Tag Archive | African governments

Dancing in the Gambia

Since I’ve arrived here in the Gambia, I’ve been searching for music. Unfortunately, I’ve come up dry every night. Last Thursday, I heard music from behind the research compound, but was too tired to pursue it and, really, you can never be sure. Sometimes things sound cool through the echoes, but you might follow the sounds only to find Kenny Rogers being played for tourists.

Last night, I heard it again, and decided to chance it. It was so loud and chaotic, it sound like it might be a live band. I leave tomorrow, so this is my only chance.

I followed the sounds out to the back of the compound and found a group of old ladies gathered on plastic chairs around a giant stack of speakers, blaring out some kind of ultra hard beats. A kid with a laptop was DJing but it looked like people were just arriving. The scene was bizarre. Old ladies and grandkids politely chilling out to heavy beats through a wall of speakers.

I decided to go back later. I was wary. It could be some religious thing. It’s Islam here, but still…

When I went back, it was total chaos. This is definitely NOT a religious event (in the Abrahamic sense) and most certainly NOT a tourist event.

More people had arrived and were standing in a circle watching young dude do impossibly athletic dances while an old man MC egged them on and called other people to join. I had heard stories of dancing in West Africa and I have to say the stories are absolutely true. The young guys were the craziest, but kids, old ladies, women in fancy dresses and old men all got in the circle and showed their moves off and every time, people would go nuts with approval.

All to an energetic soundtrack that would get the cops out in a second in the US. I had never seen anything like it.

At one point, a blindfolded guy dressed as a woman comes out hold a dead chicken in one hand and money in the other. He does his chicken dance over a money pot and starts handing out notes to whomever is brave enough to get close to him. After the money runs out, he starts doing this thing where he leans over just barely touching the ground, seemingly suspended in air. Eventually, he disappears and returns out with a giant cinder block balanced on his back and does the same thing again. I have no idea what it was about but it’s clear that there’s order to this chaos.

After people start showing their moves again, a guy tries to get me to go into the circle. I’m like “no way.” I’m not going to be that bad dancing white guy. Some kids are egging me on trying to show me moves and cheering and laughing when ever I try. I should have tried harder. Music is a wonderfully great thing.

Unfortunately, I didn’t have a camera on me, but I did get an audio recording and a couple of pictures with my cell phone. I’m am most certainly coming back to West Africa.

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Does the environment cause poverty?

SESKwaleAfrican countries are blessed with ample cropland and resources, but suffer from crippling and unforgivable levels of poverty, have some of the shortest lifespans on the planet and the highest rates of infant mortality in the world. Meanwhile, Japan, Korea, Sweden, Switzerland and Singapore are wholly the opposite, yet mostly lacking in everything that Africa has. Clearly, the picture is more complicated than merely having access to a natural resources.

However, within countries, the picture might be different. African countries are complex and diverse places. Poverty is often confined to the most unproductive regions, areas with poor soils, poor rainfalls or dangerous terrains.

I was just working with some socio-economic data from one of our field sites, and noticed some interesting patterns (note the map up top). In Kwale, a small area along the Coast, socio-economic levels vary widely, but neighbors tend to be like neighbors and patterns of socio-economic clustering emerge.

Note that the poorest of the poor are concentrated to an area in the middle, which I know to be extremely dry, difficult to get to, difficult to farm and generally tough to live in.

I tried to see if socio-economic status (as measured through a composite material wealth index a la Filmer and Pritchett but using multiple correspondence analysis rather than PCA) was related to any environmental variables that I might have data for.

I fit a generalized additive model using the continuous measure of of wealth from the MCA as an outcome. Knowing that very few things in nature or human societies are linear, I also applied smoothing to the predictors to relax these assumptions. The results can be seen in the plot at the bottom.

A few interesting things came out. While it is hard to tell much about the poorest of the poor, we can tell something about the most wealthy. The richest in this poor area, tend to live in areas with the richest vegetation (possibly representing water), a high altitude (low temperature), high relief (no standing water) and in locations distant from a wildlife reserve (far from annoying and dangerous wildlife).

