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China and Japan fight like crying children…. in Africa.

chinaPrime Minister Abe Shinzo recently visited three African countries to unveil plans to provide 320 million dollars in aid to Africa. This should, of course, infuriate China enough as they seem to consider the continent their own in 2014.

However, following Abe’s stupid disregard for common sense in his visit to Yasukuni and a spokesman’s less unrealistic quip about China’s unwillingness to hire locals, the Chinese Ambassador to the African Unions call a press conference. In truly comic fashion, he screamed at the press, labelled Abe the “biggest troublemaker in Asia” and held up graphic pictures of Japanese war crimes committed during World War II.

During his press conference in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia’s capital, where Abe had just visited, Xie held aloft photos of Chinese he said had been massacred by Japanese troops. “[Abe] has worked hard to portray China as a threat, aiming to sow discord, raising regional tensions and so creating a convenient excuse for the resurrection of Japanese militarism,” said the Chinese envoy.

Is there any level at all where this isn’t absolutely ridiculous? First, we have to question Abe’s judgement in visiting Yasukuni, which enshrines a number WWII war criminals, as an inexplicable act of stupidity. The stunt was guaranteed to annoy China, setting back already strained relations over the Senkaku islands off the shores of Taiwan. It’s possible, though, that it was orchestrated to do just that. If so, it worked.

Second, setting aside the fact that most people who were participated in WWII are long dead now, and China’s old history of bloodshed, no matter how one looks at it, waving pictures of war crimes at the African Union is likely to have, well, no effect at all. Many African countries are still autocracies and nearly all have deep pasts of violence against civilians. In fact, both of the highest leaders of Kenya are currently in court for crimes against humanity!

Third, let’s just ponder how stupid it is to have two of the largest economic powers in the world quabbling like crying children. Please, we can do better, kids.

What I’m Reading Now: “Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo” (2014)

stringerI’m really not sure what purpose this book serves. While I don’t want to beat up on it too badly, fearing that if I ever get around to writing a book someone will mercilessly eviscerate mine, I can’t say that I really understand what “Stringer” says that the numerous other books on the Congo haven’t.

Anjan Sundaram was a PhD student in math under the great algebraist Serge Lang at Yale. One day, in an inexplicable moment of odd judgement, Sundaram decides to abandon what one would assume it to be a promising academic career to become a journalist. He befriends a lady at the bank who offers to contact her family in the Kinshasa and set him up with a place to stay.

Sundaram doesn’t like the DRC. In fact, it’s hard to tell whether he likes anyone at all. It’s hard to understand why he’s there and his lack of street smarts and simple human compassion quickly grate on the nerves. Half the book are scenes of him getting ripped off, even by his own host family and him not seeming to understand why.

His writing views the Congo through a lens of disdain, fear and condescension, echoing nearly a century of writing on the Congo. This may be by design. It’s hard to divorce oneself from Conrad when writing on the Congo (but not impossible). Regardless, though he claims to make pains to reveal the positive side of being a street kid, a group of whom he seems to form the deepest connections, the scenes are so fleeting as to relegate an otherwise potentially interesting subject to be mere window dressing.

He has odd realizations throughout the book, apparently surprised that rural Congolese are capable, hardworking people:

On the periphery of that village area I met a woman with a child on her back. Bending over, she was tilling someone else’s field. She said she worked from 6 :00 a.m . until 8: 00 p.m.— a fourteen-hour workday. But she earned only enough to eat the leaves of beans. Her hut was tiny and dark. A white rabbit cowered in the corner. She squatted inside , waiting for the leaves to boil. This woman struck me as something new in the world. She did not fall into any obvious category of African destitution: she was not a refugee or diseased or the victim of rape or violence. She was willing to work. It seemed to me that by any system of distribution of wealth— communist, socialist , capitalist— she had no reason to be poor.

Good God. I was constantly struck by Sundaram’s ignorance of developing countries, given that he’s from one.

