Archive | September 2013

Could Westgate Have Been Part of An Increasing Trend in Violence in Somalia?

SomaliaI’m sure it’s obvious that I’m still trying to process the recent events in Kenya. I became interested in knowing if the attack was perhaps part of a greater trend of violence in the region, particularly Somalia.

The Armed Conflict Location and Events Database logs all conflict events around the world in one location. Events are recorded from newspaper reports, NGOs and self reports from people on the ground. I downloaded the latest version of the data and restricted the dataset to only Somalia.

It turns out, that violence has been on the rise in Somalia since at least 2005, with a small break around the time of the global financial meltdown, then rising consistently from 2010. The Kenyan military, who have been blamed for the attack, didn’t arrive in Somalia until October of 2011. Sadly, their entry hasn’t been associated with a decline in events.

It’s worth noting that Doctors Without Borders exited Somalia last August due to kidnappings and violence, part of a greater trend of attacks on aid workers. Even before that, news reports were telling of increased attacks around Mogadishu.

The Economist reported increased numbers of attacks in Iraq and speculated that it was part of a wider, global trend. If this data on Somalia is to be believed, the world should start bracing itself for even more carnage. Again, I’m quite conflicted on what might be the causes of this violence, most of which is waged on targets that have little to do with Americans (despite what Ron Paul would like you to believe). I’m also at a loss as to what to recommend to do about it, but ignoring this worsening problem will not improve the situation at all.

Conflict Events in Somalis 1996-2013

Conflict Events in Somalis 1996-2013

More Scam Science: OMICS Group “Advancing Scientific Discovery”

Just got an email from the OMICS Group, whose tagline is “Advancing Scientific Discovery:”

Dear Dr. Peter S Larson,

The purpose of this letter is to formally invite you, on behalf of the Organizing Committee, to be as a speaker at the upcoming 3rd World Congress on Virology during November 20-22, 2013 at DoubleTree by Hilton Baltimore-BWI Airport, USA.

The main theme of the conference is Exploring Novel Approaches on Virology which covers a wide range of critically important sessions.

Work Shop on What Type of HIV Vaccine Research Should be Promoted?

John Benson
Life Science conferences
5716 Corsa Ave, Suite110
Westlake, Los Angeles
CA-91362-7354, USA
Office +1-888-843-8169
Toll No +1-800-216-6499 (USA & Canada)

Of course, it’s entirely odd that they would invite me to speak on viral diseases given that I have never done any work at all on them.

OMICS, in addition to sponsoring numerous scam conferences and workshops, can also proudly claim to be the publisher of more than 300 journals, none of which I’ve ever heard of. They can also proudly claim to have one of the most scathing Wikipedia entries I’ve ever seen. Numerous articles have questioned OMICs’ legitimacy, and even the US Government has asked them to cease listing any affiliations with the NIH and the HHS.

Of course, they do appear on the black list of scientific publication houses at the Scholarly Open Access blog, which tracks the world of scam publications and conferences. Avoid at all costs.

Update: It’s worth noting that OMICs shares a building with a PayDay Loans place, a shady credit card company, and a company that will help you get out of paying speeding tickets.

Violence in Africa, a continuing threat

African countries are certainly no strangers to violence, thought the past few years have seen an extended period of relative peace. The incredible bloodshed of the 90’s seems a distant dream at this point.

However, since the awful attack on Westgate Mall in Nairobi ten days ago, it’s possible that other groups have been emboldened to stage dramatic attacks on weak civilians.

Boko Haram, an Islamic separatist group in Northern Nigeria, shot and killed more than 40 students at an agricultural college in Nigeria. They arrived in the middle of the night and shot them all while they slept. The college could not afford proper security, though it’s doubtful that the even would have been fully prevented. Security details in Africa, particularly for Africans is sadly lax.

It is certainly possible that the attack had nothing to do with Westgate at all, though it isn’t coincidental that in both cases, high profile symbols of Western style development were targeted. While past attacks included embassies, ports and high profile targets like New York City, I fear that global terrorism might be moving to easier and smaller targets in Sub-Saharan Africa. This, of course, puts us involved in global health and development at awful risk.