I’m not sure the wildlife reserve is meaningful (unless the reserve was an area undesirable for human habitation to begin with), but the others might be and represent a trend seen in other Sub-Saharan contexts. Areas without malarious swamps and ample farm land tend to do the best. Central Province, one of the most developed areas of Kenya, would be an example.

But the question has to be, does a harsh environment doom people to poverty, or do people self shuffle into and compete for access to more favorable areas? Is environmentally determined poverty (or wealth) an accident of birth, or the result of competitive selection?

Alright, back to work. Oh wait, this is my work. Well….

Results of GAM model of SES in Kwale. Y axis is the continuous measure of socio-economic status.

Results of GAM model of SES in Kwale. Y axis is the continuous measure of socio-economic status.

What I’m reading now March 23, 2014

Well, it should really be, what I was reading two weeks ago, but… details, details….

TOEThe Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor Generally speaking, I like Bill Easterly’s views on aid and development. Easterly questions traditional models of development, arguing that top down strategies which rely on purely technical solutions rarely work, and often do more harm than good. Here, Easterly again makes the argument that the development world is full of bumbling technocrats, who fail to see the simplicity of the real problem of African development.

Note, however, that I do not share the views of uninformed cynics, which laugh at the “folly of development” and the evils of foreign aid indiscriminately. Easterly is often propped up by cynical opponents of foreign aid as a spokesperson for why we shouldn’t be given money to poor people, or by Ron Paul style non-interventionists who are quick to dismiss anything the United States does outside it’s borders, not to suggest at all that the United States alone is responsible for development. To me, and call me stupid, the issue is far too complex to boil down to a black and white view of a few self satisfied cynics. Debates over what works and what doesn’t work in development are far more interesting to me than debates of whether development is “good” or “bad.” But… I digress…

Easterly argues that what’s missing from the picture is the guarantee of true democratic rights, that is, legal restrictions on the powers of government. The reason democracy is faulty in Africa, is that most African governments equate democracy with merely having elections, when, in fact, democracy is a function of checks on the ability of government to stifle opposition and the guarantee that citizens are fully protected under the law. He is absolutely right. The structures of African governments (in general) were initially constructed to support a colonial model, which guaranteed that power would be held by a privileged (white) few. However, post-independence, few governments have made substantive changes to the ways in which they govern, despite having had, in most cases, nearly 50 years to do so. Easterly lays blame with development organizations, which offer highly technical solutions to basic problems, but are weak-kneed in demanding that governments work to guarantee basic rights to their citizens.

While I agree that democracy is about more than just having elections, and agree that basic rights must be guaranteed in order to have a free state, I wonder if he gets so caught up in the grand academic thought process, and misses some of the details. His treatment of Asia is quite limited, for example. There, most governments achieved their developmental goals without guaranteeing the rights of citizens and sometime achieved them under incredibly authoritarian and sometimes brutal one party systems. While I don’t think that the end of development is worth the means of authoritarian brutality, it must be pointed out that many governments (for example, South Korea and Taiwan) only loosened their grip after they had an educated middle class which demanded increased freedoms and rights (see the work of Ha-Joong Chang and Joe Stiglitz for a reasonable treatment of the subject). While Africa and Asia are two very different places, any discussion of development has to include both.

Easterly makes me feel good, though, in his preface. Mentioning anywhere that markets are good things in a discussion of development will have one branded as a rabid right winger, which is just a pathetically myopic view (or merely a by-product of total ignorance). The tired argument of market vs state which dominates political discussions in the US (and elsewhere) is merely a distraction from the real argument we should be having, which is over rights vs. non-rights. Are rights being protected or not? Is there proper representation or not? You can have any type of free market system you like or even a heavy welfare state, but if the guarantee of basic rights to free speech, assembly, expression and representation aren’t there, you don’t have a democracy and you probably don’t have continued development of the type that matters most.

But, I’m not a political scientist, and could easily rant on aimlessly for hours to no end whatsoever.