Sundaram, Anjan (2014-01-07). Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo (p. 160). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

The press on this book is incredible. I saw Sundaram on the Daily Show the other day and thought that, given the rarity of having such publicity fawned on a book about Africa, it must be distinctly interesting. My assumptions were incorrect. “Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo” while flying up the best seller charts offers nothing new. I get why people want to read books like “Stringer,” as it offers a window into a place that most can never go, written in a language they can understand. But it is troubling is that light fare from slumming academics would receive so much praise, while African literary artists continue to be ignored.

Sundaram’s prose is quite good. I only wish he had taken the time to do something more insightful with the book.

Malaria eradication makes the Economist

Not that the Economist has ever made a habit of ignoring tropical diseases. Far from it, the Economist as a British magazine is quite good at reporting on the Isles former colonies.

Here they’ve written on the issues of mass drug administrations as a tool in malaria eradication. Specifically, they focus on a Chinese group seeking to ramp up efforts to create a successful regimen of artemisinin and piperaquine to eliminate the disease by prophylacticly preventing infection, and interrupting the cycle of transmission long enough to eliminate the parasite entirely.

Dr Li’s approach is to attack not the mosquito, but the disease-causing parasite itself. This parasite’s life cycle alternates between its insect host (the mosquito) and its vertebrate one (human beings). Crucially, as far as is known, humans are its only vertebrate host. Deny it them and it will, perforce, wither away—an approach that worked for the smallpox virus, which had a similarly picky appetite. In the case of smallpox, a vaccine was used to make humans hostile territory for the pathogen. Since there is no vaccine against malaria, Dr Li is instead using drugs.

To date, the group has been running trials in the Comoros islands off the coast of Mozambique and had some success, but haven’t come close to full elimination. Elimination on islands surrounded by salt water (mosquitoes which transmit malaria breed in fresh water) should be a fairly easy proposition, but the issue of human mobility from the African continent guarantees reintroduction.

I’m personally involved in an island malaria elimination project in Kenya, but am under no illusions that results from an island are in the least bit generalization to the continent. Falciparum malaria is far too efficient and the lack of a winter renders transmission far too consistent to allow easy elimination. Add the issue of the intense mobility of Africans and one can’t help but be discouraged.

Dr. Li from the Guangzhou group seems to be optimistically under the mistaken impression that all it will take to eradicate malaria is the right combination of magic pills, but he’s gravely mistaken. The only thing that will consistently control malaria on the continent will be a full on, sustained assault using every tool known, along with intense economic development. The continent has only seen gains in malaria control during the 00’s, when incredible amounts of money and effort was thrown at the disease and, not coincidentally, when African economies finally started to take off. Eradicating malaria won’t be about a few pills.

More troubling to me are the ethical issues. Mass drug administrations require the participation. If even a small group of people refuse the medication, the entire effort might be for naught. Obtaining full, informed consent, however, is near impossible in these areas. While most people are willing to participate once the benefits are explained to them, the risks are often glossed over. Moreover, as communities will often follow the behavior of their neighbors or community leaders, it is difficult to judge whether people participate of their own volition or whether they are merely bowing to community pressure. Educational barriers might also compromise the ability to obtain truly informed consent.

Further, I don’t doubt the intent of the Guangzhou group, but I do wonder if Chinese institutions truly have the same level of ethical review and monitoring that United States’ institutions have (which isn’t even perfect and sometimes ill suited to developing countries). I’m sure that China would love to claim a success like malaria elimination, but I worry that a zeal for victory might lead to a violation of basic ethics and even a masking of failures, complicating the issue in the long term. I hope that I’m wrong.

What will replace the Millennium Development Goals when they expire in 2015? Will the UN’s new benchmarks finally include the private sector?

The Millennium Development Goals, a set of eight developmental benchmarks which the world should achieve by 2015 are set to expire. Though there have been many gains, most notably in the worldwide reduction of extreme poverty since 2000, successes between countries remain uneven. Many people are wondering what set of policy recommendations will come next.

