Will the US foreign aid budget continue its decline? | 

US Foreain Aid snapshot

An increase in the foreign affairs budget for 2014 saw an end to a four year decline in the US. Discussions are now taking place over the Fiscal Year 2015 budget and the downward trend may resume.

That is what will happen if Rep Paul Ryan’s (R-WI) budget proposal wins out. If President Obama gets his way, funds will hold steady at $44.1 billion. While it looks likely that foreign aid will be safe from cuts, thanks to is strong supporters, being back on the chopping block is a cause for concern for foreign aid supporters.

Ryan’s cuts into foreign aid appear to be based more on a belief that it is an unnecessary expenditure. The proposed Ryan budget led to public cries to protect the US foreign aid budget. Supporters like to point out that it represents less than 1% of the total federal budget.

Making cuts to such a small program will do little to help reduce US government debt and will harm the people who benefit from US aid work. Ryan has acknowledged this fact in the past, but continues to propose cuts. Foreign aid advocates are pushing against Ryan’s plan by pointing to the damage it will cause to US foreign policy interests.

“Now is not the time to cut America’s vital tools of national security given the growing number of hotspots around the globe,” said General Anthony Zinni, Co-Chair of U.S. Global Leadership Coalition’s National Security Advisory Council. “The International Affairs Budget has already seen large reductions in the past few years, and now is not the time to diminish America’s leadership in the world.”

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Infographic: How mobile money is faring in Africa | 

The story of mobile money in Africa is as much a one of success as it is one of failure. The rapid rise of M-PESA in Kenya and other competing ways to send money from cell phone to cell phone has been heralded for years. Today, nearly 70% of Kenyans who own a cell phone regularly send or receive money on their phones.

The growth has been staggering considering that M-PESA turned 7 years old this month. Estimates show that one-quarter of Kenya’s gross national product travels through mobile phones. As a result, it has helped to make it easier for people to send money home, pay for goods and services, and gain instant access to a savings account.

Due to the success in Kenya, the belief has been that mobile money can work elsewhere. Advocates are buoyed by the fact that the continent managed to leap past land-line phones for mobile technology. It means more people are connected by phones and as higher speed coverage expands, by the internet.

That is why USAID, the Gates Foundation and other funders have been making the bet to support the growth of mobile money elsewhere in the world. So, how are things faring in Africa?


It’s still early, but the results are not so great. As seen in the infographic of use across the continent, there is a steep decline from leading Kenya to Uganda to South Africa. There is reason for hope that mobile money will catch on elsewhere in the world, but it is evident that copying the success of Kenya is not enough. The trend also seems to be making its way north. T-Mobile is now letting its customers deposit checks in a mobile money account, which they can then access at ATMs.

“Some of the factors behind Kenya’s lead cannot be copied; but many of them can, which means it should eventually be possible for other countries to follow Kenya’s pioneering example,” said The Economist blog last year.

Kenyan mockumentary skewers foreign aid | 

Everyone loves the TV show The Office (Editor’s note: The British version was better). The mockumentary genre has taken on this fictional Pennsylvania paper supply company, rock music in Spinal Tap, an Indiana town’s parks and recreation department and a dog show.

Now the aid sector gets the comedic treatment in The Samaritans.

The Samaritans centers around an NGO in Nairobi that is in the process of applying for a massive grant that will change the organization. The problem is that the grant is so big that nobody really knows what it is for. Based on the reactions to a recent interview* with creator Hussein Kurji published in Africa is a Country, aid workers are pumped to see the new show.

Aid for Aid, as the organization is called, is led by a white American named Scott who has far less experience than his Kenyan colleagues.

The new show came to be thanks, in part, to the 74 backers on Kickstarter. The creators raised $10,702 through the campaign, just beating the project’s $10,000 goal. I spoke with Kurji while he was trying to raise funds for the series, in October 2012**. He described to me his motivation for the show and the challenges to raising money to make his dream a reality.

“There are no systems or initiatives in place to tap into financing,” said Kurji at the time.

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Road Deaths: the blight that will claim 2 million lives annually by 2030 | 

Mikumi National Park
Mikumi National Park
Tom Murphy

(East Africa) Men gathered branches and leaves along the side of the road. A large truck traveling between the Tanzanian towns of Iringa and Morogoro was stuck in the mud.

Tire marks told of the sudden wheel’s turn taken by the driver to steer off the paved road and down into a field. The stretch through Mikumi National Park – home to elephants, giraffes, and zebras – is interrupted by speeding vehicles.  Police are scant and road safety rules, especially speed limits, are not well enforced.

Trucks pass other trucks while smaller, faster cars move between the behemoths.Vehicles will narrowly pass each other before avoiding oncoming traffic while traveling through the region’s bare hills.

Sometimes the passing driver makes the wrong decision. For this truck the outcome was quite good. He escaped from the road, truck intact. A road accident was avoided. The same cannot be said for the 1.3 million people who die due to traffic accidents each year.