During my conversations with my colleagues over the past week, the most common phrase has been “these are the risks we take.” While it’s certainly risky for us, for Africans trying to improve the lot of their countries, it’s entirely worse.

I think of those 40 students, who were guilty only of trying to educate themselves and perhaps become successful farmers or entrepreneurs. It’s entirely sad.

Iimura Takahiko, Media Artist

We went out and saw a set of movies last night by experimental filmmaker, Iimura Takahiko, part of a series of film events sponsored by the Studies and Observation Group in Ann Arbor.

Iimura, now in his late 70’s, was an influential media artist who had worked with Yoko Ono, long before she became famous for breaking up the Beatles and Fluxus artist, Takehisa Kosugi. iimura has written a number of books on media arts and produced countless films.

It had been a really long time since I’d sat and watched films run through a projector. It’s a pleasant experience listening to sound of the projector whirring through it. Having to wait while the projectionist fixes the feed makes it even better.

Mostly, being at the event is like entering some weird counterfactual to my present life. I had originally intended to go to graduate school to pursue cinema studies, with a particular interest in Japanese film. That didn’t happen and as a result I have a rough time keeping up with discussions on the humanities. I will simply have to work harder.

Unfortunately, my favorite of the films shown last night isn’t on YouTube. Maybe Iimura isn’t so keen on making this works known on the internet? That would seem rather odd. Here are some others:

More Reflections on the Nairobi Massacre

Westgate parking garage following the attack. Note baby strollers on the left...

Westgate parking garage following the attack. Note baby strollers on the left…

This one just hit far too close to home. It’s not known precisely, but there might be close to 70 people dead, and nearly 200 injured, and likely hundreds or even thousands more in mourning. Having grown to love Nairobi over the summer and having frequented places like Westgate and enjoyed them doesn’t make it any easier. Being personally connected to people who lost friends in the attack just makes it incredibly sad.

A second attack is likely. I can’t imagine that Al Shabab or any other terror organization is going to let this success lie. This was probably merely a test. And as Jeffrey Gettleman pointed out in the NYT this morning, a second attack will devastate the Kenyan economy.

If there is another major terror attack here, it will be devastating. Kenya will be branded as insecure and expatriates will leave in droves. The billion-dollar tourism industry will crash, and everyone from pilots to safari guides to the maids at the wildlife lodges will be jobless. Tourists eager to see spectacular game and life-changing vistas will go to other African countries, and thousands of Kenyans will go hungry.

I am also thinking of all the research projects that will shutter and move to safer Tanzania, Zambia and Malawi. Though those countries desperately need those projects, it will be a great loss of livelihood to all the capable and dedicated Kenyan researchers, survey workers, staff, drivers and security guards.. and their families. People sometimes become quite cynical about development and research dollars, but even the most uninteresting of projects means food for a family or education for their kids.

As awful as it is to say, I can’t help but reflecting on the political controversies surrounding the use of drone attacks to combat terror groups. Though drone attacks aren’t without their own civilian costs, I can’t help but wishing one of them might have killed the 10-15 individuals who stormed Westgate Mall before they had the chance to shoot toddlers gathered on the roof to make a childrens’ movie.

Al Shabab is a real threat to the world, to Kenyans, and particularly to Somalis. It’s hard to argue that letting them simply do what they like in Somalia in the name of isolationism and vague notions of anti-imperialism would have ever been a good plan, given that this massacre is precisely what they wanted to do. I don’t think there are any easy answers or solutions here, but to do nothing is an entirely misguided solution. Actually, it’s not a solution at all.

Photo by Karim

If a recent Economist article is to be believed, the Westgate attack is merely part of a worldwide trend of increased terror activity in 2013. After reflecting for a while, I realized that terrorists in 2013 are of a completely different generation than those of 2001. The complexities of global terror are well outside my field of expertise, however, so I will refrain from commenting further.

The upside of all this, is that the event may draw Kenyans together as they never have been before. The long lines to donate blood and outpouring of support from everywhere across the country are nothing short of inspiring in a nation as fractured and divided as Kenya. My friend Karim posted some great photographs of Kenyans queuing to give blood and voicing support.

