Friday, November 30, 2007

Today’s Sierra Leone: the long fight back

After spending a decade embroiled in a brutal civil war, Sierra Leone emerged feeling fresh and recently held an equitable, peaceful and well-organized elections. Carol Lancaster, a visiting fellow for the Center for Global Development, wrote an essay after returning from the nation known as Lion Mountain, the poorest country in the world (according to the United Nations Development Programme).

Here are some highlights of the report, which are all quotes:

  • The first thing that strikes the visitor to Freetown, the capital, is the extensive slums, the run down buildings and above all, the abysmal condition of the roads. The roads get worse as one travels up country. Only four wheel drive vehicles can survive there and even those frequently break down because of the enormous potholes and mud traps that have never been fixed.
  • Living conditions in the countryside are even more basic—the country has reverted to a subsistence economy after once having been an exporter of agricultural goods. But even if farmers produced enough to export today, it is difficult and expensive to get their products to market with the vanishing roads.
  • There is little manufacturing, little tourism (despite the attractive beaches outside of Freetown), and little private investment outside of mining.
  • Why is a country with so much potential so desperately poor? Disastrous governance, sustained over many decades is the short answer, exacerbated by the existence of diamonds. Whatever the structure of government—whether it has been democratic, a one party state or a military junta (and it has been all of these since independence) —governance has been about elites enriching themselves and their patronage networks with little effort to use the country’s resources for the good of its people.

Finally, Lancaster provides this little nugget.

  • [T]here really is not a viable alternative to democracy in sub-Saharan Africa, even if it is illiberal and flawed initially. In no case on the continent have authoritarian governments spurred sustained growth and development; indeed, they have often blocked economic progress as the political constraints on their leaders and elites have decayed with their emphasis on centralized control, on secrecy, on repression and on enriching themselves. There have been no authoritarian economic miracles in Africa like Korea, Chile or Taiwan and there are not likely to be, given the poverty, the weak bureaucracies, ethnically divided societies, and social pressures on politicians to direct public resources to their families, clans, regions and ethnic groups, and, of course, to their patronage networks. Democracy at least forces governments to be more transparent and less repressive even if it doesn’t guarantee probity, the rule of law and rapid economic progress.

Oil and Africa’s resource curse

Knowledge@Wharton, a publication of the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, spoke to John Ghazvinian, author of Untapped: The Scramble for Africa's Oil, who is a visiting scholar at the university.

Here are a few highlights of the story.

Since 2000, one-third of the world’s oil new oil discoveries have been in Africa. Oil companies have already invested $20 billion in Africa in oil exploration and production, and they plan to spend another $50 billion before the end of the decade, Africans see little benefit from this interest in their continent. It’s called the Resource Curse, Ghazvinian says. "Between 1970 and 1993, countries without oil saw their economies grow four times faster than those of countries with oil," he said. By inflating the value of a country’s currency, oil makes other exports uncompetitive. Workers begin flocking to high paying petroleum businesses, weakening other sectors of the economy, forcing countries to depend on imports. "That decimates a country's agriculture and traditional industries."

However, locals lacking degrees in engineering find themselves with little chance for promotion. The oil industry is capital intensive, not labor intensive, Ghazvinian says, so oil companies really only hire local to be guards.

Politicians become drawn into oil’s web, also. Governments with high oil revenues rarely charge income taxes, breaking the compact between citizens and their government. When politicians are not responsible to their citizens, it’s difficult to force them to invest in education or health infrastructure. Corruption is another problem altogether, he admits, but one that works both ways. Western bankers often look the other way when African leaders make large deposits. Western governments rarely question the leadership of African nations if the oil continues flowing.

Contrasts come in many shades
It all adds up to a world of contrasts. Oil money is rarely invested in oil producing regions, allowing people in Nigerian delta to live in the “Stone Age” not far from multibillion dollar oil facilities. In Luanda, Angola – where “The disparity between rich and poor there is like nowhere else in the world – oil companies pay as much as $15,000 per month to rent employee housing.

Which begs the big question: How responsible are oil companies for development of oil-rich nations?

[Oil firms] often argue that their role in Africa is simply getting oil out of the ground, maximizing profits and paying taxes. Politicians, they contend, are responsible for investing the tax revenues in education and infrastructure.

"The oil companies will often say that they would like to invest in infrastructure or schools, but they don't have the expertise," Ghazvinian notes. "That's glib. Exxon Mobil is making billions and can hire consultants. They could do more. They don't have to usurp the role of government to do something useful in the countries where they are operating."

Mauritania launches new airline

Mauritania Airways, which kicked off Monday, is 51 percent-owned by Tunisair, an independent Mauritanian group and the Mauritanian government will control 10 percent, according to Magharebia.

The new airline will introduce two flights per week from Nouakchott to Bamako, Dakar, Abidjan, Conakry, Casablanca, Las Palmas and Paris.

Representatives claim they hope to begin service to Jeddah and Dubai.

China and Africa, the interview

The Council on Foreign Relations recently published an often-interesting and fairly-ho-hum interview with Yang Guang, director of the Institute of West Asian and African Studies of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Before we get to ho-hum, which admittedly is a little harsh of me, the interview did net a few interesting facts.

  • Guang called China a “relative latecomer” to investing in Africa. The country did not begin spending on the continent until the late 1980s, but by the end of 2006 the investments totaled $11.7 billion, which he claims in terms of all countries investing in Africa “is not a big number.”;
  • Chinese firms producing labor-intensive goods cannot be made cheaply enough for its domestic market, which is why many looked to manufacture those products in Africa;
  • China counts about 800 different enterprises investing in Africa, 100 of those are state owned;
  • Much of the push for African investment exists because much of the continent is now more open to investment;
  • Chinese investment has created 70,000 jobs in Africa;
  • He did not think African countries should look to China as a model of economic development because each country has its own national circumstances.
Now, the bad news
These tidbits aside, Guang danced around a lot of issues, including the question of oil-centric investing, the place of corporate responsibility in Chinese firms and the country’s arm sales to Sudan. Part of his evasion of these question may be due to the fact that I can’t see CFR asking American businessmen about corporate responsibility (and receiving an honest response), or pressing a U.S. government official on the scope and breadth of American arms sales to foreign countries.

