Category Archives: Africa

Lagos la Vida Loca

Traffic jams, Lagos

By next year, more than half the world’s population will for the first time in history be living in cities. Current’s Mariana van Zeller tours Lagos, Nigeria, the world’s fastest-growing “Megacity”, creating a thought-provoking vision of one of Africa’s most difficult cities.

Don’t miss it.

The Economist: missing the point, once again…

Shooting Pencils At Target @ JupiterImagesThe Economist reviews this week Forces for Good, a new book about exceptional NGOs, which according to the weekly are too few and rare to be worthy of the illustrious paper’s attention. The authors, Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, surveyed thousands of (US) nonprofits, and finally concentrated their attention on a sample of 12, which they believe have achieved the highest levels of impact.

These included America’s Second Harvest, Habitat for Humanity and – much to the Economist’s delight – the notoriously right-wing Heritage Foundation, a proof that this was a “serious piece of research, not the usual sentimental tosh that gets written about left-leaning NGOs” [sic!].

The Economist once again shows its contempt towards the NGO sector and its lack of understanding of its internal diversity. Kicking off with a series of scathing (and unreferenced) remarks about social enterprises, which seem to reduce the debate to a pathetic comparison between the successes of Google and those of the Grameen Bank (apples and oranges, anyone?), it then sings the praises of the 12 selected nonprofits for their excellent achievements (data, anyone?). The fact that social enterprises and nonprofits might not actually be one and the same thing, or that being based (as the 12 selected organisations are) in the US as opposed to Bangladesh might offer considerable advantages to – for example – making the most of market forces does not seem to be a relevant piece of information for the illustrious weekly.

The Economist is not alone in displaying a lack of understanding towards the complexities of the third sector, and of social enterprises in particular. Roger L. Martin & Sally Osberg – echoing Muhammad Yunus – have already made a plea on the pages of the Stanford Social Innovation Review for strengthening the definition of social entrepreneurship [PDF], but definitions are not enough when we are facing the challenges of applying them to different cultural contexts. We might reach an agreement on what a social enterprise might be in the US (therefore what parameters we can adopt to evaluate its success), but this does not mean we can apply this model to the whole world.

Aside from these important theoretical considerations, “where is the social-entrepreneurial equivalent of a for-profit start-up like Google or Microsoft […]? where is the evidence of massive social change?” – asks an irritated Economist.

Kick Start Kenya - oilseed pressThe answer is Kick-Start, a Kenya-based organisation that develops and promotes technologies that can be used by dynamic entrepreneurs to establish and run profitable small scale enterprises. As reviewed by the MIT’s Innovations journal, Kick-Start has started 50,000 new businesses, generating $52 million a year in new profits and wages, and is directly responsible for a 0.6% increase of Kenya’s GDP. See a good video by the Schwab Foundation on Kick-Start’s successful water pump here.

Now, can someone at the Economist more interested in facts than in rhetorical preaching let me know if Google can be said to have had a comparatively similar impact on the US economy and on its social needs?

My heart’s with Ethan

 Chris Jordan, Cell Phones, 2007 (courtesy: http://www.chrisjordan.com/)

Ethan Zuckerman remains my No. 1 favourite blogger of all times, and given how much I struggle to update GlobaLab at least 2-3 times a week, while trying to work and retain a decent social life, I am in awe at his amazing prolificacy.

A quick browse at his last few entries would be enough to feed an average person’s brain for 6 months. Over the last few days, he’s been busy reporting from the PopTech conference, which he describes as “the annual three-day gathering of scientists, inventors, geeks, philosophers and thinkers in coastal Maine“. The event is a catwalk for amazing projects and ideas that are truly transforming the world. If you haven’t followed the event, you can read Ethan’s posts on some of the most interesting presentations, including (but there are more):

It took me good part of the day to read them all, and there are many more celebrity bloggers who reported from the event, including BoingBoing, Next Billion, and a few (but not many) non-English speaking bloggers.

If this isn’t enough for you, check out Ethan’s earlier post about a new initiative to fight counterfeit pharmaceuticals in Ghana (hopefully soon the whole of Africa), mPedigree, which will use mobile phones to track drugs from their original producers all the way to the pharmacy shelves, allowing each buyer in the chain to ensure that they’re dealing with a legitimate product. Or check out the entry in which he takes a good shot at unravelling the complex situation in Somalia, in response to the Onion’s eye-opening video Situation in Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex, a must see for all Africanists:

In The Know: Situation In Nigeria Seems Pretty Complex

What can I say? Ethan, you are my personal hero!!!

