One of the most satisfying responses I received from readers of my New York Times article on cotton in Africa came from a young professor, soon to begin teaching at Yale University. Here’s the guts of the exchange: I read your article in the Times today with interest. It was an excellent piece. It also ties in remarkably closely to the policy we have been advocating to the humanitarian and government community, namely widespread agriculture promotion. After reading your article, it occurs to me that we’ve been barking up the wrong tree, and perhaps ought to be speaking to private sector actors. I’ll be in Uganda March and April, and I’d be really be interested in contacting the Dunavant staff there (and perhaps also in the US) about evaluating in a formal way the direct and indirect development impacts of their programs, including what works, for whom, and why.
MY RESPONSE: I am glad you read the article and see MNCs as an option. too many people in the humanitarian field dismiss private actors out of hand, yet these actors have effective networks on which you can piggyback social services. My general view is that friends of Africa need to be more concerned with effectiveness rather than ideological or “process” coherence. Private corporations should be viewed as a tool. When applied to the wrong problem, they are the wrong solution. but sometimes you have a nail and they are the hammer. To admit this doesn’t mean you are pro-MNCs. We all reserve the right to make nuanced judgements. The light-side, dark-side duality presented by many NGOs working in Africa is a cartoon version of reality. In the real work, partnerships are temporary and contingent, and they only last so long as they notch accomplishments. When state-ownership works — and it does — use it. When private actors get things done, use them too. I suspect you will find that your life in the humanitarian field will become very lonely, however, when you begin to engage MNCs. For it turns out that many friends of Africa actually want to use Africans to make didactic points about ideological struggles that are far removed from the existential challenges faced by poor African farmers.
Even this experience is useful though.