Formalizing the “informal” sector may intensify market fragmentation and trading inequalities (Senegal Edition)

This is from a fascinating paper by Abhit Bhandari, a PhD candidate at Columbia:

Economic growth requires confidence in the secure exchange of goods. But when states selectively enforce rule of law, political considerations can moderate the trust that buyers have in sellers. How do political connections moderate economic behavior in developing countries, and how do such connections operate alongside formal state institutions? I propose a theory of seller moral hazard in exchange, where buyers believe that politically connected sellers can break deals with relative impunity. In this context, state-backed formal contracts may only protect the claims of connected buyers who similarly receive preferential treatment from the state.

I test this theory in an environment with real economic stakes by creating and operating a legal business in Senegal, and hiring employees to conduct door-to-door sales. In a field experiment, I randomize whether my employees signal their political connections and/or offer formal contracts as part of the deal. Results show that sellers’ political connections decrease trust in exchange while formal contracts increase trust. Taking buyers’ connections into account, however, shows that asymmetric political connections impact willingness to trade, and that formal contracts boost trade only for politically connected buyers (emphasis added). These findings demonstrate the importance of unequal political connections in impeding trade, and the limits of piecemeal legal solutions. Exchange under such conditions can result in distinct trading networks that intensify inequalities.

Oh, and to get the study going Abhit registered a business in Senegal:

In preparation for the experiment, I undertook the process of creating and registering a formal business in Senegal. I completed the process in 2016 at APIX, Senegal’s primary agency for the promotion of investment and major works, which is also home to Senegal’s guichet unique (one-stop 20 shop) for formalizing a business. Despite the “one-stop” shop, the process took approximately one month from start to finish, as registering the business required the acquisition of certain documents that are not centrally controlled. This required visits to my local chef de quartier (neighborhood chief), police department, and the Ministry of Justice. The result of the process was the successful formalization of the business and the receipt of a unique business identification number called the NINEA (numero d’identification national des entreprises et des associations). NINEAs are commonly understood in Senegal as proof that a business is formal.

I highly recommend reading the paper. Abhit’s other ongoing projects are available here.

screenshot2019-01-31at9.02.58pmInspired by Yuen Yuen Ang’s take on the institutional structures that shepherded China’s takeoff, I have recently been thinking more seriously about what “optimal” institutions (as opposed to some notion of “strong” institutions) in specific developing country contexts would look like. With this in mind, Abhit’s paper offers an important insight into the potential pitfalls of lukewarm reforms — in this case the process of sectoral formalization. A common mistake made by most would-be reformers is the total disregard for forms of organization that make business transactions credible in the “informal” sector in the name of imposing a state-centric rule-based systems. As Abhit finds, the usefulness of formalization crucially depends on whether it also serves to level the playing field and expand the extent of firms’ markets. I for one think that the distinction between “formal” and “informal” sectors tell more about states’ fragmented regulatory capacity than about specific firms or sectors.

More broadly, I would argue that the world would be a better place if we knew more about firms in low-income states. What policy interventions can help accelerate firm growth? What management practices work in contexts where labor is insufficiently specialized (for insurance purposes)? Is firm-level productivity in Nigeria, Kenya, or Angola improving or not?

(If you know any works along these lines the comments section is open)

 

Is China Doomed to Fail in Africa?

This is from Wilson VornDick, a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, writing in the National Interest: 

It is unclear whether China could handle the financial repercussions of a larger, more systemic default or debt-forgiveness program across the African continent. Seeking relief, debtors to China would likely overwhelm existing mechanisms, like international arbitration, or China-backed forums such as the Export-Import Bank of China , China Development Bank , and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank . More importantly, debt restructuring, recoupment, and, in the more extreme case, seizure may not be viable, reasonable, or sustainable for Chinese interests or presence continent-wide. Just such a dire economic scenario might push China to use its nascent military force to protect or even seize its interests. Looking back at the previous period of Great Power Competition more than a century ago, leveraging military might to force repayment was commonplace. The U.S. military made multiple incursions into Caribbean and South American nations as did the Western powers in Africa and Asia.