Coeur of darkness

 Bozize, Chirac, BFFE

The Independent’s Johann Hari writes a long overdue report on France’s secret involvement in the Central African Republic, the most forgotten and under-reported country of Africa.

This is classical, old-fashioned war-reporting and political journalism, an uncompromising indictment of France’s foreign policy in Central Africa (and Africa more generally), and a very uncomfortable read for those who still think *we* are the good ones, and *they* are the underdeveloped ones. Francewatcher will be pleased…

Down at the (social) market

Dude, do I look concerned enough?

The IHT writes about the current wave of scepticism over social marketing, a market-inspired strategy to get the poor to start using mosquito nets by asking them to pay a minimum price for them, which the WHO’s director Dr. Arata Kochi bluntly describes as a pointless approach to reach the most vulnerable.

Clearly, no one has informed of such policy-shift Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, who’ve been visiting Tanzanian hospitals implementing government-backed and USAID-funded net distribution facilities adopting a social marketing strategy, allegedly very successfully.

Beyond Good Intentions

Via Natasha Hanshaw’s blog, Exploring Development, I found out about Tori and Eric’s project ‘Beyond Good Intentions‘, a documentary film about inspiring stories of international aid. Here’s the trailer.

And from their website, an outline of their project:

We are currently living in an age where endemic poverty, natural disasters, and war are defining factors in the lives of much of the world’s population. However, we are also living in an age of extreme generosity in which the desire to help others who are less fortunate is quite strong. Perhaps even you have been compelled to donate your time or money to help people in remote parts of the globe. But have your good intentions been enough to produce effective changes for those who need it most?

We are two filmmakers who are embarking on the journey of a lifetime to look beyond good intentions to discover what really works in international aid.

Our documentary film is taking us around the world to ten different countries over the course of a year including Colombia, Peru, Argentina, India, Cambodia, Laos, Indonesia, Madagascar, Mozambique, and South Africa. We are actively seeking out effective examples of international aid and inspirational humanitarians who are making the world a better place through their work.

Our film will document a remarkable journey of discovery as we attempt to answer the question, “What really works in international aid?” We are ready to be inspired. Are you?

Tori Hogan, co-founder of Beyond Good Intentions, spent the last three months of 2006 filming and interviewing aid organizations and inspirational individuals in Colombia, Peru and Argentina. The trailer is a rough cut of this filming and an introduction to the documentary.”

The end of Coca-Cola?

Arabic Coca Cola 

Dana Milbank writes a scathing report about yesterday’s press conference by the Sudanese ambassador to the US in response to President Bush’s new sanctions against his country, criticised as overdue by Human Rights Watch:

A dozen reporters, and a similar number of Sudanese Embassy officials, watched the ambassador for an hour as he shouted into the microphone and delivered a circular and rambling complaint about the injustice of U.S. sanctions. His fingers, fists and arms flew through the air, exposing the flashy gold watch on his wrist.

Dana goes on to dismiss the laughable idea that Sudan might halt its exports of gum arabic, hence depriving the world of a crucial component in the production of Coca-Cola:

What’s more, the good and peaceful leaders of Sudan were prepared to retaliate massively: they would cut off shipments of the emulsifier gum arabic, thereby depriving the world of cola. “I want you to know that the gum arabic which runs all the soft drinks all over the world, including the United States, mainly 80 percent is imported from my country,” the ambassador said after raising a bottle of Coca-Cola. A reporter asked if Sudan was threatening to “stop the export of gum arabic and bring down the Western world.” – “I can stop that gum arabic and all of us will have lost this,” Khartoum Karl warned anew, beckoning to the Coke bottle. “But I don’t want to go that way.”

Dana would probably laugh less if he realised that gum arabic is indeed a prime export of Sudan, which was responsible for 56% of the $90 million-worth world trade in 2000. The rest came from Chad and Nigeria, two countries which cannot be said to be the most peaceful in the world, and where production can be seriously hampered by local political upheavals and conflict too.

It is unlikely that Sudan will halt production altogether, since millions of its citizens depend directly or indirectly on this product. But there is no reason why we shouldn’t expect Sudan to retaliate against the US by dramatically increasing the price of the product, in very much the same fashion as OPEC did in 1973 thanks to its monopoly on oil production. Moreover, the protracted conflict in Darfur – one of the prime spots for the cultivation of gum arabic – is already seriously affecting exports, and price increases are a realistic expectation.