Anyway, I found his answer regarding China’s relationship with the Sudanese government very illuminating.

There are different understandings about the issue of Sudan, but the Chinese understanding is for a country as poor as Sudan, the first priority is the basic needs of the people, and to see their living standards increase. Economic development is the top priority for this country. Therefore, if we want to help these people to resolve their problems, then we have to start by resolving their development problems.

It has been true, in my view, that in practice the Chinese understanding is correct, because during the past few years this country went from a net oil importer to a net oil exporter. The fiscal budget has improved significantly, the economic growth rate is also rapid and, interestingly, the oil income has also contributed to the resolution of domestic conflicts. If you look at the CPA [Comprehensive Peace Agreement], you may find that one of the components is the distribution of oil income. It is distributed on the basis of 50-50, so in other words the black people in the south can also benefit from this and poor people can also benefit from this result of oil development.

Chinese companies are very proud of this contribution to the Sudanese people. The United States argues that this is not a good regime, with a dictatorship and things like that, but Chinese foreign policy is non interference in domestic affairs and actually it is very hard to see whether a regime is a dictatorship or not. You have to find a commonly acceptable standard, so if this kind of standard does not exist, you cannot impose a one-sided view onto the others.

I believe that, due to the different cultural backgrounds, due to the different levels of economic development, it would be hard to find a uniform model of political development for the African countries. The best way is probably to observe and respect the efforts of the African countries in exploring their own way of political development. Otherwise, if you try to impose a model on them, there is little chance to succeed.

It's official: EU recognizes Togo; IMF, World Bank next?

From Agence France Presse:
The EU's representative to Togo said Thursday the bloc had resumed "full" relations with the west African country, 14 years after ties were suspended amid widespread electoral violence.

European Commission envoy Filiberto Sebregoni said he had handed Togolese President Faure Gnassingbe an official EU letter marking "the restoration of full and complete cooperation with Togo."

He said the EU had ended the partial suspension of ties and the block on aid imposed in 1993 after violence derailed the introduction of democracy in Togo.

The measures were later confirmed under the terms of regional convention signed in 2000 in Benin.

"All restrictive measures have been lifted and Togo enters into a state of normal cooperation with the EU," Sebregoni told AFP.

He also said the EU would give Togo 123 million euros (180 million dollars) in development aid, in addition to the 40 million already released this month. A further 26 million has been pledged for institutional and urban projects.

Reforms still MIA in Guinea

From Voice of America:
In May, [Guinea's] parliament established a commission to investigate the security forces' involvement in January and February's violence. But the members of the commission were named only last month, and they have yet to get funding or even a meeting space.

Thierno Maadjou Sow, president of Guinea's Organization for the Defense of Human Rights, says he does not believe the commission will be allowed to function.

He says some people in Guinea are untouchable.

Government officials could not be reached for comment.

The position of prime minister does not exist in Guinea's constitution. Previous reform-minded prime ministers have been fired by President Conté, and there was no prime minister for nearly a year before Mr. Kouyate was appointed. Mr. Conté has ruled in Guinea since 1984 when he seized power in a coup.

During the January and February protests, he said "It is God who gives power, and when he gives it to someone, everyone must stand behind him."

How do you say AFRICOM in French?

“Some 1,653 troops from West Africa and France will participate in Exercise DEGGO XXVII, a command post and field training exercise starting at Thies, Senegal, Afriquenligne, said. Other than Senegal, the armed forces of Burkina Faso, the Gambia, Guinea and Mali will take part.

The 11-day exercise would strengthen the capacity of the Task Force (TF) component of the ECOWAS Standby Force (ESF) towards making it functional by 2008 .

The task force component comprises 1,500 of the 6, 500 strong ESF being created for deployment in Peace Support Operations (PSO), as specified under the African Union security architecture that requires that regional peacekeeping forces become operational by 2010.

The exercise will test the deployment and sustainment capabilities of the TF, the Command and Control of the various Headquarters in PSO at the operational and tactical levels and the strategic relationship with partners in the areas of troops lift/deployment, logistics and operational support in the field.

Or, are the militaries preparing for Darfur?
This announcement comes hours after the UN admitted equipment difficulties and obstacles created by the Sudanese government put in jeopardy the United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur, known as UNAMID.

"If no appropriate offers for these missing units are identified by early 2008, it may become necessary to revert to the Council to consider options to mitigate the lack of air mobility,” Under-Secretary-General for Peacekeeping Operations Jean-Marie Guéhenno told IRIN. “This may require an increase in troops. But more troops will not 'replace' military aviation and they would also require more logistic support, more land, more water, and would likely not appear in Darfur until late 2008. Another sub-optimal last-resort measure would be to 'borrow' these capabilities from other missions."

He said that despite sincere efforts by the UN to address Sudanese concerns about the composition of the force, which is supposed to be predominantly African, the Government is yet to approve units from Thailand, Nepal and Scandinavia.

The Government has also not facilitated the acquisition of land and flight operations rights for UN aircraft, impeding the ability of UNAMID to carry out its mandate, while some of its proposals for the status of forces agreement with the UN "would make it impossible for the mission to operate."

Mr. Guéhenno said that unless these sorts of problems are resolved, the international community - which agreed at the end of July to authorize the deployment of UNAMID to quell four years of fighting and suffering that has killed more than 200,000 people and displaced at least 2.2 million others - may soon face a hard choice.

"Do we move ahead with the deployment of a force that will not make a difference, that will not have the capability to defend itself, and that carries the risk of humiliation of the Security Council and the United Nations, and tragic failure for the people of Darfur?"

