Pockets of California amid sub-Saharan Africa?

Rant and rave alert. 

As an undergrad at Yale I took several classes in which professors, TAs and fellow students would casually say things that insinuated that all of Africa (read sub-Saharan Africa) was a cross between a hospice, a giant slum and a war zone. Let’s just say that it all made me a little bit uncomfortable, and sometimes forced me to over-compensate in discussions and with papers and homework. I was particularly disappointed in my professors for not knowing any better. It probably also played a big role in my choice to pursue a career as an academic in the social sciences. 

The quote below reminded me of those episodes:

Despite considerable economic growth and increasing self-confidence as a major global player, modern India is a disaster zone in which millions of lives are wrecked by hunger and by pitiable investment in health and education services. Pockets of California amid sub-Saharan Africa, sum up Sen and Drèze.

It’s one thing when an ignoramus who imagines Kenya to be a town in South Africa that does a mean giraffe barbecue says something nasty about an entire region and its people. But it’s quite another when it comes from a college professor or from people that you expect to know better. 

For instance, when we say California, are we talking Palo Alto or East Palo Alto? I must add here that because it is Sen (my beloved author of The Idea of Justice), may be he meant the “median Californian experience” vs the “median African experience” as opposed to simply comparing Palo Alto with Kibera. May be.

I admire Prof. Sen. Very much.  But I would like to register my disappointment over this offending line. The full article in the Guardian is actually quite illuminating regarding inequality in India. 

If you ever teach a class or write a book or newspaper article or give a talk, please know that it is not kosher to use the word Africa as short hand for everything that you imagine to be wrong with this world. Always remember that part of your audience might include real flesh and blood Africans. Spare us the awkwardness. Please. 

More on State Building and the International System

This is a guest post in response to a previous blog post by friend of the blog Matthew Kustenbauder.

Your post highlights the contradictions between today’s human rights regime (which is based on universal concepts of humanity and has its origins in European anti-slavery campaigns and traditions of humanitarianism, and before that debates in Christian theology) and the post-imperial international order (based on the nation state as the fundamental political unit).

Since the rise of nationalism after WWII, new states that were historically part of empires (and thereby incorporated under their systems of law, governance, and trade) have had to make their own way. For most of these states, and especially for the people living within them, the new era of national self-determination has been no more kind than was the Age of Empire. The withdrawal of imperial powers left a vacuum that today’s international system struggles to address with any effect. There are many reasons for this, not the least of which is that it is a fragmented and cumbersome system that gives the impression all states are “equal” — clearly they are not. It also tends to be a forum in which smaller and poorer states invoke language of victimhood in an effort, ironically, to get larger or more wealthy states to step in and do the work that states are meant to do for themselves — namely, govern those residing within their boundaries.

What do I mean by this last point? An illustration by way of anecdote may help clarify. I was recently frustrated watching a BBC World Report special (an outlet for the Bleeding Hearts Industrial Complex that you mentioned in your post) about multinationals and poor working conditions in the developing world. Cotton and chocolate were featured. The reporter investigated big cotton operations in India and cocoa plantations in Cote D’Ivoire. What registered as surprise to the BBC reporter was no surprise to me — He found lots of young women and children working there. But instead of asking why the local government didn’t regulate the industry or why they didn’t enforce the regulations already on the books, he ran off to Switzerland and the UK and America to ask why Nestle and Tommy Hilfiger, etc. don’t monitor their supply chains. I was baffled. This is a classic example of how an international system based on the sovereignty of individual nation states is at odds with universal notions of human rights. In many ways, it is the modern-day replacement for the old global-local tensions that existed between the imperial metropole and its colonies. We might ask, however, whether the current framework in which human rights activism operates is really any better suited to address the ongoing problems that plague developing nations. To my mind’s eye, the focus is on the wrong place … or is at least too focused on the role of businesses and advanced economies and not focused enough on working with multinationals in order to help citizens in poor countries put pressure on their governments to be accountable, competent, and truly sovereign.