Since no one really knows the exact formula of Coca-Cola, except for its two top executives, Coke aficionados might rest in peace for the time being, especially since Wikipedia does not list gum arabic as one of the suspected ingredients. But should gum arabic be present in even little quantities – like in most soft drinks – expect to pay quite a lot more for your fizzy drink in the near future.

Sachs on China’s lessons for the World Bank

Posters decorating Beijing during the China-Africa summit 2007

Jeffrey Sachs depicts a clear and concise picture of why the World Bank has got it all wrong and why China is getting it all right in Africa on the Guardian’s Comment is Free. He is mostly right – structural adjustment programmes have devastated African economies and if anything caused a surge in that very corruption that the World Bank blames as the cause of its failures.

Yet, one thing Jeffrey doesn’t quite explain is why China is acting like a Samaritan in Africa, dispensing sound advice alongside investment in infrastructures. Still, an excellent read, which I am reproducing below.

China’s lessons for the World Bank
As the World Bank clings to its free-market ideology, China is providing more practical help for developing countries.

The China Daily recently ran a front-page story recounting how Paul Wolfowitz used threats and vulgarities to pressure senior World Bank staff. The newspaper noted that Wolfowitz sounded like a character out of the mafia television show The Sopranos. At the same time, while the Wolfowitz scandal unfolded, China was playing host to the Africa Development Bank (ADB), which held its board meeting in Shanghai. This is a vivid metaphor for today’s world: while the World Bank is caught up in corruption and controversy, China skilfully raises its geopolitical profile in the developing world.China’s rising power is, of course, based heavily on its remarkable economic success. The ADB meeting took place in the Pudong district, Shanghai’s most remarkable development site. From largely unused land a generation ago, Pudong has become a booming centre of skyscrapers, luxury hotels, parks, industry, and vast stretches of apartment buildings. Shanghai’s overall economy is currently growing at around 13% per year, thus doubling in size every five or six years. Everywhere there are startups, innovations, and young entrepreneurs hungry for profits.I had the chance to participate in high-level meetings between Chinese and African officials at the ADB meetings. The advice that the African leaders received from their Chinese counterparts was sound, and much more practical than what they typically get from the World Bank.

Chinese officials stressed the crucial role of public investments, especially in agriculture and infrastructure, to lay the basis for private-sector-led growth. In a hungry and poor rural economy, as China was in the 1970s and as most of Africa is today, a key starting point is to raise farm productivity. Peasant farmers need the benefits of fertiliser, irrigation, and high-yield seeds, all of which were a core part of China’s economic takeoff.

Two other critical investments are also needed: roads and electricity, without which there cannot be a modern economy. Farmers might be able to increase their output, but it won’t be able to reach the cities, and the cities won’t be able to provide the countryside with inputs. The officials stressed how the government has taken pains to ensure that the power grid and transportation network reaches every village in China.

Of course, the African leaders were most appreciative of the next message: China is prepared to help Africa in substantial ways in agriculture, roads, power, health, and education. And the African leaders already know that this is not an empty boast. All over Africa, China is financing and constructing basic infrastructure. During the meeting, the Chinese leaders emphasised their readiness to support agricultural research as well. They described new high-yield rice varieties, which they are prepared to share with their African counterparts.

All of this illustrates what is wrong with the World Bank, even aside from Wolfowitz’s failed leadership. Unlike the Chinese, the bank has too often forgotten the most basic lessons of development, preferring to lecture the poor and force them to privatise basic infrastructure, rather than to help the poor to invest in infrastructure and other crucial sectors.

The bank’s failures began in the early 1980s, when, under the ideological sway of President Ronald Reagan and prime minister Margaret Thatcher, it tried to get Africa and other poor regions to cut back or close down government investments and services. For 25 years, the bank tried to get governments out of agriculture, leaving impoverished peasants to fend for themselves. The result has been a disaster in Africa, with farm productivity stagnant for decades. The bank also pushed for privatisation of national health systems, water utilities, and road and power networks, and grossly underfinanced these critical sectors.

This extreme free-market ideology, also called “structural adjustment”, went against the practical lessons of development successes in China and the rest of Asia. Practical development strategy recognises that public investments – in agriculture, health, education, and infrastructure – are necessary complements to private investments. The World Bank has instead wrongly seen such vital public investments as an enemy of private-sector development.

