Letter From Tanzania III: Using the Afghan ‘Peace Dividend’

Letter From Tanzania III: Using the Afghan ‘Peace Dividend’

Letter From Tanzania III: Using the Afghan ‘Peace Dividend’

Providing services to fight poverty overseas is a much better bang for our buck than stationing soldiers there.


A Muslim woman walks past an ancient door on the Indian Ocean Island of Zanzibar in Tanzania. (Reuters/Thomas Mukoya.)

This is the third of several 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.

Today’s lesson from Tanzania is about bang for the buck.

Here’s a good way to think about the minuscule cost of US and other foreign aid, humanitarian and otherwise, to the developing countries. The cost of keeping just thirty-three American soldiers in Afghanistan, at $1 million each for a year, is $33 million. Compare that to the total assets of more than 170,000 separate and distinct Village Savings and Loan Associations (VSLAs) and other microfinance groups in Africa, spread among forty countries and serving nearly 3.8 million people, mostly women: $33,494,000.

Nor is that $33 million “foreign aid,” in any sense. Thanks to the work of groups such as CARE, Catholic Relief Services, Oxfam, Pact, Plan International, World Vision and a handful of others, who’ve worked since 1991 to help set up VSLA-style groups across Africa, literally millions of people, mostly women, have been able to pool their meager resources, a few dollars at a time, to create what amount to mini-banks in village after village, including many in remote and underserved areas where no bank can reach. Usually, each VSLA serves a couple of dozen women who can borrow small amounts of cash for food, to help start a home-based business, to pay for children’s schooling, and other needs. And, as shown by a report from CARE, “Closing the Gap 2011: Microfinance in Africa,” there are non-financial benefits to a VSLA, too:

Members frequently turn to the [VSLA] as a solidarity group, a place where they can come for counsel in stressful times. It is a place where women, especially, can develop leadership skills and realize the amorphous concept of empowerment. The group might also become an advocate for social change and community development. Altogether the [VSLA] provides a social safety net form which members and non-members alike can benefit.

If you’re interested in learning how VSLAs work, and getting some data on their effects, you can read CARE’s whole report.

But the point here is that these mini-banks, serving just a handful of women who start them up and manage them, do a vast amount of good, for very little. The NGOs that start them up, train women (and some men) to create and manage them, and help them stay up and running until they become self-sustaining can do it all for just $26 per person who gets involved. Maybe the math doesn’t quite work, but that means that 4 million people who suddenly have access to life-saving loans can be set up and maintained for about $100 million. That’s the cost of keeping 100 soldiers in Afghanistan for one year. You do the math: President Obama is bringing home 33,000 troops by 2014, which is roughly $33 billion worth. That much money could do a lot of good in Tanzania and elsewhere. Why not spend it?

Even a few days in Tanzania shows why it’s needed. No doubt few Americans have given a moment’s thought to this sprawling East African nation, home to more than 40 million people, at least not since 1998, when Al Qaeda bombed the US embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam. But its needs are vast, and I’ve pointed out in this weeks series of letters from Tanzania, the private sector is not going to fix it.

At a briefing here is Dar es Salaam this morning, officials from UNICEF, the World Food Program, CARE and others laid out the challenge. Storms, floods and droughts, plus deforestation (240,000 acres per year) have severely damaged Tanzania’s already struggling agricultural base, where three-quarters of Tanzanians make their living—if you can call living on less than $1 a day a living. (And living on less than $1 a day here means, on average, actually trying to get by on fifty-eight cents a day.) Nearly one half of Tanzanian children are so badly undernourished that they are physically and mentally stunted at an early age, which debilitates them for life. In some areas of the country, said one official, fully 60 percent of children suffer from stunting and chronic malnutrition. Disease runs rampant, and the number of doctors in Tanzania is among the lowest in the world: .008 doctors for every 1,000 people. (For the mathematically challenged, that translates into just eight doctors for every 1,000,000 people!)

It’s a bleak picture, and despite the work of countless NHOs, the UN, various donor countries and programs such as USAID and the Millennium Challenge Corporation from the United States, not a lot of progress is being made. The work they’re doing is incredibly valuable, and life saving, of course. Today, I visited a clinic in Dar es Salaam funded by USAID (with banners reading: “From the American people”) and it was packed with long, long lines of women waiting for prenatal care, family planning services and many other services. The clinic, tiny by American standards, provides care to a population of 800,000 people. The nurses—and they are mostly nurses—see 500 to 600 patients a day, often delivering ten to fifteen babies every day. It was clean, well-run, wonderfully staffed and incredibly well organized—and overwhelmed. Said one of its directors, with considerable understatement: “We have challenges in our health center.”

So give USAID credit for that. But why isn’t the United States doing more? Why not cash in that Afghanistan “peace divided” (yes, let’s call it that) use it to help countries from Tanzania to Haiti to Bangladesh?

According to CARE, when Americans are asked how much of the American budget is spent on foreign aid, they usually answer “about 25 percent.” When asked how much the United States ought to spend, they say that about 10 percent sounds right. The real answer, of course, is about 1 percent. So, politically at least, tripling or quadrupling that shouldn’t get voters too upset!

Fact is, if President Obama intends to follow through on what he’s said in recent speeches, including the State of the Union address, that the United States is committed to ending poverty and hunger in the Third World in twenty years, he’s going to have work hard to rally a political coalition in support of that effort. It’s like going to war—except no one gets killed.

Tanzania needs more investment, but don't look to the private sector, Robert Dreyfuss writes in his previous post in the series.

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