The emphasis on human rights by Western governments and development work by NGOs in African countries have, more often than not, undermined the sovereignty of national governments since decolonization. More recently, however, China has emerged as the largest trading partner with many African countries. This is a game changer, not only because the Dragon does not hold human rights sacrosanct, but also because, unlike its Western counterparts, China considers economic growth and trade essential to establishing national sovereignty and the nation-state (not the international community) as the principal guarantor of the well-being of its citizens. The degree to which China can be ‘socialised’ in the ways of the international system, which was after all created by the Great Powers to replace the disintegrating world that western empires had made, remains to be seen. In any event, the long-standing tensions between universal principals of human rights, on the one hand, and the limits placed on intervention into the affairs of one state by another in the name of national sovereignty, on the other, will endure.

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Matthew Kustenbauder is a PhD candidate in history at Harvard University.

Where do the poor live, and how do we make them become middle class?

The Economist reports:

“WHERE do the world’s poor live? The obvious answer: in poor countries. But in a recent series of articles Andy Sumner of Britain’s Institute of Development Studies showed that the obvious answer is wrong. Four-fifths of those surviving on less than $2 a day, he found, live in middle-income countries with a gross national income per head of between $1,000 and $12,500, not poor ones. His finding reflects the fact that a long but inequitable period of economic growth has lifted many developing countries into middle-income status but left a minority of their populations mired in poverty. Since the countries involved include giants like China and India, even a minority amounts to a very large number of people. That matters because middle-income countries can afford to help their own poor.”

The article raises important issues that inform the debate on how to tackle problems of poverty and underdevelopment – is it all about politics & governance or all about economic expansion? The answer, of course is that it is a moderate mix of both.

But since political realities often force governments to concentrate on one or the other, a responsible answer is that it is all context-dependent; some places need strong economic expansion first, before political reforms can be anchored in society. In others, political change should be top of the checklist.

The Botswanas and Singapores of this world are lucky in that their leaders were smart enough to know what their countries needed and pursued it with singular ambition, despite the unavoidable mess that came with the choices they made.

This of course goes against the received wisdom among academics (me included) who believe in the strong power of the right types of (liberal, in the classical sense) institutions to put countries on the path to becoming Denmark. The problem with this approach is that it does not tell us how to compress the more than 600 years that transpired between the Magna Carta and the voting reform legislations in England in the latter part of the 19th century. Lest we forget, England (which is every scholar’s favorite source of empirical conceptualization of institutional development) has not always had good institutions.

Institutions take a lot of time to build. A lot more time than the average human life span.

So the question still stands: How do we get the most number of people out of poverty in the least amount of time with the least harm to their political and human rights?

More on this here.

The decline of odious ODA?

The Economist has a piece outlining the paradox of Indian overseas development assistance (to the tune of 11 billion over the next 5-7 years). With figures from the CIA factbook I have calculated that about 300 million indians live below the poverty line. The Economist piece also touts the emergence of middle income donors, especially among the BRICs.

In this world Europeans and Americans no longer dominate aid. China is the biggest source of investment in Africa and the Gates Foundation is as important as many donor governments (and much more innovative). Private capital flows to Africa outstrip aid flows, contradicting an old justification that aid is necessary because investors hold back.

For the poorest, the new donors are more important because Western aid is shrivelling. Congress is proposing to chop American aid by a fifth. Brazil is giving more to the Somali famine than Germany, France and Italy combined. There are exceptions: Britain and Australia promise to boost aid spending. But they seem like a last hurrah of Western generosity.

Adding that:

In this new world the justification for aid and the behaviour of donors must change. For India and others, it is far from clear why the government should send aid abroad when it has so many poor people at home. No doubt, aid will be defended as a boost to global influence. The risk for India is that, just like the West did in the 1960s, it will pour money into grand projects which fail—and encourage bad government.