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Switzerland to Africans: You’re not welcome here, but we may still be able to find a place for your cash

An anti-immigrant Swiss political party has partly funded a television advertising campaign aimed at discouraging Africans from immigrating to Europe. London’s Independent reported that the $370,000 television campaign, currently airing in Nigeria and Cameroon, is also funded by the European Union and International Organisation for Migration.

The adverts carry the message “fleeing does not mean starting a new life” and go something like this:

It starts with a phone ringing in a sparsely furnished home somewhere in Africa. An elderly African picks up the receiver and is shown speaking to his son talking on a public phone from somewhere in Europe while standing in pouring rain.

The father asks if the young man has found accommodation. He says he is staying with friends. Images of an asylum camp under a bridge fill the screen. The son lies to his father that his studies are going well. He is depicted sitting on a kerbstone and begging. Later he is chased and arrested by the police.

Pointing out that an estimated 10,000 Africans have perished trying to flee to Europe, an IOM spokesman says the advertisement is designed to save lives.

These guys are in the wrong field
A row broke out over the ads, but not about their content. Rather, it came out that the ads were partly funded by the Swiss Migration Office, which is controlled by Justice Minister Christoph Blocher, who’s Swiss People’s Party hold the country’s largest-ever majority in Parliament. They won by running a patently anti-immigrant campaign, replete with campaign ads depicting “white sheep standing on a Swiss flag kicking a black sheep from their midst. The slogan accompanying the image was ‘More Security.’”

How ironical
For the blogger, it would be weak and painfully obvious to point out that it’s only natural for the Swiss to attempt to dissuade Africans from moving to their country when African money of questionable provenance has long found a welcoming home in Swiss banks. It was these storied international lending institutions that long provided the necessary discreetness demanded by well-heeled African leaders. In 1999, the Economist estimated that Swiss Banks held $20 billion of stolen wealth from African nations. In 2000, a Nigerian super-computer scientist claimed that one-third of Africa’s capital flight has found a home in Switzerland.

From the standpoint of shady African leaders, using Swiss Banks only made sense. Once the money is safely deposited into Swiss bank accounts, it’s hard to pry it loose. When Liberian strongman Samuel Doe was captured by Charles Taylor’s forces he refused to divulge his Swiss bank accounts because he know they were going to kill him anyway. Taylor never saw any of Doe’s money. It famously took Swiss bankers 18 years to return $500 million stolen from Filipino Dictator Ferdinand Marcos. The government of Nigeria only had to wait five years to recoup some of the $700 million pilfered from Sani Abacha.

For the Government of Congo-Kinshasa, trying to recover even a portion of Mobutu Sese Seko’s ill-gotten gains must have felt like a riding a rodeo horse. First the Swiss claimed none of their banks held Mobutu’s money; then the banks said they’d look again; then they found only $3.4 million, and shortly afterwards a $5.5 million 30-room mansion turned up. The Congolese government asked for the paltry $3.4 million (out of an estimated $7.7 billion Mobutu bilked), but Swiss bankers warned the process could take years.

Smoke on the water
For simplicity sake let’s say Mobutu’s and Doe’s and Abacha’s money was stolen. That’s money not going to pay for schools, build latrines or support other fuzzy-feeling development projects. That’s cash that won’t circulate through African economies – because military dictators must pay for food and hire maids and cooks, too. The billions holed up in Swiss bank accounts represents funds African banks can’t loan.

Now, let’s say that some rich African businessmen may be parking some of their hard-earned cash into Swiss banks because the high security standards provided by a Western bank. If so, that’s money African governments won’t collect taxes on, and the Swiss are still famously tight-lipped regarding illegal tax havens. For the sake of debate, let’s claim that these funds were actually gained by imaginative bookkeeping, which some people refer to as money laundering, and the Swiss have also been quite reluctant to look into that.

The first line of defense
Until now, it appears. Following revelations of Holocaust victims’ life savings becoming covered in cobwebs in Swiss vaults, the realities of following-the-money in the post-9/11 world, combined with the fact that African states still lose 25 percent of GDP to corruption, the World Bank has launched the Stolen Asset Recovery Initiative.

Its goal: “To encourage rich countries to return the loot and for developing countries to properly invest the recovered funds in social and anti-poverty programs,” says Reuters.

Switzerland jumped in to be the first nation to pledge its help and promise to cooperate with poor countries regarding the recovery of stolen assets. "There have been changes in the behavior of some like the Swiss, who understand that it's not good for the reputation of major financial institutions, to say nothing of countries, to be associated with billions of dollars of stolen funds from corrupt leaders in poor countries,” World Bank President Robert Zoellick told Reuters.

This is not an abrupt turn of face. Switzerland has spent much of the past decade trying to tighten its banking rules. This is especially true when high-profile bad people are involved. In 2001 Swiss prosecutors froze eight accounts totaling $70 million of Peruvian spy Vladimiro Montesinos. In 2002, Swiss authorities placed a donor for Britain’s ruling Labour party under investigation for an alleged money-laundering scheme involving funds stolen by Nigeria’s Sani Abacha.

From a 2001 Salon story:

Human rights experts say the role of Switzerland and other countries in increasing scrutiny of bank accounts is one major pressure putting the squeeze on corrupt tyrants who formerly funneled money abroad.

An official with a wing of the U.S. Treasury that investigates money laundering praises this new vigilance. "Switzerland used to be synonymous with dirty banking," Will Wechsler, special advisor to former U.S. Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, said in an interview. "Now it has a fairly good anti-money-laundering regime, especially in terms of high-profile money-laundering figures." In fact, he says, "Banks are often the first line of defense."

Back to the weak and obvious
Like I said, it would be weak and obvious to bring this stuff up. Switzerland has some time ago turned a corner regarding their fierce clinging to stolen money. In their part, African governments have mostly forgiven and forgotten. They hope the initiative will be a deterrent to corrupt officials in the future.

