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

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

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

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

Fitch describes Day’s vision:

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

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

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

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

  • Neal Lang

    “Day complains that ‘World Bank types…tend to favor (and fund) paved roads and train tracks.’ They tend to favor (and fund) those things they assume to be marks of development and progress, based on comparison with the existence of those things in the developed nations.”

    Having witnessed just how condesending World Bank country staff is to representative of the people from developing countries when it comes what types of programs they will and will not support with finance, I can say that the World Bank is more interested in donor countries approvals and marketing oppurtunies than what the people of any country might prefer as their best hope sustained development nd improved economic conditions. One of the reasons for this is that the World Bank staff assigned to a given given general are chosen from staff at the bank which are from a developing country’s colonial power.

    A case in point is the Ivory Coast, As few years backs I accompanied a representative from that country’s President who himself was an elected Parlimentary Member and also a US graduate engineer, in a meeting at World Bank Headquarters in Washington to discuss possible future development programs that would be particularly directed at water projects related to Agriculture and Rural Development. The governmental represented wanted World Bank assistance with irrigation and flood control projects related to improving harvests by extending the growing season and number of anniual crops grown. He insisted that the best way to insure steady and continuous rural development in his country was to improve the agricultural sector, where 95% of the rural workforce worked, thus increasing the family incomes of these rural populations. The World Bank French representatives argued instead an extensive hand pump program whereby rural villages would receive wells and borehole water pumps, gratious! The Ivory Coast representative countered that if they could improve the economic viable of agricultural in the rural area then this would raise the income levels of most rural people and thus their local communities and villages, so that they, themselves would be able to purchase and maintain Village Level Operation and Maintenance water systems, thus providing a permanent, rather than a short boost in living standards. The Frenchmen didn’t care what the people of Ivory Coast wanted, they knew better.

    This is typical of all governmental development donor and finance organizations and most NGOs.