Ethan Arpi

Lemurs Are Cool

LemurIf you?re in Madagascar at this very moment and you?re reading this blog, then chances are you?re attending Conservation International’s symposium, ?Defying Nature’s End: The Africa Context.? But for those of us who have to see lemurs in the zoo, here’s some information about what’s going on in Madagascar.

The four day symposium, which began yesterday, explores ways of harnessing Africa’s biodiversity and using it to reduce poverty in the region. Among the hotshot speakers are Columbia University economist Jeffrey D. Sachs who is also director of the U.N. Millennium Project. Unfortunately for U2 fans, Bono will not be in attendance. Neither will Angelina Jolie; she just had a baby.But all this is beside the point. After the symposium is complete, its findings will be compiled into a set of recommendations called the ?Madagascar Declaration,? which will outline a strategy for ?Africans to meet the United Nations Development Goals of reducing poverty, disease, and environmental destruction by 2015.? (By the way, why are these goals so pessimistic? Couldn?t they be recast in a brighter light? Try this: The United Nations Development Goals of spreading prosperity, improving health, and promoting environmental sustainability. Focusing on the region’s negative side will keep Africa forever mired in the rhetoric of the Dark Continent.)

Which brings me to my next point. Olivier Langrand, vice-president of Conservation International, recently suggested that African countries should ?rebrand? themselves to make them more like the Costa Ricas and Belizes of the world. My immediate reaction was a visceral disgust. Countries, unlike cosmetics, are not packaged goods which are branded with flashy logos. Branding is for animals and consumer goods, not nations.

But to his credit, Langrand is on to something. Images and news stories coming out of Africa highlight the sensational and avoid the mundane, reinforcing our preconceived notions that Africa is a sea of malnourished children who survive by fighting off clouds of flies. War in Sudan, for example, makes hundreds of headlines. By contrast, slow and steady economic progress in places like Senegal, which has sustained an average of 6.4% growth in the last several years, is relegated to the inner pages of the business section. But this is not a marketing problem as Langrand suggests. It’s a complex problem of a fickle audience that wants entertainment and a perverse ideology that revels in ?African backwardness.?

Here’s another comment by Langrand which made me flinch. “If you look at Madagascar, its nature is its only competitive advantage. It’s diverse and unique. There is no other place to go to see lemurs.” Yes Mr. Landgrand, lemurs are cool. Although I?m no expert on Madagascar, I can at least imagine that there’s a lot more going on in this country than these lanky creatures. I do agree that investing in lemurs, like building lofts to revitalize a downtown, is not a bad idea. But in general, development strategies need to be a tad more dynamic.

Investing in people might be a good place to start. Take Bushproof, a for-profit business out of Madagascar, which develops and installs low cost and durable water pumps and filters. On their website, Bushproof justifies their for profit activities for providing Madagascar’s BOP with potable water: ?The creation of viable markets among low-income groups mobilises the resources of the local people themselves. This reduces long-term dependence on donor funds.? Hmm, sounds like a good idea.

But alas I have come down hard on Conservation International. If you want to hear their side of the story, check out Conservation International’s website, which features live blogging from the symposium.? After all, there’s nothing cooler than blogging. Oh wait! I take that back. What about lemurs??