This may be a little off topic for Africa Flak, but the Swiss are not the xenophobes one could make them out to be. The famous Swiss People’s Party only garnered 29 percent of the vote in October’s election. For all the immigrant worries, roughly 24 percent of Switzerland’s population has been born elsewhere – and it’s a population that appears to be very educated and skilled.

It would be naive to say that if even a small percentage of those funds shamelessly protected by the Swiss had never left Africa, there would be no need for an anxiety-laden advertising campaign. On the other hand, it’s more than a little cynical for the country’s banking institutions to wash their collective hands of the whole mess. One could argue that what the television ads are about. No amount of PR will provide enough deterance to potential immigrants. But a few advertisements may wash away a little culpability.

The people crossing the Mediterranean are merely exploiting a need, looking for work in countries that apparently don't want them, but whose people will learn they can't live without them. Capitalists have always insisted the market knows no morals. In this case, the market wasn't protecting the funds of criminals; Switzerland’s banking technocrats were, and the rest of the country profited. Who, then, are the real sheep in this story?

Running with the rebels: Journalist tags along with Tuaregs

Voice of America reporter Phoun Trang has spent the past 11 days with Tuareg rebels, somewhere in Niger, and from her take, both sides – the rebels and the Government of Niger – are in the process of escalating their conflict.

She recently debriefed the VOA English to Africa service based in the U.S. Here are some excerpts.

[Travelling with the Tuareg rebels has] been a process of waiting. In each place they’ve been trying to gather ammunition to gather weapons. There’s a wide network of Tuaregs who are helping them. And three days ago, while we were traveling, they got news that the Nigerien army had left Agadez with some 70 vehicles and were headed to one of their bases.

“President Tanja has refused to negotiate with them, saying they are bandits or drug traffickers. And until they depose their arms the government will not negotiate with them.” The rebels say they will not negotiate with a government they consider unstable.


At the heart of the conflict are mineral revenues. [The Tuaregs are] basically unhappy with the peace accord of 1995. They say the government is not sharing enough of the uranium royalties with them. They feel that this land, this ancestral land that they have been on, their families have been on for thousands of years, has been taken over post-colonialism, divided up, and that the government is expropriating the uranium…and is not investing enough in the community. In 1995 they were promised 15 percent of uranium royalties. They say to this day that has not been fulfilled. [On] other parts of the peace accord, the government has made progress. They have been able to integrate Tuaregs, the ethnic nomad Tuaregs, into the government….but this rebel group is saying they’re still unhappy,” she says.

Trang is one of the few American journalists to be able to travel with the Tuaregs. My guess is that she will be filing other stories.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

What, me worry: Why are world food prices so high?

A couple weeks ago, I questioned how certain expanding African economies could be stepping up their export industry while maintaining sizable trade deficits. It seems that this recent food issue has shed a little light on the problem.

This food issue – because I refuse to call it a crisis – has cropped up in the past few weeks because of what a spokeswoman at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization termed the “perfect storm” of bad weather, tight food supplies and strong demand has lead to a 21 percent increase in the world’s food bill. Developing countries may end up paying even more.

The press has made much out of the worried reactions of consumers around the world. Food riots took place in Mauritania and the once-pacific Senegal; the Russian government freezes prices; Italians boycotted pasta, Argentineans turned their backs on tomatoes because they became more expensive than meat.

But are things really that bad? FAO claims that price volatility has always been distinctive characteristic of the world agriculture market. The Economist claims Russian President Vladimir Putin froze prices for political gain. The Mauritian government claims the food riots there were orchestrated.

Flat bread for a flat world?
Granted, these arguments don’t lend too much optimism. The defining factor of this year’s overcharged food market is that consumers have seen simultaneous price increases in nearly every commodity.

The big price gainers include the world’s most important staples:

  • Wheat: Poor seasons due to bad weather in Europe, Pakistan, Morocco and Australia created a 50 to 65 percent increase compared to last year’s price. However, high prices may bring down demand, thus depressing prices;
  • Rice: Even after reaching its highest price in 20 years in October, rice is still rising slower than other commodities. Experts predict this year’s large harvest will bring prices down;
  • Maize: After an initial run due to an interest in biofuels, corn products hit a ten-year high in February before falling. Massive plantings have been reported around the world, making experts confident still-high prices will continue to fall;
  • Sugar: After two years of processing setbacks, white gold posted 25-year highs last year, but has since drastically fallen.

Some may point out that simple supply and demand is at work here. Demand is up because food production has increased at 1.3 percent a year, below the 1.35 percent escalation to the world’s population.

FAO researchers point out that globalization is a culprit in these high prices. Where West African floods and Australian droughts used to be considered local events, food markets are now more tightly intertwined. With a limited amount of breathing space between production and consumption, consumers can literally feel these local shocks rippling through the world markets.

But globalization is only an effect. It’s not the cause of across-the-board high prices. For this, the Rome-based FAO has found many.

  • High petroleum prices: Yes, oil remains an easy journalistic scapegoat to explain away a complicated issue, but petroleum does affect food prices in many subtle ways. Often an important ingredient in fertilizers, expensive petroleum drives up the price of crop inputs. It’s well known that near record oil prices have increased interest in biofuels and other natural energy sources, which divert agriculture crops reserved for feeding livestock, pushing up prices for cattle (and meat). Increased interest in biofuels will also raise the demand for other feed stocks like sugar, maize, rapeseed and soybean.
  • Increased freight rates: Like higher petroleum prices, this is not a cut-and-dry issue. Yes, oil prices affect the cost of shipping goods, but not as much as you think. Increased value for petroleum has increased the demand for iron ore and coal. These products are transported in the same type of ships as foodstuffs. Ship makers introduced fewer new ships onto the market than expected this year, so competition for these boats became fierce. In some cases, foodstuffs stayed in port, lessening supplies and further increasing prices. Finally, as merchandise prices rise, shipping costs increase due to higher insurance rates. All these factors combined to drive up shipping freight rates 57 percent between June and October.

