. The foundation of this must be laid in K – 12. Participants decried the lack of global competitiveness within classrooms, the sad expungement of social Studies and foreign language programs in many schools especially poor performing and/or cash-strapped schools. There was the tall call for the globalization of school outcomes.

Hon. Johnson ended with these sagacious words: There will be no foreign relations without any individual relations of trust. There individual relations of trust carry the weight of all relations; while Hon Menzies concluded with these words:There is only reason for doing something. All the rest are for doing nothing. The one reason to be involved then in this project is because it is the one thing to do. The greatest enemy to progress is inertia and not the lack of resources. Never take no as a given. Dare to try. Resist the inertia to do nothing.

George Atallah, Assistant Executive Director of External Affairs, NFL Players Association then took to the rostrum. In his prefatory remarks, he emphasized that Sports in general has a global outreach as well as invaluable lessons for citizen diplomats. Such indispensable attitudes as team work, dedication, sacrifice and hard work stand out . NFL players are global citizens too and go beyond the pitch. The famed New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees beyond the quarterbacking has a foundation Brees Dream foundation which is adorably an example of citizen diplomacy at work. Oakland raiders cornerback American born Nigerian Nnamdi Asomugha’s foundation Asomugha’s foundation impacting youth in the US and underprivileged orphans and widows in Africa through education and empowerment is yet another example. Most people identity NFL players by their names and numbers but now they need to be identified as persons, Mr. Atallah continued; USCCD provides this platform and hence going forward, NFL would collaborate with USCCD to have players as citizen diplomats.

Martin Davidson, CEO of the British Council, piggybacking on the sports analogy intimated that Sports is one of the most extraordinary forms of communication. The British Council, he revealed, engaged with USCCD 18 months ago in order to understand better, what is happening in the US and to bring an international perspective to the game – on laced with British Council’s global presence. With the USCCD, the British Council has a shared vision and a shared endeavor, Martin noted.

He reemphasized the need for a world forum for citizen diplomacy in 2012 and not just a vague and vain hope for cooperation.

Such a forum will share best practices and showcase best experiences, ways of funding, how to cooperate with multilateral and bilateral partners, how to use new media and engage young people.

For this to come through there is the necessity for active support of governments and also must encompass all around the world, be real and foster genuine interaction.

Above all else, such a forum must be committed to be a global reassertion of people – people engagement of the world’s issues.

To this end, he announced the commitment of Hon John Menzies – Dean of Seton Hall School of Diplomacy and International Relations, who had generously offered the campus of Seton Hall University for strategic planning meetings. They will coordinate an International think-tank to bring to fruition this conference.

Book Discussion – Defining Aid differently: Lessons from the Field. By Lambert Mbom

A Sideview of the Discussants

At the behest of the Brookings Institution, the public had the opportunity on Monday November 15 2010 to savor one of the latest publications on the Aid conundrum. The overarching point of departure of this work is that the current system of aid delivery is broken. In computer jargon, one could say the aid’s hard drive is corrupted and so needs a new operating system. It is important to note that according to the authors, the basic presupposition is that aid is indispensable to development. The moderator of this forum Dennis Whittle expressed it better saying, “Now is not the time to do different things but to do things differently.”

In setting the pace for the discussions, Homi Kharas (Senior Fellow and Deputy Director, Global Economy and Development at the Brookings Institution) lays out the main problem thus that for over the last fifty years aid has been in existence with over $3.2 trillion pumped in and yet experimentation is still rife. One cannot do the same things and expect different results. In appraising the current aid terrain, one thing that became obvious was the tons of literature spewed out stem mainly from the donors and little to nothing from the recipients. Hence, it was incumbent to scour the fields and piece together what is working whence the subtitle of the book – Lessons from the field. The book then is the story of aid efficiency in six randomly chosen countries namely Ethiopia, Kenya, Indonesia, Cambodia, Tajikistan and Pakistan.

Kharas identified four crucial issues bedeviling the current aid delivery model causing the clog namely: the acute fragmentation between the donors, volatility, lack of coordination and lack of information. It is fair to claim that the whole purpose of this new book was to address these epochal challenges with antidotal paradigms drawn from the field.

