Somewhere out there, the MoneyMaker Plus is earning its keep. It’s a water pump designed for irrigation in Kenya, and despite its noble goals, it’s also designed to turn a profit. It’s marketed by a marketing guy, designed by design people (the next generation will be designed by Ideo) and sold by salespeople. Simultaneously, the builders, Approtec, hope to demonstrate a new approach for how the First World can help the Third, massively improve Kenyan agriculture, and help build a Kenyan middle class from the ground up. It reminds me of The Ugly American; despite what the term has come to mean, the title character of Burdick and Lederer’s prescient pulp novel about a fictionalized Vietnam on the eve of Communist takeover was an American engineer (physically unattractive, but a swell fellow nonetheless). Against the backdrop of continuing failures on the part of the American diplomatic corps, he learned the language, travelled the country, built dams, and talked to the peasants about what they really wanted. Sadly, his bicycle-mounted water pump didn’t save Sarkhan for democracy, perhaps because it didn’t have a name remotely as catchy as "the MoneyMaker Plus". The MoneyMaker’s builders are in the process of becoming a non-profit, but they’re run like a business in the best possible sense, and they’re catching a trend. The World Bank has been a whipping boy for leftists for years, receiving stinging criticism for their past policies on development and privatization, much of it warrented. But building on the successes of the Grameen Bank, the World Bank has lept into microlending, the practice of helping to build a capitalist economy through targeted small loans, the sort that can build a garage or buy a commercial oven instead of a steel mill or airport.
It seems to be a growing trend: Ashoka offers microgrants; the Heifer Project gives farm animals with the understanding that some of their offspring will be returned; Tools for Development makes microloans for machine tools. Privatization, especially when done in such a way as to line the pockets of international corporations and local plutocrats, can create a godawful mess (see also the massively botched Russian privatization, which mostly transfered Russian state assets to Communist apparatchiks and the Mob); further, I don’t think that fledgling capitalist economy will necessarily bring peace and freedom (and people well to the right of me agree). But improving desperately poor economies is a slow process, and these groups seem to have hit on a way to speed it: rely on people’s desire for economic self-improvement to build out a capitalist infrastructure. Hernando de Soto‘s The Mystery of Capital offers the view that one of the things that restricts Third World development is the fact that property records and the like are usually in bad shape if not nonexistant. Without good deeds and records, his thinking goes, it’s hard for people to invest in their small businesses, no matter how hard-working and entreuprenerial they may be. Are microloans — to buy a handful of sewing machines or a new human-driven irrigation pump designed by Silicon Valley’s finest — a way of dodging this problem enough to get a solution on the ground?