One overlooked feature of globalization is ocean shipping costs remain roughly the same rate as they were in the early 1970s. African nations, however, still pay higher shipping charges than the rest of the world. That’s because they don’t do a lot of trading with other nations, so pulling a ship off popular routes to stop in port in Lomé or Dakar or Tema is expensive. Also, West African countries have heavy trade imbalances. What this means in practical terms is that when containers are unloaded at African ports, not many exports are loaded back on. Half-full boats don’t help shipping firms, who must charge higher shipping costs.

  • Weak dollar: FAO points out that currency issues affect all markets, but they have rarely wreaked so much havoc as the dollar has this year in agriculture markets. The U.S. dollar’s gradual decline against other currencies has boosted demand for American exports. High demand eventually turns into higher prices, which we have seen in the wheat market. It’s a real-life version of Whac a Mole: If the price of one commodity increases, more farmers will rush to plant that product, driving up the prices for the commodities farmers ignore.
  • Border decisions: Most West African governments collect a great amount of revenue through import taxes. In a decision to help local rice growers, the government of Senegal decided to institute a 20 percent surtax on imported rice, which increases the cost of a sack of rice in the local markets. At the beginning of next year, all ECOWAS countries will harmonize rice duties at five percent for paddy rice and 10 percent for milled or broken rice. This does not help consumers in the short term, however.

Drilling for food
If we take another step deeper into West African food supplies, it is best to examine the imports of Senegal and Mauritania, two counties which have already faced riots against high prices.

Like many African states, Senegal is a net food importer. The interesting fact is this country, where millet was once a dietary staple, now ranks rice as its primary import. In fact, the country imported more than 536,000 metric tons of milled patty rice in 2000, roughly twice as much as the second most popular product, Wheat. By 2004, the last year statistics are available, broken rice became the number one import (oddly, it wasn’t on the top 20 before) with 799,863 metric tons. Wheat stays number two with 313,777 metric tons.

Let’s return to the above discussion regarding the country’s surtax on imported rice: It was a classic solution to protect a fledgling domestic industry. However, domestic rice can’t be grown fast enough to satisfy Senegal’s population, and the FAO admits the industry most likely won’t survive without the protection.

There’s something else at play here: purchasing power. Most Senegalese won’t buy products they feel are socially beneath them. If you can afford fish in your rice, you don’t procure pounded dried fish that’s used to feed the poor. The same goes for rice. Those who can find the money for Thai rice don’t purchase local rice. (That’s a truth in Burkina Faso, also.) There’s a large caveat with this argument: For one, it’s a pretty large generalization, but one that I’ve heard elsewhere.

Since I am at it, I’ll paint another generality. More people eat rice because they are busier. What I mean is more of their time is spent working or being economically occupied. This may be a good thing, for working women have less time to sit around and cook millet, which often takes longer to prepare than rice. (Generalizations aplenty today!) Urbanization may also play a part in falling millet stocks. Families might feel the need to put down some of the village traditions in lieu of becoming more modern, urbanized. There’s also the fact that perhaps millet – or the right millet, because it varies by region – may not be found in all urban markets throughout the city.

Moving on from broad strokes, let’s look at Mauritania, a country where I’ve been able to collect far less information. In 2000, the country’s number one import was raw sugar, when these hard-core tea drinkers brought in 112,327 metric tons. Tea must have something to do with it, because refined sugar ranked fourth: 93,458 metric tons. Wheat also played a big role in the market with 72,991 metric tons.

2004 is when things get a little weird. Wheat still remains high with 148,509 metric tons. Refined sugar still takes home number two with 189,840 metric tons. But, there’s no raw sugar to be found. Instead, the number one import goes to….Cigarettes: $66,325,000 worth of puffy treats. (I knew I liked this country.)

I can’t tell you where raw sugar went; nor can I tell you were Joe Camel came from. (Cigarettes may always have been immensely popular, but perhaps the cigarette importers knew a way to, um, “sidestep” import duties.) Going back to the food imports, I will say they may be skewed because the country receives quite a bit of food aid from the World Food Program. In fact, between 2003 and 2006, Mauritania averaged more than 33,000 tons of donated food, compared to roughly 11,000 tons for Senegal. How this affects a country’s grocery list, I don’t know.

Nor do I really know about what these lists say about these two countries. These countries happen to import a lot of food – and a lot of food that now happens to be expensive. But you could say that about any commodity right now. You may also say they import more food because they have more money to pay for it…Well, at least until this year. That’s why, West Africa for the most part, these high food prices remain a pocketbook issue and don’t have to become a food security issue.

It’s on you, Nigeria
Here we should mention Nigeria, by far the region’s largest food market. If Nigeria doesn’t prove to have a good harvest, they’ll be looking to purchase food stocks elsewhere in West Africa. Not a bad thing, if you don’t remember 2005 when food from less bountiful Niger was bought up to relieve Nigerian demand, creating a food crisis. We term 2005 a crisis because not enough food was available in Niger; this year's issue is presently due to expensive food. Countries have learned from the issue in Niger. In Burkina Faso, at least, safeguards have been put in place to make sure local markets are not needlessly losing food stocks to foreign consumers.

The prognosis for Nigeria is so-so. Droughts ruined a lot of crops in the northern part of the country, but Fewsnet hopes this could be made up from the higher than expected rains in the south. Of course, if it goes like the rest of the world, we could be in for a long dry season.

Authority Stealing: African musicians fight music pirates

Unbeknownst to Africa’s countless tourists and more than a few of the continent’s teenagers, it appears that buying music cassettes and compact disks off the street is most likely illegal. That’s because the music is probably pirated.

This illegal music market costs musicians $10 million a year in Ghana alone and has become a serious hindrance to a vibrant industry, says John Mensah-Sarpong, president of a Ghanaian music industry group.

Music pirating is a $4.5 billion industry worldwide – at least in 2003 it was. The industry group IFPI claims that in most African countries seven out of ten CDs sold are pirated. The worst case scenario belongs to Morocco, where organization leaders say nearly all recorded music is pirated. Things are better in South Africa, the continent’s largest economy, where pirating makes up 40 percent of music. In Ghana, Mensah-Sarpong said his organization estimates pirated music to make up 20 percent of the cassette market alone.

