The ISIS Files are now available online

Here’s a description:

The ISIS Files provide a unique cross-sectional snapshot of life in Mosul under the Islamic State, spanning doctrinal guidance from its command to the paperwork of its bureaucracy to the notes of students in its classrooms. The picture that emerges from this repository is revealing in both its range and complexity. On the one hand, documents from the Islamic Police and Agriculture departments tell of an organization seemingly obsessed with bureaucracy and institutionalizing every detail of its system of control. On the other, Arendt’s “banality of evil” comes to 6 mind when reading the paperwork of its real estate and zakat (alms tax for the poor) offices, or the bored scribblings of da’wa (proselytization) and military students in the Islamic State’s classrooms (emphasis added). By understanding The ISIS Files as a snapshot of life under the Islamic State’s control, the publications that will accompany each tranche of primary source materials released on the online repository have an important role to play in establishing their historic and strategic context.

There is a lot more here.

Is Tanzania more unequal than Kenya?

In the 1970s, prominent critics of Kenya’s capitalist economy often characterized the country as a land of 10 millionaires and 10 million beggars. Many also (implicitly) compared Kenya to Tanzania. Back then, Tanzania was in the midst of implementing Ujamaa under President Julius Nyerere. The trope of Kenya being a highly unequal “dog-eat-dog society,” and Tanzania being less unequal stuck, and persists to this day.

But the data tell a different story. According to the Knight Frank Wealth Report, Tanzania has the fifth largest number of high networth individuals in Africa ($30m and more), ahead of Kenya:

South Africa led the pack with 1,033 ultra-rich persons followed by Egypt (764) Nigeria (724) Morocco (215) and Tanzania (114)

Kenya is 6th, with only 42 individuals worth more than $30m.

Kenya has a Gini index of 40.8 (2015) and Tanzania 40.5 (2017).

Some books currently on my reading list

  1. China’s Gilded Age: The Paradox of Economic Boom and Vast Corruption
  2. The Color of Money: Black Banks and the Racial Wealth Gap
  3. The Political Life of an Epidemic: Cholera, Crisis and Citizenship in Zimbabwe
  4. Where India Goes: Abandoned Toilets, Stunted Development and the Costs of Caste
  5. Imperialism and the Developing World: How Britain and the United States Shaped the Global Periphery (I just finished the fantastic Worldmaking after Empire: The Rise and Fall of Self-Determination, and highly recommend it as a companion reading to this book)
  6. The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today
  7. Gods of the Upper Air: How a Circle of Renegade Anthropologists Reinvented Race, Sex, and Gender in the Twentieth Century
  8. The Third Pillar: How Markets and the State Leave the Community Behind
  9. The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay
  10. Inside Al-Shabaab: The Secret History of Al-Qaeda’s Most Powerful Ally
  11. Anonymous Soldiers: The Struggle for Israel, 1917-1947 (Segev’s A State at Any Cost: The Life of David Ben-Gurion is a good companion)
  12. The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living since the Civil War
  13. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880
  14. The Best and the Brightest
  15. The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution, and the Twentieth Century

I continue to struggle with fiction, with quite a few unfinished. Suggestions on how to win this battle are welcome.

Africa-China Loans Facts

This is from a CGD paper by Scott Morris, Brad Parks, and Alysha Gardner:

The World Bank’s portfolio is more concessional than China’s portfolio in every region of the world, and sometimes dramatically so. The overall concessionality of China’s portfolio demonstrates less variation from region-to-region, hovering between 15%-22% in all regions except Europe and Latin America. By contrast, the overall concessionality of the World Bank’s portfolio varies widely — from a low of 15% in Latin America to a high of 60% in Sub-Saharan Africa (which is also the region where Chinese lending volumes are highest). The differences between China and the World Bank are most stark in Sub-Saharan Africa. Whereas the overall concessionality of the World Bank’s portfolio in Sub-Saharan Africa is nearly 60%, China’s portfolio concessionality in the same region is only 22.5% All three measures of lending terms contribute to these differences in portfolio concessionality rates: China consistently has higher interest rates, shorter maturity lengths, and shorter grace periodsconcessionality

Notice that China is neck and neck with the World Bank across Africa, unlike in other regions where Bank lending dominates. What proportion of Chinese lending in Africa are concessional loans?

