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What I’m Reading Now

GodwinThe Fear: Robert Mugabe and the Martyrdom of Zimbabwe It will be a great day for the world when Robert Mugabe dies. His reign over Zimbabwe has been disastrous for the country. Once known as the “breadbasket of Africa,” it is now known as a governmental basket case of seemingly inconceivable proportions.

Godwin travelled to his home country of Zimbabwe at great risk during the 2008 Presidential elections. He documents, in a literary style a pattern of voter intimidation and unfathomed violence by Mugabe and his ZANU-PF party. The profiles of torture victims, some of whom are Parliament members and high profile party members of the opposition MDC party, are gut wrenching. While it’s hard to doubt the lengths that Mugabe would go to to maintain power, the zeal with which his supporters violate basic standards of morality is mind-boggling.

Most interesting is Roy Bennett, a white Zimbabwean former Parliament member who once justifiably physically assaulted another MP during session. Despite being beaten, tortured, humiliated, having his farm ripped violently from him during Mugabe’s land redistribution scheme and despite even having his wife beaten so badly that she lost the child, Bennett fights on for Zimbabwe’s freedom and maintain an amazingly high level of public support. Bennett eventually becomes pegged to be the Minister of Agriculture under a power sharing scheme, directly undercutting Mugabe’s racist narrative which helps keep him in power.

Godwin pulls no punches in “the Fear,” but at times the violence and inhumanity are so extreme as to be somewhat implausible. I don’t doubt the accounts of torture and targeted beatings he lists here. There are so many episodes and the nature of the violence so extreme, that even if the book were 90% lies, the situation would be one of the worst on the planet.

The book, however, is more saddening than revolting. How an educated and well endowed country like Zimbabwe, which was so full of potential following independence could sink to such low depths is not only perplexing, but thoroughly depressing. An excellent read. (BUY HERE)

JunkyardPlanetJunkyard Planet: Travels in the Billion-Dollar Trash Trade A son of a junkyard owner grows up and decides to be a journalist, then goes back to the family scrap business, then writes a fantastic book about the history and current state of the worldwide junk trade.

I remember when recycling became a part of American life, but it was sold as a new phenomenon. Americans were portrayed as living a wasteful existence before recycling campaigns, throwing otherwise useful items into landfills to be buried and forgotten. Minter digs deep into the history of scrap in the US, noting that during the Depression, many people made good livings pulling and sorting trash and selling whatever was useful to whoever was willing to buy it.

The problem, apparently, isn’t in recycling or the willingness of business to reuse goods, but the costs of sorting and resorting, a problem which requires innovation. Minter points out that many innovations in recycling come from the bottom. Those willing to brave the junk heap to find gold are the most motivated to find new and efficient methods of extracting it. Even more challenging is the volatility of commoditiy prices and the sudden changes in demand for specific substances or components. The trade requires a speedy willingness to adapt, a quick sense of what buyers want and a collection of connections to link them to supply. It’s a cutthroat, though exciting business.

Though the domestic recycling and scrapping industry is a multi-billion dollar business. Now, the economics of junk span the entire glove. China, with its large supply of cheap and efficient labor has taken on a good portion of the scrap world. Minter addresses the potential hazards of scrap, much of which is sorted by hand under minimal regulation, but notes that the work is consistent and offers a way out for a lot of rural Chinese already living under squalid conditions. His easy to read assessment of the global junk trade is as much a story of the potential hazards of globalization and first world consumption as it is a celebration of the ingenuity of the bottom to offer market based solutions to the problems of potentially increasing scarcity of certain commodities. (BUY HERE).

Is malaria prevalence really declining?

Malaria study areas. Note the non presence of the DRC and  Angola.. along with all of the other areas that are missing. Do we really know what's going on with malaria?

Malaria study areas. Note the non presence of the DRC and Angola.. along with all of the other areas that are missing. Do we really know what’s going on with malaria?

