Solar Fields, Sexist Poverty and a Modern Marshall Plan


If you are allergic to fanfare you’d better bolt your doors and shutter your windows on September 25, because there is going to be a lot of it that day in the vicinity of the United Nations, when world leaders ratify the Global Goals for Sustainable Development. This is a genuinely big deal, of large consequence — let’s hope — especially for the poorest people on the planet, but you will be forgiven if some of you are rolling your eyes, or yawning, or worse.

At a time when Europe and the rest of the world are flailing in response to the massive refugee crisis in the Middle East, this hardly seems a time for grand commitments of any kind, unless it’s a commitment to stop stumbling over our own two feet.

It’s a fair and pressing question. If we can’t handle what’s happening in Syria — if we can’t even get the nomenclature right, insisting on calling these desperate refugees “migrants,” as if they had just packed their suitcases and moved north for a change of scene — how can we possibly handle the more chronic, endemic humanitarian crises of extreme poverty and hunger and sickness? Who, exactly, do we think we are, launching another fanciful campaign?

But pause for a second before you projectile vomit, and consider that the emergency in Syria shows exactly why we need to pursue — and achieve — these Global Goals. The evidence of that is all over the Sahel, the band across the north of Africa, where three extremes — extreme poverty, extreme climate, extreme ideology — pose a stark and constant threat. A failure to make progress there could trigger a series of crises that would dwarf what we’re seeing in Syria.

Boko Haram, in northern Nigeria, is well known now in the rest of the world, by virtue of its being horrific and violent, but it’s hardly the only group of extremists that’s active in the Sahel; Al Shabaab, The Lord’s Resistance Army, and Al Qaeda in the Maghreb are as well. CIA analysts — who are not, as a rule, dewy-eyed development types — have looked at northern Nigeria and said that the best way to stop the militants in the long run is to end extreme poverty in the area and create a better, more inclusive education system, one that Muslims feel they have some stake in. When the CIA and anti-poverty activists agree, things must be very right or very wrong!

Especially when the demographers join in. By 2050, we’re told, Africa will have 2.5 billion people, twice the population of China, and more than one third of the youth on earth will be African. Which is exciting news for all of us who find Africa, hands down, one of the world’s most energizing places. But hundreds of millions of unemployed or underemployed young men, if it comes to that, is not a recipe for stability — either there or here, wherever “here” is for you.

Of course the Global Goals are just that: goals, aspirations. Not blueprints or battle plans. As Amina Mohammed, the very impressive Nigerian Assistant Secretary General to the UN who’s shepherding the goals, would surely agree, they’re the what, not the how. So what’s the how?

It’s going to have to be a lot of things, of course. But one of them, a big one, might be an idea we’re hearing from African leaders in business, civil society, and government: a modern Marshall Plan, inspired if not actually based on what America did in Europe after World War II. According to Akin Adesina, the new President of the African Development Bank:

“The future of feeding a projected 9 billion people in the world by 2050 depends on Africa, which has 65% of all arable land left. Africa cannot eat potential. To seize this potential requires a scaled global partnership, a modern day Marshall plan, but led by Africa.”

Similarly, “A comprehensive, coordinated approach” is what Tony Elumelu, the Nigerian entrepreneur and philanthropist, has called for, a plan for trade, transparency, employment, infrastructure — all the elements of opportunity.

But what would a Marshall Plan even look like these days? Not exactly like Secretary of State (and General) George C. Marshall’s Plan, which was brilliantly suited to its own time, less so our own. The Second World War left not only cities but entire economies in rubble; the Marshall Plan helped them rebuild. A modern Marshall Plan would, by contrast, have to focus on countries that were not industrialised to begin with, but are working hard to build the foundations.