Whereas the overall concessionality of the World Bank’s portfolio in Sub-Saharan Africa is nearly 60%, China’s portfolio concessionality in the same region is only 22.5% .

Recall that, overall, China is the single largest creditor to developing countries:china creditor

What we should make of African states’ indebtedness to China? A lot of people have opined that China is engaging in debt diplomacy — intentionally trapping African countries with high interest non-concessional loans, after which it will demand all manner of concessions from them (perhaps UN votes, or other forms of assistance in aid of Beijing’s geo-strategic objectives). I have two thoughts on this.

First, the Chinese debt bonanza seen on the Continent over the last two decades was driven, in part, by local demand for infrastructure and other visible and attributable forms of “development.” And yes, intra-elite distributive politics and over-pricing was also involved. And Chinese firms, which often competed against each other, played along, too — perhaps because of the reasons Yuen Yueng Ang describes in her latest book (highly recommended). With this in mind, it is not entirely true to claim that Beijing pushed loans on African states. While it is true that some of the projects were driven more by the quest for kickbacks than for economic reasons, the fact is that individual country dynamics drove the demand for loans and projects. Some of those fit into China’s global geopolitical ambitions (like the Belt and Road Initiative). Others did not. 

Second, let’s think through the debt diplomacy game. Is the idea that China would ruin dozens of African states’ fiscal positions so much so that they would turn to Beijing for bailouts? How many Hambantota’s can China run across Africa? Does Beijing have the fiscal, military, or administrative capacity to do so?

The simple fact is that the use of gunboat diplomacy to settle sovereign debts is no longer kosher within the international system. My guess is that while Beijing certainly was out to buy influence with loans and other commercial relations, it also wanted to make money. Chinese officials were not running around peddling cheap concessional loans (see above). They were out looking for business for Chinese firms and banks. And so to the extent that African countries mismanaged their debt or invested in economically unviable infrastructure projects (even if in collusion with Chinese firms), that is on them.

Moving forward, it is clear that it will be in China’s best interest to make sure that its commercial relations in Africa do not stray too far from general economic viability. A strategic coddling of poor and weak allies will be very costly in the long run (see France in the Sahel). It will also likely turn African public opinion against China. For a long time, majorities of African publics have reported net favorable views of China. But this will most likely change if China morphs from a largely likable development partner building roads, power lines, and water works, to little more than a banker of tinpot tyrants in the business of building white elephants and saddling future generations with debt.

Taxation on the Congo River

This is the abstract of Olsson, Baaz, and Martinsson in the JDE:

In many post-conflict states with a weak fiscal capacity, illicit domestic levies on trade remain a serious obstacle to economic development. In this paper, we explore the interplay between traders and authorities on Congo River – a key transport corridor in one of the world’s poorest and most conflict-ridden countries; DR Congo. We outline a general theoretical framework featuring transport operators who need to pass multiple taxing stations and negotiate over taxes with several authorities on their way to a central market place. We then examine empirically the organization, extent, and factors explaining the level of taxes charged by various authorities across stations, by collecting primary data from boat operators. Most of the de facto taxes charged on Congo River have no explicit support in laws or government regulations and have been characterized as a “fend for yourself”-system of funding. Our study shows that traders have to pass more than 10 stations downstream where about 20 different authorities charge taxes. In line with hold-up theory, we find that the average level of taxation tends to increase downstream closer to Kinshasa, but authorities that were explicitly prohibited from taxing in a recent decree instead extract more payments upstream. Our results illustrate a highly dysfunctional taxing regime that nonetheless is strikingly similar to anecdotal evidence of the situation on the Rhine before 1800. In the long run, a removal of domestic river taxation on Congo River should have the potential to raise trade substantially.

The magnitude of taxation is not trivial:

congotaxesIn our applied analysis, we collect novel data from a sample 137 river boat operators, which corresponds to approximately 90 percent of all boats arriving during our 3.5 month survey period. During the journey downstream on Congo River, a boat passes several administrative stations where various authorities are present. Our data record more than 2000 de facto tax payments to more than 20 different authorities at 10 different stations on the journeys downstream Congo River towards the capital Kinshasa. The average total cost of such de facto taxes amounts to almost 14 percent of the variable costs of a single journey, equivalent to more than 1.5 times the official GDP per capita in DR Congo and 9 times the average monthly wage of a public official.

… In total, 2226 tax payments were recorded among the sampled boats, adding up to a total sum of 76,148 USD. On average, boat operators made about 18 payments per journey.

