So this French couple, very friends of the village and library in Béréba in Burkina Faso, decided to make the ultimate gesture: sending a pelleteuse (front-loader) to Béréba village. Here it is pictured (well, in a couple days... I have to head off to Béréba now and don't seem to be able to find the picture of the mechanical monstrosity). And not just the pelleteuse! They flew Fidèle (a young man from the village) twice to France for extended stays to learn how to use the pelleteuse. He learned a lot, but says it was pretty cold in France (in summer).
I would conservatively guess the cost of bringing the pelleteuse over must have been on the order of $5000, and the value of the pelleteuse itself must be on the order of $10,000 (i.e. it could have been sold in France or in Ouagadougou), and sending Fidèle to France twice we're talking $5,000, so total about $20,000 out of pocket. $10,000 is our standard FAVL target for setting up a library and running it for 4-5 years. So the pelleteuse is two libraries.
Let us not compare the two projects. The pelleteuse has been in Béréba for 9 months now. It has never been used. There is, as far as I can determine, no plan to use it for anything.
Why isn't the pelleteuse being used for anything?
We discussed this problem in the Reading West Africa study abroad program class on development studies. We concluded the discussion with the sense that there are eight interesting angles for thinking about this problem; i.e. eight broad areas in development thinking that have direct links to this particular problem.
(1) Cost-benefit analysis. The first reaction of students when thinking about why the pelleteuse was not being used was to say that gas was expensive. I said that gas was expensive for the RWA program too, and for everyone else driving around, so what they really perhaps meant was that gas was expensive relative to the benefits obtained from running the machine. In other words, maybe there was nothing really valuable for a pelleteuse to do in a village. Indeed, in conversations with Fidèle and others, the only application that comes up is to dig a reservoir. This might be useful for storing water for dry season gardening or might be useful for local pastoralists. But would the value generated from digging the reservoir exceed the cost of the gas....(let alone the depreciation and opportunity cost and labor of the driver and assistants). Not so clear. Nobody really had any idea. What are the profits of a market garden? Suppose they were normal, in the sense that the market garden owner netted $500 a year above his or her alternative and one worker would make $100 a year more than they would have otherwise. So the total benefit is $600 a year. Nobody knew how much it would cost to run the pelleteuse to dig a reservoir, nor how much water could be held, nor how that water would then be transported (by canals? pipes?) to the garden. But gas is very expensive in Burkina, and it is not hard to imagine having to spend $2400 in gas to dig the reservoir. So just the gas alone might not pass the cost benefit test. i.e. $2400 in expense for $600 a year for four years does not sound like a great deal, since the value of profits after that are pretty heavily discounted.
(2) Credit constraints. Suppose the reservoir's benefits do exceed the costs, in present discounted value, by a healthy margin. But the costs have to be paid upfront and the benefits are downstream, so if it is really hard to borrow (I guess the pelleteuse itself could be collateral!) then the whole thing is a non-starter. Note that the village political structure has an extremely hard time collecting even small sums (like $500) for village "projects"... sometimes it takes a year to collect that amount.
(3) Who is the owner, here? Ah, the knotty question of social organization of productive activities. As one student put it, the guiding principle of the French couple is that this is a smurf village, with everyone working together for the common good. Aside from Arrow's impossibility theorem, every single human's intuition on this is "uh oh..." Pretty clearly the reservoir is either going to benefit a small number of people (the market gardener) or a particular class of people (herders) so why should other people be involved? Is there a common good? Won't the custodian of the common good (Fidèle, who manages the pelleteuse, and might be the market gardener) turn that to his private benefit? The incentives to contribute to the realization of the benefit are so nebulous... only and smurf village or village dictator perhaps could bring them about. So the social organization of realizing the benefits of this pelleteuse is the stuff of months and years of back and forth negotiations, especially when related to....
(4) Village politics, distribution of political power in the village. Villages are microcosm political societies, and something like the pelleteuse has the potential to dramatically change the local balance of power. Imagine Fidèle in his hard hat driving around delivering benefits to villagers far and wide, they cheer and stamp their feet and hoist him on their shoulders, and he grins modestly, "I'm only doing it for the common good!" And in the background, some senior men are grumbling, "Common good my arse. That Fidèle is bad news." Not difficult to see how the enthusiasm of current political leaders for realizing the benefits might be tempered by their hard-headed political calculations... And they might ask too, if Fidèle cares so much about the common good, why doesn't he just give them, the current political leaders, control over the pelleteuse... why is it parked in his yard?
(5) Related the previous two categories, but deserving of separate mention, is the whole issue of land tenure. A reservoir and large market garden is not something ever contemplated in local land tenure institutions. And while certainly these innovations are happening all over the continent, often state officials have to be involved; that is, the only way to withdraw land for this kind of use from the village or lineage custodianship that is so typical of African villages is for a state official to make it so. But the pelleteuse is a purely village affair; it is not a state project. So it is hard to think about who will have authority to make land available for this project.
(6) Imagination and knowledge skills. This is closely related to the cost-benefit problem. People underestimate how hard it is for people without experiences to imagine how something would work, and to estimate how long or costly it would be to learn how to learn how something would work. Ask yourself, dear reader, the simple question: suppose a reservoir is a good idea for a market garden, but the reservoir and garden are in different locations. Do you know what the right way is to get the water to the garden? Do you know how long it would take you to learn about an effective way to dig a canal? Why expect that a person in a village would know how to do that? Maybe they might be lucky and find a book in the village library about how to plan a small irrigation project. Let me give another example. Unless you are a doctor, when you get sick it is impossible to conceive of self-medicating yourself. You know there is expertise out there, but that doesn't mean you have any clue how to think of that expertise on your own, or even where to look for the expertise and how much it will cost. Common sense doesn't get one too far with semi-technical questions, and constructing a small irrigation canal is exactly that. And remember, the small irrigation canal is going to go through land, and has to be managed, and has to be maintained, etc.
(7) Tradition. By this the students meant that maybe there is strong inertia among people in the village to not try new things; maybe community wisdom is that new things bring new problems, and new problems are hard to anticipate, and might make the "common good" worse off. I personally don't think the pelleteuse problem is a problem of tradition, broadly speaking, but I can see concrete situations where the barrier to an improvement in collective well-being is a shared sense, articulated with heart by some and with cynicism by others, that certain ways of doing things are dear to the shared sense of identity. For example, many towns and villages in Burkina Faso have "old sections" where sanitation facilities are sorely lacking. But efforts to modernize these districts are routinely blocked by appeals to tradition.
(8) Organization of foreign aid. This one is kind of a no-brainer. What kind of foreign aid expert, even of the Easterly-searcher variety, would think it wise to send a pelleteuse to an African village with no structure of incentives at all? But what kind of involvement by the aid organization, from full-on expat "let's do it now cause I say so" to "We just look a the books and host meetings" involvement is most effective. Interesting question.