Friday, June 26, 2009

On Bribery

One of the more prominent stereotypes of Africa purveyed in Hollywood movies is that every policeman, soldier, and government official that you cross will demand a bribe. I honestly arrived in Africa with very few preconceptions, but nevertheless came prepared to spar with crooked officials. I say, “prepared,” in a loose sense. I honestly had no idea what I would do, but played through enough scenarios in my head to know the outcomes weren’t pretty. Either I could acquiesce to the request, looking pride and money I could not afford, or refuse, and be at the mercy of the official. Even if a refusal ended with a benign outcome, I was fairly convinced I would botch the job and stand there stuttering embarrassingly before tourists who were handling their bribery with far more class.

To my relief, Malawi has lived up to its reputation for friendliness. The police, military, and government officials here are some of the nicest people I have met. The most likely place to run into police is at roadside checkpoints, which are scattered along Malawi’s major roads. They are the government’s primary method of enforcing vehicle registration and insurance, since patrol cars are still too expensive for ordinary use. The first few times I was pulled aside my pulse quickened and my mind began to race with images of Jack Daniels and wads of cash being coyly surrendered by tanned and muscular movie protagonists. At a roadblock near the capital, I think an officer noticed my apprehension since, after returning to the car with my license, sternly said, “we have a problem here.” His frown then immediately melted into a smile and he slapped me on the back and said, “just kidding, have a great trip.” Luckily for me, the police do not seem interested in booze or money, and if they are, show no compulsion to extort it from me. There are several things, however, the police nearly always want: a friendly wave, pleasant conversation, and information regarding how good your day has been.

The Malawian police also serve a handy dual purpose. Since the quality roads in Malawi are not accompanied by quality road signs, the police are often the only source of reliable directions. They always enquire as to your destination, and are quick to point out, always in non-judgmental way, that you took a wrong turn. I was once told how to drive half way across the country after a friendly police officer realized I had no clue where I was going. I think American cops could really improve their image by emulating the Malawian system. Of course, it might seem a tad patronizing for a police officer to ask if you are having a good day after pulling you over for running a red light. Just a hunch.

I lack the experience to judge whether Malawi is the exception or the rule, but paging through the Africa Lonely Planet leads me to suspect the former. The pages are rife with examples of bribery scams and boarder crossings to avoid. Tourists I have met are frequently hassled at the border crossings and checkpoints of neighboring countries. I am relieved that Malawi avoids this stigma, but nevertheless cannot shirk the feeling that I am missing out on the full African experience. Okay, that’s horrible. No one should ever root for corruption; it is one of the biggest obstacles holding back Africa. Still though, after playing out bribery scenarios in your head, you start to wonder what it would really be like.

Luckily for me, though perhaps not for Malawi, my curiosity was satisfied by a crooked immigration officer at the airport last month. I suppose that even in a country known for its friendliness there are always a few jerks. Jes and I were on route to a Safari with Jes’s family, but first needed to clear immigration. Pat, Wendy, and Elias all had no problem, but Jes and I were told we had to meet with the immigration officer. I half expected this, since at first glance I appear to have overstayed my visa. This is not the case; I was approved for a temporary residence permit and by Malawian law, need only the paper work and not a stamped passport. I had the paper work and had handed it over with my passport, so was understandably a little irked when I was told there was a problem.

“Well, should I go down to the immigration office?” I asked. The immigration paperwork had been courteously handled by a proxy from the airline while we licked ice-cream cones on the observation level. “Oh that’s not necessary,” relied the attendant, “he is going to come up here to talk to you.” That really should have been my first clue that something was wrong, but at the time I graciously accepted the seeming friendly offer to meet in a locale where I could finish my ice-cream unabated.

We choose a secluded table at the corner of the cafeteria and the conversation started out cordially enough. He started with a long drawn-out speech on how Malawi doesn’t issue fines for overstayed visas. ‘Well good,’ I thought, who would open with a line like that if bribery was to come. Looking back, he was probably trying to abolish any chance of legitimately buying our freedom. Nevertheless, at the time I was put at ease and accepted that there must be a simple misunderstanding. Jes and I ardently tried to explain our situation to the officer, but he didn’t seem particularly interested in our story and kept affirming that the permit was invalid.

