Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Economic Freedom of the World

Rather than lying in bed overwhelmed by feelings that I will never succeed at this I got up and checked my email. Often there is a note from either Nairobi or Freetown that always makes me smile. There was but also an email from a friend and supporter about a seminar at the Fraser Institute re: the concept that aid hinders trade. I can't believe I was notified to be a speaker - Would I have something to say.

This story is a rather unpleasant story and I don't like to tell it because it upsets people and I get critcized and told I am greedy. It's a story about how my business was taken advantage of by aid and probably the most painful lesson I have learned so far. It still hurts when I think about it because it may have cost me the friendship of the Kenyan woman I started this with. She never responds to my emails anymore and I worry this is the reason why. When I see her in person again I will ask her and I hope I am wrong but until that day it still haunts me somewhat. I am probably wrong because she is African and therefore far more experienced in the complexities of aid than even I am.

During September of 2005 when I was producing an exhibit to earn income for the business and the SHERP Orphanage I had been working with I had the idea to try and bring two of the orphans and Grace to Vancouver for the show. I knew it would help our sales and everyone loved the idea. The Kenyans would get the chance to see Canada and it would give them a powerful sense of belonging as partners to have them as guests here.

I sold the idea to Canadian Immigration as a 'Trade Mission' between our respective nations - a gutsy move to show Vancouver that trade was more powerful than aid. In a series of late night phone calls, faxes and emails to Nairobi I somehow managed to convince a famously restrictive Visa desk to let the kids and Grace come which almost NEVER happens. As the news shows frequently now boatloads of Africans floating their way to some dream of economic freedom in Spain or later France, the world has no idea what to do with all these Africans who are seeking something better than most of what is going on in their countries. And it's so bitter and painful if you know the colonial history of Africa - how welcoming the average African was when the Europeans first arrived looking for tea, diamonds and gold.

The only catch in my plan was that I didn't have enough cash for the plane tickets. I had to ask 3 friends to guarantee they would lend me $15,000 to add to my meager $5,000 in case something happened to the Kenyans in Canada - a bond requested as well as a notarized letter stating that yes, I could get my hands on all this money. We don't know what that's like in Canada - when we go to Africa if anything happens to us we'll be okay, we have credit cards and insurance and bank cards that work everywhere but it's not the same thing coming North.

So I was maxxed out but then I got a surprise phone call from a person who told me if there was anything they could help me with me to ask. So I did in a letter to a movie set requesting if all 300 crew members might be interested in each paying $20 to attend an art exhibit - advanced sales so I would have the $6K to cover the flights. But the person offered to pay the whole shot themselves and in my naivety I said yes. I knew in my heart this wasn't great to put all my eggs in one basket and not spread the risk and joy around more - something I learned in political fundraising. You are far more powerful to have 10,000 supporters each give you $1 then to have 2 supporters give you $5. In the latter scenario if 50% of your supporters go away you are left with one person. In the first example if 50% of the people end up hating you even - you still have 5,000 supporters. This is why grass roots movements have been so successful and ultimately why I believe African will be okay if aid diminishes. But I was under the gun and I only had 2 weeks to get them here so I said yes. I had never taken anything for free until then - I had always paid people for their help because I am a business and I am trying to prove that trade is better than aid so I don't take handouts.

After the exhibit I was asked by someone involved with my donor to allow a new charity, society and endownment fund, that had all 3 been established within 4 days of our exhibit, the rights to use our documentary film to fundraise for them. Great right? Just what I wanted - to have even more people love the kids I love and help them. And after investing $10,000 of my own money so the exhibit could earn us as a group $30,000 it felt a little strange but I couldn't quite put my finger on it. So I suggested that they could use 3 minutes of the movie (and they chose the best 3 minutes) if they paid Sam the film maker $2,000 and $10 for every dub they wanted to mail out. A rather innovative distribution tactic I thought. They were likely to get at least a $100 cheque for each copy they mailed out - a basic 10% marketing cost.