Musicians are taking a beating
African musicians have long decried the illegal copying of their songs to the press, only to leave the interview, walk a few feet outside and see kids hustling pirated CDs and cassettes in the full sunlight. Relations between musicians and piraters came to blows in Abidjan in the spring when Ivorian reggae star Fadel Dey was attacked when he and a group of musicians confronted a group of hawkers selling his counterfeit cassettes. Dey claimed he and his musician friends merely wanted to show authorities how the scourge of counterfeiting affects their lives. What they got was a beating.

“The result of their act of bravado was a not exactly what they had hoped for,” writes Daniel Brown in MondoMix.

Witnesses say that police stood by idly as the artists were set upon by a large group of hawkers and men armed with rocks and sticks. Dey and fellow-musician Gbazza Figaro were knocked unconscious by bricks. Dey needed over a dozen stitches, and was close to losing an eye. He has since left hospital and is in a stable condition.

Big-time African musicians like Youssou N’Dour have long railed against the effects of piracy on the industry. In a recent interview with China Radio International, Amadou of the Malian duet Amadou & Mariam claimed piracy was killing African culture.

Piracy can damage our chance of succeeding. But it's not just that. It affects everybody. It's a deplorable phenomenon. It kills creativity. It kills culture. It kills the creators. We tell young people who are copying and downloading music illegally that they are killing the music. If you really like an artist and you want him to go on making the music you enjoy, well then, why don't you pay for his CD so that he can make a living. We can't survive just on what we are paid for giving concerts. There have to be rights too. It's copyright that allows the artist to earn his living and to keep on working.

How good does it sound in an old taxi?
Some record executives assert African authorities knowingly look the other way when it comes to music copyright issues. It’s another form of the culture of impunity, they say. One could make the argument that pirated music offers regular Africans the chance to afford real African music – even though the production quality is often hit-or-miss.

Outside of pirated music, copyright issues do exist at almost every level of society. Radio stations often use famous songs for advertisements; the same with television news programs and dramas. In Nigeria, musicians are becoming more aggressive and taking royalty cases to other media. "We have many cases in court right now,” said Nigerian superstar King Sunny Ade, the Chair of the Musical Copyright Society of Nigeria, in an interview with African Entertainment. "We're fighting with the Nigerian Copyright Commission, because we want them to make sure that all radio stations, television stations and so on, pay the royalties to the musicians.

Sunny Ade said the country has instituted the anti-pirated Hologram seal, which acts as a certificate of authentication for the compact disk. The industry group the Recording Industry of South Africa, claims the introduction of the Hologram has been ineffective in the southern part of the continent. Instead, that organization is focusing on educating listeners on the legalities of record piracy and illegal music downloading. In Ghana, Mensah-Sarpong pushed for the government to establish a Copyright Tribunal to assist musicians take legal action against copyright offenders.

As the burgeoning young population becomes increasingly more technology savvy, downloading music has developed into an important front in the fight against piracy, at least in Burkina Faso. One of the CD hawkers I know in Ouagadougou claims the hordes of young people using the internet has greatly depressed his revenues from selling pirated CDs. “I used to make money doing this, but people don’t buy music anymore,” my friend told me in downtown Ouagadougou. “Now everybody goes to the Cyber to get their music. You don’t have to be that rich to get one of those MP3 players and take the music with you.”

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Same ol' free trade story?

Five east African countries have OK’d a trade deal with the European Union that will gradually open African markets.

Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi will be the African nations covered by the deal, BBC reports.

Despite giving European firms more access to their markets, some industries will still be protected from competition to prevent local businesses from going bankrupt.

Under the terms of the new deal, about a fifth of EAC trade would still be exempt from the requirement to lower customs duties.

Industrial products and agriculture are among the sectors that are to be given extra protection.

The EU said that negotiations would continue next year in an effort to have a more comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement in place by 2009.

The EU used to have preferential trade deals with its 80 former colonies scattered among Africa, the Caribbean and Asia, but they were ruled illegal by the World Trade Organization, which gave a January 1, 2008 deadline to agree to new trade deals.

My internet and/or browser is under the weather today, so I can’t run down a list of the particulars regarding the EU/East African trade deal.

So, instead of our regularly scheduled program, I’ve got outtakes from interesting debate from 2005 regarding whether Africa needs the WTO.

Africans should just increase trade among themselves and remove trade and travel barriers among it's people and forget about help from the West, and finally we should stop exporting raw materials and start selling finished products.
Maina, Texas

As a Nigerian and an African, I don't expect much from the WTO, what I know for sure is that they will bring up policies that will make Africans poorer. Ghana sends cocoa to the developed world, then it comes back as chocolate, more expensive than the cocoa itself. This only makes the rich countries richer.
Victor Owo, Eket, Nigeria

Africa can expect negotiations that will help narrow down the gap of access to the world market, that is, fair trade rules that help the subsistence farmer to earn a reasonable payment from his little produce. Cotton, coffee and tobacco used to be grown in most parts of Uganda but as the prices went down, people resorted to growing pepper, sun flower and silk worms as well as rearing rabbits, now it is vanilla and rice. This instability in growing crops together with the set standards or quality of produce to be sold on to the world market will not allow Africa to compete in the global market.
Prossy Nannyombi, Uganda

While Africans blame others for unfair trading terms, countries like Colombia and Vietnam are silently taking Africa's share of the market for coffee and cocoa. African countries are no longer efficient enough to compete against other suppliers even if the trading terms were fairer. What next? Out source African farms to more efficient producers - including those from outside the continent.
Liban, Oromia, Ethiopia

What African countries need to do is to process more of their raw materials, trade more with other African countries and depend less on developed countries. Developed countries will neither leave their doors wide open nor surrender their economies.
Ola, USA

Senegal round-up: Street hawker eviction postponed, but what gives?