The development community (and the world) has been celebrating dramatic and unprecedented reductions in the number of malaria cases around the world throughout the past decade and a half. Billions of dollars have been thrown at the disease, which is a major killer of children and an incredible hindrance to development.

A new study which just appeared in Malaria Journal, however, calls this optimism into question.

This review presents two central arguments: (i) that empirical studies measuring change are biased towards low transmission settings and not necessarily representative of high-endemic Africa where declines will be hardest-won; and (ii) that current modelled estimates of broad scale intervention impact are inadequate and now need to be augmented by detailed measurements of change across the diversity of African transmission settings.

So, our ability to accurately determine whether transmission intensity has declined is hampered by the fact that most studies of the disease occur in areas of low transmission. This would make sense. It is much easier for us to evaluate the malaria situation in Kenyan context than in the Democratic Republic of Congo due to availability of surveillance infrastructure, official mechanisms which allow research projects to move forward, and security issues.

The obvious problem with this, is the relationship of governance, economy an instability to malaria itself. People in the poorest countries are at the highest risk for malaria and people in the poorest parts of the poorest countries are at the highest risk of all. The trouble is, despite being the populations we are most concerned about, they are the hardest to reach, and the hardest to help.

Worse yet, the estimates of malaria prevalence found in a number of studies were considerably lower than estimates for the entire African continent.

The combined study area represented by measurements of change was 3.6 million km2 (Figure 1), approximately 16% of the area of Africa at any risk of malaria [9]. The level of endemicity within these studied areas (mean PfPR2-10 = 16%) was systematically lower than across the continent as a whole (mean PfPR2-10 = 31%) (Figure 2). While 40% of endemic Africa experienced ‘high-endemic’ transmission in 2010 (PfPR2-10 in excess of 40%) [9], only 9% of the studied areas were from these high transmission settings.

This is a huge issue and one that shouldn’t be limited to malaria. While it is helpful to hear good news of malaria declines in formerly afflicted areas, we need to be careful about overstating the impact of interventions. Funding for malaria projects such as the distribution of insecticide treated bed nets was incredibly high throughout the 00’s but it is unlikely that trend will continue. Offering an positive picture can show that our efforts are valuable, but might also lead policy makers and donors to suggest that money be put toward other goals. If Sri Lanka is any indication, where malaria was nearly eliminated at one time but experienced a rapid and devastating resurgence, even a brief relaxation of malaria control efforts could erase current gains completely.

Malaria might have determined the economic trajectory of the world…. through institutions

SettlersIt’s an old paper, but I just came across The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation
by Daron Acemoglu, Simon Johnson and James A. Robinson, originally published in the The American Economic Review back in 2001.

They take rough data of settler deaths back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and plot them against the GDP of several countries from 1995. I’ve included the plot on the right. What they found was that a higher number of European settler deaths was associated with a long term decline in economic output.

Settling in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was a dangerous business, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and less so in what is now the United States, New Zealand and Australia. Malaria and yellow fever were responsible for killing up to 100% of groups brave enough to attempt the journey.

Acemoglu, et al.’s argument is as follows:

1. There were different types of colonization policies which created different sets of institutions. At one extreme, European powers set up “extractive states,” exemplified by the Belgian colonization of the Congo. These institutions did not introduce much protection for private property, nor did they provide checks and balances against government expropriation. In fact, the main purpose of the extractive state was to transfer as much of the resources of the colony to the colonizer. At the other extreme, many Europeans migrated and settled in a number of colonies, creating what the historian Alfred Crosby (1986) calls “Neo-Europes.” The settlers tried to replicated European institutions, with strong emphasis on private property and checks against government power. Primary examples of this include Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the United States.
2. The colonization strategy was influenced by the feasibility of settlements. In places where the disease environment was not favorable to European settlement, the cards were stacked against the creation of Neo-Europes, and the formation of the extractive state was more likely.
3. The colonial state and institutions persisted even after independence.

