People with Dysentery Don't Go to Trade Shows...

... and other reasons job creators should care about international development

“People with dysentery don’t go to trade shows,” a development professional from Southern Africa recently told me. “And criminals make awful business partners.” As Congress weighs the President’s recommendation for a 30% cut to the international affairs budget, many people have started asking tough questions about US investments abroad. I’ve recently written a series of articles on how to make these investments more transparent and effective. Now I think it warrants taking a step back and looking at some specific – and unexpected – examples of how international development programs make us safer, open markets for American goods and services, and create jobs for people in the heartland.

Take combatting wildlife crime.

There’s an episode of the Sopranos in which Tony becomes a “silent partner” in his friend’s struggling sporting goods store. By the end of the episode, they’re laundering money through the store and ultimately burn it down to get the insurance money. The lesson: criminals make bad business partners. Development professionals talk about “enabling conditions” for development, like the rule of law. But that’s such a broad set of topics it becomes difficult to know what to do or how to start. Combatting the international crime syndicates that traffic humans, drugs, and wildlife offers a good first step.

While an elephant in Africa may not directly create jobs in Bakersfield, the criminals who poach, kill, and traffic in elephant parts make really bad business partners for anyone trying to do business in those countries. And because these crime syndicates infest customs and border control systems, they become your business partner whether you like it or not. These criminals use their ill-gotten gains to bribe officials, undermine the rule of law, and erode the security and stability of rising middle-income states like South Africa, Botswana, and Namibia. These countries and their consumers stand on the precipice of becoming major players in the world market.

If you really want to bring jobs back to the American heartland, helping these countries clear out their wildlife trafficking criminals offers a clear, discreet first step. With modest investments, USAID and other donor agencies have helped these countries start to level the playing field against these armed-to-the-teeth criminal gangs. These investments not only safeguard wildlife, they also make us safer by reducing the threat of violence and even terrorism by depriving these gangs of money. By draining this swamp, we give these countries a firmer grasp on their middle-income status. In Eastern and Southern Africa in particular, much of the local economies derive from wildlife-related tourism. The World Travel & Tourism Council’s 2015 Benchmark Report found that travel and tourism made up 61% of South Africa’s service exports in 2014. This represents an enormous source of financial stability, and can become the platform for emerging economies to diversify and more fully participate in the global market. Helping them secure this renewable natural resource creates a virtuous cycle of commerce among American airlines, travel agencies, and equipment providers. We also help put money back into local communities and in the hands of consumers who can then start to afford the pricier products and services we make here at home.

Many economies that found a “jump-start” in extractive resources – like gold mining in South Africa and Botswana – cannot depend on those resources to last. This decline has already become evident. As The Washington Post reported between 2004 and 2015, one third of South Africa’s 180,000 gold miners were fired. They found that many of those who lost their jobs were now dangerously and illegally returning to closed mines to scavenge for ores, deprived of opportunities elsewhere. Without graduating from these non-renewable resources, these nations’ economic booms will eventually bust, and create opportunities for further deterioration of public order and rule of law.

Global health programs offer another example.

As my development professional friend pointed out, if you have dysentery, you’re not in the market for much of anything. Building sustainable water, sanitation, and hygiene programs reduces the incidence of some of the most preventable diseases in the world. By some estimates, simply reducing the incidence of water-born infections would add billions back to global GDP. In 2012, the WHO found that in combined water and sanitation efforts, every $1 spent returned an average of $4.3 to the global economy – with sanitation alone returning as much as $8 in East Asia. In this rising tide scenario, we could ride a wave of clean water to new heights of economic growth. Beyond the economic benefits, improving the health and prosperity of these nations also helps to secure regional and global security. The rising middle-income states in Eastern and Southern Africa have a very tenuous grasp on their prosperity and could easily backslide into fragile or failing states, risking the security of the entire region.

Moreover, the US State Department and USAID have made great strides in recent years through the use of innovative public-private partnership and co-creation processes that more directly involve local communities and stakeholders in designing and deploying development programs that work for them. A far cry from the neocolonial approaches we’ve seen from the Chinese and other contending powers, these inclusive methods leverage two of America’s core comparative advantages: transparency and inclusion. More so than other international competitors, we know how to be transparent and inclusive. These co-creative methods (see earlier blogs about how the United States has experimented with these approaches) let us stay ahead of the Chinese by building more lasting, more mutually beneficial relationships with these countries, their businesses, and our future customers and consumers.

I’ve been a small business owner and exporter almost my entire life (see my blog on how I started exporting from my college dorm room). Job creators like me should care about international development because, when done transparently and inclusively, it makes us safer and more prosperous. I’ve seen firsthand how prosperity abroad puts real money in my pocket when foreign companies and consumers can afford to buy my products and services. We have a special opportunity now to use modest investments – like fighting dysentery and combatting wildlife crime – to build lasting relationships with future business partners around the world, securing prosperity for ourselves for generations to come. 

By Richard Crespin, CEO of CollaborateUp

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