Undoubtedly, Jes and I first appeared to the immigration officer as easy patsies. We look like young American tourists who overstayed their visa. He also knows that we are shortly scheduled to depart the country by plane, a scenario which probably entails subsequent expensive flights we will not want to miss. Indeed, by all accounts he should have had us over a barrel, but not all was as it seemed. Firstly, we were flying to Zambia on a private plane. There was no connecting flight, and as the only passengers, the pilot was unlikely to leave without us. Secondly, after living in Malawi for 6 months we had acquired some useful contacts and information.

“Why don’t you call the immigration officer who handled this for us in Blantyre,” I said, as I produced a phone number from my wallet. He wasn’t expecting this; as I said earlier, I had given the bribery stuff some thought. He quickly regained his composure and withdrew a cell phone form his pocket and dialed. Jes and I have been learning the local language, but we are unusual in this respect. Most international workers don’t bother since English is so ubiquitous. Now understand that Jes and I are in no way fluent, but at the time, we knew enough to suspect the officer’s conversation was likely to a friend, and not to our contact in Blantyre.

“I am afraid we still have a problem,” said the officer after concluding the call. He then proceeded to repeat everything he had already told us. I began to wonder whether we had been misinformed in Blantyre; maybe we really were in visa violation. After all, the immigration officer undoubtedly knew more than we, and had still said nothing blatant to suggest he was not an upstanding agent of the law. But part of me was still suspicious; little things just didn’t add up. The phone call, the discrepant information, something was wrong. I glanced to Jes and then back to the officer and noticed something peculiar. Usually uniformed men and women in Malawi have name tags, but the man before me seemed to have inconspicuously removed his. ‘That’s odd,’ I thought. “Well, what should we do?” I asked. “Well,” he said, glancing to the ceiling before reaffixing his gaze, “I could allow you to leave for humanitarian reasons.” ‘Sure, fine,’ I thought, whatever it takes to get us out of this mess. “Does that mean we could leave?” I asked. “You could leave today, but it is up to you,” the officer replied phlegmatically. What did he mean, “it was up to us.” Who in their right mind would spend their vacation dealing with entrenched bureaucracy? “You can call your friend in Blantyre yourself if you want, unfortunately my phone is out of minutes,” he said. I was pretty sure this was a lie. I was willing to bet his phone had plenty of minutes, but he knew that we probably didn’t have a Malawian cell phone and would therefore have no recourse. We did actually, have a phone that is; one that was stocked with an unusually high number of minutes that would allow us to call any official in Blantyre, no matter how protracted the conversation. We also happened to have the numbers of several people who are close friends of Malawi’s chief immigration officer. I was pretty sure that in few minutes I could have the personal cell phone number of this guy’s boss. ‘Bring it on’, I thought. I’ll call who ever I need to. And then it came, the final piece of the puzzle, the sentence that confirmed that the officer was not inept, just corrupt. “We can help each other,” he said.

Damn, this guy really did want a bribe. I was sure he could probably detain us, but at this point I was pretty pissed off and was prepared to inconvenience myself on principle. I just hoped Jes was on board. “He wants a bribe Jesse,” said Jes very loudly. Bless her heart, she was on board. Several people at the far corners of the room glanced in our direction. The officer across the table shifted uneasily in his seat. Then Jes continued, still very loudly, “I think we should call the people in Blantyre.” To the shock of the man across the table, I quickly produced a Malawian phone and replied, “I agree, this doesn’t seem right.” I then made a show of searching through contacts to the chagrin of the officer who now realized that he had messed with the wrong two tourists. His ambivalent demeanor quickly faded and he said in a resigned voice, “I think we are okay here.” I personally still wanted to call Blantyre and bust the guy, but our plane was scheduled to depart in minutes. As we passed through the immigration gate, the officer was all smiles. “I called Blantyre and got it all worked out,” he said as I walked past. I thought, ‘yeah right,’ and looked over at Jes as she flashed me a sardonic look.

