Letter From Tanzania I: The Challenge for Obama

Letter From Tanzania I: The Challenge for Obama

Letter From Tanzania I: The Challenge for Obama

Will the president put his money where his mouth is and tackle poverty and disease?


In his State of the Union address, Barack Obama pledged to address extreme poverty worldwide. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais.)

This is the first of what I expect will be four or five blog posts written from Dar es Salaam and Morogoro, Tanzania. I'm visiting Tanzania thanks to CARE USA, which has paid for my trip with the help of a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Its purpose, for me at least, is to explore one country's need for humanitarian aid and development assistance and to examine America's political will and commitment to deliver on its promises. 

Here, in Tanzania, is a perfect place to find out what President Obama has to do to put his money—or rather, yours and mine—where his mouth is, and whether he truly has the political will. Specifically, whether an American president with direct family roots in Kenya, Tanzania’s neighbor to the north, really means it when he says that one of the goals of his second term in the White House will be to uplift the poor, the sick and the hungry in the developing countries.

Here’s how Obama put it in the January 21 inaugural address, speaking about America’s role in the world:

And we must be a source of hope to the poor, the sick, the marginalized, the victims of prejudice—not out of mere charity, but because peace in our time requires the constant advance of those principles that our common creed describes: tolerance and opportunity; human dignity and justice.

Then, during his State of the Union speech, Obama elaborated:

We also know that progress in the most impoverished parts of our world enriches us all. In many places, people live on little more than a dollar a day. So the United States will join with our allies to eradicate such extreme poverty in the next two decades: by connecting more people to the global economy and empowering women; by giving our young and brightest minds new opportunities to serve and helping communities to feed, power and educate themselves; by saving the world's children from preventable deaths; and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.

To “eradicate…extreme poverty in the next two decades” is a tall task, indeed. But it’s one worth doing, and it’s not really expensive. For decades, however, US efforts in that direction have been mostly talk. Ever since President John F. Kennedy sounded a similar stirring call and created agencies such as the Agency for International Development (now USAID), the United States has woefully shirked the task. During the Cold War, if it did anything at all, it used cash to try to buy the allegiance of the nonaligned countries, usually with little success. And after the Cold War, the United States pretty much forgot about the world overseas, at least until 9/11. Political support for foreign aid in its current, stingy form is almost nonexistent, and it will take a sustained effort by President Obama to build a political coalition in favor of what’s needed, namely, a massive expansion of development assistance, humanitarian relief and efforts to finance improvements in infrastructure, schools, hospitals and clinics, and more.

The passivity of the Democrats in the face of this moral and strategic challenge has been matched by a breathtaking insensitivity by the Republicans, who’ve approached foreign aid like a wrecking ball approaches a building. Ever since Jesse Helms, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tried to abolish USAID altogether, the Republicans have been hammering away at it, getting all flint-eyed about aid while lavishing money on the Department of Defense. They’ve been pressing to cut USAID funding for years, while also slashing US funding for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), itself created by the Republicans as a way of reshaping foreign aid according to GOP preferences. The bottom line: the United States provides a measly 0.17 percent of its GNP—that’s one-sixth of 1 percent—for development assistance, even though Washington agreed with its foreign partners, as part of the UN’s Agenda 21, that all countries ought to deliver at least 0.7 percent of GNP to needy countries.

Those blithe Democrats and skinflint Republicans ought to come to Tanzania. One of the poorest countries in the world, Tanzania’s 49 million people are struggling to eke out a living, with the vast majority of its population engaged in subsistence agriculture and nearly half of its people (45 percent) under the age of 14. About a third of its people live on less than a dollar a day. Yet, in a sign of how Washington orders its priorities, last year USAID provided Tanzania with just $212 million in aid while shoveling more than ten times that amount, $2.24 billion, to Afghanistan and another $972 million for Pakistan.