It is reasonable to assume that China would have little or no experience in any dire economic contagion across Africa. The one primary example, the take-over of Hambantota Port, was an isolated incident during calmer times, before the financial uncertainty stoked by a slowing global economy or the current U.S.-China trade war. Moreover, the port takeover has now become a watershed moment in Chinese behavior that has attracted significant international scrutiny and ire.

More broadly, VornDick articulates the potential merits (from a U.S. standpoint) of a “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy as part of Washington’s Great Power global competition with Beijing. The whole argument is worth a read.

A glaring omission in VornDick’s analysis, however, is the interests and roles of Africans in this whole game (note that this is a gap in the “China-in-Africa” genre more generally).

chinafricaA key weakness that I see in the “Let China Fail in Africa” strategy is that it vastly underestimates the extent to which Africans will be willing to work hand in hand with China to make the Sino-African relationship work.

China’s forays in Africa is creating complex tapestries of personal and institutional relationships that will become ever harder to undo. For example, in both electoral democracies and autocracies in the region, citizens have come to expect political elites to provide public goods — many of them financed and built by China. Demands for more of the same will likely only get stronger. The desire to secure funding for more public goods will likely push African elites even closer to Beijing. Furthermore, at a time when the U.S. is working hard to signal that Africans are not welcome on its shores, tens of thousands of African students are earning degrees in Chinese universities. Many of these students will probably go back to their respective countries and maintain ties with Chinese business and academic contacts. These kinds of investments in soft power will matter in the long run.

Global diplomacy is not just about crass material interests. It is also about values and shared commitments to respectful mutual cooperation. If African elites become convinced that they are better off bandwagoning with China, they will do so.

And most importantly, having made that choice, they will make specific investments (whether deliberately or not) to make their nations ever more closely allied with China. They will adopt specific technologies. Establish specific market relationships. Acquire specific weapons systems. And yes, more of their students will learn Chinese and go on to earn degrees in China. The closer the military, economic and “soft” ties, the more African elites will be willing to make costly investments in order to ensure that their respective states’ relationships with China work.

A good lesson in this regard is francafrique. The relationship between France and its former colonies in Africa is not winning any awards soon. But for almost six decades African elites have remained committed to the relationship and worked to give the French military free rein in the region and French firms access to vast natural resources. The French state, in turn, has worked to prop up the same elites despite massive economic and political failings.

The point is: China’s failure in Africa (if it comes to pass) is not what will determine the future of Sino-African relations. What happens before any such failure will likely matter more.

Is Cameroon descending into Civil War?

The conflict between the government of Cameroon and armed fighters in the country’s anglophone regions may not meet the technical definitions of civil war, but it is pretty close.

Which is why it is odd that neither the African Union nor the “international community” is paying more attention to the conflict. I would hazard a guess that part of the problem is that the regional body in Central Africa, ECCAS, is the most rudderless of the Continent’s RECs. Perhaps a more proactive ECCAS would have forced the AU’s hand.

This is from Bloomberg: 

He’s one of a growing number of civilians trapped between the army and roaming gangs of English-speaking insurgents fighting to break away from the majority-Francophone nation. The conflict has decimated the local economy in the conflict zone, and according to the United Nations, left hundreds of people dead and displaced about 437,000 people.

“The military burn houses, destroys, loots property and kills citizens,” Cyprain, 41, said on condition that his surname not be used out fear for his safety during an interview in the port city of Douala, where he now stays with relatives. “Separatist fighters attack, kidnap and even kill people they suspect are their enemies.”

There’s no end in sight to a conflict that started in late 2016 with peaceful protests against the dominance of the French language in schools and courtrooms of the Northwest and Southwest regions, where most people speak English. President Paul Biya, 85, said on Twitter last week he’ll order the defense forces to “neutralize” all fighters who don’t lay down their weapons, a warning he first gave in his traditional year-end speech.