Kharas strongly affirmed that the impact of aid depends on organization and on information. He used the example of Aceh in Indonesia to make the point. In the aftermath of the Tsunami, the creation of a database whereby planners were able to overlay maps of needs on top of a map showing where resources were being provided led to the discovery of gaps in the delivery mechanism. With this, programmers were able to reprogram some of the aid in order to meet the discovered gaps.

Tajikistan provided another chapter in the book that examined the complex issue of joint country assistance strategies.

Beyond these country success stories, the book also drew lessons from the humanitarian relief industry, which according to this first speaker has been relatively successful. The one endearing lesson of this brand is in the fact that it had successfully set minimum standards and basically developed a laudable system of division of labor, specifying who is doing what, when, where and how.

Development assistance has not as much begun this journey, which is complicated further by the emergence of new actors like China and other International NGOs to add to the traditional aid donors.

In the wake of the foregoing, there is absolute need for a new model for aid for the 21st century, a little like having new wine in old wine skins. In Kharas’ words, it is a model grounded on a fairly old idea…that aid should be a catalyst for a country’s development and not a driver for the development. Therefore, what is necessary is not just the organizational structure at the country level, but also the will power to make sure countries actually own the aid that they receive. Such a model is defined by three D’s namely Differentiated country by country to align with development priorities of each country; it has to be Diverse and Dynamic to accommodate changes in aid and development conditions over time; they cannot but be inclusive to bring some of the new players into the discussion. The 1948 example of KFW channel for the Marshall Plan funds in Germany and 1950s US assistance to South Korea models are historical antecedents worth replicating.

In the second quarter of the presentation, Wolfgang Fengler (Lead Economist Nairobi Office of the World Bank) drew lessons from his experience in three different scenarios namely middle-income countries, very poor countries and aid volatile countries. He delineated three overarching lessons from the book for more traditional institutions namely:
a) Leverage – so rather than the World Bank building roads and schools, it should rather provide the funding to the government to do so.
– Big players should do big projects and leave the small projects to the small players.
– To get leverage, one would need good working relations with clients both within and without the government. China in the Kenyan experience for example though a new partner has more leverage because she delivers on her promises and avoids worthless prattle.
b) Aid donors must learn to stay on top of things and connect the dots instead of adding more dots. The example of Aceh is instructive here. To be efficient, donors should eschew the omnipresent temptation of focusing on building monuments; rather they should help in the backroom, in the control tower. In the Aceh reconstruction project, the indigenous controllers of aid posed the right questions such as: How much money will come from the NGOs? How many houses can you build in one year? The World Bank rather helped with connecting the dots such as “counting the money, counting the houses and helping to set benchmarks.”
c) Information is crucial especially in this age and time. Central to this project is information gathering and information sharing. Donor agencies must not lose sight of the fact that people and not machines are still running things. People provide information. To this end, the creation of Development Assistance Databases is indispensable. Three fundamental mistakes from previously poorly designed databases to be avoided in future are a) these databases must incorporate a comprehensive approach together with a b) clear cut methodology and above all c) donors must remember to share the information with those who provided the numbers.

In conclusion, Wolfgang applauded the Kenyan experience that has set up an Aid Effectiveness Group where government and partners meet regularly to exchange views. Secondly, Kenya has made giant strides in Information and Communication Technology with its crowd-sourcing tool whereby in the post election crisis with cell phones used to send text messages or other information onto a web server that then put them on maps. In his recommendation then Wolfgang noted that “aid needs to leverage knowledge because knowledge and information are the hardest currencies of this century.”

Dr Suruma a former Ugandan minister of Finance now Senior Presidential Advisor on Finance and Planning Uganda and Distinguished visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution) had the last quota where he validated the findings of the authors from his experience in public service in Uganda. He summed up his remarks with four Cs: Compassion and concern, complexity of aid, competition among donors and communication and coordination. One of the great assets of this work for Dr Suruma is the fact that beyond the rhetoric, cynicism and skepticism on aid, there is still abundant evidence that altruism is the driving force in aid. Aid is not only interested in politics and ideology but is born out of genuine compassion and concern for the poor.

Translation of this concern for the poor into effective aid, Suruma surmises could be the main point of this book. Suruma noted that it is one thing to provide aid, but it is quite another to provide the right aid and to provide it in the right way.

