A Kansas City High Schooler’s Development Questions

I regularly receive emails from readers with all sorts of questions and requests. This one caught my eye:

Hello Dr. Opalo,

My name is [redacted] and I am a senior in high school in Kansas City, MO. I am currently working on an exhibition regarding poverty in sub Saharan Africa. My essential question is: What are the factors that contribute to ongoing poverty in sub Saharan Africa. I was wondering if you would be willing to answer a few questions to assist me in my research.

1. How would you describe the current state of poverty in sub-Saharan Africa?

2. What can be done to solve the feminization of poverty?

3. Is Time Poverty a large factor in ongoing poverty and how can time poverty be solved?

4. How can safety be maintained in sub-Saharan Africa through policy?

5. What can an average American do to help end poverty?

Thank you for your time!

If you have answers to any of these questions, let me know in the comments section. I plan to write back before the student’s exhibition is due…
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Pockets of California amid sub-Saharan Africa?

Rant and rave alert. 

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

The quote below reminded me of those episodes:

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

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

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

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

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

In which I write about elections and democratic consolidation..

I have a piece in the July issue of the Journal of Democracy emphasizing the need to focus on legislative elections just as much as presidential elections.

Reflecting the immense powers of the typical “big man” president on the Continent, many election watchers (academics, journalists and “democracy practitioners” alike) have tended to focus almost exclusively on the outcomes of presidential elections. I make the case that cleaning up the conduct of legislative elections is equally important in the quest for democratic consolidation in SSA.

More on this here.

On Industrial Policy (In which I concur with Blattman 1001%)

I have made the case before here, here and here.

For more here’s Blattman, commenting on Industrial policy:

“You can’t pick winners” is the knee-jerk retort to the mention of anything that even rhymes with industrial policy. I would call it the triumph of ideology over evidence, except that even “ideology” feels like a generous term. Lazy thinking might be a more accurate description. Some have given the question a great deal of thought, but most have not.

I’m not suggesting that the paper above has the right answer (odds are, like most papers, it does not). I’m also not suggesting that governments can pick winners (probably they can’t). Nor am I forgetting that industrial policy is easily politicized and distorted (as surely it is). So what am I talking about?

More on this here.

Resource flows in Africa

According to this figure FDI and recorded remittances appear to be trending in the right direction. Official aid and portfolio equity and private debt are not.

For more on this check out the World Bank’s new book (digital copy) on how Africa can leverage immigration to boost its growth prospects.

It’s important to remember that while overall these numbers may look encouraging, the problem of illicit capital outflows still plagues Sub-Saharan Africa (and other developing regions); and serves as an impediment to growth. Between 1970-2008 the region hemorrhaged an average of over $22b annually. Various studies (including this one) estimate that the private wealth held by Africans in tax havens and other shady depositories abroad may be upwards of $270b.

quick hits

The Economist has a piece on the positive prospects for economic growth in SSA in the next few years.

Business Daily reports that Kenya’s property markets are no longer the exclusive preserve of old money or men, for that matter.

Still in Kenya, investment in higher education may start paying off. The BBC reports on Kenya’s growing outsourcing industry. Now they just have to learn Portuguese and Chinese for when they Brazilians and Chinese start calling to ask how to turn their (unplugged) electrical appliances on.

And lastly, Nairobi is (almost) no longer Nairobbery.

the ingredients of development

I am in the middle of writing a piece contrasting a subset of African and non-African dictatorships over the last half century. As most of you might know, quite a number of African countries have been mournfully commemorating celebrating 50 years of independence from European empires. Many of them, including the behemoth and perennial under-achiever that is Nigeria, have almost nothing to show for over half a century of self-rule. Disease, endemic poverty, general political and socio-economic stuntedness are what come to mind when one thinks of these places, and with good reason. Look at the latest UN HDI report if you think that Africa’s bad press is nothing but unfair afro-pessimism.

And keeping with the theme of development, here is a blog post that I really liked about Botswana, a country that many like to cite as Africa’s success story.

Lastly, a brief lesson on the Political Economy of Development.

the wade dynasty gains steam

Abdoulaye Wade, president of Senegal has signalled his intentions of making his son a political force in the country by appointing him minister of energy. Wade, 85, is due for reelection in 2012 and has indicated that he will run for a third term. In 2008 the Senegalese assembly voted to extend presidential term limits from 5 to 7 years. It must be nice to be 85 and still have such a promising future ahead of you.

 

the church and the crisis

Maureen Dowd’s column highlights the deep crisis in which the Catholic church has found itself in the aftermath  of the many cases of sexual abuse across Europe and the United States. Like Dowd, I am also a Catholic who is deeply disturbed by the Church’s apparent intransigence and inexplicable inflexibility in the face of problems like HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases on the Continent.

The Church must reform. And I believe it will. Sweeping cases of priests molesting 200 deaf children under the carpet is simply not doable.

Similarly, condemning millions of people to their graves by putting spiritual sanctions against their use of known methods of disease prevention is also wrong. As the Church reacts to and adjusts in the face of the backlash in the West over the abuse cases it should also be reminded of the consequences of its anti-contraceptive policies in the developing world, particularly in Africa.

I should point out that even as I criticize the Church and its policies on the Continent I am aware of its importance as an institution. The Church runs schools, hospitals… etc etc. Indeed in my lifetime I have attended no less than three Catholic-run schools.

the african problem

Sub-Saharan Africa is in dire straights. It is the most sick, hungry, poor and ignorant region of the world. It is a region infested with despots and illiberal democrats who for decades have led their nations to economy ruin and pre-modern tribal divisions and ways of living.

As the world watches one of this region’s promising nations descend into chaos, it is important for us to ask each other hard questions about the African Problem. I say the African Problem problem because it is not by chance that from Senegal to Somalia, Chad to South Africa, there is not much success to talk about. Poverty, disease and ignorance rule supreme.

We need to ask each other hard questions because racially sensitive Westerners (or Easterners for that matter) on whom we depend for most of “our” solutions will not ask us these questions; Is it our culture? Why haven’t we managed to shed the tribe in almost a decade into the 21st century? Why do we tolerate such appalling levels of mediocrity among us? Why don’t we demand more from our leaders? Why don’t we produce real leaders.

Our dictators compare woefully to those from other regions. Pinochet murdered Chileans, enriched himself, but also modernised the economy. Lenin had a weird ideology and some intellect behind his murderous leadership but he modernised Russia. Suharto did not run Indonesia into the ground. And now we turn to Africa: Samuel Doe, “Emperor” Bokasa, Iddi Amin, Obiang, Abacha and all the other Nigerian generals, Mobutu, Mugabe, Charles Taylor…. etc. This is a list of common criminals. Nearly all of them lack (ed) an iota of ideology behind their leadership, nearly all impoverished their people more than they were before, and all are a shame to all Africans. None of them knew what it means to be leader of a people or peoples.

These leaders got obscene amounts of wealth while their country men and women walked around naked, sick, hungry and ignorant.

How hard can it be? Why haven’t we succeeded in having successful socio-cultural and economic institutions that work for us? Does anyone care? Of what use is a million dollars to any African anywhere if Reuters is showing pictures of naked flood victims from Mozambique??? Why are we stuck in pre-modernity?

The many questions aside, the one thing that is clear is that Africa needs to change fast or it will never catch up with the rest of the world. We should not confuse pre-modern subsistence existence with culture. People live in mud houses and roam around with emaciated goats not because they love it but because they can’t afford or do not know any better.