Tracking the wealth of South Sudan’s political/military elites

This is from the Sentry Project, which documents the web of corruption and profiteering among South Sudan’s political/military elite:

There are approximately 700 military figures with the rank of general in South Sudan. Nationally, that’s about
three times as many generals as physicians

This report examines the commercial and financial activities of former Army chiefs of staff Gabriel Jok Riak, James Hoth Mai, Paul Malong Awan, and Oyay Deng Ajak, along with senior military officers Salva Mathok Gengdit, Bol Akot Bol, Garang Mabil, and Marial Chanuong. Militia leaders linked to major instances of
violence both before and during the civil war that ended in February 2020—Gathoth Gatkuoth Hothnyang, Johnson Olony, and David Yau Yau—are also profiled here…..

South Sudan’s feuding politicians reached a compromise in February 2020, setting in motion the process of forming the long-awaited transitional government. The political situation remains tenuous as years of conflict have created distrust between leading politicians in the country. As the African Union noted in its investigation of the root causes of the conflict, weakened accountability measures and corruption helped precipitate the country’s descent into civil conflict in December 2013. The 2018 peace agreement contains provisions that call for profound reform of institutions of accountability to curb competitive corruption between senior-level politicians in order to prevent a return to war.

With the transitional government in place, maintaining international pressure will be critical to prevent corruption and elite competition from once again triggering conflict. Much of the legislative framework for combating corruption already exists in South Sudan’s constitution and legal code. For effective implementation and enforcement during the transitional period, and to ensure that lasting peace prevails in South Sudan, international assistance in strengthening capacities and facilitating access to donor funding will be important.

Read the whole thing here.

An interesting map of the distribution of populations across Continental Africa

Coastal West Africa and Nigeria, the Great Lakes region, the Ethiopian highlands, the Nile Delta and the Mediterranean coast pack half of Africa’s population.africapop

Source: interesting maps

Africa’s population is projected to keep growing for the next century (see UN projections below), although current projections most certainly overestimate the rate of growthpoptotal


Illicit trade & insurgency in Mozambique

The Daily Maverick has an excellent piece on how the ongoing insurgency in northern Mozambique may be reshaping the illicit trade industry in the country:

mozambiqueThe most reliable reports of the insurgents developing an illicit income stream are linked to the heroin trade. There is a significant range in street-level heroin prices across East and Southern Africa. The range in prices in northern Mozambique – far greater than found in any other research site – reflects the variance in heroin quality available in Cabo Delgado that we also found during qualitative fieldwork in the region…

There has been a significant recent shift in the rhetoric and style of attacks committed by the Cabo Delgado insurgents. Rather than terrorising communities as in previous months, they are instead attacking state infrastructure and military bases. They have used their increasingly vocal media campaign to declare their intentions to create a caliphate. Analysts we interviewed suggest that part of the insurgents’ aim is to re-establish control over areas historically controlled by Muslim sultanates along the Swahili coast. This historical claim would play into the caliphate narrative and the group’s claim of legitimacy.

If this territorial control were achieved – along the coast from Quissanga to Palma as well as on the key inland transport corridor along the N380 road and the town of Macomia – this could vastly change the dynamics of the insurgency.

Control over key sea and land routes would allow the insurgents to “tax” legal and illicit economies in the region more systematically. While there may already be some protection of heroin trafficking and involvement in the gold and ruby trade, this could expand to include human smuggling, timber trafficking and possibly a share of the illegal wildlife trade.

The insurgents’ access to Mozambique’s illicit trade networks is an ominous development. Taxation of the drug trade and access to point resources like gold will likely boost the insurgents’ staying power and capacity for violence, while also weakening their dependence on local populations. That probably means more civilian deaths.

Ugandan seed distributors aren’t adulterating seeds, it’s probably a problem of handling and storage

This is from a new paper by Alicia Barriga and Nathan Fiala in World Development:

Results from the tests showed very high levels of DNA similarity (above 98%) and good performance in general, but highly variable quality in terms of the ability of the seed to germinate under standard conditions. We do not see differences in average outcomes across the distribution levels, though variation in seed performance does increase further down the supply chain.

ugandaseedsThe results of the tests point to potentially important issues for the quality of seeds. The variation in germination suggests that buying a random bag of seeds in this particular distribution chain can matter a lot for farmer’s production. The high rate of seed similarity suggests that the main concern among policy makers and researchers, that sellers add inert or low-quality material to the seeds, is likely not the case, at least for the maize sector in the districts we study. However, given the remoteness of these districts and the lack of any oversight in these areas, we believe the results are likely a lower bound for the country as a whole.

