Do you know what a billion looks like? 15 billion?

Excuse me whilst I drag my soap box out and give it a dust off.

Ah. There we are. Now I’ll just climb atop it and get my balance and try to keep the cynicism out of my tone  …

The leaders of the G8 have earmarked $15 billion for Africa. This is what a billion looks like in figures: 1,000,000,000. A billion: a big number, ten figures, and a little word – seven small letters – and it rolls off the tongue easily (all those zeros …). Especially off the tongues of politicians and G8 attendees.

But do you know – do they know – what a billion actually means, precisely what it represents?

An advertising agency once made clever work of putting a billion – the number – into meaningful perspective.

  • A billion seconds ago it was 1959.
  • A billion minutes ago Jesus was alive.
  • A billion hours ago our ancestors were living in the Stone Age.
  • A billion days ago no-one walked on the earth on two feet.

So. There we are. That’s a billion.

Now imagine fifteen: 15,000,000,000 bucks coming to Africa. Not, this time, for emergency aid relief, but for longer term strategizing: helping to make communities more self-sufficient. Helping to get agriculture off the ground. Teaching a man to fish …

This is good. Africa is – despite famine-fraught images which make horrible watching but stark attention grabbing headlines – much more fertile than it’s given credit for. Between the Wars, and pre-Independence, Africa was manipulated as something of a bread basket. That was certainly part of Britain’s excuse for colonizing Kenya: England was hungry. Oh, the irony …

So. Big, big (15 billionbig) bucks headed Africa’s way. President Obama has attached a little proviso to the sum: development depends upon good governance … the ingredient which has been missing in far too many places, for far too long. That is the change that can unlock Africa’s potential. And that is a responsibility that can only be met by Africans.  Obama expects mutual responsibility: that’s what he said in Ghana last week (and stop blaming Britain, the colonialists and the slave trade for the mess you’re in too, he added in an interview with Sky News: that won’t wash anymore,  it wasn’t right but lots of what’s happened in Independent Africa hasn’t been either, he said, without actually mentioning Mr Mugabe). A small warning to African heads of state who are doubtless rubbing their hands in gleeful anticipation of new fleets of ever glossier, go-faster Mercedes Benzes with mirror-black bullet-proof windows (whilst their wives make shopping lists for imminent trips to Harrods).

Oh. I do beg your pardon: I had promised to try to keep the cynicism out of my tone, hadn’t I?

Sorry. I can’t help it.

Here’s why. Here, today especially, is why.

There is an organisation here which works with smallholders. Hundreds of thousands of peasant farmers (with hundreds and thousands of dependants) whose tiny holdings straggle the west and south west of big sprawling Tanzania, a part of the country mostly naked of useful infrastructure and much of it marginal land with thin sandy soil that you don’t imagine would support a single living thing except the endless scratch-scrub miombo that grows there.  But the farmers’ crop is hardy and valuable and does not mind the poor soil in the region, nor the six months of sponge-soaked wet and six of popodom-crack dry. 

The organisation facilitates the growing and subsequent harvest and buying of the crop.  It supplies the inputs – seed, fertilizer, pesticides – and supports the farmers throughout the growing with an extension – and entirely free consultancy – service of technicians and agronomists who educate the farmers on good agricultural practice, and the cultivation of a variety of crops, incuding maize which, without encouragment, wouldn’t grow here. And then, at harvest, this outfit collects the crop from the farmers and delivers it to buyers on the other side of the country who pay the farmers for their produce.

But from this season that orgaisation will not be allowed to provide inputs. From this season the Trade Unions have said they will provide inputs. I don’t know why they have secured this responsibility: probably because they told the farmers, who have been taught to believe the Unions are acting in their best interests (after all, how could a large commercial enterprise possibly be doing so?) that they’d be better off if they did.  Besides, they don’t have a choice – the farmers – it’s the Unions way or the Highway (if, indeed, there was a highway in this forgotten part of the country).