Biya might yet end the conflict through military victory, as per his threat. Indeed, research shows that a state’s ability to fend off armed challengers is important in preventing civil war outbreak.

But what if the Cameroonian state is not strong enough to quell the rebellion?

So far the African Union and other international actors seem to be betting that Biya will prevail. But it is also possible that everyone is vastly underestimating the resolve and capacity of those behind the armed rebellion. Add to this Biya’s record of gross mismanagement of the Cameroonian state and it becomes clear why the Cameroonian military may bungle the fight for effective control over the anglophone regions of the country (comparisons of how Nigeria let Boko Haram metastasize into a full blow insurgency come to mind).

Also, it looks like the conflict is escalating:

About 300 armed men swarmed into the town of Bangourain on Dec. 23 and set houses ablaze in what was the biggest attack in French-speaking territory since the conflict began.

The incident triggered such angry reactions on social media from Cameroonians that the Center for Human Rights and Democracy in Africa issued a statement urging Francophones and Anglophones to “exercise restraint and refrain from hate speech and retaliation against one another.”

screen shot 2019-01-28 at 11.36.25 amAt some point it will become impossible to piece the Cameroons back together. Human rights abuses by the Cameroonian military, several instances of which are well documented, will only harden the belief that the francophone-dominated state does not view its anglophone citizens to be legitimate members of a shared political community.

 

Here’s why African states value their economic and political ties with China

This is from an excellent essay by  in Foreign Policy:

…. when former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson raised a cautionary alarm for Africans to be wary of Chinese predatory investments just a few months ago, his lecturing tone did not go over well. Many African leaders reacted negatively to the underlying assumption that they were not qualified to figure out profitable from predatory investments on their own.

Sierra Leonean President Julius Maada Bio rebuked the warning as misguided, saying, “We are not fools in Africa. … At difficult times, when we needed help most, China was there for us.”

The expansion of Confucius Institutes across Africa is another part of the push worth engaging with. With more than 50 Confucius Institutes teaching Chinese language, as well as the Communist Party’s version of Chinese history and culture, more and more Africans have the chance to study Chinese and travel to China on cultural scholarships. In 2015, approximately 50,000 African students attended Chinese universities, compared with 40,000 in the United States and the United Kingdom. Elementary and middle schools in several African countries are now offering Mandarin as a foreign language.

I highly recommend that you read the whole thing.

H/T Judd Devermont

A most unlikely critique of françafrique

This is from the BBC:

On Sunday, Luigi di Maio [Italy’s Deputy Prime Minister] called on the European Union to impose sanctions on France for its policies in Africa.

He said France had “never stopped colonising tens of African states”.

He accused France of manipulating the economies of African countries that use the CFA franc, a colonial-era currency backed by the French treasury.

“France is one of those countries that by printing money for 14 African states prevents their economic development and contributes to the fact that the refugees leave and then die in the sea or arrive on our coasts,” he said.

“If Europe wants to be brave, it must have the courage to confront the issue of decolonisation in Africa.”

Read the whole thing here.

di Maio is a member of the Five Star Movement, whose popular support in Italy appears to be trending in the wrong direction (which might explain the decision to poke France in the eye in this manner).

Here’s a description of Macron’s françafrique. 

And here’s how violent extremism in the Sahel might be reinforcing françafrique.

screen shot 2019-01-22 at 11.47.02 amIt is worth noting that, from the French perspective, the economic case for françafrique is not as strong as it used to be (see image). Trade with the CFA zone as a share of total French trade volume has been on a steady decline since the 1960s. However, the corrupt symbiotic relationship between African and French economic and political elites is still strong. Plus France still needs francophone Africa for geopolitical reasons. By 2050 about 80% of the world’s French speakers will live in Africa.

Ethics of publishing images of the dead

Yesterday at 3 PM four suspected Al Shabaab gunmen attacked the Dusit complex (14 Riverside) in Nairobi. Initial reports indicate that at least 21 people were killed in the attack. More than 700 people were at the complex at the time and were evacuated.

