On Uganda’s Textile Sector

This is from The Economist:

Uganda’s main advantages, for the moment, are cheap cotton and labour, and preferential access to American and European markets. When exporting to the rich world “Africa has an 18-35% duty advantage over any other continent”, says Nick Earlham, a shareholder in WUCC and in Fine Spinners. “It’s very competitive.”Screen Shot 2017-05-04 at 1.13.26 PM

Textile workers in Kampala earn about $85 a month, compared with $150 in Kenya and $108 in Vietnam, never mind up to $700 in China. But these savings are offset by problems in almost every other sphere. Power cuts keep plunging the factory into darkness, and an erratic supply of steam to the dyeing machines makes it hard to ensure that each batch of fabric looks alike.

Textiles appear to be a low hanging fruit as far as creating mass employment in African states is concerned. And, at least for now, they will remain immune from the threat of mechanization:

Robots are not yet much good at fiddly sewing jobs on floppy fabric; less than 0.1% of the world’s industrial robots are in the clothing trade.

More on this here.

Lastly, while production levels have not increased significantly over the last decade, FAO data (see below) do suggest a non-trivial increase in productivity (yield/ha) in Uganda’s cotton sector. This outcome could be a result of a myriad causes, but it is in line with recent research by Bates and Block (2013) showing increased agricultural productivity in African states that experienced real exposure to competitive electoral politics.

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Urban Bias on Steroids: The Case of Thailand

This is from the Economist:

The National Village Community Fund, which has allocated 500,000 baht each to almost 80,000 villages for rural projects, is now administered by the ministry of interior. The state’s Special Financial Institutions, which provide rural credit, are now regulated by the central bank, having previously been the playthings of provincial politicians. These days, if you wait for money from Bangkok, “you’ll wait forever,” says Mr Suradech.

His complaint is confirmed by a startling calculation. 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.

Rather than lift the shopping power of the rural masses, the junta has aimed to boost spending by tourists and urbanites. It has cut taxes markedly for the relatively few businesses and people that pay them. It has also succeeded in doubling the number of visitors from China to 10m a year.

Remember the red shirts and yellow shirts and how they managed to cripple Bangkok?

H/T Tyler Cowen.

Is evidence-based institutional analysis a possibility?

Chris Blattman writes:

But Acemoglu is right that institutional and political change are more important and the evidence-based crowd have done very little here. Most of that evidence is about anti-corruption or election monitoring or other things that I doubt change politics very much.

Meanwhile all the good political economy research (like Acemoglu’s) has no clear implication for social and political change in the world. There is a big disconnect. These scholars have mostly ignored this gap either because… I don’t know why. Maybe it’s too treacherous or hard, or they don’t find it interesting enough, or they are cynical about policy change. I don’t know. Someone explain it to me.

Blattman is spot on.

I think that students of institutions and institutional development have not joined the evidence-based crowd for two main reasons:

  • Politics I: Much of the evidence-based research out there eschews politics, instead focusing on the technical aspects of problems. Works that explicitly deal with political scenarios exist, but are rare. Part of the reason this is the case is that agencies that finance impact evaluations and other kinds of evidence-based policy research agendas have incentives to remain as apolitical as they can (you need host country government permission to do research in the first place …..)
  • Politics II: The other reason is that it is almost impossible to engage in politically relevant big-picture-development research while remaining apolitical. You see this in splits among macroeconomists in the United States (Macro questions make it really hard for researchers to shed off their normative priors). In the same vein, the best placed people to carry out evidence-based studies of institutions and how to change them are often professors in universities in the developing world — the problem is they do not do enough research due to a lack of resources and/or the relevant skill sets; and their own governments often neglect them. Regardless of their nationality, the most visible development economists in universities in the North Atlantic often lack the political connections or the bandwidth to engage in host-country politics; and are thus limited in the extent to which they can effectively study the most vexing policy questions out there.

These reasons are not due to anyone’s fault, just how research is currently financed and structured.

A possible way to get around these problems could be MBA-style case studies of reform programs from across the globe that can then be retooled by Comparativist country specialists — incoming Stanford CDDRL director Frank Fukuyama has very exciting ongoing work on this front.

On a tangentially-related point, I think that works that combine technical brilliance and deep local knowledge (think Bates’ lesser-read books on the Zambian Copperbelt) are about to come in vogue again. It used to be that only a few grad school programs (at least in political science) emphasized technical competence out of econ envy to match the economists. This is getting more commonplace, thereby establishing a new baseline (the data revolution is also helping a great deal by increasing the scope of country-specific studies of macro questions). And once a critical mass is achieved then the comparative advantage will favor those who are both technically competent and can also speak intelligently about how policy dovetails with local politics. The title “country-specialist” will soon no longer be synonymous with “qualitative research”; and more students will be primed to value good qualitative research.

Kenya’s super rich are betting on future stability, and that is a good thing

One of the historical features of “Kenyan exceptionalism” in Africa – outlined by Bob Bates and others – has been its elites’ reliance on immovable assets, mostly agricultural land. This is in contrast to most other African countries where insecure property rights, lack of good investment opportunities, and outright kleptocracy have over the years bled national economies dry of capital. A study of 33 countries in Sub-Saharan Africa showed that between 1970-2010 about 0.814 trillion dollars left the region (in constant 2010 dollars). That was more than the total aid ($659 billion), and more than two and a half times the FDI ($306 billion) received over the same period.

The study shows Kenya to have lost $4.9 billion in capital, ranking it 21st on the list. This despite having been among the region’s top five economies and its largest non-mineral economy over the same period. Kenyan politicians and their associates were by no means less venal than their regional counterparts. They definitely stole, too. A lot. The difference is that they invested a good chunk of the stolen money in land (agriculture) and other assets within the country.

