Tag Archive | Africa

Do politicians cause famines?

So many great, honest quotes from John Githongo, who works on good governance in Kenya, from a November 2012 interview with the Economist about corruption in Kenya (that I wish I’d seen earlier but is still worth sharing):

A drought is made by God, a famine is made by man. Drought is big money for the corrupt elite—because it gives you the opportunity to import maize and other staples into the country and make a killing off of the backs of hungry people.

The key implication from his words is that imported maize (corn) and other crops are actually cheaper by weight than crops grown locally in Kenya, because agriculture (including fertilizers, pesticides, and good seeds) is often more subsidized in the US, the EU, and in other developed countries than in Kenya. As a result, political elites can make large profits fairly easily, in the name of helping people. This is more than just a problem of Kenyan political corruption, and probably wouldn’t change even if the level of corruption went down.

Kenya is more corrupt than other African countries. It’s our history. At independence, the state that emerged was a colonial one in many respects – small, aggressive, violent and engineered to serve the interests of only a small elite. Corruption can create an elite which creates a system of patronage that in itself produces a level of stability, where the goodies are being shared out by an elite, and a bit of it trickles down to the poor. Those poor who complain are locked up or killed, and that’s the way it has been for a long time.

I was surprised by this one, both for its honesty and its conclusions. China and its investors have been linked to corruption and exploitation in Africa, and particularly because they target mineral extraction and other resource-intensive industries. Extraction of rare earth metals and fuel result in huge profits but usually require well-educated [foreign] specialists; as a result, very few locals benefit in terms of jobs or payoffs unless contracts explicitly require paying a significant portion of profits to the community. Governments are often hesitant to set strict profit-sharing demands, though, for fear of scaring away investors.

But Kenya isn’t exactly at the center of the diamond, oil, natural gas, copper, coal, and other mineral extraction in Africa, even if the amount extracted is no longer zero. At the same time, Kenyan firms are said to devote 4% of all their sales income on bribes–enough to be hiring 250,000 new employees if the corruption were to stop. And Kenya isn’t actually the worst, according to many sources (though it’s hard to figure out exactly who is worst):

The World Bank’s CPIA Index on government transparency, accountability, and corruption surprisingly ranked Bhutan, St. Lucia, and the Cape Verde islands as having the worst corruption in 2011 (of the countries they were able to rank).

WB CPIA ranking on corruption worldwide for 2011. Darker red = more corrupt.

WB CPIA ranking on corruption worldwide for 2011. Darker red = more corrupt.

Transparency International, in contrast, ranked Somalia, North Korea, and Afghanistan as tied for worst corruption in 2012.

The Sunlight Foundation's map of Transparency International data for corruption in 2012. Again, Kenya is not ranked as worst, though  there is clearly progress to be made.

The Sunlight Foundation’s map of Transparency International data for corruption in 2012. Again, Kenya is not ranked as worst, though there is clearly progress to be made.

Regardless of exactly how corrupt Kenya and other developing countries are measured to be, it is in everyone’s best interest to improve.


Update: For an interesting take on the cultural/psychological/sociological reasons behind perpetuated corruption, especially in developing countries, see Kathleen Reedy’s freshly pressed post on corruption in Afghanistan.


Capturing Africa, by Africans

I thought this was a great first start by two African photographers based in Ghana (Nyani Quarmyne and Nii Obodai) trying to portray Africans, and climate change in Africa, as they are rarely portrayed: through the eyes of Africans.

I say “great start” not because the photos aren’t beautiful or interesting–they definitely are, especially the second, of an amazingly well-framed young boy standing among the remaining walls of his house near the sea–but because I think that there is still more that could be done to get away from portraying the stereotypes and conventional stories, as well as portraying more diverse facets of the effects of climate change.

Also came upon this photo on Quarmyne’s website:

As Obodai said,

“I can see that there’s a mentality of confusion at play, but it’s not a poor place. Africans are not poor people. We might be making wrong choices, but we’re not poor people. I refuse to play that poverty game. That’s a choice we’re making.”

Looking forward to seeing more work from both of these two that validates Obodai’s conclusion.