After the feeling of ultimate victory had subsided, I began to consider whether the officer’s behavior was excusable. In the Africa Lonely Planet guide, a common boarder crossing bribery scam is described in which the author maintains that the officials “shouldn’t be blamed since they have probably have not been paid in months” (I tried to find the page number and exact quote, but the book is over 1000 pages and I failed to relocate it). During the Safari with Jes’s family, I overheard a tourist who was telling a story of how a guard demanded a bribe at a boarder crossing. He finished the story with an air of nonchalance, saying, “hey, he probably needed the money right?” I don’t know why this type of rationalization is so common. Perhaps it is fueled by a sense of guilt arising from witnessing the poverty that is so common in Africa. Perhaps people are masking their embarrassment of being cheated. Maybe stereotypes have made people so expectant, they don’t think twice.

It is very gracious to dismiss corrupt behavior as the product of poverty, however I worry such sentiments are more of an excuse than a cause. I am not about to begrudge a mother or father that steals to feed their family, but how often is bribery done out of necessity? In my bribery experience, the immigration official had a government job, and was therefore relatively affluent. We need to be careful to not excuse behavior that has such severe consequences

Every time a tourist pays a bribe, they are assuaging a personal risk but increasing the likelihood future travelers will encounter a dangerous situation. They are also contributing to a system of corruption that is holding back Africa. When encountering bribery, I would never encourage anyone to put themselves in physical danger, but safe countermeasures can taken. Have your documentation ready, have numbers you can call, and of course, don’t break laws or overstay visas. Most bribery occurs when the victim is at least a little at fault. If you are in the wrong, try to work through official channels even if it is inconvenient. If your relative affluence makes you uncomfortable when traveling in a poor country, donate your time or money to an NGO, but please, don’t allow a sense of guilt to rationalize corrupt behavior.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Laptops and Appropriate Technology

