Run it like a Business: Make It Work for You
Working for the largest African health organization, my colleagues and I laughed when I received my city assignments as part of the Marshall Memorial Fellowship: one of which was Anchorage, Alaska. My professional focus on Africa has taken me to countries and their communities living below the equator for most of my career, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. So why was I being sent to Alaska? What could I learn in the far north that would be applicable to the south?
Now having visited Alaska, I have returned to my work with an idea that seemed a mere humorous fantasy before: we need to organize an exchange visit between the native Alaskan communities and the Masaai. Both communities face questions about the responsible use of natural resources, and have many valuable best practices they could share. Natural resources are a source of wealth if exploited properly. Wealth can help sustain communities if distributed properly. People can govern themselves if capacitated and empowered properly, we are often told. All of these assumptions, while noble, do not always become reality. Richness in natural resources is more often a curse for sustainable living than a blessing.
But then there is the Alaskan model. Since the late 1950s, Alaska has developed a constitution, held a referendum, and discovered North America’s largest oil reserve. Visionaries set up the Alaska Permanent Fund (APF) in 1976, into which the government would invest a small part of the state’s oil revenue each year as a way to turn the temporary stream of oil money into permanent wealth. Furthermore, the state has 12 geographic regions each with a "Regional Corporation" (including one corporation for non-natives and several village corporations). These corporations are the largest private landowners in Alaska. Development of the resources beneath their lands offers Native corporations an opportunity to generate jobs and other economic benefits for their Native shareholders. Income and wealth flows back into Alaska and its communities—and therefore its people demand sustainable exploitation.
This model has helped Alaska maintain one of the lowest poverty rates in the United States. It has helped Alaska become one of the most economically equal of all 50 states. And during the 1990s and 2000s, it helped Alaska become the only U.S. state in which equality rose rather than fell. Even though the model is not perfect, we can learn from it. Obviously, Alaska is doing something right. The lesson I take from it: run it like a business; make it work for you-- the epitome of the (Native) American dream.
Dirkje Jansen, a Spring 2015 European Marshall Memorial Fellow, is a Portfolio Manager for AMREF Flying Doctors in The Hague, Netherlands.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.