Whenever the bank’s extreme free-market ideology failed, it has blamed the poor for corruption, mismanagement, or lack of initiative. This was Wolfowitz’s approach, too. Instead of focusing the bank’s attention on helping the poorest countries to improve their infrastructure, he launched a crusade against corruption. Ironically, of course, his stance became untenable when his own misdeeds came to light. The bank can regain its relevance only if it becomes practical once again, by returning its focus to financing public investments in priority sectors, just as the Chinese leadership is prepared to do.

The good news is that African governments are getting the message on how to spur economic growth, and are also getting crucial help from China and other partners that are less wedded to extreme free-market ideology than the World Bank. Many African governments at the Shanghai meeting declared their intention to act boldly, by investing in infrastructure, agricultural modernisation, public health, and education.

The Wolfowitz debacle should be a wake-up call to the World Bank: it must no longer be controlled by ideology. If that happens, the bank can still do justice to the bold vision of a world of shared prosperity that prompted its creation after the second world war.

Chinese troops to Africa

Ornate gable ends of entrance to Chinese army barracks in Longzhou. 

The Washington Post writes about the decision by the Chinese Foreign Ministry to send a military engineering unit to help strengthen the overtaxed African Union peacekeeping force in Darfur:

[extract]

In recent weeks, the Darfur crisis has become particularly sensitive in China because of suggestions in the United States and Europe that people should boycott the 2008 Beijing Olympics to demonstrate opposition to Chinese policies in Sudan. China, which has deep economic and military ties there, has been widely criticized for failing to bring strong pressure on the government to persuade it to accept a large force of U.N. peacekeepers in Darfur.

The ties include large oil purchases and extensive arms sales, which the human rights group Amnesty International charged recently have been continuing despite U.N. calls for an embargo. Jiang, the Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, declined to respond to questions about the Amnesty charges. But she said China’s arms sales to Sudan are strictly controlled, include only conventional weapons and do not violate U.N. regulations.

What implications for a Chinese military presence in Africa?

Africa – April 2007 Round-Up

shoe-shine kids (courtesy: www.nmnh.si.edu)

A little late, and not really having done my homework, but here are some stories that caught my eye during April in the African blogosphere…

  • The ever-interesting Ethan Zuckerman shares a paper he has written about social activism and mobile technology in the developing world. A must-read for anyone interested in the new technological frontiers of global civil society – also check MobileActive.org – cellphones for civic engagement. He also has a beautiful piece on where he works these days. A must-read for all of us global souls, especially when we are stuck in our homes… (ok, this hasn’t got much to do with Africa per se, but I still liked it…!)
  • Africa is gearing up to produce its own essential drugs, reducing reliance on the West for lifesaving medicines for disease such as malaria and tuberculosis, the African Union said Wednesday – reports Yahoo News. This is surely good news for those fighting against the current TRIPS agreement, but the problems of access, distribution and resources for medical R&D remain. Who is going to pay the bill? And how long will it take before the ineffective AU and the oft-too corrupt African bureaucracies get their act together to share the productivity burdens? Maybe there is scope for a well managed and restricted alliance with private sector providers, like in the case of ASAQ?
  • The Pope steps into the debate on Africa deploring the plundering of its resources. A direct attack against the West and China, or rebuke of African leaders? I am afraid I’ll have to wait for someone else to read it…
  • Greg Houle reviews an article by the New Yorker’s Philip Gourevitch about Robert Mugabe and Zimbabwe’s current situation, and like Philip asks himself: how much more contempt by their leaders will Zimbabweans have to endure? Quite a lot, it seems…
  • Commenting on a recent UNDP report (.pdf), Sociolingo wonders: Why Is Africa Constrained from Spending Official Development Assistance? Answer: because the IMF is still obsessed with safeguarding macro-economic stability at the price of expansionary economic policies and reaching the Millennium Development Goals. Fair enough, it’s their job to do so, but why is everyone else – who (according to Rodrik) should have learnt the lessons from the 1990s (.pdf) – letting them do it? Where are the bilateral donors? And especially the World Bank?
  • And finally, my mate Paul mulls over fair trade, Ethiopian coffee growers, Starbucks and the recently-launched Light Years IP website, an initiative of the Coffee Trademarking and Licensing Project, which aims to demonstrate how IP tools can help poor countries capture intangible value of their products to increase and secure export income. Well worth keeping an eye on…