This is the dumbest paragraph by Thomas Friedman you’ll ever read in your life

You can learn everything you need to know about the main challenges facing Africa today by talking to just two people in Senegal: the rapper and the weatherman. They’ve never met, but I could imagine them doing an amazing duet one day — words and weather predictions — on the future of Africa.

The title of his column in “Out of Africa: Part III.”

You can’t make this stuff up.

Younger Me: 18th century European views of Africa and Africans are sticky. This means that occasionally, even educated sophisticates like Friedman (especially as they get older), can let slip horse manure like this.

Current Me: This is racism masquerading as stylistic hyperbole. For an uncomfortably high proportion of Americans — whether educated or not, in media houses or in the seminar room — Africa is a simple place with simple people facing simple problems that require simple solutions. Africa is just different in every dimension imaginable.

Very few of these people ever updated since reading Joseph Conrad.

In order to know about Africa’s future, you don’t need to talk to someone with a sophisticated understanding of the Senegalese economy (or for that matter, Africa’s other 53 economies). Just talk to the rapper and the weatherman. Or some dude in Kibera. Or a warlord somewhere in Eastern Congo. And then pepper your story with some quotes from WENA (Western Europe, North America, and the Antipodes) diplomats.

Think about it. At least two college-educated people at the New York Times looked at this and let it through.

Also, there is a way to have an intelligent conversation about climate change in Africa without always tying it to conflict and migration to Europe.

H/T Matina Stevis.

Interesting Fact of the Month

On life expectancy on the Continent:

Malawi has led the way, with life expectancy at birth rising 42 per cent from 44.1 years in 2000 to 62.7 in 2014, according to data from the World Bank.

Zambia and Zimbabwe have both seen rises of 38 per cent over the same period, with longevity in Rwanda, Botswana and Sierra Leone up more than 30 per cent.

Uganda, Ethiopia, the Republic of Congo, Niger and Kenya have all witnessed rises of more than 20 per cent. Overall, of the 37 countries to have seen life expectancy rise by more than 10 per cent since 2000, 30 are in sub-Saharan Africa, including the 15 with the biggest gains, as the table below shows.

Not one sub-Saharan country saw life expectancy fall between 2000 and 2014.

Public health for the win.

The full FT piece is here.

What does it mean to be “tough on crime”?

This is from Alex Tabarrok over at MR:

Our focus on prisons over police may be crazy but it is consistent with what I called Gary Becker’s Greatest Mistake, the idea that an optimal punishment system combines a low probability of being punished with a harsh punishment if caught. That theory runs counter to what I have called the good parenting theory of punishment in which optimal punishments are quick, clear, and consistent and because of that, need not be harsh.

We need to change what it means to be “tough on crime.” Instead of longer sentences let’s make “tough on crime” mean increasing the probability of capture for those who commit crimes.

More on this here.

In my public policy class this semester we read the sad story of Thabo Mbeki’s capture by “dissident” scientists who sold him unconventional policy approaches to South Africa’s AIDS epidemic. The lesson was that we should always be wary of allowing experts too much leeway in deciding actual policy. This means more debate (both among experts and by the public) and routine rigorous evaluation to strengthen the quality of feedback after policy rollouts.

Social Science is awesome. And may the credibility revolution live on. But the world certainly needs more humble social scientists.

What are the (feasible) options for stabilizing South Sudan?

If you are following the farcical saga of the return of Riek Machar to Juba (the BBC reports that he finally landed!), here is an excellent backgrounder on the options available for stabilizing South Sudan (by Alex de Waaal).

Briefly stated:

South Sudan today is a collapsed political marketplace. The country’s political market was structured by competitive militarized clientelism for access to oil rents. Those oil rents have almost disappeared but the structure of competition is unchanged and the price of loyalty has not reduced to a level commensurate with the available political funding. The result is that political loyalty and services are rewarded with license to plunder. This is inherently self-destructive. South Sudan’s political economy is being consumed to feed its political-military elite.

How can the collapsed political marketplace be fixed?

The short term crisis could be resolved only by one of three means:

1. Buy-in: a power-sharing deal among the contenders. This was the strategy of the CPA. It was possible in 2005 because the budget was increasing by more than 25% per year. It is not possible under current conditions of austerity.

