Trying Hard to Help

Photo: Tamer Shabani, '14, MS '16

Few places on earth are more deserving of good fortune than West Africa. 

You’re no doubt familiar with at least some of the tortured history of the region. For hundreds of years, slave traders—abetted by African chieftains and colonial governments—abducted tens of millions of people, shipped them overseas and consigned them to lives of brutal servitude. The Portuguese, Dutch and English took turns plundering the place.

When colonial rule finally ended in the 20th century, Western governments and a long list of NGOs poured in money and volunteers, hoping to help nascent economies develop and grow. Most of those efforts have failed. Even relative success stories are tempered by hard realities. Ghana, which cut its poverty level in half between 1990 and 2012, still has more than 2 million people who live on less than two dollars a day. And in the interior of the continent, the picture is even bleaker—the world’s 10 poorest countries are all located in sub-Saharan Africa.

So what’s the answer? Given everything that already has been tried, how do we help end extreme poverty?

That is a complicated matter; reversing centuries of exploitation, neglect, corruption and weak governance is dauntingly difficult. But there are positive developments, and one of them originates at the Graduate School of Business: the Stanford Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies; Seed for short. 

The program’s thrust, in a nutshell, is to help businesspeople succeed. Through training, coaching and networking, Seed wants to help small operators think big—to scale their enterprises in ways that have a multiplier effect on local economies. More customers, more suppliers, more jobs. Seed chose West Africa as its starting point—it began operating in Ghana in 2014; last spring it opened an East African center, in Kenya.

Our cover story on page 46 dives deeply into the Seed ecosystem and highlights its early efforts working with entrepreneurs whose energy and enthusiasm are helping push the program forward. Despite some early successes, though, it’s clear that the challenge is large and the obstacles numerous. 

Seed’s goal—pulling millions of people out of poverty—is audacious to say the least. Skeptics could offer 100 reasons why it might not work. But so what? If there were a handbook we could use to solve this problem, it would have sold out long ago. Failing that, we have to keep trying things, new things, birthed by imagination and buttressed by belief.

The believers-in-chief are Bob and Dottie King, whose $150 million gift underwrote the program and supplied it with its calling. They concede they might not be around to see the final fruits of their generosity. I imagine, though, there will be plenty of blossoms between now and then. And each of them will be something to celebrate.

Kevin Cool is the executive editor of Stanford.

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