Tag Archive | Kenya

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.


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.

Slums: hotbeds of opportunity?

I was lucky enough to go to Stanford’s Conference on Global Underdevelopment today, and have so, so many thoughts I’d want to discuss. Firstly, (and not surprisingly) I had a bone to pick with Jeff Raikes (or more precisely, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which he represents as its CEO)… Last year, I was frustrated that the Gates Foundation completely failed to consider staple/orphan crops like cassava, yams, and tef as a funding priority; they were (and still appear to be) more interested in funding corn and other row crops, which have higher rates of return, than crops that actually have direct linkages to food security in developing countries.

This year, I was ecstatic because another audience member, a photographer at National Geographic, brought up the issue of slums to Raikes. Having just returned from Kibera, one of the biggest slums in the world, the photographer wondered why such places aren’t receiving more aid and international attention (including none from the Gates Foundation). I wonder the same thing. When I’d asked others before, their answer was always that NGOs are already serving slums. If that were the case–if NGOS could really have enough prowess and funding to fully provide for hundreds of thousands of chronically poor and malnourished people [per slum!]–I would be impressed.

And yet, these kinds of places represent the perfect opportunity for change: they are highly concentrated, so relatively small investments in infrastructure, education, basic sanitation, health services, and agricultural support would go a long way. Markets for goods already exist, simply due to the number of people living in the area. Credit would be easier to disseminate (and perhaps even easier to enforce), and people are likely to be more entrepreneurial if they can survive under such harsh conditions. What would it take to incentivize philanthropists to invest in slums, if these are not reasons enough?

Slum population in urban Africa (UNDESA 2010)