I have been giving a lot of thought lately to the term, “appropriate technology.” The term became a buzz word a while back in the realm of development and foreign aid. The principal behind it being that developing countries should be given technology that will mesh with their lifestyle and current state of development. Proponents of the theory would argue against giving undeveloped areas medical or educational aid which relied too heavily on electricity or consistent access to technology. This could include anything from x-ray machines to computer based learning tools.
Several years ago during a service project in India I saw remote villages that had benefited greatly from low tech borehole wells. The wells have no electronic parts and can be easily fixed with basic hand tools. They represent a project that would fall under the classification appropriate technology. Projects like this, and those that focus on soil reclamation and improved farming practices have provided significant improvement in peoples lives in a sustainable fashion. In the same village where I had seen the boreholes, I also saw the remnants of a failed electrification project. Several years back a centralized solar system had been installed to power basic electronic devices such as radios and lamps. After 6 months the battery had died, and without access to new acid or the electronics knowledge necessary, the equipment had been dismantled and was being used decoratively in the chief’s house. Ironically, I was visiting the village with a team from college who were installing a solar lighting system. At the time I secretly wondered whether our equipment would eventually be used aesthetically, but the time and effort I had invested in the project made it easy to ignore such thoughts. A year later I heard rumors that the solar systems were still in use, but to subsequent news I have not been privy. Overall, the experience lead me to question the practicality of technological projects in remote areas.
After returning home I began reading about the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) movement. The organization was started by an MIT professor who wanted to bring computing to the children of the 3rd world. His idea was that by building a rugged laptop aimed at children, you would create a tech savvy population ready to utilize the technology necessary for development. The website featured many idyllic photos of children typing away on custom green laptops in the shadow of thatched mud huts. Aside from wanting to play with the laptops, which were admittedly pretty cool, I was skeptical. I simply could not imagine the laptops succeeding in places like the village I had visited in India. I thought the project was bound to confirm that those boring appropriate technology people were right.
Fast forward several years to today. I start the day as normal. This means waking up to no power and no water. That fine, I am prepared for this now and quickly wash down the bread I had baked the night before with the water I had presciently set aside. I journey to school where, in the half hour before classes start, I quickly outline my lectures for the day. In form 1 we are starting acids and bases, this means two things: first, an excursion to the supply room, and second, that I will end the day with acid burns from lack of protective equipment. Although the school is woefully ill equipped for labs, a smattering of grants and donations over the years has left the school with some surprising equipment. Recently, during an afternoon of snooping, I found a cabinet full of chemicals (most improperly labeled), a brand new electronic scale (without batteries), and a water deionizer (wrong type of plug). Luckily for me, though unfortunate for the students, the stash remains untouched, locked away in a room which the other teachers seem nervous to enter for fear they might break something. My sense of entitlement, fostered by a childhood and adolescent in America, leaves me with no such trepidation, and I frequently hunt down the keys and go searching for something to spice up my next lesson.
I have made it a goal to do at least one lab per class per week. Sometimes the lab is basic; last week I rigged up a water-alcohol solution over a candle to illustrate the principals of distillation. After some of the stunts I pulled in COOL Science (a science outreach club at Colorado College), the stuff I do now seems down right lamb. Amazingly though, the students are always a great audience. During the distillation demo I actually got cheers when the water started to boil. I know these kids cook at home so boiling water shouldn’t be too exciting. Perhaps it is because these kids never get demos at school. Except for a sedimentation demo I once saw a teacher do (he ingeniously used sand and a coke bottle), I have never seen another teacher do a demo. This is a shame, since with some improvising and a little ingenuity our basic supplies can make some passable educational demos.
Today I was hoping to find anything labeled acid or base, and if I’m lucky, something with a chemical formula and a stated concentration. I was in the back of the room, trying to hold my breath because I had just accidentally kicked a box full of unlabeled white powder, when I saw a box of with a green cord protruding. Through a crack in the box I saw a green bevel and I was filled with disbelief. Yes!; it was a box with 15 pristine OLPC green laptops. The first thing I did, after doing a kick ass acid-base demo with color changing indicators, was spend the day playing with the laptops.
The laptops got some things very right and some things very wrong. A linux variant is used which is smart, since due to the proliferation of pirated software in Malawi, every computer expends half its energy following the instructions of viruses and spyware. Another smart idea is the mesh network, which automatically creates an adhoc network between all OLPC laptops in range. This is great for doing activities and lessons between the computers. A feature which allows two people to work on the same document is quite fun. Jes and I’s collaboration quickly digressed into an exchange of dirty words that ended with a small food fight. Still, I think the feature holds promise for those who show a little more maturity. The biggest drawback of the laptops is that they are designed for primary school aged children. This is a problem for two reasons. First, young children in Malawi rank slightly above a goat in the social order, so are very unlikely to ever get their hands on the laptop. Second, the games and applications that come preloaded are of limited practical use for the secondary students or adults who are likely to have access to the laptop.
Access is the key issue here. I found the laptops buried in a supply room and judging from the dust on the box, they had been there for a while. I conspicuity took two laptops to the teacher room and started running loud attention grabbing programs. Within minutes every teacher was huddled behind my desk, taking excitedly about the laptops. Most teachers had never seen the laptops before and expressed disbelief that I had found them in the supply room. This is nothing new, I often hear the head science teacher exclaim, “oh, we had that did we,” when I return from the supply room with some scientific contraption. Some veteran teachers (teachers who have been here more than 1 year), recalled with nostalgia when the laptops had arrived, but seemed unaware they still existed. Apparently after a short foray, they were stored away for safe keeping with every other useful item the school owns.