The supply chain analysis suggests that the quality of seed does not deteriorate along the supply chain. The quality is the same, on average, across all types of suppliers after leaving the breeders. However, we observe high variation of seeds’ performance results on germination, moisture, and vigor, suggesting that results are more consistent with issues of mishandling and poor storage of seeds, possibly related to temperature or quality controls, rather than sellers purposefully adulterating seeds. Variation on these indicators is usually associated with mishandling during transportation and storage.

As the authors note in the paper, African governments and their external donors have put a lot of effort in “certification and labeling so as to reduce the possibility of adulteration by downstream sellers”. Obviously, e-labels and systems of verifying seed authenticity in the fight against adulteration are important. But equally important is an understanding of how the seed distribution system works. And that is one of the major contributions of this paper. Corruption is not always the problem.

Read the whole paper here.


Interestingly, Uganda bests both Kenya and Tanzania on productivity in the cereal sector (I made the graph using FAO data). Despite starting off with relatively lower productivity and having gone through civil conflict beginning in the late 1970s, Uganda has since around 2007 clearly separated itself from both Kenya and Tanzania (and appears to have plateaued). Productivity in Kenya peaked in the early 1980s and has pretty much stagnated since. Tanzania’s figures appear to be trending upwards having collapsed in the early 2000s. There is likely an element of soil quality and general aridity involved in these trends. According to the FAO, Kenya and Tanzania use fertilizer at significantly higher rates than Uganda. For comparison, cereal yield in Vietnam is about 2.7 times higher than in Uganda.


40 Years of Independence in Zimbabwe

Thandekile Moyo has as great piece over at Africa Portal on life after 40 years of independence in Zimbabwe. Ian Smith’s Rhodesia was swept into the dustbin of history on April 18th, 1980. Since then Zimbabwe has gone through a lot, as vividly described by Moyo. Overall, Zimbabwean elites have consistently betrayed the ideals of the Second Chimurenga over the last 40 years.


Who are the “born frees”?

They call those of us born in Zimbabwe and after 1980 “bornfrees”. We are the “lucky” generations, the generations that do not know the heartbreak and terror of war, generations that know nothing about the indignity and injustice of racism, nothing about the brutality of domination and white supremacism and the helplessness of poverty. We know nothing about suffering, we were born free.

On the economy:

Many “bornfrees” in Zimbabwe still live with their parents. Forty-year-old men and women who should by now have built their own homes are stuck at home because we cannot afford to move out. Most Zimbabweans are either unemployed, underemployed or living from hand to mouth. The Government is the biggest employer and pays an average of ZW$2,500/month (USD$70).

On the provision of essential public services:

In spite of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Zimbabwe’s Vice President Constantino Chiwenga flew to China in March because that is where he receives his healthcare. Zimbabwean leaders do not use Zimbabwean hospitals. When then Vice President Mnangagwa was suspected to have been a victim of poisoning at a rally in 2017, he was airlifted to South Africa for treatment. When Vice President Kembo Mohadi fell ill in 2019, he too was flown to South Africa. This is the legacy left by Robert Mugabe who himself eventually died at a hospital in Singapore.

On the Zimbabwean state’s approach to competitive electoral politics:

When Matebeleland resoundingly voted for ZAPU in the 1980 elections the “Black Government” responded by arresting ZAPU leaders and murdering 20,000 of their supporters in a genocide known as Gukurahundi.

Such torture and murder of opposition supporters have continued over the years.  Just last year, a comedian, Samantha Kurera was abducted by suspected state agents and tortured for producing skits considered to be anti-government. 

What is there to celebrate about Zimbabwean independence?

Zimbabwe turns 40 on 18 April. Growing up, Independence Day was a major deal. With age though, I find myself disoriented and struggling to comprehend what exactly there is to celebrate. What does it mean to be independent? Bornfree?

Free of what? Free from what? Free to do what?

What explains the postcolonial divergence between Kenya and Zimbabwe? 

How Many People Died Of The 1918 Spanish Flu in Kenya?

