Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Economics and other complexities

So the meeting at church last Wednesday that I mentioned in the entry just below was actually a presentation I made for the Armchair Travelers series at St. John's, talking about my time in Uganda. I had serious technical difficulties with Picasa scrambling my photos so that under a picture of a rhinoceros would be a caption about a "great interfaith burial site" from Pere Lachaise cemetery in France. I ended up going through a random selection of photos from the My Photos file of My Documents, which ended up working better than I thought.

But I found myself saying a refrain over and over as I talked about what I learned in Uganda. I think the main lesson I brought home from that three-month sojourn was "It's not that simple." There are no silver bullets. Microlending? Some people are entrepreneurs and some simply are not. Malaria? Nets are good, but they aren't a panacea. Foreign aid of all sort: does it do more harm than good? Does it create dependency and an aid-based economy? My relations with locals: complicated.

If I learned nothing else from my time there it's that I know very, very little.

I'm also surprised to find how hard-nosed I've become economically. I got a message recently from a friend there in Kampala, asking again about whether I could find a source to sell the paper beads they make there. The damn beads! I have come to hate the pity purchase, which is what it feels like. So damn patronizing. If people actually want the beads, that's one thing. If there's an actual market for it, fine. But to make worthless goods and sell them to people who don't want them...well, I've become whatever kind of economist it is who says, "Let the market decide without support."

I'm still struggling with this: how do you help without ennervating? How do you support without propping up? How can you be generous without being patronizing? It's something I'm going to be working on for a long time.

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