There is a useful opportunity here for the Unions to generate some extra personal  income on the side in commissions from suppliers. Not that I’m saying that’s their incentive, of course. There is a very real risk that the Unions will not get these vital inputs to the farmers early enough and their tardiness will impact yields negatively: if you don’t get seed in ahead of the rain, you won’t get it in at all on those roads.  (No highways, remember). And the farmers won’t get a crop.

But that’s only a small part of the much larger potential of the problem.

From this season, farmers will be charged 18% interest on those inputs as opposed to the 2 they were charged last year and the one before that and the one before that. 

I don’t expect the Unions have explained to the farmers that their involvement will mean farmers’ earnings are reduced by almost a fifth.  I don’t suppose they care much that come the end of the season, when the farmers face a huge and unexpected bill, their morale will collapse along with their household incomes. Like a lot of those who attain positions of power here, the Unions will manipulate this new responsbility as a handy means to bolster their own bank balances.

British charity ActionAid warned in a report last week that one billion (that bigsmall word again) people world-wide go hungry.  (Alot of them in Africa). They said decisions at the G8 gathering could “literally make the difference between life and death for millions in the developing world”.

Providing, of course the $15,000,000,000 ends up in the hands of those who are genuinely interested and able to make that difference.

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12 Responses to “Do you know what a billion looks like? 15 billion?”

  1. rummuser Says:

    I was sent here by Grannymar from Ireland, no doubt, because I am an Anglophile! I have gone through your posts and read your “About Me” and am fascinated.

    About this 15 billion, I can write till the cows come home, but I quite understand your angst and the feeling of helplessness.

    Everytime I read about Africa, I wonder what ever went wrong post independence. In south Asia, post independence, we have also had, poverty certainly, but not of the kind that Africa produces. Ditto wars, leaders, democracy, religious extremism etc.

    I also am fascinated by the similiarities between what you write about Africa and what some Indophiles like Mark Tully write about India.

    I intend visiting your blog regularly and hope to comment too. I invite you to mine, which is more lighthearted.

  2. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    thank you rummuser. i don’t often post such politically fraught pieces (i have had my knuckles wrapped before for voicing opinions on Africa – as, you understand – the progeny of colonials myself). But occassionally the frustration overcomes me. as it did this week. next post will be lighthearted – a supermarket where i must keep account of what i tip into my trolley so that the cashier’s tally matches mine! and i shall definatley visit yours. thank you.

  3. Heidi Says:

    I love when you post about Africa’s politics because you have the astute vision of one who has lived there her lifetime. I am glad I lived in West Africa (though not long) before I moved here to New Orleans because we embody some of the best and worst of Africa – the community, the music, the corruption.

    I shall worry now about these smallholders.

  4. lulu campbell Says:

    Hear hear. I did a post recently about that and about World Vision. My son is just about to board a plane to SA and we’ve raised £30K for a school in Nataal which will make a HUUUUGE difference. BTW – do you have a connection with Janelle and Norman Carr? I seem to remember Janelle mentioning it once – I’ve just done a post about Norman and about our upcoming trip to Zambia – don’t suppose you’ll be in the viscinity at the same time? Lx

  5. Grannymar Says:

    Trouble is we have no guarantee of it ALL going to the source of need.

  6. Iota Says:

    I love your soapbox posts, and I always feel so much better informed when I have read one.

  7. R. Sherman Says:

    Providing, of course the $15,000,000,000 ends up in the hands of those who are genuinely interested and able to make that difference.

    Unfortunately, this is why I’m so ambivalent about our sending fungible money to Africa. Too much of winds up being skimmed off the top. For example, I support an AIDS orphanage in Uganda. Of every dollar I give, less than 25 cents makes it to the kids, thanks to graft and corruption between my checking account and Kampala.

    It’s enough to make you weep.