This is the abstract and excerpts from Andayi, Chaves, and Widdowson, a paper focusing on the impact of the Spanish flu on coastal Kenya:

The 1918 influenza pandemic was the most significant pandemic recorded in human history. Worldwide, an estimated half a billion persons were infected and 20 to 100 million people died in three waves during 1918 to 1919. Yet the impact of this pandemic has been poorly documented in many countries especially those in Africa. We used colonial-era records to describe the impact of 1918 influenza pandemic in the Coast Province of Kenya. We gathered quantitative data on facility use and all-cause mortality from 1912 to 1925, and pandemic-specific data from active reporting from September 1918 to March 1919. We also extracted quotes from correspondence to complement the quantitative data and describe the societal impact of the pandemic. We found that crude mortality rates and healthcare utilization increased six- and three-fold, respectively, in 1918, and estimated a pandemic mortality rate of 25.3 deaths/1000 people/year (emphasis added). Impact to society and the health care system was dramatic as evidenced by correspondence. In conclusion, the 1918 pandemic profoundly affected Coastal Kenya. Preparation for the next pandemic requires continued improvement in surveillance, education about influenza vaccines, and efforts to prevent, detect and respond to novel influenza outbreaks.

We noted, that in 1918, the crude death rates and healthcare utilization drastically increased, six- and three-fold, respectively and stayed relatively high until at least 1925. The sharp increase in health care utilization was certainly due to the pandemic and is corroborated by the anecdotal reporting of overwhelmed health systems. The very large majority of these cases would have been in the native population, though we had no data on race. The higher rates of mortality and facility visits after 1918 compared to before 1918 were likely due to improved reporting health facility expansion rather than prolonged pandemic transmission. Equally, it is plausible that several documented outbreaks such as the plague (1920) and smallpox (1925), also contributed to high reported mortality and morbidity in those late years studied. We estimate pandemic mortality from September 1918 to March 1919 to be approximately 25 deaths/1000 population and morbidity at 176/1000 population or an attack rate of 17.6% (emphasis added).

Read the whole (ungated) paper here.

Writing over at The Conversation, Andayi notes that overall the flu might have killed as many as 150,000 people in the Kenya Colony, or 4-6% of the population at the time. The Spanish flu (which actually probably originated in New York) could have killed anywhere between 1-5% of the global population.

The Spanish flu is believed to have come to Kenya with returning veterans who docked in the Mombasa port. The country was still a British colony at the time. In nine months the epidemic killed about 150,000 people, between 4% and 6% of the population at the time.

COVID-19 is nowhere near these mortality rates. The estimates I have seen (which for some reason are for “Africa” and not individual countries) suggest that between 300k and 1.3m people might die of COVID-19 on the Continent (see image with UNECA estimates). Proportionately, that would mean roughly between 12k – 51k Kenyans, or .03-.01% of the population (still absolutely catastrophic figures).


If you know of any country-level estimates please share in the comments.


How Good Are Datasets on Cropland in African States?

A number of papers (on agricultural productivity, conflict, food security, and impacts of climate change, for example) use cropland cover data as controls. How good are these data?

Here’s the abstract of a paper (open access) from Wei and co-authors:

Accurate geo-information of cropland is critical for food security strategy development and grain production management, especially in Africa continent where most countries are food-insecure. Over the past decades, a series of African cropland maps have been derived from remotely-sensed data, existing comparison studies have shown that inconsistencies with statistics and discrepancies among these products are considerable. Yet, there is a knowledge gap about the factors that influence their consistency. The aim of this study is thus to estimate the consistency of five widely-used cropland datasets (MODIS Collection 5, GlobCover 2009, GlobeLand30, CCI-LC2010, and Unified Cropland Layer) in Africa, and to explore the effects of several limiting factors (landscape fragmentation, climate and agricultural management) on spatial consistency.cropland