Competition among donors better known as the politics of aid is quite common. Here Suruma noted that there is the need to accommodate the competing interests and ideologies of donors and recipients. There is the need for flexibility in dealing with the vast array of actors especially with the novel donors like China.

To this end, communication among donors themselves and between the donors and the recipients must be vigorously pursued. Donors and recipients must avoid talking to each other or worse still over each other but rather with each other. The flexibility of the Ugandan President, Suruma intimated has greatly enabled the country to procure a great deal of aid, which is flowing in as budgetary support. To facilitate this process, Uganda has a strong liaison unit within the ministry of finance that tracks foreign assistance.

With respect to specific issues, Dr Suruma pointed out problems with implementation frames designed by donors. He demurred the paternalism of some donors who think they know better than recipients; then deliver very poorly designed and complicated programs, which take years to implement. He also identified the public procurement process as one of the complicated problems in the aid business and there is a good deal of corruption in the process on both sides. There is need for accountability for both donors and recipients.

In conclusion, Dr Suruma opined that it is not just aid that brings about growth but also investment, foreign direct investment, good policies and political stability.
A transcript of this discussion is accessible via the following link:
This book is also available from Brookings Institution.

The Standard Bank of South Africa: The Paradigm to Sustainable Development (Part II) By Lambert Mbom

In the general class of banking, connoisseurs will attest to the fact that the Standard Chartered Bank belongs to the top-notch eschelon. Often its employees come from la crème de la crème. The question then becomes what is unique about the Standard Bank of South Africa?

My fascination with the Standard bank of South Africa www.standardbank.com stems from the fact that it is of African parentage. This is a very big deal. It sure is an overstatement to opine that financial institutions of African roots have an abbreviated lifespan. This is borne out by the many tales people recount of how they have lost money in different schemes that are excellent on paper and never as much as took off even though designed by the best brains with record level experience and outstanding expertise. In addition, these stories are many. Any financial institution then that has survived the momentous challenges so pervasive in the culture deserves a “red-feather”.

Three things the Standard bank of South Africa is proud of and gladly trumpets are its South African roots, its global reach and its age 148 years. These neatly sum up the bank’s “palmares”.  For many of us from Africa not exposed to the riches of our motherland aside from occasional ejaculations of success stories, such records make us proud. This bank born on African soil with a centenarian experience having patiently borne with equanimity the vicissitudes characteristic of such an enterprise – an unfortunate curse of the continent – is a force to reckon with. There is no denying it that many such institutions hardly survive for long. We must doff our hats to Standard Bank of South Africa for rising to the occasion and making its name in a trade that seemingly is the exclusive preserve of the West divinely willed to it.

The wisdom of old age is one that as Africans we prize very highly; hence if the Standard bank of South Africa has succeeded for all these years, it sure will continue to leave its mark.

Of equal weight and importance is also the blessing that this bank has British roots. There is no denying it that while it remains a moot point, the Anglo-Saxon culture bags a summa cum laude grade in accountability and transparency. Did I read somewhere that countries colonized by Her Majesty have fared pretty well than those of their French counterparts? Let us remember too that the US, the world’s premier super power has British or if you prefer English ancestry. Not that I have anything particular against the French and their francophone offspring even though given their malfeasance record in Africa and in Cameroon, such an aversion would just be in order. I am no Francophobe of any sort but it is not by sheer accident that in Cameroon for example more than 3/4s of those arrested and charged for fraud, corruption and mismanagement are francophones. One could make the case that if Anglophones had the same exposition to the power of the key and the purse under the same conditions, they would not have done any better. Yet this remains a mere hypothesis. One may need to question whether the problem is with the system or with the people or both. There is no gainsaying it that the success story of the Standard Bank of South Africa is inextricably bound up with the English culture that undergirds it.

What is more, The Standard Bank of South Africa has an impressive array of international connections. One reason why many people in the US will want to bank with Bank of America for example is undoubtedly its nationwide availability. In crisscrossing this country, Bank of America customers need not worry for they are sure to comfortably carry out transactions without fear of extra fees. Of its many strengths, one that stands out clearly is the Standard Bank of South Africa’s presence on four continents and 33 countries, 16 of which are in Africa. To have been able to survive in 16 African countries is undoubtedly a great feat within the characteristic ambient of the choking high-handed bureaucracy and disenabling banking culture. In this age of networking and globalization, such opportunities are golden.