The government of Senegal postponed until January a controversial measure to evict thousands of street sellers from Dakar’s centre ville, Reuters reports. The announcement comes just days after the plan sparked the fiercest riots seen in the country in years.

After meeting with representatives of the street traders' association, Dakar Mayor Pape Diop suspended the measure, announced by President Abdoulaye Wade last week in an effort to reduce lengthy traffic jams choking the coastal capital and hampering business.

"We talked to the mayor and he allowed us to carry our activities till after New Year," said Cheikh Diop, president of the street vendors on Dakar's main Georges Pompidou avenue. "But (the mayor) said we should be careful not to slow down the traffic."

The disturbances were fueled by widespread popular discontent at rising prices and high unemployment, which forces many young men to risk their lives as illegal migrants to Europe.

Security forces are asking vendors not to set up their wooden stalls but sell only goods they can hold in their hands.

"If I had another job, I would not sell shirts and socks in the streets. This is the best I can do in this country. If they create jobs for us, we will stop selling in the streets," said Alioune Ngom, a 22-year-old vendor.

The riots capped off more bad news for Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade, leaving at least one Dakar-based blogger to ask: What’s the end-game in Senegal?

With hoped for US millennium challenge account aid still not forthcoming for some reason, journalists being put in jail from time to time, the assembly empty of opposition following a boycott, Karim Wade, the president's son handling millions in Kuwait money for city renovation and construction ahead of a many times delayed summit of Islamic states, Senegalese youth continuing to flee to Europe by pirogue, meals getting harder to come by in poor areas, people still not finding work, while Dakar is getting a cleaner and cleaner look in some ways, yet more and more polluted in others, the only West African country "never to have had a coup" in typical journalistic parlance, may be in for some more action.

Finally, we recently discussed Senegal’s proposal and its affect on our friends in the informal sector.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Sitting on the dock: The case against Hissene Habré inches forward

A little forward progress took place in the case against Hissene Habré last week when Senegal finally claimed its courts could try the former Chadian dictator for mass murder and torture committed during his 1982-90 reign. The only is hitch is they’ll need a little money to do so.

The European Union has offered funds, and the two parties will meet soon to begin working out a financial deal. If the long awaited trial gets underway, it will mark the first time an African nation has tried someone for crimes committed in another nation.

The dictator fled to Senegal in 1990 when he was overthrown after eight bloody years in power, and pressure has been mounting for the past several years on Senegal to bring Habré to justice.

In September 2005, Belgium issued an international arrest warrant for the ex-dictator. Defense attorneys for Habré and some African nations bristled that a European nation, much less a former colonial power, would attempt to extradite and try an African for torture. A judge in Senegal claimed Senegalese courts could not rule on the extradition, and President Abdoulaye Wade asked the African Union to find a resolution. A panel of experts for the African Union recommended Habré face trial in one of the 45 African signatories to the International Convention Against Torture rather than a European body.

Pay-as-you-go justice
No doubt, the government of Senegal has largely proved to be a roadblock in this process. In my mind, though, the reluctance of a sitting president to allow jurisdiction of a former head of state is understandable. But barely so. Human rights now plays a stronger role in the international community; foreign governments are willing to pony up for expensive trials; judiciaries scattered around the globe are becoming more professional. These issues, along with the fact that the list of former dictators living elsewhere is growing, justice is finding a way to many of these “untouchables.”

Underlying this issue is the concept of universal jurisdiction. It is an idea that gained judicial footing with the 2002 introduction of the International Criminal Court and the international war crimes tribunals following the crimes against humanity in former Yugoslavia and Rwanda. At heart universal jurisdiction claims that courts in one country can prosecute people for crimes and human rights violations that took place in other countries. Two major arguments inspire this issue: The first claims that some crimes are so heinous they provide a threat to the international community. Secondly, behind much of the world’s savagery lies impunity, the fact that leaders or actors know they will never be judged, much less tried, for their offenses.

Supporters of universal jurisdiction claim that these crimes, such as the Holocaust and the Rwanda genocide, demand that perpetrators be held accountable for their actions – not only for the sake of their victims, but also for innocent people in the future when different leaders may think twice before committing such acts.

Victor’s Justice
In the past couple years, the world has seen at least three well-known former dictators brought to justice: Slobodan Milosovic, Saddam Huessein and Charles Taylor. (Taylor’s not there yet, but he’s most likely on his way.) The cases against these strongmen often devolve into little more than show-trials, their critics argue, produced for a world bent on revenge, not on justice. Backers of Charles Taylor like to point out that human rights organizations claimed that Saddam Hussein received an unfair trial before he was hanged in Iraq. Ditto for Slobodan Milosovic, before he took his own life.

Another complaint these critics raise is finances. In West Africa, a region where governments cannot find the funds to hire enough school teachers, people don’t miss the irony of rich nations allocating vast sums for the prosecution of a handful of African criminals. A story in New African points this out:

The UN Special Court in Sierra Leone began work nearly four years ago. It has since spent more than $80m. This is mostly as salary for its mainly expatriate staff, amounting to $16m a year – more than that for the entire Sierra Leonean civil service. In its first fully operational year, the Court had a budget of $34m, in its second $29.9m, and in the third $25.5m. But there was not much to show for this expenditure until 29 March 2006 when the former Liberian president, Charles Taylor, was finally handed over to the Court in handcuffs. You can, therefore, imagine the joy that descended on the fortified compound of the Court. At long last, the “biggest trophy” was under lock and key in Cell No. 3, and the Court could show its paymasters in Washington, London and elsewhere why it was important to pay $80m for all that trouble.

In the case of Habré, Chandra Lekha Sriram, a Human Rights scholar at the University of East London School of Law, argues that these competing interests must be balanced before full justice can be served. First, Africans must control the legal fate of African leaders; secondly, it is also important to assuage the guilt of former colonizers (i.e. Belgium who wants to atone for its bloody historical record); and finally, the requirements of international law stipulates that certain crimes of great magnitude be tried, no matter where they occurred.