The results show that total crop-land area for Africa derived from GlobeLand30 has the best fitness with FAO statistics, followed by MODISCollection 5. GlobCover 2009, CCI-LC 2010, and Unified Cropland Layer have poor performances as indicated by larger deviations from statistics. In terms of spatial consistency, disagreement is about 37.9 % at continental scale, and the disparate proportion even exceeds 50 % in approximately 1/3 of the countries at national scale.We further found that there is a strong and significant correlation between spatial agreement and cropland fragmentation, suggesting that regions with higher landscape fragmentation generally have larger disparities. It is also noticed that places with better consistency are mainly distributed in regions with favorable natural environments and sufficient agricultural management such as well-developed irrigated technology. Proportions of complete agreement are thus located in favorable climate zones including Hot-summer Mediterranean climate(Csa), Subtropical highland climate (Cwb), and Temperate Mediterranean climate (Csb). The level of complete agreement keeps rising as the proportion of irrigated cropland increases. Spatial agreement among these datasets has the most significant relationship with cropland fragmentation, and a relatively small association with irrigation area, followed by climate conditions. These results can provide some insights into understanding how different factors influence the consistency of cropland datasets, and making an appropriate selection when using these datasets in different regions. We suggest that future cropland mapping activities should put more effort in those regions with significant disagreement in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Here’s what they did:

…. we compared the spatial agreement of cropland to assess the consistency of five datasets in the same location. These datasets were overlapped to generate a new composite map revealing whether and where the original datasets agreed on the same locations (Yang et al., 2017). Pixels of the composite map were assigned values ranging from 0 to 5. The highest value 5 represents the complete agreement, where all five datasets were consistent in cropland identification for a pixel. As the value decreases, spatial consistency between these crop-land datasets decreases. The lowest value with value 1 means that only one dataset identifies the pixel as cropland.cropland_cover

The best consistency of five datasets occurs in Egypt, with the complete agreement value of 47.86 %, while the highest disagreement is in Western Sahara, whose spatial disagreement is 91.08 %.

Some Policy Lessons from COVID-19

It’s has been illuminating watching African governments respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. Here are some lessons I have gleaned from their responses. For those interested, the IMF has a neat summary of county-level policy responses.

[1] We need a lot more descriptive studies of African economies:

COVID-19 was slow to spread in African states (a reminder of the Continent’s isolating from global transportation networks. The first concentrated cases were in Egypt, largely among tourists on Nile cruises). But once cases started appearing across the Continent, governments rushed to implement policies that were eerily similar to those being implemented in wealthier economies. Complete lockdowns, tax breaks, business loans, and interest rate cuts were first to be announced. Cash transfers followed, but even then from the standard purely humanitarian perspective and not as part of a well-thought out, politically-grounded and sustainable policy response. Forget that African economies are (1) largely agrarian and rural; and (2) highly “informal” (i.e. under-served and under-regulated). How do you implement a lockdown when 80% of your labor force is dependent on daily earnings and cannot stock up on food for days? And how do you tell people “wash hands regularly” when the vast majority of your population lacks access to reliable running water? Do African states have the capacity to sustainably deliver cash transfers to needy households throughout this crisis?

In short, African states’ policy responses to the pandemic so far are an urgent reminder of the enormous gaps that exist between knowledge production, policymaking, and objective realities in the region. Now more than ever, there is a need for socially and politically relevant knowledge production. To bridge these gaps, African governments should invest in making their economies more legible. Such investments should target better data collection as well as the establishment of strong academic departments with expertise in political economy and economic history, in addition to other economics subfields. There is absolutely no way around this.

For instance, what do we know about recovery patterns after recessions in different African countries? How will the current shutdown impact rural livelihoods? African states cannot afford to continue making policy from positions of ignorance, or to outsource economic thinking and policymaking. Collect the data. Analyze the data. Have the results inform policy.

Such efforts will go a long way in helping craft domestic narratives and counter-narratives of socio-economic transformation, and hopefully entrench reality-based policymaking, in addition to putting an end to ahistorical and apolitical policymaking. Policymakers must understand that their economies are not simply Denmark waiting to happen. 

[2] African governments should strengthen their policy transmission mechanisms: 

One of biggest mistakes in the history of economic thought was the invention of the notion of “formal” and “informal” economic sectors. This arbitrary distinction continues to blind African policymakers, and limits their abilities to craft transformative policies. In most African countries, governments fixate on minuscule “formal” sectors, and spend billions of dollars attracting mythical foreign investors to create “formal” sector jobs (and in the process subsidize transfer pricing and the creation of very costly enclave economies). Meanwhile, the same governments ignore “informal” and agricultural sectors, despite the fact that in most countries they typically account for significant shares of output (see images) and upwards of 80% of the labor force.


The failure to adequately serve and regulate “informal” and agricultural sectors leaves African policymakers with a set of very blunt tools when it comes to these sectors. How will African governments ensure that SMEs are not completely wiped out by this crisis? How will farm-to-market systems weather the logistical problems caused by large-scale shutdowns? What will be the impact on food prices?