To succeed, it would have to employ a bunch of means all at once — ganging up on the problems of extreme poverty and unequal opportunity. Aid is one of those means — an essential one. Our ultimate goal is the end of aid — growing economies, shared prosperity, self-sufficiency. But the way we’re going to get there — if you can handle the cognitive dissonance — is actually to increase the aid, for now, to the countries that need it the most. The poorest countries get only a small share, 30 percent, of the aid that the world provides. Investing foreign funds can leverage domestic funds to improve basic health services and education for the poorest citizens, especially women and girls.

Poverty is sexist: it hits women and girls the hardest, which is doubly ironic, because investing in them is the best way to end poverty.

People have gotten smarter since the 1940s — smarter even since the early 2000s — in making sure that aid budgets get spent on what works and get results. A generation of techno-minded “factivists” are on the march, fighting corruption, campaigning for connectivity — and the access to information and opportunities it provides — and keenly aware that if they can mobilise their own domestic resources, soon they will no longer need the wealth of their partners to unlock prosperity in their own neighbourhood.

A 21st-century Marshall Plan would also have to get some private-sector skin in the game, not just foreign aid. The U.S. in the 1940s gave loans to struggling businesses, which is still a good idea, but this doesn’t just have to come from governments; there are successful companies across Africa and around the world that could be making investments in the ones that need capital. The private sector has got as much to gain as anyone from helping lagging industries to flourish, growing businesses to grow further, and developing economies to become developed ones. And the private sector, in many ways, has more leverage than multilateral aid agencies in making that happen. It’s got even more leverage when it works in concert with those aid agencies and with national and local governments.

I saw this last month just outside Kigali, in Rwanda, where a combination of government assistance, through President Obama’s Power Africa initiative, and private investment, through Gigawatt Global, has created a crazy futurist solar field that’s boosted Rwanda’s generation capacity by 6 percent and has basically blown my circuits with its possibilities; this array just has to be seen. Europe’s already on board with the idea of clean, green energy, promising to help 500 million people get access to it. The world ought to put its weight behind risk-takers like Gigawatt and help them scale in places like northern Nigeria. The sun shines there, too.

A modern George C. Marshall Plan could even draw investment from defense budgets, because military planners are starting (just starting) to think like a health insurance plan that pays for your preventative medicine instead of just waiting for you to get deathly ill. The military does love its machines, but it would rather not put its human beings into places where they are likely to get shot or worse. They know the original Marshall Plan was not just a postwar plan, it was an anti-war plan — designed to stop Soviet expansionism and keep the Cold War from getting hot in Europe.

Peace and stability are of course a precondition for building anything lasting — or anything at all. There’s a reason the Marshall Plan got started only after the war — not in the middle of it. Clearly we’ve got to end the fighting in Syria before development is even a remote possibility there. But that shouldn’t — can’t — stop us from preventing the dry regions of the world, full of tinder and lit with sparks, from exploding into flames.

The Marshall Plan should be a model but it needn’t be our only inspiration. There is plenty of that in Africa itself, from the solar fields in Rwanda to tech startups in Nigeria, Kenya, and Tanzania. There are success stories virtually everywhere on the continent — the brilliant work of a rising generation of African entrepreneurs and activists and artists and officials.

Partnership, not paternalism, is required here — and was the key to the success of the previous edition of the Global Goals, the Millennium Development Goals.

It should egg us on to consider the role the MDGs played in increasing the number of children in schools and dramatically reducing child deaths, maternal mortality, and the most degrading, debilitating sort of poverty.

I’ve been fighting with the world most of my life, and I’ve learned that change mostly comes slowly and incrementally. But sometimes, when a situation demands it, we think big, act audaciously, and we get it right — or at least partly right, which is no small thing. Now needs to be one of those times. We’ve got to get it right, right now, because the humanitarian disaster in the Middle East — and the blundering toward a humane response in Europe and elsewhere — are a kick to the collective gut, a brutal reminder of what it means to get it wrong. Syria will not be the last conflagration, but when we think and build as big as our goals, we have a chance to prevent the fire next time.