In seeking to discover the secret to the success story of this financial juggernaut, I found the answer in its sustainable development program. First in its fourfold customer education initiative encompassing the following:

–         Winning Teams program – a school-based program that integrates practical banking formation into the school’s formal curriculum geared at empowering students with life skills in money management, banking, entrepreneurship and the economy.

–         Financial literacy campaign for high schoolers which equips young people with knowledge and skills to manage their personal finances

–         Teach a child to save which focuses on children in Grades 4 – 7 schooling them in the ABCs and importance of saving

–         Financial literacy Outreach that targets the wider community and is doubly pronged with one arm focusing on personal banking whereby people receive training in the rudiments of banking and saving and then the business scheme which targets businessmen training them in business management and even has an investment portfolio that provides loans to these trainees.

Any institution that invests in people especially young people is pitching its tent on solid foundation. This is always a win-win situation. I imagined what the multiplier effect would have been like, if a bank like Amity bank had invested in consumer education especially among the budding and burgeoning youth. I do not want to pretend that some of us are such a financial disaster because we did not benefit from such training. Yet it will also be highly disingenuous to discount the ripple effect such an education brings to the society. Engaging young people into such training is an investment yielding enormous dividends.

As kids in primary school, we learnt to keep small wooden boxes or tins where we saved our coins in preparation for 11 February and 20 May celebrations when we could buy some delicacies such as bread and sardine, with some long sugarcane and feed on the pepperish-skinned beef popularly known as kanda. During the long holidays, streets in Cameroon boom with holidaymakers all struggling to eke a living. If one of those banks could tap into these skills and build a banking culture into these at such tender ages, fiscal responsibility would become a stronger asset of the community.

In most boarding schools, parents leave their children with pocket-money. My parents often left me for example with 25.000fcfa every term while I was in Sacred heart College but paradoxically even before the term went halfway, I was already indebted to a number of other students. With hindsight now, I imagine that if a bank had put a savings’ scheme for students like us and drilled us in the importance of savings, we would have benefitted a great deal not just in terms of the accrual but more in terms of the habit for as they say old habits die hard. If only banks could launch such a customer education program from primary school to university level, there would be a better banking culture which will invariably spur development.

One may argue that people do not fail to bank because they do not want to but rather because they lack the financial liquidity. Hence it is akin to putting the cart before the horse. I agree but I think the greater point is that if one cannot be faithful in little things, it will be hard to become adroit overnight with managing greater things.

Two other areas where the Standard Bank of South Africa has left its imprint are with housing and agriculture two of man’s basic needs –shelter and food.

In its housing scheme for example, the bank provides not only finances but also expertise for decent and environmentally friendly homes. The bank has collaborated with different city administrations to provide affordable housing. The city provides the land needed for affordable housing while the bank provides the financing and the expertise.

For those in the Diaspora this is surely a solution to the nightmare of trying to build a home while out of the country. A friend of mine recounted to me how he spent over $30.000 to construct a home. His cousin was project director and was on an agreed salary just to “insure” a plain execution of the project. When he went home one year after engaging the project, he almost collapsed when he saw what $30.000 had succeeded to put up. It would need another similar amount to complete it. I imagine that if he had taken out a loan for example with the bank and then left the project to come to life through the bank he sure would have had a run for his money. The Standard Bank of South Africa provides such an opportunity.

The Standard bank of South Africa also has a housing loan scheme with credit facilities that cut across the economic strata. Low-income earners have the opportunity to “access finance to buy, build or renovate a home”

Agriculture is the mainstay of most African economies. Food shortages in 2008 ignited one of the worst demonstrations in modern history. The Standard bank of South Africa has understood clearly that global food security is a top priority in development and Africa can and in fact, should play a central role in guaranteeing this. Aside from providing funding solutions to small-scale farmers making “finance and direct inputs such as seeds and fertilizers more accessible”, one cannot fail to mention the bank’s engagement with the Alliance for a green revolution in Africa (AGRA) founded in 2006 with former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as Board Chairman. Through this initiative and the Bank’s expansive network, new agricultural markets unquestionably emerge.