2. Victory and repression: one contender secures military domination and uses an efficient security apparatus to enforce loyalty. This is not possible because the civil war became an ethnic war, making outright victory impossible, and the army is unreformed.

3. Skilled management of the political market: the CEO negotiates a pact with the political financiers to obtain more funds and to regulate the marketplace, providing enough leeway to stabilize the situation. This remains an option but it requires skills and coordination that have been in short supply.

Screen Shot 2016-04-26 at 10.38.29 AMThe Saudis and OPEC aren’t helping with Option 1. And for the longest time I had faith in the international community’s ability to engineer and enforce Option 3. But the older I get more I think about it, the more I am convinced that autonomous recovery, i.e. Option 2 might be the best long-run solution (with important lessons from Idris Deby’s Chad noted).

Too bad there is not a single warlord in South Sudan (including President Salva Kiir) who is strong enough to become the main stationary bandit in Juba.

So Option 3 it is. But for how long?

 

 

Everything that is wrong with “voluntourism” in developing countries

Quartz has a story on White Savior Barbie, an account on Instagram that pokes fun at voluntourism in Africa.

Screen Shot 2016-04-21 at 10.55.04 AM

Savior Barbie also highlights a point that advocates and experts working on the continent have been observing for years—well-intentioned but naive volunteerism (or “voluntourism“) is at best ineffectual and at worst harmful to the developing countries it’s meant to serve. It drives an industry that sees 1.6 million people do volunteer work while on vacation every year, spending as much as $2 billion in the process. Nigerian-American author Teju Cole once dubbed this impulse the White Savior Industrial Complex.

The damage can be depressingly direct, as Jacob Kushner, a journalist in East Africa, points out in a recent editorial, “The voluntourist’s dilemma.” In South Africa, “AIDS orphan tourism,” where volunteers temporarily care for children who have lost their parents to the virus, has left children with attachment disorders and encouraged orphanages to purposefully keep them in poor conditions to attract more volunteers.

More on this here.

On a related note, there is also Humanitarians of Tinder.

Both offer lots of lessons on things not to do as you prepare to volunteer or conduct research in a developing country this summer.

HT Melissa Lee.

Sleep and Academic Performance

Thanks to Jawbone, writers at the Jawbone Blog looked at data on sleep patterns for tens of thousands of students at over 100 universities across the United States (for a total of 1.4 million nights). One of the findings of from the data is show below. Screen Shot 2016-04-20 at 10.47.32 PMIt is important to note that:

The relationship between these rankings and amount of sleep, however, was weak (r2 < 0.1)

So basically what’s might be happening here is that night owls at highly ranked schools have huge chunks of quality time late in the night when they are not being distracted by everyday life

(Caution: these data show interesting patterns but cannot be used to make strong causal claims without further research).

It was interesting to learn that my students go to bed at 1:10 AM and sleep for 7 hours on average.

HT Ryan Briggs.

How did Mozambique manage to hide more than $2b in debts from the IMF?

It’s common knowledge that most developing states have data problems. But even with those priors, the revelation that Mozambique managed to hide more than $2b in undisclosed debts from the IMF for almost three years is cause for pause.

According to the FT:

Details of the previously undisclosed loans — which add about the equivalent of 10 per cent of gross domestic product to the government’s known debt burden — emerged after the “tuna” bond was restructured last month.

Of the two previously undisclosed loans confirmed last week, the first was for $622m to a state-owned company, Proindicus. The second, to another unidentified state company, was valued at more than $500m, a person familiar with the matter said.

Credit Suisse, the Swiss bank, and Russia’s VTB bank, both of which arranged the sale of the tuna bond, provided the undisclosed loans, the IMF said.

Basically Mozambique borrowed a lot of money ostensibly to set up a state-run tuna fishing company but ended up spending nearly all the money on military speed boats.

Borrowing so much money to spend on the military seems like a really REALLY bad idea.

Also, how did the IMF miss this for so long?

Public Finance is hard.

More on this here.