Africa Rising: The Continent Formerly Known as Hopeless

Global malaria deaths to 2010

Global malaria deaths to 2010

Yesterday, I substitute taught two undergraduate classes for a friend of mine in the Department of African Studies. I included the graphic on the right in my presentation. It shoes the yearly trend of malaria deaths in SSA for the years 1990 to 2010.

Now, barring data quality problems (which undoubtably exist), this pattern should be incredibly encouraging. Deaths from one of the biggest killers of children worldwide are finally falling after years of consistent increase. For a person involved in public health, this is a reason to rejoice.

Of course, I already knew this. Standing up in front of a classroom explaining how great this trend is stuck me, however.

I have no idea what students’ views and impressions of Africa are. For those who have been there, it’s pretty safe to assume that their impressions are relatively positive and realistic. Of course, most have not been there. What is impressive to me is how this positive change deviates quite far from traditional narratives of what Africa is about.

Africa is “supposed” to be a hopeless place of endless suffering, with no real means of lifting itself out. Discussions of “overpopulation” are often predicated on the assumption that Africans, their huge families and uncontrollable sexual urges are irresponsibly destroying the earth. This to me, reflects the horribly negative impression that even well meaning liberal Americans hold.

In part, we are to blame. In attempting to generate funds and support for intervention in Africa, we present the bleakest picture imaginable. This is really quite unavoidable. It’s difficult to get people to open their wallets if you show them pictures of Kenyan kids sharing photos on Facebook with their smart phones.

Actually, I’m often under the impression that many people even think that the growth of connectivity and consumerism are negatives, nostalgic for the days when Africans led “traditional” lifestyles. Certainly, there are a few academics, particularly those who work on pastoralist issues, that hold this view (I would argue, though, that “pastoralism” is a false concept created by academics and has little basis in reality).

The image of hopelessness isn’t without merit. The Economist rightly labeled the continent as “hopeless” back in 2000, and rightly so. The outlook for the continent back then was pretty bleak.

The data in 2013 have largely refuted the doomsday claims of 2000, but when presenting the great gains in reducing malaria deaths, decreasing new HIV infections, increasing cel phone connectivity, tripling GDP in a decade, lengthening life and halving infant deaths and a host of other positive indicators, one runs the risk of being an over positive Africa proselytizer. Things almost seem too good to be true. Jeff Sachs article is today’s times seems so positive as to be completely unrealistic.

The trouble here, is that the negatives aren’t all that easy to explain and revolve around problems that are untenable in the short term. Low diversification of the economy and an over-reliance on resources. Government dependence on donor groups to (unsustainably) fund their health systems. The mass quagmire and complexity of Africa’s most corrupt crony governments, to name a few.

The reality can’t be denied, however. Things are looking great for many, many African countries. Our trouble as people interested in Africa, is probably that we try to throw all African countries into a mixed bag as conversations of Africa have traditionally done (do we ever assume that France and Poland are the same? or France and Turkey??). This is, at best misleading and at worst, a disservice to the resilience of so many people in Africa who are doing so many great things.

We are not rich because Africa is poor (and vice versa): Part 1

GDP growth by year, Botswana compared with mean GDP of all SSA countries.

GDP growth by year, Botswana compared with mean GDP of all SSA countries.

A few days ago, I became embroiled in a discussion where someone suggested, to paraphrase, that “the developed world is richer than we need to be because we exploit developing countries.” Of course, the converse here can also be said, “developing countries are poor because we are rich.”

I took serious issue with the statement, tried to make my case, but was unable to convince the participants that Africa’s poor economic performance cannot exclusively be blamed on western exploitation. I consider the statement to be completely uncontroversial. Someone even suggested that I might be a racist (!) after I insisted the point.

So, I make part of my case here, with the caveat that I am going to talk about Africa. It’s debatable whether all “developing countries” can be generalized through Africa, but it’s not debatable that there are a lot of developing countries within Africa.

Going that route, we have to subject any conversation about Africa to a bit of skepticism. Africa’s diversity rivals that of even diverse Europe or Asia. Home to thousands of languages, one of the most diverse ecologies on the planet, a large landmass with a non-uniform distribution of resources, a multitude of governmental systems, histories and peoples, Africa is probably the most difficult to generalize area of the planet.