Road deaths are climbing around the world, especially in developing countries. Projections by the World Health Organization (WHO) say 2 million people will die each year by 2030. The world’s rich countries will virtually eliminate road deaths thanks to safety measures and the burden will shift further to low and middle-income countries.

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Building classrooms does not equal learning | 

Kenyan primary school students, in class.
Kenyan primary school students, in class.
Tom Murphy

Amid UNESCO’s jaw-dropping report on the immense challenge to education around the world is an important fact: Some 37 countries are losing half of the money they invest in primary education because students are not learning.

Even when children go to school, they are not learning. That is in part reflected in the statistic that an estimated 175 million young people cannot read a full sentence.

This problem is reflected in the language of the report and its accompanying release. The problem is learning, not education. Despite that knowledge, there is still attention on the basic goals of teachers and schools.

“We need 5.1 million teachers to be recruited by 2015, and we need to work harder to support them in providing children with their right to a universal, free and quality education,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova.

It is held that education is an important step of development. However, the evidence that spending money on education will not lead to job growth. Economist Francis Teal determined that more graduates is well and good, but they have nowhere to go if there are no jobs. Some may argue that better education can lead to the creation of working opportunities, but it appears to be that it is more about investing in connections to global markets.

Whether or not education can lead to income growth, the issue does not matter if students are not learning while they are in the classroom. Continue reading

Kenya’s disabled children left behind | 


Kikoyi, Kenya – The healed sores are noticeable when Vincent stops crawling. Born with spina biffida, he is unable to walk at the age of four years old.

Doctors want to fit Vincent with leg braces to help him possibly walk. The total cost, 1,000 KSH (~$12) is too expensive for his parents. His mom is barely able to pay for the two-hour travel to the Kijabe clinic in Eldoret for a check-up each month.

So, he still crawls around the family property. The wear from the crawling leaves a chalky white mark on his knee caps. Once infected sores caused by gashes from crawling and constant pressure on his shins are a reminder of the hazards of getting around.

Vincent should start school next year, but going to the public primary school is not an option. He will get little or no support for his disability and will distract fellow students, says his mother. There are limited services and medical support for the disabled in Kenya.

Children like Vincent are being left behind. Continue reading

Western Kenya: Palpable change four years later | 

Tom Murphy lived in Western Kenya in 2009. The following story is based on his return to the region for the first time in nearly four years.

Kakamega, Kenya – Crossing the road in Kakamega is getting a lot harder. Bikes, trucks, public buses (matatus), people and motorcycles fill every space possible on the two lane road, transforming into three or even four lanes. The town in the middle of Western Kenya has outgrown the paved road.

The changes that Western Kenya has undergone over the past four years are stark. New businesses are opening, roads are improving and markets are expanding to offer new products and services.

A slow and steady beat of development keeps thumping on transforming towns and creating new regional hubs. Kakamega, a town that stands between Kisumu to the south and Eldoret to the northeast, is asserting itself as the vital location in Western Province.

I lived in the Malava,  a town thirty minutes north of Kakamega, for the year of 2009. Returning to the area for the first time in nearly four years for this reporting trip revealed a region undergoing significant change.

Two malls now house a Tuskys and a Nakumatt respectively. The shopping superstores (think Target and Walmart) carry a greater variety of cheaper food, household products and clothing than was available at local supermarkets. The malls also come with new restaurants, hair salons, internet cafes and start-up businesses. Continue reading

One Acre Fund leads Kenyan farmers in maize disease fight | 

This is the first of two articles on the One Acre Fund in Kenya. Read part two here.

Shimanyiro, Kenya – Not planting maize sounded like a crazy idea to Elium Kangayia last year.

Elium Kangayia, 42, with his sorghum crops.
Elium Kangayia, 42, with his sorghum crops.

Kangayia’s crop had been devastated by a maize disease but growing something else was not something he had considered. As member of the One Acre Fund, he was surprised to see that maize was not offered for the 2013 growing season.

The One Acre Fund is a celebrated initiative in East Africa that seeks to assist smallholder farmers by working with them on all aspects of the supply chain as opposed to focusing on a single intervention such as improving irrigation or planting techniques.

In the same region with Kangayia were some 200 One Acre Fund member farmers. When the program announced it would no longer support maize farming, 127 of the farmers quit their memberships. Kangayia decided to stay on and grow the recommended sorghum and millet.

“I was not initially happy,” he said. “But I was very happy after the harvest.”

Despite the warnings and a poor harvest, he still persisted by growing maize on one of his three acres. The maize yield was terrible. He only filled eight bags, roughly as well as he did before joining the One Acre Fund in 2009. In 2010 and 2011, before the disease (known as maize lethal necrosis, or MLN) appeared, he was able to harvest 44 bags of maize on two acres and 63 bags on one and a half acres. Continue reading