I’m reading “A Framework for Sustainable Development,” a document from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, which aims to bring together a number of experts from a variety of fields with the goal of developing partnerships and creating innovative solutions to new developmental problems.

The Solutions Network mobilizes scientific and technical expertise from academia, civil society, and the private sector in support of sustainable-development problem solving at local, national, and global scales. This Solutions Network accelerates joint learning and helps to overcome the compartmentalization of technical and policy work by promoting integrated approaches to the interconnected economic, social, and environmental challenges confronting the world. The SDSN works closely with United Nations agencies, multilateral financing institutions, as well as other international organizations.

The document suggests the creating of 12 thematic groups, each of which will bring experts and institutions together to work on specific problems. These include themes such as macroeconomics, health, sustainable industry, oceans, forests and governance, among others. They all address very real problems the world is facing that will require the collective knowledge of a variety of stakeholders to successfully solve.

The last group struck me:

Redefining the Role of Business for Sustainable Development (synthesis of ideas, including from the other Thematic Groups, on how business in key sectors
can contribute to sustainable development; ways for business and financial markets to internalize externalities such as environmental damage and support a shift
towards the polluter pays principle; management of non-sustainable “stranded assets” as part of a shift to a socially and environmentally sustainable economy)

It’s interesting that the private sector seems to be almost an afterthought. This, or course, follows a general pattern. Policy groups and NGOs often take an adversarial approach toward business. The MDGs adressed nothing regarding the private sector and business development. The “thematic group” here, doesn’t really appear to wish to engage with private business at all, apparently offering a top down approach to dictating how business should participate.

This is a grave mistake. Though it is entirely true that many of the world’s greatest environmental challenges are directly attributable to capitalist activities, pushing the private sector to the margins is no way to engage multinationals in working toward a sustainable future. If businesses can’t be convinced (rightly) that the long term health of the planet and the equitable development of human resources is in their long term interest, then they will continue on a path of destruction. Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that the private sector is a monolithic entity. Private businesses are a varied in intent and practice as NGOs.

Pharmaceuticals to treat malaria, HIV and TB don’t appear out of nowhere and despite the role of the public sector in encouraging and supporting basic research to create life saving drugs, governments are in no position to bring such innovations up to scale and market them successfully.

Even stranger to me, is that a list of themes that allegedly purport to deal with global welfare would not include business development in developing countries. Rapidly urbanizing and dynamic countries in Sub-Saharan Africa faces unique challenges to bringing people out of poverty, one of which is the development of domestic economies. Lack of access to capital, a paucity of banking services and regulatory handicaps keep African entrepreneurs from growing and potentially improving the lives of everyone involved. Again, the MDG’s did not address the problem of business development. Here again, we see the same pattern.

It was interesting that the tone of a document, A NEW GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP:ERADICATE POVERTY AND TRANSFORM ECONOMIES THROUGH SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT written by leaders of two developing countries, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia and and Dr Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia (well, David Cameron’s in there, too), would be so different from the UN’s Framework:

3. Transform economies for jobs and inclusive growth. We call for a quantum leap forward in economic opportunities and a profound economic transformation
to end extreme poverty and improve livelihoods. This means a rapid shift to sustainable patterns of consumption and production–harnessing innovation, technology, and the potential of private business to create more value and drive sustainable and inclusive growth. Diversified economies, with equal opportunities for all, can unleash the dynamism that creates jobs and livelihoods, especially for young people and women. This is a challenge for every country on earth: to ensure good job possibilities while moving to the sustainable patterns of work and life that will be necessary in a world of limited natural resources. We should ensure that everyone has what they need to grow and prosper, including access to quality education and skills, healthcare, clean water, electricity, telecommunications and transport. We should make it easier for people to invest, start-up a business and to trade. And we can do more to take advantage of rapid urbanisation: cities are the world’s engines for business and innovation. With good management they can provide jobs, hope and growth, while building sustainability.