GiveDirectly is about to provide guaranteed basic income to 6,000 low-income Kenyans for 10-15 years

This is from Michael Faye and Paul Niehaus writing in Slate:

The organization that we founded, GiveDirectly, has decided to try to permanently end extreme poverty across dozens of villages and thousands of people in Kenya by guaranteeing them an ongoing income high enough to meet their basic needs—a universal basic income, or basic income guarantee. We’ve spent much of the past decade delivering cash transfers to the extremely poor through GiveDirectly, but have never structured the transfers exactly this way: universal, long-term, and sufficient to meet basic needs. And that’s the point—nobody has and we think now is the time to try.

… To do so, we’re planning to provide at least 6,000 Kenyans with a basic income for 10 to 15 years. These recipients are some of the most vulnerable people in the world, living on the U.S. equivalent of less than a dollar. And we’re going to work with leading academic researchers, including Abhijit Banerjee of MIT, to rigorously test the impacts.

We know that social protection played a critical role in curbing extreme poverty in much of the developed world. What GiveDirectly plans to do is a neat idea that will not only have an impact on thousands of lives but also offer loads of important lessons for much of the Global South.

Kudos to Paul and company for pulling this off!

Uganda chooses Tanzania over Kenya in pipeline deal

The Business Daily reports:

Uganda will take its oil to the market through Tanzania’s Tanga port, leaving Kenya to build its own pipeline to Lamu, if the positions taken at the just-ended talks in Kampala are maintained.

It turns out that Kenyan negotiators showed up without having done their homework. For example:

….. it has also emerged that the Kenyan officials participating in the Kampala talks may not have had all their facts right as they tried to address the concerns raised by Uganda over the northern route for the pipeline.

This is odd, given Amb. Amina Mohamed’s chops. Or should we be asking questions of the energy ministry?

Screen Shot 2016-04-16 at 5.04.17 PMUganda’s decision should be treated as new information on the capacity of the Kenyan state to execute large scale infrastructure projects. Kenya really wanted this deal, and the fact that the negotiators could not seal the deal with Uganda suggests that there is no there there as far as Nairobi’s capacity to execute on LAPSSET is concerned. This will undoubtedly impact the Kenyatta administration’s ability to originate new projects related to the $25b LAPSSET development plan.

The economics of the choice of pipeline appeared to not have mattered:

A joint pipeline between Kenya and Uganda would have had an initial throughput of 300,000 barrels per day (200,000 barrels for Uganda and 100,000 barrels for Kenya). This could have earned the pipeline companies $1.66 billion a year, which would be shared between the countries according to throughput.

…… If the two countries go for a standalone pipeline, Uganda will lose $300 million every year due to an increase of $4.07 in tariff per barrel, and Kenya will lose $250 million per year due to the increased tariff of $6.96 per barrel.

All else equal, this is probably a net positive development for the future of the East African Community (EAC). It is obviously a big financial and political loss for Kenya (and for that matter, Uganda) but it will dampen the idea of a two-speed EAC — with Kenya, Uganda, and Rwanda in the fast lane and Tanzania and Burundi in the slow lane.

 

Some key facts about Chinese lending to African states (new dataset)

Deborah Brautigam and collaborators are about to release a much-anticipated dataset on Chinese loans to African states. Details on the launch event at SAIS here.

And here are some key facts:

  • Who gets the Lion’s share of the Dragon’s loans?  Angola received 25% of all Chinese loans to Africa between 2000 and 2015, almost all of them backed by Angolan oil.
  • Bloomberg and Fitch, take note: Did China Eximbank really lend more than the World Bank in Africa? SAIS-CARI data shows cumulative 2001 to 2010 China Eximbank loan to Africa amount to only US$27.2 billion, not your figure of US$67.2 billion. The World Bank is still a larger lender than China Eximbank.
  • What do Chinese loans pay for in Africa? Transportation. Between 2000 and 2014, transportation received the largest share: US$23.6 billion worth.
  • What are the biggest Chinese loan-financed infrastructure projects in Africa? No. 1: Kenya’s Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway Phase I, funded by US$3.6 billion worth of Chinese loans; No.2: Ethiopia’s Addis-Djibouti Railway, funded at US$2.5 billion. Both were signed in 2013.

