Let it Be

I was at the new office looking around when I came across a book, Individuality and Innovation in African Development, which I found to be pretty interesting. I had not only found a book on development work in Africa but it was specifically about Mali and had used research from several villages around the country to support its arguments. Although this book came out over ten years ago I still feel many of the points are valid.

The book traces back Mali’s history to when it was an area dominated by clashing ethnic groups to colonialism up through independence into the present. I’ve heard so much about Mali’s past but most of the time opinions are skewed and the stories are incomplete so it was nice to read an account that gives a more complete and accurate picture of what really happened. One thing that seems to stand out to me from reading this book is that although Mali had tried (and failed) to institute a Socialist economy the people are naturally inclined to Capitalist behavior responding to financial incentives above all else. Mali’s failed experiments with Socialism in the form of state-controlled agricultural production (via ODRs such as CMDT) effectively slowed progress by pushing people towards inefficiency and further poverty. Reading what happened only confirms what I thought, that Malians are smarter than they think they are. The government made it easy for farmers to buy in to the cash crop production but when the bottom fell out on the cotton market farmers ended up much worse than before. Farmers need better information to make more informed decisions on what crops to produce, as well as where and when to sell their crops. The government would be better off empowering farmers to grow what they want.

Another point that came up through the book is the importance of property rights. Hernando de Soto fights vehemently for property rights as the path to prosperity for many of the very poor countries in the world. By having claim on property people have collateral on which they can access credit, etc. The problem with Mali is this fascination with collective fields and disputes on title to land. Therefore if I really wanted I could migrate to a new area and buy a plot of land, but should I ever be challenged to claim on the land there is no clear precedence on who has rightful claim. Sometimes it may be up to the village chief or the local government or perhaps even a regional government, or no one at all. It really isn’t very clear. Without concise and transparent private property laws it is unwise for foreign companies to make investments.

There is a huge part of me that just wants to buy a bunch of tractors and give them to farmers all around Mali and teach them how to rent them out. There are just too many problems to tackle that as a volunteer I realize how powerless I truly am. There’s so much that needs to be done and so little time. I know I can’t save the world but that doesn’t mean I won’t try. On to the next one.


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