The UN’s new development framework clearly has Jeff Sachs at the helm and certainly the group intends to influence policy. But policy without the acknowledgement and inclusion of the private sector, both on a macro and micro level, is doomed to fail.

Cell phone banking in Kenya protects public health

MPESAIt’s rare that I read an academic paper I can get really, really excited about, but this is one of them.

Researchers at Georgetown and MIT have shown that transactions over M-PESA, an African phone banking service can help struggling households when faced with a sudden illness, weather event or economic shock.

We explore the impact of reduced transaction costs on risk sharing by estimating the effects of a mobile money innovation on consumption. In our panel sample, adoption of the innovation increased from 43 to 70 percent. We find that, while shocks reduce consumption by 7 percent for nonusers, the consumption of user households is unaffected. The mechanisms underlying these consumption effects are increases in remittances received and the diversity of senders. We report robustness checks supporting these results and use the four-fold expansion of the mobile money agent network as a source of exogenous variation in access to the innovation.

M-PESA is a cel phone based banking system which allows users to send and receive money to friends and family. Transactions can be small; most users are transferring less than $10 at a time. Users are charge about $.40 to transfer money and a percentage to withdraw. It is free to deposit money into the system.

Anyone can be an M-PESA agent. Starting an M-PESA business requires only a small investment so that even extremely rural areas have access to the system. Agents receive a percentage of transaction costs, and often piggy back it onto existing enterprises such as grocery stores and mobile phone shops. M-PESA not only provides a needed service, but has also created profitable business opportunities for people even in isolated rural areas.

The system is wildly popular. Africans are extremely mobile but maintain deep friend and family networks often spread out over wide distances. When a person has trouble, he or she will often turn to family and friends for financial help.

Previously, people would send money by getting on a bus and travelling, or by sending it with friends who might be going to a particular destination. Transportation costs are high ($5 to go a distance of 200km) and often outweigh the amount to be sent. Sending money by hand also incurred risks of loss to theft and misuse.

The number of M-PESA users has skyrocketed since its introduction in 2007. Nearly all adults in Kenya have access to a cel phone now, and the number of M-PESA users is now 70% of all mobile phone users.

Shocks due to illness or negative weather events such as drought can be devastating for a poor household. A single bout of malaria could set a family back as much as a month’s income or more. When poor households lose money, they don’t get it back and successive events can quickly pile up so much so that families will often wait until illness has become too severe to effectively treat.

Jack and Suri, the researchers who conducted the study found that illness shocks can reduce a households consumption by at least 7%. An average household only consumes around $900 a year, nearly half of which is for food. A 7% reduction in consumption could mean that households will simply eat less given a sudden negative event.

M-PESA users, however, experience no reduction in consumption given a sudden health or economic event. Presumably, the ability to transfer money quickly over long distances provides insurance against disaster. Mutual reciprocation allows the system to effectively function to protect against financial disaster.

This has incredible implications for public health. Financial concerns are an incredible barrier to insuring prompt and effective treatment for diseases such as malaria, diarrheal disease and respiratory infections. An efficient system of moving money creates a broader social insurance scheme, protecting the public against the worst and, hopefully, reducing costly advanced treatments and mortality.

M-PESA is a private sector entity, which was never intended as a public health intervention. However, in an area where public sector health delivery is inefficient, underfunded and most broken, a private sector banking initiative could help bolster availability of life saving drugs (for example) by insuring a consistent flow of money. Shops in extremely isolated rural areas will be more likely to stock malaria drugs if they know that customers have the means to pay for them.

This also has incredible implications for development. One of the pillars of the Millennium Development Goals and the recent Rio+20 Conference on Sustainable Development is to insure that the basic health needs of the poorest people on the planet are met. This cannot happen without addressing the greater problem of financial stability of poor households, which requires the participation of the private sector. Covering basic issues of financial movement, security and access to funds by isolated households is a major step to not only helping households which are disproportionately impacted by health and weather events, but also allows flow of cash to poor regions, bolstering local economies.

Central African Republic Gets a New President: Is there now hope for the CAR?

