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Ending the Inverse Correlation

April 14, 2010

Along with ironies, I’ve noticed that Kenya has a lot of inverse correlations — and most of them on things that don’t make a whole lot of sense. For those non-mathy folks among you, an inverse (or negative) correlation is basically where 1 thing goes up, the other thing goes down. For instance, the more productive I am, the less I am able to update this blog (hence the title.) One very negative observation: the more government officials there are to watch out for corruption, the less actual corruption hunting there is being done. How does this work, you might ask. Well, the more government “watch-dogs” there are, the more people there are to buy off!! If only 1 just person controlled the entire government, then there would be virtually no top-down corruption, but when the entire leadership structure is dispersed to countless figures able to cover up, meddle with the books, and generally look the other way, the possibilities for and the likihood of corruption goes up dramatically. And my dear Kenya is one of the better countries on the continent about this too! Despite the evident corruption seen everywhere from the executive branch down to a rural clinic, Kenya at least acknowledges that there is a problem with corruption and has attempted (albeit not entirely successfully) to stem the tide of corruption.

One very stark example of this corruption was told to me by a fellow intern who works at a rural hospital outside of KK. There is a man who only comes to work on certain days, he begins, the days when he’s responsible for taking the cash to the bank for the hospital. Other days, he simply doesn’t show up. Everyone who works there knows that he steals the money – even the head boss guy is aware that one of the employees regularly takes kickbacks of cash on work that he doesn’t even do. The other week, the board of directors for this government hospital showed up. Nothing was said to the corrupt employee and certainly nothing was done. Why, I asked. Because they are paid off – bribed – all of them, from the money that the employee steals to make sure that he can keep stealing it. And so the cycle goes – all this at a hospital where they can’t afford to buy latex gloves for their doctors to wear while treating patients.

And then there are those odd, perverse positive correlations that are haunting me about Kenya. Cite here products in bulk. You’d think this would be inverse right? The larger the package you buy, the less expensive per unit it is – right? Wrong. In Kenya, the larger the package you buy, the more expensive it is per unit. How this makes any sense is beyond me – evidently Kenyan manufacturers missed the first day of Economics 101. And the street vendors and boda drivers must have missed Marketing 101… because it seems like when one decides to stake out a place, all of those people offering EXACTLY the same product congregate in the same area. (This isn’t exactly a positive correlation… but I’m not exactly a mathematician either so ..) Anyway, it seems absolutely counterintuitive to me – because it’s almost impossible to differentiate on product when you’re selling bananas or boda rides and it’s hard to “brand” those products for an impoverished person, it would seem the logical course then to differentiate oneself by being in a different location. I understand that there are limits to this of course, but it still seems completely mad to locate your business directly amongst your competitors who might offer a better product or a lower price.

This, of course, is what one would consider “basic business knowledge” — something even a majority of educated Kenyans lack. One of the great things about KDA (where I work) is that they attempt to train their clients on business management skills so that their businesses can actually be profitable (and their loans can be repaid). I attended one such training yesterday and thanks to my increasing Swahili knowledge, I was able to follow most of what was going on. It was amazing how even little bits of knowledge like “what is profit” could revolutionize many of these small businesses. I know that prior to Kenya I took a lot of my ingrained economics knowledge for granted – not so any longer. I know that I won’t be literally saving lives or creating a new farming technique while I’m here, but if I can end up transferring even a small part of my business knowledge to these people in a long-lasting way, I will have succeeded at something. I know I won’t see the tangible impact while I’m here – I won’t touch the people whose lives I hope to inevitably change and I won’t come back with a great sob story to melt the hearts of Americans. I can only hope to plant a seed of knowledge – that through the community orientation of Kenya will grow, that over time will allow for microenterprises to become regular businesses, that will allow loans to be repaid, savings to be kept, children to be sent to school with those savings, and families to be fed with the knowledge that price must exceed cost for profit to be earned and other such simple tidbits.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Anne permalink
    April 14, 2010 4:35 pm

    My thesis professor said it something like this, “Anne, it is very easy to make a problem complex and get bogged down in all the details…the challenge is to simplify the issue and break it down to where it is comprehendible and solutions can be applied – that is the measure of success”. Erin, here’s to you and your success in microfinance for the people of KK! We believe in the lasting impacts that your work will have.

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