It is worth noting that yesterday was the third anniversary (15/01/2016) of the El Adde attack (also by Al Shabaab) on a Kenyan military base in Somalia. El Adde was the deadliest attack in Kenyan military history — with at least 141 soldiers reportedly killed.

As the Dusit attack was unfolding, media houses began publishing images from the complex. One image — in a New York Times story — drew the ire of Kenyans for showing two dead men slumped over their seats at a cafe. The Times claimed that this was standard policy.

Kenyans did not buy their explanation. And for good reason. At the very least, the image was insensitive. The two men were easily identifiable by their clothing.

First, it’s one thing to show the image of the dead covered in the streets (the ethics of which are also questionable), and another to show two easily-identifiable dead men slumped over their seats at a cafe. It takes a significant amount of empathy gap to not notice this difference. Second, and more importantly, Kenyans’ demands for respect for victims and their families are valid in their own right. They do not need further validation by what the Times does elsewhere. It is not ordained that what passes for Nice or New York ought to naturally pass for Nairobi. As an institution, the Times ought to have shown that it takes the complaints about the image seriously.

Here is a great explainer on why a lot of Kenyans took particular offense to the Times’ response:

… In the New York Times’ initial story about the event, penned by recently appointed East Africa bureau chief Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, the photo editors decided to include an image (from the wire Associated Press) that has since spurred not one but two trending hashtags in Nairobi.

Taken at the popular Secret Garden Café tucked away in the compound, the grainy photograph depicts a scene of utter carnage. Two unidentified men’s lifeless bodies are slumped over on their tables, their laptops still next to them. It is a horrific reminder of the indiscriminate nature of terrorist attacks.

… What particularly angered Kaigwa — and many others — is how de Freytas-Tamura responded to the controversy: she reminded her critics that as the reporter, she did not choose the photo, and that people could take their concerns up directly with the photo department. She was factually correct, but to many Kenyans, she displayed an unnerving callousness.

“I think what that tweet showed to people is that they didn’t have someone who listen[ed] to them and empathize[ed] with them,” says Kaigwa. The reporter later deleted the tweet and instead shared the New York Times’ official policy on showing casualties during terrorist attacks.

Underlying the current discussion (and no doubt fueling the expressions of outrage) is, of course, a long history of the Western press being callous about publishing images of dead Africans. And it is in that context that the reaction from Kenyans should be understood. My hope is that this present discussion will force the Times and other media houses to review their guidelines on publishing images of the dead — regardless of their nationality.

Finally, and to echo Nanjala Nyabola, it goes without saying that the Times’ reprehensible editorial choice in this instance should not be used to attack individual journalists or the freedom of the press more generally.

Rural Bias in India?

We all know about the phenomenon of urban bias. But in India, there appears to be strong political incentives for rural bias.

This is from Bloomberg:

It’s an election year in India, with the world’s largest polls expected in the spring. The focus of politicians is, as usual, on farmers and rural areas and competitive pandering to both — hardly surprising in a country that considers itself a nation of villages.

However, this narrative has one major flaw. India is, in fact, more urban than politicians know or acknowledge. This seriously affects India’s growth prospects, leading to inefficiencies and loss of productivity in both rural and urban areas. What’s worse, the resulting misallocation of resources is making India’s blossoming urban areas well-nigh unlivable.

…. The consequences of underestimating the urban share of the population are dire. Resources are badly misallocated: By one estimate, over 80 percent of federal government financing still goes to rural development. This reduces incentives for politicians, especially rural ones, to change the status quo. Tens of millions of Indians who live in dense, urban-like settlements are governed by rural governments that lack the mandate and the money to deliver basic services. In India, urban governments are constitutionally required to provide things such as fire departments, sewer lines, arterial roads and building codes. Local bodies in rural areas aren’t.

Read the whole thing here.

Things are different in Thailand. According to The Economist:

The World Bank reckons that over 70% of Thailand’s public expenditure in 2010 benefited Greater Bangkok, home to 17% of the country’s population. In no other economy with a comparable level of income is government spending as skewed, say the bank’s economists.