The overarching conclusion one comes to then is that the Standard bank of South Africa is a great force in sustainable development. How has the Union bank in Bamenda for example helped in the sustainable development of its locus operandi? Can the inhabitants of this locus claim a change in their modus vivendi because of the modus operandi of this financial institution? It is in this almost insignificant appendix to the work and mission of the Standard Bank of South Africa that I believe it deserves our accolades and we highly recommend it for a much more robust presence on the continent.

The Standard Bank of South Africa: A Paradigm for Sustainable Development. By Lambert Mbom

Of the many booths, I did not visit during the Aid and International Development Forum last July 2010, the Standard Bank of South Africa was unfortunately one. Given my initial attraction to this event namely to meet potential employers and make a pitch or better still to discover the topography of International development, in my wild dreams, this booth was then a wild cat. With no qualifications to serve even as a security guard at a bank, this was no match for me. What would a “broke” man like me be doing at a bank anyways?

Quite frankly, though there is no minimizing of the fact that my antipathy towards this booth was upped by the rather shocking fact that it was manned by some black folks. Come to think of it, we blacks have been greatly jaundiced. We seem to enjoy a bad press, if I may be colloquial here, especially in managing banks and financial institutions. Think about the many scamming schemes hatched and executed from motherland, or now commonplace money-doubling business to name but a few. They are nothing to compare with money laundering and other financial white collar crimes that are rife in our world. Yet, if you are like me, you would also have wondered whether these were not just a bunch of scammers, some con men with sweet as honey tongues to lure the unsuspecting.

My hesitancy was also greatly fuelled by the fact that I imagined the target audience for this bank was more for donors and aid agencies in need of a standard bank even if not chartered to vouchsafe the financial sustainability of their agenda. Prejudice got the best of me and I missed savoring an African pudding.

My search for “Africanness” in the development game after the Aid and International development forum brought me to this 148 years old banking institution – The Standard bank of South Africa. I was quite enthralled reading its rich history.

For all my thirty-some years in Africa, I never had the pleasure of banking. My dad surrendered to me a Post Office Savings’ Account he had opened for me while I was young. I cannot remember how much was in it but know I did not try to grow it; a decision I have never regretted for before long this savings scheme collapsed. This is just the fate of many such institutions which rise today and fall the next day.

As a matter of fact, the few times I visited a bank was with my beloved mum to pick up her salary which was to serve for groceries as we would matter-of-factly then go ahead to the market. Regrettably, I enjoyed the safari tours to the bank but failed to draw the lesson she meant to impress on me. By the way, I have never understood why she moved from the Treasury to BICIC then SCB – Credit Lyonnais and I think wound up with National Financial Credit. This is surely not unconnected to the familiar poor customer service wont of some of these institutions. Those French acronyms should also have something to do with it. This is only my poor guess. Sad enough, it has been a labyrinthine journey just to be able to get the paltry sum given to teachers as salary. 

As I grew older, I remember the few times I went to the bank was to visit friends and either beg or borrow or expressed more politely, curry for some favors. These favors were not from the bank but from my friends working there. After all, if they keep all that money, they too cannot but be cognately “moneyee” or in some jargon “casheous”.  As to whether I ever repaid them what I borrowed, that is a topic for another session and your guess is as good as mine. Then Christmas of 2003 gave me an opportunity as I went in to the Western Union to cash a gift a priest friend of mine had sent to me. You can imagine the airs I put on and the majestic way I strolled out of that bank with everybody around me being suspect. The whole world seemed to be rotating around me with the meager 250.000fcfa I had bagged.

My first real bank transaction was in the US where I had the privilege of a checking account and a savings account. I was also able by some stroke of luck to land a credit card two years later which I soon maxed out, got burnt out and today credit now is niet. Clearly, excitement got the better half of me and it sure will take me a long time for me to bounce back. Credit without proper education in personal financial management is a recipe for disaster. The disastrous effect of this is felt when one needs to rent an apartment, buy a house, buy a car etc then the hydra-headed monster of credit score rears its ugly head.