A week has passed now, and I have dutifully charge two laptops every night and delivered them to the teacher’s room every morning. After years of doing fundraising projects, I have a pet peeve for donor dollars going to waste. Someone shelled out a lot of money for the laptops, and until now, they might have invested in Chrysler for all the good it’s doing. Slowly the teachers have been cracking the green lids of the laptops and trying them out. Throughout the week, several teachers have asked whether they could take the laptops home. I made it clear that the computers did not belong to me, and encouraged them to check one out from the school. This is something the teachers are entirely free to do, but the moment I suggest entering the stockroom their interest fades. I don’t get it; the administration does nothing to discourage teachers from using supplies. The principal even mentioned she wished the teachers would better utilize the resources we do have. I got the first sign that my plan was working today when the computer teacher asked if he could use the laptops in class to illustrate networking. Because they don’t have MS Office he can’t use them in his normal lessons, so it might just be Jes and I for a while.
I took the laptops into my form 1 classes today as a treat for completing their physical science course work. After a stampede to the front of the room, the students were putting the term childproof to the test. I hadn’t until today appreciated the vocabulary that has evolved with the assimilation of the computer into everyday life. A quick instruction to use the mouse left kids furtively looking to the corners of the room for rodents. An instruction to click a button had half the class pushing on the screen. One kid sat in front of the computer, hands folded in his lab, giving verbal commands to no avail. Big cheers erupted when the students realized that moving their finger on the front of the laptop moved the curser. I honestly think moving the curser around would have amused most the class for the entire period. Needless to say the laptops were a big hit. I don’t think they can ever be used for education purposes, but as an introduction to computers use they are invaluable.
At the end of the day I am still asking myself if the computers are worth the money spent on them. The cost of the laptops was about $2300, enough to pay the tuition for 23 students for a year. Jes and I plan on using them occasionally, but I suspect that after we leave they will be relegated back to the stockroom. The computer teacher may use them to illustrate networking, but without commercial software, he can’t use them regularly in his classes. I am afraid that in the case of MCV the tech project has failed. In many ways the OPLC laptops at MCV illustrate why high-tech projects are so risky. The computer required charging, a difficult proposition with intermittent power, no converters, few plugs, and no power strips. The laptop design also failed to accommodate the population to which they were given. These inconveniences, combined with a lack of prerequisite computer knowledge, doomed the project and wasted thousands of dollars. This example would seem to demonstrate why appropriate technology should be embraced and high-tech projects dismissed. However, living in Malawi I have been exposed to a perspective which also should be given credence.
Please, for a moment, put yourself in the shoes of a Malawian. If someone gave you a choice between a textbook and a laptop, what would you choose? The answer is simple, you would choose the laptop. It is more interesting, more novel, and unequivocally cooler. The Malawians’ choice, and their motivations, would be the same. Malawians want they same things as you or I. They want a developed economy, cars, computers, and advanced medical care.
The problem with appropriate technology is that you are giving people what they need, without advancing them towards a lifestyle that they want. You are making a judgment about what is best for the person. I think that Malawians should have a voice in the aid they receive. It is not the place of the 1st world to tell the 3rd that they should be happy with better crop yield and fresh water while forgoing the technological amenities we enjoy. In developed countries, I have noticed a tendency to idealize rural or village life. In magazines like Natural Geographic, large vibrant pictures of thatched huts and traditional garb convey a quant lifestyle. The subsistence lifestyle may be quaint, but it also has some very serious drawbacks. If people want to continue living traditionally, let them. However, those who desire a more modern life should also be supported.
A developed lifestyle doesn’t come from bore-hole wells; it comes from more radical investments in technology. Without crazy projects like OLPC, a computer movement will never begin, and people will be trapped in a way of life with inherent disadvantages. A perfect example is illustrated in the book, Mountains Beyond Mountains. In Peru’s peasant populations, Paul Farmer treated multi-drug resistant tuberculosis with state-of-the-art medication, often spending tens of thousands of dollars per patient. At the time, the therapy was considered too expensive and impossible without access to 1st world medical facilities. Nearly all of Farmer’s patients responded to treatment, creating a paradigm shift in the field of tuberculosis care. The expensive drugs were certified for 3rd world application causing use to rise and prices to plummet. Farmer took a large risk and it paid off big. A similar but smaller risk was taken with the laptops at MCV. In the case of the laptops no benefit was realized, which begs the question, should the risk have been taken. It is impossible to answer such as question because one never knows what the outcome will be. All that is known for certain is that if enough projects are attempted, eventually one will succeed.
This is not an argument for high tech aid any more than it is an argument for appropriate technology. I personally think the two models of assistance need to go hand in hand. Dollar for dollar, the low tech stuff will always work better. I still believe the basics: food, water, health, and shelter need to come first. I am still skeptical of projects like OLPC. However, I also realize that the lifestyles people want will never transpire without higher risk projects. I believe that hardnosed pragmatism needs to be tempered with an acknowledgement of what people want from their lives. If people want development, and they do, the higher risk ventures are needed. Many projects like OLPC’s and Farmer’s will fail, but sometimes they will succeed, and when they do, they will do more to advance people’s quality of life than appropriate technology ever could.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Pictures from Safari

Ever wondered what a village looks like? Here are some shots from the sky that will take you back in time.

Myself, next to a very large termite mound. This is one of the biggest I have seen. Keep in mind that I already climbed up about 2 feet.

Dont move. That was what I was told.

Jes, looking cute as always.

Check out Jes's blog for different pictures. The link is to the right.