 

 

 

Are Metros Overrated?

This is from a story in The Guardian:

The ITDP bemoans Africa’s obsession with metros. Lagos in Nigeria – the largest city in the world without a functioning mass transit system – has been trying to build a metro since the 1980s. In the latest of many incarnations, the project was supposed to begin operations in 2012 at a cost of $2.4bn (£1.9bn). Six years after the supposed start date, construction is “nowhere near complete”, says Kost.

Abidjan, the economic capital of Ivory Coast, began construction of a metro last year. The French-financed and -built line is projected to carry 500,000 passengers a day at a cost of $1.7bn. Dar es Salaam’s bus system, by contrast, has capacity for 400,000 people and cost less than a 10th of that – about $150m.

Addis Ababa in Ethiopia opened a Chinese-built and -operated light rail line last year at a cost of $475m. Shenzhen Metro Group has a deal to run it for the first five years.screen shot 2019-01-09 at 4.03.54 pm“With a metro, an international firm will often just parachute in its own system,” says Kost. “Bus rapid transit allows existing stakeholders to get involved. That’s what we did in Dar es Salaam and what we’re planning in Nairobi, where the bus bodies will be built in the city and local operators will look after tickets, fare collection and IT. It’s good for the development of the local economy.”

Regular readers know that I have a bias for Kost’s argument. Read the whole thing here.

H/T Dina Pomeranz.

How can African governments increase their bargaining power vis-a-vis China?

Folashade Soule has answers.

First, a reminder that African governments are not uniformly bad at negotiating with China:

….when you look closely at what happens on the ground, some African countries are much better at negotiating with the Chinese than others. Railway projects in East Africa appear to be a good example. In Kenya, the Standard Gauge Railway is the largest infrastructure project since independence from Britain in 1963. China Eximbank provided most of the finance for the first phase – 472 kilometres of track between Nairobi and Mombasa – at a cost of US$3.2 billion.

In neighbouring Ethiopia, an electric train line from Addis Ababa to Djibouti, which is also Chinese-financed, opened two years ago. The cost for this more expensive type of railway was US$3.4 billion – for 756 kilometres. Kenya claims that its railway cost more for reasons like the terrain and the need to carry higher volumes of cargo. At the same time, however, many believe other issues to have been at play – including failures around the negotiation process.

Second, there are Soule’s suggested remedies:

Involve everyone: When all relevant government departments are involved in a negotiation, it does take longer. The process is more coherent, however, and the resulting project is less likely to breach national regulations.

Empower negotiators: The Chinese often adopt a take-it-or-leave-it approach. In many cases, Africans are not confrontational enough in return. They don’t appreciate that China has a surplus of domestically produced materials they are seeking to offload, for example. Wiser negotiators will play China off against other countries seeking to finance infrastructure projects on the continent, such as South Korea or the United Arab Emirates.

Keep the public onside: China tends to be popular in Africa – more so than the US in around 60% of countries on the continent. Yet the public also see negatives: many think Chinese products are poor quality, while there is a growing perception that dealing with China tends to favour Chinese labourers.

Increase knowledge: African governments are still relatively new to dealing with China; they should take every opportunity to share lessons with one another. There is a role for African universities here. They should set up more centres of Asian studies to close the gap in information and knowledge.

I fully agree.

While it is true that China has geopolitical ambitions in Africa, a lot of Chinese infrastructure plays in Africa are commercial in nature. It is in China’s interest that these projects succeed. That means that African governments could get better deals (in terms of value for money) by doing their homework (on Chinese politics and commercial and institutional architectures) before chasing the money. Similarly, public opinion presents a potential bargaining chip — (the threats of ) transparency and robust public participation should force Beijing’s hand in settling for better deals (from the perspective of African governments). 

All this, of course, is predicated on the assumption that African elites get loans from China to finance infrastructure projects; as opposed to dreaming up projects in order to get loans that then find their way into private bank accounts. 

Read the whole thing here.

H/T Zainab Usman.