Book review: Access for All: Building Inclusive Economic Systems

In her book, Helms argues that traditional funders such as governments and international development agencies simply cannot fill the gap, and corporate social responsibility is not enough either. Courtesy.

“Over the past decade, we have witnessed a sea change in how we think about poverty in developing and emerging markets. We now understand the power of activating private businesses and markets to make real change happen. Access to services and job opportunities, powered by digital and sound policies, can transform lives,” says Brigit Helms in her latest book, Access for All: Building Inclusive Economic Systems.

That idea is reflected in the story of Zakia Bakari, a 23-year-old Kenyan woman born and raised in Mombasa, the country’s second largest city, which Helms tells in the opening section of her book.

Zakia’s father sells produce at the Marikiti Market in Old Town on Digo Road and her mother stays home and takes care of the family. Neither has any formal education. Zakia and her two younger brothers are the first generation in the family to finish school, having received primary and secondary education at the nearby government-funded schools.

She graduated from Mtongwe Girls Secondary School at age 18 and never attended university. She had a different vision for her future.

When she was 16, Zakia began helping her father and other vendors in the market after school and on weekends. At her graduation celebration, her family and her Mariki Market friends held a harambee (fundraiser) and they collected enough money for her to buy a refurbished laptop.

Armed with her new computer and a gateway to the wider world, she began accessing free internet services at Swahili Pot, a Kenyan government project that supports technical innovation and the arts, located on donated land near Fort Jesus in Old Town Mombasa.

Zakia had always been a talented visual artist and one day she followed Google links to an Indian-produced Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) on graphic design. She enjoyed it much that in the following months she tore through every free online course she could find on graphic and web design.

After finishing one of these courses, she was prompted to an advertisment about Fiverr, an online freelancer platform where people with abilities like hers could sell their services to clients all over the world.

She began designing logos and brochures for clients in the United States and Europe, charging between $5 and $30 per job and receiving payments directly into her new PayPal-linked Equity Bank account. After just a few weeks, she was earning more money than her father.

Zakia’s reputation grew offline, too, and local businesses started contracting her design services. Demand grew fast that she added two of her cousins, one who lives in Nairobi and the other in Kisumu, to the team.

They cooperated online using Red Pen, an app that facilitates remote designer collaboration. Her cousins soon needed computers with greater processing speeds to manage the increasing complexity of the work and Zakia took a microloan from Zidisha org, a peer-to-peer lending platform, to finance the new equipment.

Zakia pays their cousins using M-Pesa, a mobile money service that electronically transfers cash quickly and seamlessly without the need for bank accounts. Her growing business currently nets an average of $2,000 a month after paying her cousins and other expenses.

“Zakia is a character composed of an amalgam of real-life stories. And although her story may not be the norm in developing and emerging economies, it serves as an inspirational example of what it possible to achieve with the resources available today,” Helms notes.

‘There are milestones’

The past decade or so has seen several new milestones in the thinking and practice of inclusive economics. These new economics go beyond grandiose top-down policies and embrace the bottom-up creation of equal opportunity, with the aspiration that all members of society should participate in all aspects of economic life – as employees, entrepreneurs, consumers, and citizens.

Recent years have consolidated these new ideas into a mandate for the private sector. For instance, in 2015 the Finance for Development conference in Ethiopia proclaimed that if the world is truly to address the intractable social and environmental problems facing the planet, then there is need to shift the mind-set from investing ‘billions’ of dollars to ‘trillions’ of dollars.

In her book, Helms who is currently the Vice President of Technical Services at DAI, a global organisation that support development programmes in 150 countries, argues that traditional funders such as governments and international development agencies simply cannot fill this gap, and corporate social responsibility is not enough either.

“Private capital and viable business models need to kick in and scale,” she says, highlighting that companies of all sizes need to find new business models that put them and the planet on a new, more sustainable trajectory.

The American author asserts that countries across the globe have seen poverty dramatically drop over last few decades and inequality decline, yet large swaths of people have been left behind.

She attempts to answer why the world should care about inclusiveness.

“Because an inclusive economy means that the economic system incorporates everyone, so all can live productive lives and because when large swaths of our societies are left out of the economy, everybody suffers,” she says.

To emphasise this idea, she thinks the world should look at the currently excluded people as consumers of the vital goods and services they need to reach their potential and as workers contributing to vibrant, growing industries.

In a nutshell, Helms advances the not-so-unpopular opinion that poor and low-income people and households should be at the centre of an inclusive economic system and that their demand for services and jobs should drive the actions of those at all the other levels.

The author highlights Rwanda as a country that has been able to put in place systems that have empowered poor people. This is backed by series of examples she cites in the more than five pages she dedicated to talking about Rwanda.

Helms officially launched her book in Rwanda last week.


Follow The New Times on Google News