  8. Rob Says:

    I’m not sure where the G8 countries are going to find this $15 billion, seeing as a few of them are already spending that amount propping up the banks and financial institutions who have thrown US and Europe into this latest recession. But given how government aid agencies operate, a large part of any funds are spent on expatriate consultants, and then there is all the capital equipment, imported, preferably, from the country “donating” the funds.

    Let us hope the billions aren’t spent on dumping produce on African markets, which has happened so often before (Maize, Sugar, Chickens…), which kills off any local producers. And let us hope that these billions aren’t spent on African debt repayments, which surely have already been repaid many times over at this stage. So, my view, the G8 give with one hand and most ultimately comes back into their other hand, so I too would be cynical, but from the reverse angle! Ultimately, to the G8 countries, Africa is a market place to sell goods manufactured in the G8 countries – they want Africa to provide the raw materials and to buy the finished products, so the net flow of funds is always from Africa to G8, as it has been for 100s of years.

    I am sure some of it will trickle down to those local and international NGOs who generally will make good use of it, and produce a few puddles in a huge barren landscape.

    The only way Africa will change is from within. And if the people and governments in African countries manage to oranise themselves and govern themselves properly, then they will be strong and self sufficient, because many African states are endowed with very valuable agricultural and mineral resources (including oil).

  9. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you Heidi. Ah yes: definatley the best and the worst: music, community and corruption.

    thanks Lulu. and well done, and I hope your son has the adventure of a lifetime. I have never met Norman actually though Janelle is a friend I don’t see enough of (given that we live in the same country …). No. I won’t be in Zambia. I’ve been once, years ago, on a road trip. I loved it, thought the Luangwa was stunning country. Have a fabulous trip, won’t you x

    Absolutely, Grannymar, absolutely. True and tragic.

  10. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Thank you Iota. That makes me feel like less of a fishwife. sort of shouting the odds, you know: ”hey, you lot, listen to me will ya!”

    It is enough to make you weep Mr S: benevolence is, apparently, very expensive: like you say, of ever dollar less than 25c makes it to the kids who needs it. That’s an outrage. And an omnipresent one.

  11. reluctantmemsahib Says:

    Hiya Rob – that’s a very interesting point you put across. I can’t help feeling alot of it is a case of bulls**t baffles brains (especially when it’s $15 billion worth of it!).

    “I am sure some of it will trickle down to those local and international NGOs who generally will make good use of it, and produce a few puddles in a huge barren landscape.” Perfect description. And very sad.

    And you’re quite right about Africa’s resources: where I live, we are in a swathe of country that can and – this year – does produce the bulk of – and the best – tobacco that comes out of Africa; there are diamond mines about four hours north and gold just three. And that’s in the arid wastelands of the west …

  12. Gillian Says:

    I try to keep some perspective on big numbers that are flourished regarding aid in Africa. $15billion sounds BIG and important. Surely it should fix the problems? “Look at ALL THE MONEY spent on Africa — why isn’t Africa fixed yet?”

    Well, my view is that $15b isn’t much money at all. In Australia, New South Wales (population 6.9million), spends $11billion EVERY YEAR on education alone. All education? Well, no, this doesn’t cover universities which get extra funding from the Federal Govt. This $11b comprises 23% of the State budget.

    So, $15b for all of Africa? If the whole $15b was spent on education in Tanzania, it would still fall short of the education Australian children get.

    Even if all the $15billion got spent on projects across Africa, with no diversions into private pockets, the works on the ground would still be ‘a few puddles’.

    But then, a few puddles are something. Compared with the alternative.

    Mem, you might like an update on the School of St Jude in Arusha. You may not know that it was struggling earlier this year as donations collapsed along with the world economy. Gemma has just pulled off a dazzling 2-month promotion tour in Australia and raised enough money to sponsor all the kids and enrol the next batch of 150. She’s amazing. The school is amazing. It is just one little puddle in Africa, but it glints in the sunshine and transforms lives.

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