One thing which is clear is the fact that my story is not an exceptional fairytale. The banking culture in many African countries is no different. I cannot help but recount the story of the famous Nigerian comedian – Chief Zebrudaya whose wife bugged him for a new mattress so much so that one day he decided to treat her to a pleasant surprise. He discarded the old mattress and put it to flames and replaced it with a more comfortable sleep-luring one. When Ophelia, Chief Zebrudaya’s wife, came home, the husband was all smiles and broke the good news to her. Instead of celebrating, Ophelia was restless and frantically searched around for the discarded mattress. When she was told that this had been burnt, she almost collapsed as she recounted that she had hidden her life’s savings in this mattress.

The pipe smoking old man who got up in the morning to discover that the paper he had rolled for his tobacco and piped off was his lone two thousand fcfa bill. This surely strikes a familiar chord.

There is no denying it that banking in Cameroon is reserved for the few rich barons especially business gurus. Most civil servants also receive their salaries through banks. Banking itself became a vibrant “business” in the insatiable “bush-falling” industry as “dokimen” eked a living from “waxing” bank statements for unsuspecting clientele to take to the embassy. When embassies started calling banks to verify the bank statements, some bank managers made a big scoop as they welcomed many in desperate demand for these statements.

The history of banking in Cameroon is a sad tale. The recent Ponzi scheme in Kumba that hit the news waves last year where a coterie of Nigerian con men duped Cameroonians in Kumba to a luscious savings scheme with windfall profits. Many fell in to the deal and soon and very soon in deed K-town and its notorious feymania had been beaten in its own game on home turf as the entire  town was reeling.

In the wake of the post financial meltdown, fueled in large part by the banking sector, increasingly the argument is being made every day in the US that banks should be able to lend to small business entrepreneurs so they can grow their businesses and a fortiori the economy. It is a key, in fact, a master-key in growing jobs in America. Yet we cannot forget the sad truth that the sub-prime mortgage scandal where many people got approved for mortgages they could not afford led the banks to the cataclysmic meltdown. And talking about mortgages, there is an interesting pattern amongst immigrants who have not learnt to cut their coats not according to their sizes but according to their cloths. High foreclosure rates are the sad repercussions. Sadly, this is not a new phenomenon.

Southern Cameroonians revel and regale in stories about Cameroon Bank – a typically Anglo-Saxon bank that thrived before the coming of the francophone. One major cause for bank failures is undoubtedly poor management of the loan scheme. Loans given to a government run by a gang akin to the legendary Ali Baba and the forty thieves or to people not because they are credit-worthy but because of their status in society, or because they know people who know people. Risky loans saw the demise of this financial juggernaut Cameroon Bank and today Southern Cameroonians can only hanker after the fleshpots of the past.

In our time came Amity bank born amidst great promise and fanfare. It sailed tall for a while and then bedeviled by the personality feuds between Tasha and “smooth criminal” Bongam among others, it fell from glory. Today, it is a mere shadow of itself.

There is no doubt that one of the major drawbacks to formal banking in Cameroon is  the popular “njangi” – the most basic form of which is the pooling together of people who together agree on a fixed amount to contribute in a given time frame with monthly being most common and on the basis of a random system mostly balloting, one person is given the contributions of the other.

If there is any classical example of the truth that history repeats itself it is the recent instance in DC of a group of unsuspecting economic brokers who got together for a njangi with the famous Bongam, or notorious maybe. He is said to have flooded the list with his own names unknown to the others, most of which by some rather intriguing mafia came up early so much so that after the others had contributed month after month and given to him when it came to his turn to contribute he began defaulting. Then the lid was taken off the pot much to the chagrin of the others who realized they had just fallen into a scam. I hear some people lost as much as $16.000. Wonders shall never end.

A formal form of this “njangi” is with the popular credit union. They have left their marks in serving especially rural communities. Proof of their success story is the creation of the credit union bank called Union Bank. One rightly wonders whether other retail banks can stand the finesse of these credit unions which are more credit accessible, have record low-interest rates on loans and more people friendly.

It is against this backdrop that the story of the Standard bank of South Africa stirred my sixth sense. I am no expert in financial matters but still reserve the privilege to be able to showcase a good financial institution such as the Standard Bank of South Africa. Among the many things that fascinated me about this bank, the most distinctive was its sustainable development portfolio. It is a compelling blueprint and quite transformational.

(To be continued)

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