Bamboo: the next revolution?

In Africa’s Vanishing Forests, the Benefits of Bamboo

In Africa you want everything. You want firewood, you want to reduce erosion, to maintain the water supply, generate cash and employment. Bamboo comes the closest — it gives you the most things.

The need for firewood is now critical in Ethiopia; trees covered 35 percent of the country a century ago; by 2000 they covered just 3 percent.

Paradoxically, harvesting bamboo to make durable goods is greener than not harvesting bamboo.

While Rosenburg, who wrote the above New York Times blogpost, makes some interesting points, she misses one huge, gaping hole of an argument: planting bamboo plantations will overpower and undermine whatever remaining biodiversity persists in these growing semi-deserts. The same process already occurred with eucalyptus, but given the even more extensive root networks of bamboo, native tree species may be completely outcompeted, leaving a vast, bamboo-only landscape rather than the extremely diverse forests that Africa used to be known for (along with the associated ecosystem services that all those different species provided.)

Africa’s Largest Carbon Market & Other Superlatives

After an audit of its first six months of operation, Vestergaard-Frandsen earned 1.4 Million CDM Gold Standard credits (equivalent to 1.4 million tonnes of CO2 emissions averted) for its LifeStraw Carbon for Water Program. The project is expected to average 2.5m tonnes annually over its 10-year duration. This is a big deal because:

  • It’s the largest carbon project of any type in Africa thus far
  • It’s the first ever safe drinking water project to be financed using carbon credits (drinking water is usually purified by boiling the water over a fire with non-renewable wood)
  • It’s the first carbon project to monitor, report and verify actual health impacts of a technology (mostly reduced recorded instances of diarrhea in this case)
  • It’s financially sustainable: the LifeStraws are distributed [and repaired and replaced] for free (the program distributed 877,505 Family water filters so far, in Kenya’s Western Province) and are financed through the sale of carbon credits
  • In addition to providing safe drinking water, the project has other benefits. It aims to reduce extreme poverty, achieve universal primary education (since young girls are often tasked with finding fuelwood and must therefore miss school), empower women and girls, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, and combat HIV/AIDS and other diseases (as HIV/AIDS patients are more susceptible to illness from unsafe drinking water).

My only apprehension is the problem of uptake: many interventions like this have failed in the past because not enough people changed their behaviors to make using such interventions routine. If it’s too time-consuming, a hassle, changes social norms (for example, no longer having the opportunity to talk with friends at the neighborhood well), or expensive (in this case that’s not an issue), then the technology likely won’t be taken up, regardless of its effectiveness. Here’s to hoping that this project has a [positive] lasting impact.

During work today, I came across this bit about a climate change education and outreach approach by the African Technology Policy Studies Network (ATPS)–definitely the most playful, interesting, and [hopefully] effective tool I’ve seen so far by an African organization working in the agriculture/climate change space. Although I wonder to what extent Nollywood reaches beyond West Africa…

Development’s a Circus

Imagine hordes of 35+ year olds wearing obscene paper hats they’d just stapled and colored with sharpies, wearing party hats with feathers, or wearing Halloween-esque hats ranging from rubber masks to cone-shaped witch hats. This was yesterday afternoon… and it was the town hall for our division at the World Bank.

Why did the vice president make us all do this? To laugh at us? (Probably.) Supposedly, it was also because we had cause for celebration: for the first time in a long, long time, we as a division no longer needed to defend our existence and were finally contributing something useful to the Bank. Sure, that’s definitely cause for celebration–but to think that it took this long? That’s a bit scary.

I wonder how many organizations have these identity crises. How much more efficient would they be if they were to coordinate, collaborate, merge, share resources–without trying to assert their individuality? This issue is coming up now in the form of whether to have a [new, better] version of the UNEP or [an improved, better-funded] UNEP or [the same, underfunded, under-respected] UNEP we currently have, because many countries want to see more action taken to protect and enhance the state of the global environment, and whatever we’re currently doing (hundreds, if not thousands, of organizations all trying to work on the same issues separately) isn’t working.