The same Kenyan trend appears to continue, even in an era of relatively liberalized financial flows. A recent report on Kenya’s top 8,300 wealthiest high net worth individuals – who also control wealth the equivalent of about two thirds ($31 billion) of the country’s annual output – shows that they have put more than a quarter (26%) of their wealth in real estate, a most immovable asset. 18% of this wealth is in equities, with only 12% in liquid cash [Just to be clear, $31.4b is 62% of Kenya’s GDP, not its total wealth. The latter figure includes the total accumulated net value of all wealth in Kenya, including both public and private household wealth].

The Business Daily reports that:

This level of wealth multiplication has caught the attention of Kenya’s super-rich making them invest 19.5 per cent of their total assets in residential property, 5.4 per cent in commercial property and 1.3 per cent in foreign property in 2013.

Obviously the wealth disparities outlined in the report should concern Kenyan politicians and the super-wealthy elite alike. 8,300 people make up 0.0002075% of Kenya’s 40 odd million people. This is total insanity. But the investment choices of the country’s wealthiest are an implicit endorsement of the country’s property rights laws and a sign that the super rich are betting on the continued stability of the country and its economy.

Now the challenge for chaps at State House, the Treasury and the Ministry of Industrialization and Enterprise Development (of course with some help from Parliament) should be how to incentivize investments in sectors that will generate mass employment. This is a drum that I have been beating for a while now (see also here). It is also the point that David Ndii neatly summarized in his recent critique of the government’s apparent blind belief in mega-projects as the panacea to Kenya’s endemic poverty problem. Dr. Ndii’s argument was that mega infrastructure projects only target the middle class and up, forgetting the rural poor who need investments in agricultural productivity. While I wouldn’t go as far as outrightly dismissing the utility of new major roads and railways, I think that the government should be a bit more proactive in ending rural poverty – a task that will necessarily require getting people off the land and providing alternative livelihoods in wage paying jobs.

Are large cities bad for dictators?

How does redistributive policy affect the survival of authoritarian regimes? I argue that redistributive policy in favor of cities, while temporarily reducing urban grievances, in the long-run undermines regime survival by inducing urban concentration. I test the argument using cross-national city population, urban bias, and nondemocratic regime survival data in the post-WWII period. The results show that urban concentration is dangerous for dictators principally by promoting collective action, that urban bias induces urban concentration,and that urban bias represents a Faustian bargain with short-term benefits overwhelmed by long-term costs.

That is Jeremy Wallace in a new paper in the JoP. The full article (pdf) is here.

H/T War of Ideas.

will the latest land grab help africa?

Update: You can find individual country reports from the Oakland Institute, a California based think tank, here.

I am on record as having reservations about the latest scramble for Africa African governments leasing vital arable land to foreign companies and governments (esp. in the face of high levels of food insecurity in the region).

Like many, my first reaction was to protest against these land deals. Like most natural-resource concessions on the Continent, they appeared to favor only the foreigners and a tiny clique of well placed individuals in African governments – at the expense of the many.

But I am beginning to have second thoughts. This latest land grab on the continent maybe the catalyst of an African green revolution. Most African governments gave up on non cash-crop agriculture in the 1970s. Some, like Nigeria, abandoned agriculture wholesale and quickly became net exporters of agricultural goods. Bad policy (see Bates) and non-agricultural resources (mostly oil and metals) were to blame.

While my general skepticism remains, here are potential upsides:

  1. Commercialization of non cash-crop agriculture: The vast majority of agricultural production in Africa takes place in smallholder farms that are hard to finance or insure (tea, coffee, and other cash crops get all the money). Their small sizes also limit the economic feasibility of improvements such as mechanization, irrigation, etc. The advent of commercial production of food crops in the region will have market effects, for sure. Agricultural SM&Es and even Big Agriculture will bring much needed capital to this vital sector of the economy.
  2. Land consolidation: This is already happening (and is the main source of my skepticism regarding the benefits of these deals). With consolidation comes economics of scale, R&D, mechanization, etc. I hope that African governments will ensure that this latter day enclosure movement takes place in a humane manner. It is in their own interest since most of these governments’ political bases reside in the countryside and live on subsistence agriculture. Consolidation might also spur further growth by creating demand for more goods (people earn wages and their are no longer producing their own food). Remember that specialization determines the extent of the market (Adam Smith).
  3. Technological diffusion: With commercialization will come irrigation, mechanization, use of fertilization, R&D, etc that will most certainly diffuse to the local agricultural sector. Rain-fed agriculture when you have the Nile, the Niger, the Voltas, the Congo, the Zambezi, Tana, Athi, etc, is so pre-Mesopotamia.
  4. Political reforms: In my view, one of the key impediments to political reforms in Africa has been the persistence of what Hyden called the “uncaptured peasantry.” A landed peasantry that can live off the land allows politicians to play with the macro-economy like there is no tomorrow. If the people get off the land, the general performance of the national economy will have a bigger impact on their lives. Suddenly, reaction to stratospheric inflation rates and other failures in the macroeconomy will not be confined only to urban centres. This will, in part, serve to end Africa’s tyranny of the countryside – a situation in which ethnic chiefs elected from the countryside ignore the underrepresented urban dwellers – and spur real democratic accountability.

Discussion of the downside of these deals is already out there. It also helps to look at the potential upside (at least in the long-run). I remain convinced that the real pro-poor growth in Africa will come from SM&Es and big business, whether in agriculture or other sectors.