It has been announced that Bangui mayor Catherine Samba-Panza has been appointed the Interim President of the near anarchic Central African Republic.

Her ascension couldn’t come at a better time. The Central African Republic, fragile even in the best of times, has been slowly sinking into chaos. No one really knows how many people have been killed in the fighting between Christian and Muslim militias (though this shouldn’t be read as a religious conflict), but reports last year pegged more than 1000 civilian deaths within a two day span. Experts have started using the g-word.

From the NYT:

The interim president selected on Monday at a raucous, five-hour session of a “national transition council” of rebels, rivals and politicians was Catherine Samba-Panza, a French-educated lawyer with a reputation for integrity and no ties either to the Muslim rebels or the Christian militia. Her selection was greeted with cheers in the assembly hall and dancing outside. That she is a woman — the third female head of state in post-colonial Africa — was especially welcomed by many people who felt that men had done nothing but lead the country on its vicious downward spiral.

Though encouraging, it’s too early to tell if Ms. Samba-Panza will be able to contain the bloodshed in the CAR. Certainly, Liberia gained much under the leadership of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but it’s hard to say whether there’s been a great transformation in Malawi under Joyce Banda. Rwanda’s female majority Parliament is vastly preferable to Kenya’s (or the United States’) overpaid and corrupt boy’s club, however.

The conflagration in the CAR has been troubling for a number of reasons. First, it represents a general pattern of instability just below the Sahara. Neighboring South Sudan, which just recently obtained independence, is now facing a conflict ridden humanitarian crisis.

Second, the conflicts in South Sudan, the CAR, Northern Nigeria, Mali and Somalia rage on compromise the positive narrative of a newly prosperous and economically viable Africa. The 80’s and 90’s were a stain on the continent. Though I don’t foresee a return to the extended civil wars of Angola and Mozambique (for example), general regional instability compromises the ability to sustain development over the entire continent.

Third, even if the CAR manages to suppress the violence, there are few viable options for the long term economic future of this landlocked and historically marginalized country. Without a long term economic plan chances are high that tensions will flare up once more, setting the country back again.

Does Development Work? Observations on Gates’ Annual Letter

Infant mortality is down worldwide

Infant mortality is down worldwide

Asking a question like “does development work” is like asking “does policy work”: it depends. I seem to be fielding questions about development with increasing frequency. Mostly I find that the harshest critics don’t know a whole lot about development and haven’t been to many places in the world, complicating my ability to respond in an reasoned manner. Development is a complicated beast but, the truth is, that it didn’t come easy for us 1%’ers either.

Every year, Bill and Melinda Gates release a letter on the state of the Gates Foundation and the current situation of global development and health. This time Gates set out to dispel three common myths on development, namely that poor countries are doomed to be poor forever, foreign aid is a total waste and that development will just lead to overpopulation.

The first is the most cynical, but even for us development/public health folks, it’s easy to be discouraged. Pessimism aside, the data don’t bear out the assumption that developing countries are entrenched in poverty. Just about all Sub-Saharan African countries experience consistent economic growth throughout the 00’s and have seen rapid improvements in just about all of the common health indicators. People are living longer, fewer kids are dying and they’re making more money to pay for school and health care.

Over the past five years that I’ve been going to Sub-Saharan Africa I’ve seen this change on the ground. Cars are in better shape, there’s more goods on the shelves, kids are better nourished and security has vastly improved. Does this mean that all of the problems are magically going away? No, there are still vast challenges to infrastructure development, access to health care and affordable medications, educational quality, gender issues and basic business development. However, these improvements do signal that Sub-Saharan African countries are reaching a point where sustained development is possible.

I have a hard time disagreeing with Gates here, but I did find his “before” and “after” pictures of Nairobi a bit bizarre. Though Nairobi is currently going through a construction boom, I fail to see how it would look any different in 2014 than it did in 1969 after more than three decades of stagnation.