Facetious Critical Geography, JFK Edition

jfk

Source: xkcd

Social construction, yada yada yada.

And on a slightly less serious note,  did you know that it is completely artificial that we have North at the top of maps?

In which Erik Prince, of Blackwater infamy, attempts to build a private airforce

All of this reads like fiction. Like really good fiction. Except it is probably closer to the truth than not.

Here is a summary. Erik Prince, he of the Blackwater fame, basically allegedly tried to retool crop dusters into light armored fighter planes and then sell them to African governments — with at least one delivery to South Sudan. Prince currently runs Frontier Services Group, a Nairobi-based company (complete with a CSR operation in Kibera) that is registered in Bermuda and listed in Hong Kong. According to its website, the company provides services in aviation, trucking, warehousing, and maritime.

Here’s part of the fascinating story in The Intercept:

The story of how Prince secretly plotted to transform the two aircraft for his arsenal of mercenary services is based on interviews with nearly a dozen people who have worked with Prince over the years, including current and former business partners, as well as internal documents, memos, and emails. Over a two-year period, Prince exploited front companies and cutouts, hidden corporate ownership, a meeting with Russian arms dealer Viktor Bout’s weapons supplier, and at least one civil war in an effort to manufacture and ultimately sell his customized armed counterinsurgency aircraft. If he succeeded, Prince would possess two prototypes that would lay the foundation for a low-cost, high-powered air force capable of generating healthy profits while fulfilling his dream of privatized warfare.

And all this was possible, despite obvious legal questions, because everyone involved knew they could get away with it.

In Europe, it is very illegal. You are breaking a lot of laws.” He recalled one of Prince’s deputies saying that the aircraft would be used for surveillance operations in Africa and “no one there cares about certifications.”

FSG entered the Kenyan logistics market by acquiring two aviation companies, Kijipwa Aviation and Phoenix Aviation. It has since also bought a logistics firm based in the DRC (Cheetah Logistics SARL) and plans to expand further in the region. FSG’s goal in entering Kenya was to provide “passenger and freight services to multinational oil and mining companies transporting staff to remote areas such as Lokichar and Lokichoggio and other locations in East Africa.

I really hope that the regulators in the different jurisdictions where FSG operates know what they are doing.

In response to The Intercept‘s story, FSG issued this statement.

Fact of the Week: 30% of Shanghai residents are over 60

….. Shanghai has a particular problem: last year, says China Daily, it became the first city in China to pass the crippling 30 per cent mark for population aged over 60. That’s nearly twice the 15.5 per cent for over 60 population nationally in 2014, the last year for which national figures are available.

That is a lot of senior citizens. For more see this FT piece on how the state in China is trying to force children to take care of their aging parents — including using threats to deny them library access, credit, and bank accounts.

HT Howard French

Data Problems Everywhere

This is from the Economist:

GOVERNMENT statisticians shun the limelight, which only ever finds them when things go awry. So it is with India’s national bean counters, who are struggling to convince the world that an economy with idle factories, sagging exports and ailing banks grew by 7.5% in 2015, as their models purport to show. Ever since a new methodology for calculating GDP was adopted last year, India has appeared to be the world’s fastest-growing big economy, outpacing China. But scepticism about the data is growing even faster.

… Investors, at any rate, roundly disbelieve India’s growth figures. Nevsky Capital, a hedge fund, cited dodgy data from India, among other places, as a reason to shut up shop at the start of the year. Even the government’s own chief economic adviser has admitted he is sometimes flummoxed by the data. A cottage industry has sprung up to cater to the sceptics, blending various indicators of economic activity to produce new gauges of growth.

Such home-brewed statistics have been common in China for some time: Li Keqiang, now the country’s premier, admitted as a provincial governor that he all but ignored “man-made” economic statistics in favour of hard-to-fiddle data such as railway-cargo volumes, electricity consumption and loans made by banks. The Economist began publishing a “Keqiang Index” when his habits became known in 2010.

Ambit Capital, a broker based in Mumbai, now computes its own “Keqiang Index” for India, which implies a real growth rate of 5.4%. Economists at HSBC, a bank, think 5.9-6% is closer to the truth.

More on this here.