I disagree with this latter assessment. It is not aid per se that caused the epic governance problems facing most of the low-income countries of the world. Sure it stunted the co-evolution of accountable government and domestic revenue generation. But the biggest failure of aid was what it was spent on.

Aid being highly fungible meant that most of the money wound up in the private accounts of venal leaders and gun-runners.

Things have since changed a bit. For instance, China’s resources-for-infrastructure deals can be a model for Aid 2.0 (this no doubt needs some tweaking too, as this damaging expose on Sino-Angolan oil deals shows). Plus this time the infrastructure investments are different. In an earlier period most of the investments were overtly white elephant projects (like Moi’s infamous hydro-electric dam in Turkwel). Most of the current projects are in roads, telecoms, and to some extent agriculture – investments that will have a much bigger impact because of their broader reach.

You can find a related earlier post here.

africa’s Middle class

Elizabeth Dickinson at FP reports:

Given all this, perhaps the only thing about Africa that isn’t changing quickly is our perceptions of it. There’s an image impressed in all of our minds of a starving child, symobilizing an impoverished continent. If that was ever true, this is an excellent reminder that today, it’s at most a snapshot. Yes, there’s great human suffering and it’s not hard to find. But Africa as a whole is becoming a middle class continent.

It is hard to completely buy Dickinson’s optimism given the fact that Somalia, the DRC, Chad, Central Africa Republic, Sudan, among others are still far from being stable polities. The precarious nature of the stability in the more stable African states such as Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Rwanda e.t.c. are also cause for concern.

That said, the reality is that there are many Africas. Those who fail to internalize that fact continue to do so at their own peril. Just ask the Indians and the Chinese.

frustrations of the african intellectual

William Easterly on Aid Watch captures the frustrations of African intellectuals and their continued neglect by both the aid industry and their home governments.

African intellectuals continue to be on the periphery of the discourse on African socio-economic development. The independence leaders jailed, killed or exiled many of them, leading to fifty years of disastrous misrule and general mediocrity from Dakar to Mogadishu, Khartoum to Jo’burg. The current crop of autocrats and pretend-democrats did not learn a thing from the last half-century and continue to opt for career poverty-voyeurs development experts from donor countries instead of their own people who may have greater incentives to see their homeland match the achievements of the newly emerging states of Brazil, India and China.

some good and bad news

The good news first. According to UNICEF, the global under five mortality dropped by about 28% between 1990 and 2008. In other words, 10,000 less children are dying daily worldwide than was the case in 1990.

But that is as good as it gets. The sorry fact is that millions of children under the age of five still die every year from treatable illnesses – malaria, pneumonia and diarrhea being the top child-killers. Last year alone saw the loss of 8.8 million children under the age of five. India, the DRC and Nigeria were the worst hit – together reporting 40% of all under-five deaths. Africa and Asia, combined, reported 93% of global under five deaths.

development issues

My promise to write a post on African development is almost becoming like Dr. Dre’s promise to release the Detox album. I promise it will come soon, after I settle on an opinion that is robust enough to withstand more than a few critiques.

For now we should be content listening to much wiser development experts – like Blattman, TN Srinivasan (the man who taught me intermediate microeconomics) and cynic in chief Bill Easterly.

A few years ago I used to conflate economic development with modernization. I thought that all it took to make vibrant economies in the global south was the importation of technology, material goods and ideas of governance from the more developed parts of the globe. But time has taught me that historical lock-in effects matter. The global south’s geography, historical poverty and social structures have created path dependencies that will take a lot of time to undo. This is not to say that we should give up on the idea of accelerated development. What I am suggesting is that as we do this we should have it in mind that certain things take time to change and that short-term failures disappear when you look at the long-term picture.

In other news, the conflict in Darfur has become less sexy and so it is no longer all over the news. But Darfurians are still suffering. The same applies to the Congo. Here is yet another reminder that the madness in the land of Mobutu continues unabated.