Gates second point and the hardest myth to dispel is that of the alleged ineffectiveness of aid. Bill Easterly has made a career out of aid bashing, and, unfortunately, given cynical politicians looking for policy scapegoats a point to scream to their angry constituents. In a broader sense, the screaming over aid is really a questioning of developmental policies themselves. Certainly, there are development failures. The neo-classically informed structural adjustment policies of the World Bank and the IMF during the 80’s and 90’s were, on the surface, colossal failures (Read Beyond the World Bank Agenda: An Institutional Approach to Development by Howard Stein for a great analysis). On a smaller scale, we can easily cherry pick misguided but well meaning development projects or plans that simply went awry for any number of unforeseen reasons. The recent takedown of Jeff Sachs (The Idealist: Jeffrey Sachs and the Quest to End Poverty) and the massive problems of the Millenium Village in North East Province in Kenya is a great example of the challenges a development project can face.

However, in ever insular post Iraq America, the question that is most often asked is why we should even care and does our presence merely serve to make things worse. The truth is, and the point most often overlooked, is that most development projects are international collaborations. Many projects are conducted with partners in target countries and, more often than not, projects often make up for shortfalls that hobbled governments are unable (or sometimes unwilling) to provide. Health care is one example.

Jeff Sachs wrote a nice article this morning on how effective free insecticide treated nets have been in reducing malaria incidence and mortality in Sub-Saharan Africa. Nearly half a billion free nets have been given out worldwide as of 2014 and a lot of kids are alive today who would have been dead had they been born ten years earlier. Malaria is 100% associated with poverty. Wealthy people do not get malaria, even in malaria endemic countries. Though some of the decline in malaria incidence has been due to increased affluence and urbanization of African countries, a major percentage of this decline has been due to aid programs which provide bed nets and have expanded access to life-saving malaria medications. Certainly, not all aid works, but nothing works 100% of the time, particularly when humans are involved.

Which brings us to the most cynical and offensive of Gates’ three myths. Some people truly believe that saving African kids is a bad thing. One day there will be too many of them and they will suck up the ability for the world to sustain life. Honestly, this view couldn’t be more wrong.

The poorest parts of the world are the areas which are seeing the most rapid population growth. The average Malawian woman has 8 children in her lifetime, often starting when she isn’t even yet 15 years old. It has been said that if Malawi continues on it’s current trajectory, that it will have a population equivalent to that of Japan’s by 2050. Women in water and food constrained pastoralist communities can have ten or more children. The most affluent areas of Africa are the places with the slowest population growth.

Even more incorrect is the assumption that poverty is less harmful to the environment than development. Malawi is almost entirely deforested due to extensive use of charcoal for heating and tobacco cultivation. Deforestation not only robs the earth of potential carbon sinks, but also reduces need biodiversity and directly impacts precious water resources. Africa burns unclean fuels such as charcoal and coal for heating, and the poor condition of vehicles make it a major potential source of greenhouse gases. The air in Nairobi on any given weekday is so filled with exhaust that one can become dizzy just walking around town. It is, of course, unreasonable (and stupid) to deny Africans transportation and cooking fuel, but well meaning though poorly informed armchair environmentalists in the United States would happily suggest doing just that.

Which bring me to my final point. The case against development is one that assumes that the status quo is somehow preferable to anything that might come after. The assumption is that Africans were just fine without Europeans and their planet destroying ways. There is, of course, little data on what Africa was like before Europeans started extracting resources from the continent. We do, however, know a lot about underdeveloped areas of Africa. There is evidence to suggest that some do fine. There is however, much evidence to suggest that other simply do not. The worst parts of Africa are the parts which are the least developed. They are the areas where the market doesn’t function. The areas where there is little education, no access to health care, no roads, no economy, kids regularly die, where old people are a venerated since they are so rare, where there’s violence and instability and people are entirely marginalized from any level of political participation. While development likely will never solve the worst problems (like those in Somalia), there is no case to be made that the current state of the ultra poor is acceptable on any measure, even to the poor themselves!

Alright, off to bed.


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