The bigger question I keep asking myself is in regards to development agencies in particular. Fifty years ago, they were mostly run by former colonial powers who felt morally bound to help the countries they often indirectly destroyed (i.e. the DRC). Ten years ago, they were still mostly run by the same developed countries, now with different organizational names, but still pursuing the global version of Congress: giving money in exchange for enforcing whatever they think is best. Today, the World Bank and other huge development/ lending agencies finally have competition (like the African Development Bank, among many others), driving them to become more efficient, effective, and innovative. The question is: are they too late in reforming themselves, and if not, what role can they play in the future global arena to stay useful and add value?


On a side note, I had lunch today with an alum who worked on a study, publicized in the Economist this week, about cash transfers to girls and young women in Malawi. The researchers randomly gave money to some of the young girls and their families and saw significant decreases in the rate of HIV/AIDS and herpes infections. While I’d need to read the study more carefully (and it doesn’t seem to be double-blind), the concept sounds like a promising conclusion! (And supports the fact that HIV infection is preventable given behavioral shifts.)

FINALLY! The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, in Gates’s 2012 annual letter, acknowledged that we need to focus on and invest in orphan and staple crops in Africa (cassava, millet, sorghum, and yams, albeit in addition to his favorite row crop: maize). Good news, coming from the world’s largest private foundation and considering how stubbornly ignorant they were on this point two years ago.

One thing Gates stressed in his letter was the decreasing proportion of farmers in industrializing countries. Can we afford for the entire world to make this transition to mechanized agriculture and lose our agricultural intuition as the last generations of farmers leave us?

African Agricultural Growth

As I was looking through different organizations’ annual reports for World Bank research, I came across these two interesting charts in CAADP’s (Comprehensive Africa Agriculture Development Programme) 2009 report (the most recent one I could find.)

It’s interesting to see how investment didn’t directly correlate with agricultural growth rates (but then again, the 2nd chart doesn’t account for private investments). Glad to see a relatively positive trend, though, and here’s to hoping Zimbabwe gets back on track (if it hasn’t already, since 2008.)

Figure prepared by ReSAKSS (www.resakss.org). Source: WDI, 2009 and UN National Stats, 2009.

Figure prepared by ReSAKSS (www.resakss.org). Sources: SADC 2008; ReSAKSS 2010; Country CAADP Brochures (#4); Country CAADP Stocktaking Reports; IMF 2009; AU, NEPAD, FAO and World Bank Agriculture Expenditure Survey Report 2008; UNECA 2007; ReSAKSS Working Paper #18; ReSAKSS Working Paper #21; Seychelles Government Finance Stats (Abstract 2007).

The new FAO Director General (and why things will falter)

In going through recent articles on food security, I was extremely surprised to see such a pompous stance taken by José Graziano da Silva, who will step up as the new FAO director general on January 1, 2011.

1. In the several questions addressed to him explicitly mentioning Africa, he sidestepped the question and instead gave examples from South America. Your background may be specific to Latin America, but if you are to be the global director for such an organization, you ought to know the global state of things.

2. He plans to “start consultations with…poor food importers.” Importing food is not the way to go for any country that already has foreign debts, high poverty rates (thus people can’t afford imported food without high subsidies), and no other industries to fall back on when local economies are driven by smallholder food production.

3. He sees nothing wrong with biofuels other than corn (supposedly because everything else doesn’t distort food prices.) There are other measures of good decision-making besides economic efficiency…

4. The kick: he sees corporate agribusiness as benevolent and complementary to smallholder farmers, and civil society groups as a detriment to progress. Even smallerholders in Brazil are screwed over by Cargill and other global traders. Sure, they may have a market to sell their soy now, but if they’re getting below-market prices because the agribusiness has no competitors, then is that really the best outcome?

The few views from his interview that I would agree with (that were, albeit, rather obvious):

  • More emphasis on diversified food crops
  • Greater cooperation between FAO and other relevant organizations (i.e. IFAD, though one could ask “How?”)
  • Less emphasis on chemical rather than organic fertilizers
  • Development of local markets (which I doubt is within the jurisdiction of the FAO anyway, but he’s a politician after all)