Politics in West Africa – Sir Arthur Lewis (1965) – Sir Arthur Lewis was a Nobel Prize winning economist from St. Lucia. He wrote this fantastic little book on the state of West African politics following independence in 1965. It’s just as relevant now as it was back then. His scathing criticism of authoritarian African governments and the multitude of missed opportunities for development for African countries were both timely and eerily prophetic. I’m particularly drawn to his criticism of viewing Africa through a Marxist lens, pointing out that, outside of a few foreign corporations, there are few true capitalists and that the plentiful nature of land compromises efforts to commodify it, and thus create a European style, class based system. He also points out the problems with the one party state, pointing out that the one party state was often created by force following independence, rather than consensus. In fact, the nature of the independence movements themselves compromised the creation of true constitutional democracies, which guarantee the rights of the minority. Independence movements were created to topple minority rule. Great book.

ATSAgainst the State: Politics and Social Protest in Japans I can’t put this book down. An excellent account of the fight to stop the building of Narita airport in the 1960’s, the implications of which were more than merely a struggle of some farmers unwilling to part with land. The struggle for Sanrizuka was a culmination of the coalescence of a wide variety of actors, many of which had little in common ideologically, reacting to an ever disconnected state. Apter rightly points out that despite strict rules on social behavior and self-control, Japan’s history is filled with examples of social change brought about not through discussion, but incredible and coordinated violence.

VOFCThe Violence of Financial Capitalism (Semiotext(e) / Intervention Series) I bought this book thinking it might be an interesting perspective on the financial crash and the events which followed it. I was somehow let down to find that the book didn’t really live up to it’s striking title. Marazzi views the crash as not an aberration, but rather another aspect of capital accumulation by financial elites, a tool of undermining labor and a method of creating conditions of social change which benefits a minority of privileged individuals. While I don’t really argue that these things didn’t (aren’t) occurring, the treatment of the subject was far too academic and disconnected for me to get behind. It is possible that I’m just not well informed on the particular academic perspective of this author. I will have to read it again.

The next Millennium Development Goal: Justice

I was just reading a piece by Mo Ibrahim, the Sudanese/Brit mogul who transformed the African continent by pioneering access to cell technology in developing countries and then moved on to be an major voice for good governance.

As the debate on the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals unfolds at the United Nations this year, it is my fervent hope that African governments will endorse the inclusion within these goals of measurable targets for access to justice. To be sure, the dominant themes that are emerging in the UN discussions – jobs, economic growth, infrastructure development, and poverty reduction – are all still desperately needed across the continent. But the rule of law is a fundamental principle that does more than promote economic growth, and it would be a serious mistake not to include it in the SDG agenda.

Uhh… yeah? For all of the traditional developmental talk that went into the original UN MDGs, there was little mention of demanding that countries install formal and reliable legal protections for their citizens. In fact, the MDG’s asked very little of governments at all, offering benchmarks and encouraging funding for projects, but avoiding the bear of requiring that countries get their political houses in order.

Though the MDG’s made sense at the time, they were inherently paternalistic and offered little to protect the welfare of those whose sad condition was a result of a lack of reliable political representation and legal protection. Amartya Sen famously pointed out in the late 90’s that famines do not occur in functioning democracies with legal protections for free expression, underscoring the role that political development can play in protecting the public health. The new SDG’s would do well to recognize that human development cannot occur simply by throwing pharmaceuticals and money at the problem.

Though the failure of the original MDGs to address matters of broad policy can’t be divorced from the neoliberal context which informed them, it’s hard to say that their weak nature wasn’t wholly unreasonable. The 80’s and 90’s were a time of chaos and decay and a universal approach which bypassed bigger issues of institutional development was likely the only way forward. However, in 2014, the Sustainable Development Goals (the replacement for the MDG’s) will have to address issues of legal and fiscal policy along with, as I’ve repeatedly suggested, encouraging private sector business development.

The law is the basis upon which all other policy stands. Without an equitable and dependable foundation, issues of land rights, distribution and provision of services and citizen representation will be impossible to rectify.

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