So I was stunned and offended when I got a call saying that not only was $2,000 'unacceptable' by the millionaire on the other end of the phone, but that my request was selfish when their intention was to help the kids even though I was very effectively doing that. He said our film was 'a very powerful tool' for them to fundraise with for his endowment fund which made me laugh of course - having hurled myself over to Africa six months earlier to achieve the same thing. But when I explained to him that no portion of the actual endownment fund was ever going to leave Canada, only any accrued interest that might come in time - @ at very high 10% interest rate the kids would get $10,000 after one year of $100,000 in donations sitting in a Canadian bank account paying a Canadian financial institution interest as well. Aid money for Africa. Aid money used to buy plane tickets and holidays for people who want to help.

To make a long story short I did not let them use our film to fundraise because I felt that the beautiful little business I had worked so painstakingly hard to build from nothing so it could be a signpost of dignity for these kids was ultimately being taken advantage by aid. And I made a very unpopular decision in that moment that cost me relationships, confidence and maybe even the friendship of the woman who had flown across the world to come see Canada. And their side of the story is important too. I don't agree with what they are doing, fundamentally I believe they are hurting Africa in the long run, but they feel it's the right approach and they may succeed in getting huge amounts of capital over to Kenya in the years to come. But it won't sustain, it will continue to reinforce the concept that Africa needs help instead of an equal opportunity to the economic freedoms that we all have the right to.

In the first twelve months of trading my business generated nearly $60,000 CDN in income, $12,000 of which was direct wire transferred into the kids income account we helped setup when we sold our first t-shirts in Maralal. If that group had chosen to continue supporting the vehicle of trade I had built to work in the kids best interest god only knows how much income they would have by now. But they have their aid and hopefully the well that was promised to them.

When our exhibit came down there was $20,000 of unsold art - $3,500 which belongs to the kids as their income and $7,000 which is apportioned to the 6 artists who created work to be sold. I will always wonder what would happened if this story had ended differently. If a charity had never been created offering tax breaks to Canadians, if an endownment fund for Africa had not been announced in the Globe and Mail and if those very people who called me and said they wanted to help me ever received or read the letter I sent explaining how trade is better than aid. Should Africa gain an increase of 1% in the global pie of trade - this $70 billion dollars would be triple the amount of it's current aid agreements.

Poverty doesn't just happen, it's borne within the womb of the deeply rooted complicated macro-economics we all live by. At the end of the day my business could not compete with a 47.3% tax relief for Canadians - money our government somehow relieves from tax income so it can leave our country to create dependancy somewhere else. But all this isn't explained to you in those sad black and white sponsorship ads that make us all pull out our cheque books. We don't see how most of our money doesn't actually end up in the hands of the kids you see hungry and crying on television. It pays for salaries and studies and expensive hotels rooms owned by private equity firms registered in small offshore countries. Some of it gets there sure - but most of it doesn't. That's what I always say to people - go to Africa and try and find the aid money. The things that are truly working there are the small local ideas that have a chance to grow, things Africans are building for themselves and all their children's tomorrows.

I think about Grace everyday and pray that she understands the decision I made even if she doesn't agree. I know her dream is to have the orphanage self-sustain one day, the same dream I have for the other 450,000,000 kids who are her neighbours.



Blogger rahulv said...

Art in Kenya

Art in Kenya is quite fascinating. One can find a wide variety of arts and crafts in Kenya, mainly aimed at the tourist market.

The art items in Kenya include sisal baskets, elephant hair bracelets, Maasai bead jewelry, musical instruments, silver and gold jewelry, soapstone sculptures, wooden carvings, tribal masks, Maasai figurines, paintings, prints and sculptures. These art items are available in the arts and craft markets and shops throughout the main tourist centers of Kenya.

Cloth and Fabric in Kenya also form interesting art items. The cloth and fabric available in Kenya are batik cloth, kangas (women's wraparound skirts) with beautiful patterns and even Kenyan proverbs printed on them and kikois (type of sarong for men) that come in many different colors and textiles. These are good art items to take home from your Kenyan trip.

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2:46 AM  
Blogger rahulv said...

holidays in kenya

Planning to spend your holidays in Kenya this year? Well, you could not have chosen a better place as Kenya offers you the vacation of a lifetime. Over the years you must have been visiting the same old tourist destinations that have either become over crowded or have lost their appeal. But Kenya comes as a refreshing change that promises to bowl you over.

With a number of tourist attractions to visit and marvel at, Kenya is indeed a perfect holiday destination to boot. From pristine beaches to the arid Turkana district in the northwest

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5:18 AM  

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