Tuesday, December 29, 2009

"Stop complaining and just do something."

The quote above was taken from Gerson, one of the most inspiring individuals I've met in a while and one who really had some interesting thoughts on romanticizing the poor. Gerson works in Gurue with CLUSA, which is trying to ramp up soybean production with farmer associations (soybean is important for poultry feed), and I was able to tag along for a few days. Gurue, by the way, was called by Gerson's boss "the Garden of Eden", and he wasn't far off. But man is it rural.
There's only one paved road and late night entertainment consists of Laurentina beers and a plate of chicken at the only restaurant open after dark.

Anyway,Gerson has a lot of experience in development, on the ground and in management, so he had unique insights into what is actually happening in both arenas. His attitude is one of put up or shut up. He's sick of aid organizations talking, advertising, and getting so little done. Riding through the villages you notice the pervasiveness of aid organizations by the signposts at every corner. But you won't see any signs for his organization because they're not looking to be flashy - they just want to get stuff done.

After I really dug deep, Gerson - shy about his accomplishments - admitted that although he has only been here 10 months, he has already legalized nearly every farmer association (the number escapes me but it's something like 150). Why this wasn't done before baffles him - rather, it was just a bunch of farmers together with no legal status. At a recent meeting of local NGOs, a World Vision official said he wanted to do some work making sure all of the associations were actually legalized. The certification has been done, let's move on to bigger issues, Gerson says. He believes World Vision is looking to certify one or two associations and then claim it was an equal partner to CLUSA. This, Gerson says, is how a lot of development work gets done, or rather reported.

And he hears the same excuses, things like "It's Africa man, you can't change it." This is echoed not only by foreigners, but also by Mozambiqueans, citizens, and the government. The civil war is another common cry. Gerson argues that it's not a problem of the war or even an endemic African problem. Rather, he sees it as a problem with attitude. He said, "The war was over 16 years ago and still they use it as an excuse. I mean, come on, do something. Stop complaining and just do something." We talked about how there was so much untapped opportunity in the country, from tourism to agriculture, and why people were just sitting on their hands.

What I like about Gerson is that he doesn't get romantic about the poor. He stays practical. He's only willing to help those who are willing to help themselves, yet he understands when something goes wrong because of a factor outside of a farmer's control. And he only comments on things he has knowledge on, so when he refused to give an answer on a few topics, it made me feel more confident in his other opinions.

I also see a lot of me in him. I like how he works at the intersection of management and field work - probably a direction I'm headed if possible. And even at the bewilderment of his family and friends, who wonder "what are you doing in the bush?", he is committed to bettering his country. He's not yet looking to settle down like most locals: I asked when Mozambiqueans get married, to which the 29-year-old responded, "By now, I should have two kids." And also just like me, he can't cook. His game plan is to just throw things into a pot, entire tomatoes and onions without even dicing, and hope for the best. The dinner he made for me when I was over was pretty decent though, but then again I go for quantity over quality. He shared that when he had a big donor over one night at his boss's request, instead of cooking he ordered Chinese take out, topping it off with a roll of toilet paper in the middle of the table for napkins. It was funny because I wouldn't have done any different. But hey, don't get romantic, stay practical, right?


  1. Haha! that's great Rob! I almost made it to Gurue but ran out of time. If you make it to Alto Molocue, you should see MAP--Molocue Agro Processamento. According to Jake, it's the best cashew plant in Moz. If you do end up going, say hi to the guy in my facebook profile pic. He's a really nice guy. I really wish I could remember his name right now.

    By the way, I should have said something to you about pictures. They get uptight about it. Also, both Dr. Victor and I agree that people in Moz tend to be very pessimistic. They always say, "Oh that won't work here," whereas people in Bangladesh are much more willing to try things.

    I am just now finishing a book Jake's wife recommended to me. I'm on the last chapter of Plowing the Sea. It's quite good--I see a lot of what I know about Jake in the book. Though the book gets quite repetitive near the end, it's definitely worth the read. Nothing mindblowing yet its very practical based on 2 guys with extensive research consulting in the Andes region of South America. I know you have a huge to read list, but I think it'd be good to read since you're with TechnoServe.

    I'm interested to hear what you think of Moz economic policies--both past and present. Plowing the Sea indirectly talks a lot about the "curse of the natural resources" explaining how countries aren't necessarily doing the wrong thing, they do the right thing for too long. You can use comparative advantages to get into a market, but you have to use strategic action to develop competitive strategies that create sustained, diffusive wealth. They talk about the need to "go micro," citing how macroeconomic policy isn't enough. A dependence on comparative advantages leads to a very paternalistic view, one that both you and Gerson likely see all the time.

    Let me know how you're doing and say hey to Jake for me as well.

  2. Hey Thomas, good to hear from you. I talked to Jake yesterday and am trying to line up a short trip to Alto. Jake said I should definitely see it. The guy I think you're thinking of is Mussa. I head there this Sunday. At the beginning of next week I go to Mutuali to check out the soybean work TNS is doing and a cotton factory.

    And yea, I would agree that people are pretty pessimistic. I mean, after so many years of failure and war I suppose it’s hard not to be. It seems like people don’t see their chances of getting ahead to be very good. Maybe it has to do with the high cost of living (it seems like everything in the economy is imported) compared to the options for employment, which may have something to do with the communist legacy. I mean, in Nampula there is pretty much no industry. The biggest domestic industry in the country is beer, and even that is government-run.

    I definitely put Plowing the Sea on my list when you told me about it. When someone comes to visit me I’m going to have them bring it over. I’ve got a couple Easterly books on the way from a guy who went home for Christmas. I haven’t had too much time to look into gov economic policies, but I will say that the opening up of the cashew industry and subsequent crashing of the industry, forced by the World Bank, made me rethink the “open up to trade no matter what” mantra you hear preached in economics classes. I think opening to trade is the right way to go, but like Paul Collier explains in the Bottom Billion, domestic industries need to have their feet slowly brought to the fire instead of being instantly incinerated, if that makes sense. I am meeting a member of Parliament when I get back to Maputo, so I’ll be sure to pick his brain. Hope things are going well for you. Tell the XC guys I said hey.

  3. That's great! I'm glad to hear you're heading to Alto. Not many (good) choices of places to stay. I'm sure you'll stay where I stayed if you spend the night there. Still, they were friendly and most importantly my stuff was safe there. Mussa is a great guy and is clearly very proud of his business. His family lives in Nampula so he goes to visit them every other weekend I believe. I'm assuming you're speaking of the crash of the cashew industry prior to the involvement of TNS? Have a good time in Alto Molocue!