They argue that the disease environment determined the nature of settlements, which determine the nature of institutions which, in term, determined the economic trajectory of a country.

Interestingly, they control for all of the things that one might control for, such as distance from the equator and the percentage of inhabitants that were European, being landlocked and the ruling power, ruling out the effect of some obvious potential influences. Property rights, a solid judiciary and limits on political power in the colonies and upon independence, they argue, had a greater effect on long term GDP, and the development of those institutions was enabled or inhibited by early settler mortality.

It’s a fairly compelling argument, though not without its critics.

A few gems from the paper interested me. One, the return on investment in the British colonies during the nineteenth century was a whopping 25%, far more than one could have expected domestically. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, this dropped so that returns on colonial and domestic investments were the same.

I found (finally!) a reference to indicate the willful choosing of high altitude and thus less malarious areas for colonial settlements. Note that in Europe and the US, the location of cities is often along river ways and sea sides, where in Africa large cities tend to be placed inland (with some exceptions). There has been no industrial revolution in Africa and little regional trade (a condition which persists to this day) so that cities along water based shipping routes are not necessary. Extraction in Africa was largely done by rail, further alleviating the need to be close to rivers.

Egyptian instability is crushing Kenya’s economy

Coffee prices since 2000

Coffee prices since 2000

One of the problems with African economies, is that they tend to rely on receiving export revenues from just a few items. Some economies, like Nigeria and Angola, rely on oil. Oil economies are expecially problematic as the extraction process creates very few jobs, and revenues tend to flow directly into the pockets of corrupt politicians and middle men.

Kenya, lacking mineral or oil resources, is an agricultural economy. Specifically, they are really good at growing tea, and, to a lesser extent, coffee. This helps explain why Kenya’s developmental trajectory has been far more successful than that of other economies. Tea production is labor intensive and often depends on small and mid-sized farms which employ lots of people. Instead of money flowing in the pockets of the corrupt, who often squirrel it away in overseas accounts, money goes directly in the pockets of growers.

Kenya is the UK’s biggest tea supplier, but Egypt buys more tea by volume from Kenya than any other country. A piece in Think Africa Press today wrote on the dual problem of falling demand for tea from Egypt due to prolonged unrest, and that of falling commodity prices worldwide.

The cause of the farmers’ problems lies far to the north of the cool, tea-covered slopes of the Aberdares, in the heat of Cairo and the continuing fallout from the Arab Spring. In 2010, the last year before the uprising in Egypt, Kenya supplied the tea-obsessed UK with around half of its tea, but Egypt was the the single largest destination for Kenyan tea exports, buying nearly a fifth of what the factories around Nyeri produce. With the overthrow of President Mohammed Morsi in July 2013 and the ongoing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood causing continued political instability, demand has plummeted and prices have gone with them.

“It’s a supply and demand issue,” says Chai Kiarie, Field Services Manager at Gitugi Tea Factory. “We produced more tea this year, but we still made nearly $2 million less than we did last year. With these problems abroad, the demand just isn’t there.”

This isn’t an isolated problem. Coffee prices, once riding high on a boom in commodity prices have been steadily falling since the financial collapse. The commodity boom was a winning sitaution for African economies and helped drive much of the rapid growth seen throughout the 00’s. Regulation has started curbing speculative practices that drove the increases, removing a source of destructive volatility which drove up food prices in developing countries, but has also decreased badly needed foreign exchange revenues.

I visited a few farms the last time I was in Kenya. Farmers aren’t waiting around for subsidies to help pull them out of a potential mess. All of the farmers I spoke with are looking for new ways to diversify their operations and meet potentially lucrative world wide demand for competitive products. All of them wanted to think of ways to increase productivity while decreasing the cost of inputs. The pressures from falling tea demand could help push them to find ways to innovate and increase both revenues and stability.

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.


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