Today, in Dar es Salaam, the capital, I spent an hour with Paul Daniels, the Dutch relief and aid worker who heads the office of CARE USA here. Soft-spoken and bespectacled, Daniels points out that although Tanzania has enjoyed fairly robust economic growth for a decade, around seven percent a year, nearly all of those gains have come from tourism, mining and oil, with agriculture lagging far behind, and those gains have gone mostly to Tanzania’s haves, not its have-nots. “The poor did not get their share,” he says with some understatement. Not only that, but Tanzania is being devastated by the early effects of climate change, with droughts, floods and storms pushing many of its people to the brink, adds Daniels. CARE, with a staff of more than 200 here, including just eight foreigners, is doing its part, focusing on women and girls, providing assistance for microfinance, village savings and loan associations, healthcare and other projects while, at the same time, trying to ameliorate the effects of climate change with early warning systems, water storage programs, drought-resistant seeds and efforts to reverse deforestation, and watching for the spread of new diseases brought on by climate change, which has apparently sparked a resurgence of the tsetse fly.

But much, much more is needed: many billions of dollars for Tanzania multiplied by the needs of several dozen more countries in the Third World. “I would like to see better funding,” says Daniels, quietly. And he’d like to see a reinvigorated USAID, in conjunction with the beleaguered Tanzanian government, step up coordination of what is now a somewhat hodgepodge of assistance involving many agencies and NGOs like CARE. “Why doesn’t USAID coordinate things?” he asks. “Why doesn’t USAID mandate where aid needs to go and what projects ought to have priority?”

After I spoke with Daniels, his staff drove me an hour or so north from the center of Dar es Salaam to the village of Mabwepande, in the Kinondoni district, where some of the poorest and most marginalized people in the capital reside. Many of the people in Mabwepande were relocated there when massive flooding his the capital in 2011, a stark illustration of Daniels’s point about climate change wreaking havoc here. In Mabwepande, I met several dozen women in two locations who showed what can be accomplished with the right approach. In one home, a group of thirteen women led by Aisha Mwamwaya, a 50-year-old mother of three, have built a thriving microfinance village S&L association, and I watched as the women passed back and forth tiny amounts of cash—the rough equivalents of $5 to $10—that serves as the informal “bank” of their group, providing small loans to women who have started businesses raising chickens, pickling food, making batik cloth, making soap and selling drinks at a small refreshment stand. Not only that, but a parallel CARE program backed by a Norwegian retailer provides additional training for the women in quality control, marketing and the like so they can connect with buyers at local market, exhibitions and beyond.

“Being empowered means standing up for your family, being able to take care of your kids, making sure our family is healthy,” says Mwamwaya. “I have confidence now.” And not just her. Thanks to CARE, in the district of Kinondoni alone, there are more than 200 VSLAs serving 10,000 women. But what if there were 200,000 in Tanzania, serving 10 million women? Are you listening, President Obama?

A few miles away, I met Margaret Mlokozi, who’s worked closely with her VSLA. Having learned how to make spectacularly beautiful batik garments and establishing her own thriving mini-business, Mlokozi worked with other local women to set up a train-the-trainers program to teach women to how cut, tie, stamp and dye the fabric, and she currently has 104 women who come to her home in Mabwepande to learn the trade. “The first time I started doing it, it was a very difficult situation, and it’s a situation that I don’t want other women to go through. So I want to teach other women,” says Mlokozi. Nearby, on a hot, dusty lot, surrounded by semi-barren plots of land and half-finished cinderblock homes, a group of a dozen women sit in a small shack of cinderblocks with a tin roof and large, breezy windows made of what looks like chicken wire. Patiently, they’re making their first few batik garments, and each of them proudly wears the very first ones they made under Mlokozi’s instruction.

I asked her why she does it, since she’s obviously not wealthy and volunteering her time is a major commitment. She gets emotional. “I am self-sufficient now. I have a good house. My kids are grown. The only thing that matters to me is seeing vulnerable women suffering.”

Is it impossible to imagine a US foreign policy not centered on firing drones, conducting lethal night raids in Kandahar and setting up Africom bases across Africa? On not building up the navy and air force to “contain” China but on working alongside China—which is very active in Africa—to “eradicate…extreme poverty” in the next twenty years? If so, Tanzania might be a good place to start.

The United States come in good faith if it wants to negotiate with Iran, Robert Dreyfuss writes.

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