Spitting snow and sunless for days, the wind cold, raw, it calls for desperate measures. A fat brown squirrel bolts across River Road carrying an ear of corn as big as a fat brown squirrel. The corn is so heavy, the squirrel has to stop in the opposite ditch, drop the ear still wrapped in parchment, and catch it’s breath for a couple seconds before heading straight up the closest tree with that plump harvest in its teeth.
Reminds me, I worked in Zaire – the Democratic Republic of Congo – for USAID at the end of the Cold War, the end of U.S. – U.S.S.R. proxy wars prosecuted all over the developing world. Not long after tenacious, American-backed Mujahideen ran the Soviets out of Afghanistan, Germans tore down the Berlin Wall. Geo-political puppets like Mobutu Sese Seko, the self-enriching tyrant who ruled Zaire unelected for decades, plopped down their plunder and panted and panted, catching their breath before high-tailing it to the palace ahead of the rabble. They were heady times. The end of the beginning always is.
As the dust settled in Berlin, in 1990, for the first time since CIA officers backed Army Sergeant Joseph Mobutu in a coup that overthrew the Congo’s democratically-elected Prime Minister, Patrice Lumumba, lawmakers in Washington prohibited disbursal of U.S. aid directly to Zairian government agencies. At the time, USAID-Zaire was the largest AID Mission on the continent after Egypt, and practically every program and project in the sprawling country, which is the size of everything east of the Mississippi, was being implemented through the central and provincial government ministries, millions worth billions in today’s dollars.
Congress being Congress, the same Foreign Assistance Act that denied funds to Zaire’s government actually added new money for Zaire and required USAID-Zaire to continue to meet all of it’s development objectives. I was the Capital Projects and Transport Sector Officer. Through national departments like Finance, Public Works, Energy & Mines, Inland Waterways and Transportation, USAID built and rehabilitated thousands of miles of roads, cleared, charted and marked hundreds of miles of rivers, built air strips and ports and pipelines, and got in everybody’s business with policy programs that wrote laws, set taxes and developed government systems to eliminate corruption and ensure the sustainability of the infrastructure put in place with U.S. taxpayer money.
After Congress hung Mobutu out to dry, it still expected that the Embassy and USAID would figure out, somehow, a way to do all that and more – health, water systems and agriculture, Peace Corp and military programs – without disbursing any funds to Zaire’s government.
At the risk of making a long story longer, we spent many weeks wondering what to do. Way back in 1990, cell phones were the size of fat squirrels and there was no email, just cables, messages burned onto paper and staple to Action Boards that circulated in-box to out-box around Embassy and AID offices in the hands of messengers and secretaries.
One day, a unclassified cable appeared on top of a pile in my in-box. The subject was Decentralization, a lengthy discussion of shifting responsibility for funding and management of infrastructure like roads and irrigation systems from the central government to local units like village collectives and cooperatives. The basic idea was not new; what was new was the confident voice describing the finance and management strategy and the game theory mathematics being used to model sustainable outcomes by implementing large-scale decentralization strategies. The model showed that given a chance, people with a common interest would pool common resources to make common investments for the common good. This “public choice” form of self-governing is of course another form of democracy
Seems so obvious as to sound almost silly. But it’s not silly. In fact it’s so serious that governments all over the world, including our own, cringe at the very idea of decentralization, ceding control of resources, the power to choose, to the people.
The creative and clear voice that argued so convincingly that economic assistance could-should be shifted from distant central governments to decentralized finance and management units has by now transformed international development in many countries around the globe. It belongs to a political scientist at the University of Indiana, Elinor Ostrom. Last week, Ostrom and her colleague, Oliver Williamson, won the Nobel Prize in economics.
Read an excerpt from the Zaire novel The Sphere of Sena Tatu