Not unlike Asia, what the countries and peoples of Africa do share, is a history of warfare, political upheavals and colonization. In contrast to Asia, the economy of the continent as a whole has fared poorly for much of the past 50 years.

I will not develop a deep history of the continent and its economic woes. I will, however, in three posts,

1) dispel the common myth that Western exploitation is exclusively to blame for Africa’s generally poor progress using Botswana as a test case,
2) show that growth in East Asia in the past decades has not resulted in a depressive effect on developed economies, showing that the West does not lose when others gain,
3) finally, argue that the west loses more from a poor Africa than it gains.

So here we go. Though I feel that I will gloss over a lot of points (for space), I also recognize that this can get really long and windy, so forgive me.

Rather than focus on Africa’s failures, which, on the surface, seem entirely deterministic in nature, let’s for a moment focus on its successes. This approach will make sense, since we can learn a lot about failures from the things that people get right.



I want to take us to Botswana. Bostwana was born facing some serious challenges:

1) it’s landlocked so it has trouble trading goods
2) it’s mostly desert so it can’t really grow anything
3) it has hardly any people so it can’t draw on large amounts of human resources.

Botswana was formerly colonized by the Brits, gained independence in 1966 and, at the time, held the dubious distinction as one of the poorest countries on the planet and even Africa (per capita GDP of $70 (current)). At independence, it was in the bottom ten of all economies in the world, had only 12 km of paved roads, and a nearly 80% illiteracy rate.

Worse yet for Botswana, is that is cursed with ample reserves of diamonds and other minerals. But where other resource rich countries such as Angola descended into warfare and economic chaos, Botswana claims consistent growth since the time of independence and is now an upper middle income country with a per capita GDP of nearly $16,800 in 2012, 6000km of paved roads, and a nearly 90% literacy rate. Bostwana’s Gini index is still quite high and it’s been hit hard by HIV, but despite the negatives that every country has, it can still claim to be one of the most successful countries on just about every indicator in all of Africa.

How did Botswana maintain consistent economic growth while (almost) every other country in Africa has approximately the same GDP in 2013 as it did in 1960?

A *really, really* simple list:

1) It reinvested its money. Bostwana leveraged its diamond resources to develop infrastructure and human resources all across the country.
2) It created systems which fortified property rights among its citizens, reducing the likelihood of conflict.
3) It maintained a policy of saving of surpluses to hedge against inherent volatilities in commodity prices.
4) It actively encouraged the development of other sectors, making the assumption that one day, the diamonds will run out.
5) It managed its banking sector to benefit its population. The Bostwanan central bank lends considerable amounts of money at favorable terms to encourage various sectors. It can do this because of 2) (collateral) and 3) (money to lend and decreased risk to the state’s finances) and which supports 4) (diversification of the economy).

Note that all of these are policy decisions. Even if Botswana were receiving unfavorable terms from mining companies, Botswana, with its policies of transparent banking, government reinvestment and the maintenance of savings would still have allowed it to maintain consistent growth over time. Remember, Botswana started from the bottom. ANY gain, even at the most exploitive level of terms, would have been an improvement and would have led to consistent growth.

It’s worth also noting, that, since the Botswanan government is more effective, that it can also leverage better terms with potential investors. It’s also important to note that Botswana’s resource boom didn’t come until the 80’s, when it signed a contract with South African diamond mining giant De Beers. It had more than 14 years before its diamond boom to get it right, and it did.

The moral here?

1) African countries are not doomed to poverty.
2) Pro-development government policies are possible, even in economies which rely on resources.
3) Most salient, even if De Beers had offered the most awful and exploitive of terms, Botswana’s economy would still have grown consistently over the past five decades due to Botswana’s pro-development government.
4) Assuming the successes of Botswana can be extrapolated to the failures of other resource rich countries (like Angola and the DRC), resource exploitation is not the reason African countries’ economies have been (mostly) stagnant for past decades.

I’m convinced that metal is associated with economic growth (you need electricity to have metal) and Botswana has it.

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