It makes little sense to lower SME taxes or incentivize bank lending to SMEs if the vast majority of SMEs neither pay taxes nor borrow from banks. “Informal” sector workers are typically also not plugged into any skeletal social safety nets that may exist, such as health insurance or pension schemes.

For example, “[i]n Senegal one 2016 government/Millennium Challenge Corporation study found [that] only 15 companies pay up to 75% of the state’s tax revenue.”

Moving forward, African countries need to jettison the “formal” vs “informal” sectors distinction. As the primary source of employment, the “informal” and agricultural sectors deserve a lot more public investments targeted at both broader market creation (domestic and international) and productivity increases. Such investments would give governments important policy levers during both good and bad times. 

The fact of the matter is that agriculture and SMEs are the mainstays of African economies. It is about time that African states’ economic policies and budgeting reflected that reality. Failure to do so will continue to severely limit the efficacy of policy interventions, and leave governments wasting scarce resources attracting investments with very little multiplier effects in their economies.

[3] Elite complacency in Africa is about to get a lot more expensive: 

One need not be wearing a tinfoil hat to see the many ways in which African leaders continue to act like colonial “Native Administrators”. Some do not even pretend to care about aspiring to govern well-ordered societies. For almost six decades the global state system has accommodated elite mediocrity in Africa. During this period, the collusion between African and non-African elites in the pilfering of the region’s resources was balanced with aid money and other forms of support. 

That is changing. Western elites and publics have began to question the utility of foreign aid. Forgetting that the aid is what buys elite-level African alliances, they have come to expect loyalty from African states as a pre-ordained birthright. Many Western countries have also seen significant deterioration in the quality of their political leadership in the recent past, thereby exposing them to a range of domestic crises that will likely distract them into the medium term. China, the other major global player, is not ready to step into the void. 

And so African elites will be forced to step up. What do you do when, after decades of presiding over abominable public health systems that are totally dependent on the generosity of foreigners, you cannot get on a plane to seek medical care abroad? And how do you deal with a pandemic that hits the entire globe at once?

It is no secret that the Global Public Health architecture was built to police and contain disease outbreaks in low-income countries. This has allowed African governments to routinely globalize their public health emergencies and therefore get away with poor governance and lack of dependable healthcare systems.

The combination of an inward orientation of the “international community” and likely recurrence of truly global pandemics will mean that African states will have to build robust and sustainable domestic healthcare systems. It will no longer be a given that the American CDC or the WHO will swoop in with solutions. Under these conditions, failure to plan will likely lead to mass deaths in African states. 

[4] African progressivism needs a reset:

As Toby Green documents in A Fistful of Shells, modern African progressivism (defined as working towards broad-based transformative change) has a long history — going back to the 18th century. Men like Usman dan Fodio reacted to what they perceived to be elite complacency and moral depravity by organizing and seizing power. However, it is fair to say that the postcolonial variant of  progressivism in the region has run out of steam. In nearly every country, it has become permanently oppositionist and anti-establishment. Life out of power has infused it with a streak of expressive performativity that is increasingly divorced from the political and economic realities in the region, and sorely lacking in intellectual rigor (there are exceptions, of course). Arguably, the Thomas Sankara administration (with warts and all) was the last truly progressive administration in the region.

It is about time that African progressivism focused not just on criticizing those in power, but also on developing viable political programs that can win power. This will require organization, political education and communication that resonates with mass publics, genuine openness to knowing “the realities on the ground”, and a dose of principled ideological promiscuity pragmatism. The habit of waiting for perfectly enlightened voters and politicians under perfect institutional conditions effectively concedes the fight to the region’s shamelessly inept water-carriers. 

After 60 years in power, Africa’s ruling elites have become perhaps the most complacent lot in the world. Their destruction of higher education and the region’s intelligentsia in the 1970s allowed them to limit the role of ideas in politics and policymaking. It also helped that they found willing “apolitical” development partners in the “international community.” Even the most “progressive” among them care more about their countries’ rankings in the World Bank’s “Doing Business Index” than in the state of their “informal” and agricultural sectors. 

It is time to infuse African leadership with new thinking and moral foundations of social contracts. Only then will the region’s states be in a position to build the necessary resilience to weather emergencies like COVID-19, and provide necessary conditions for Africans to thrive at home and abroad.