During the years of Senegal’s intransigence, what worried Sriram was not the debate of an African trial versus a European Trial for Habré, but the prospect of a “trial elsewhere vs. no trial at all.”

Habré on the docket
It is safe to say that even if Habré is never brought to trial, the world will by no means miss his years in government. According to Human Rights Watch, the overview of his rule reads like this:

His one party regime was marked by widespread violations of human rights and mass campaigns of violence against his own people. On occasions he undertook persecutions by making collective arrests and committing mass murders against different ethnic groups, especially when he perceived their leaders to be a threat to his regime. This was particularly true of the Sara and other groups from the South (in 1984) the Hadjaraï (in 1987) and the Zaghawa (in 1989).The exact number of Habré’s victims remains unknown to this day. In 1992, a Commission of Enquiry of the Chadian Justice Ministry, set up by his successor, accused the Habré government of 40’000 politically motivated murders and systematic torture.

The New York-based human rights organization, which assisted in the investigation against Habré, claims to have documentation on the details of 97 political killings, 142 cases of torture, 100 “disappearances” and 736 arbitrary arrests. The group also brought up a report by a French medical team treating more than 580 torture victims.

Amnesty International also initiated a very thorough report regarding the crimes of the Habré government:

Throughout his eight years in power, the authority of Hissein Habré, who himself came to power by force, was challenged by armed opposition groups. However, this context of violent clashes cannot justify the widespread and continual serious human rights violations committed in particular by the Chadian armed forces, both during and after military operations, and by officers of the Direction de la Documentation et de la Sécurité (DDS).

The Chadian government applied a deliberate policy of terror in order to discourage opposition of any kind. Actual and suspected opponents and their families were victims of serious violations of their rights. Civilian populations were the victims of extrajudicial executions, committed in retaliation for armed opposition groups' actions on the basis of purely ethnic or geographical criteria. Thousands of people suspected of not supporting the government were arrested and held in secret by the DDS. Thousands of people died on DDS premises - killed by torture, by the inhuman conditions in which they were detained or by a lack of food or medical care. Captured combatants and unarmed civilians were extrajudicially executed. Some were shot, others burned alive or poisoned, and others tortured to death or killed by starvation. In the face of this, the international community, including western governments which supported the Habré administration, largely remained silent. Even more seriously, some governments, including those of the United States and France, financed the security forces, supplied arms, trained soldiers and actively collaborated with the intelligence services.

What of his brothers in arms?
One reason the case may be so strong against Habré is that teams have had more than 15 years to work on his prosecution. But what does the world do with other African dictators who have left office?

Mengistu Haile Mariam, the former dictator of Ethiopia, was sentenced in absentia to life in prison for genocide in January. Shortly after his overthrow in 1991, Mengistu fled to Zimbabwe where he has lived in semi-obscurity. The government of Zimbabwe has refused to cooperate with prosecutors in Ethiopia.

On a lighter note, the New Internationalist presented a mock prosecution against then-president of Kenya Daniel arap Moi.

But as this list of African dictators remaining in office shows, sometimes it may be best for those seeking justice to hold their noses and offer immunity to long-serving despots. As ethically shaky as they appear, immunity deals may be the only way to kick these dinosaurs out the door.

Prosecuting people for crimes against humanity is not only about serving justice and correcting the wrongs of the past. It is about providing a correct historical account of what happened. Immunity deals often help to bring out the truth. Think of South Africa’s flawed, but valuable, Truth and Reconciliation Commission which offered immunity so the new government – and new society – could create a record of Apartheid’s abuses.

Providing immunity – and the promise of a handsome retirement package – may not allow for victims to put together their shattered lives, but it does allow for a country to pick up the pieces, and with this knowledge, finally move on. Think about Guinea, which definitely needs a change at the top. Ditto for Gabon and Zimbabwe. Immunity deals are messy, but in these cases they are most likely necessary.

Even in countries like Burkina Faso, where longtime rulers may not descend to the depths of these despots, a direction to the future needs to be found. My guess is that after twenty years in power, the only way to provide a smooth transition out of office is to offer a few unpleasant promises. We can’t hope that the $5 million Mo Ibrahim Prize can solve everything, can we?

Friday, November 23, 2007

Ghana’s “experts” speculate Burkina Faso imports GM tomatoes

Ghanaian agriculture experts speculate that imported tomatoes from Burkina Faso are genetically modified, says Accra’s Statesman.

They claimed that since farmers in Burkina Faso had continuously engaged in the production of genetically modified cotton and succeeded in accumulating wealth, they suspect the success of mass tomato production in the West African country could be as a result of the application of the GM seedlings.

At a news conference held in Accra on Tuesday by the peasant Farmers Association of Ghana experts informed that the country has for the past years been importing large tones of tomatoes from Burkina Faso and the trend has resulted in a decline in tomato production in the country.

The removal of subsidies on farm activities in Ghana and the commitment of the Burkinabe government's activities towards farm subsidization have created the large gap between the two countries.

John Dziwornu, National coordinator of Ghana national association of farmers and fishermen in an interaction with the statesman after the news conference said neither the Food and Drugs Board nor the newly established Bio safety committee of the Ghana Atomic Energy commission had the needed apparatus to determine whether a product contained genetically modified food. In that regard Ghanaians could be at risk of food contamination and promote obesity.

It sounds like these "experts" were no other than members of Ghanaian farming associations who offered little proof to their claims.

In 2003, Burkina Faso became the first third African country (after South Africa and Egypt) to test genetically modified cotton, Agence France Press reported in May. Burkina Faso is Africa’s largest cotton producer, and Sofitex, which controls roughly 85 percent of the country's cotton market, says it will not be ready to produce genetically modified cotton until 2009.

From my viewpoint, I’ll say that opposition to GM crops remains strong in Burkina Faso and many hurdles remain before farmers grow these crops.

I’ll also say that this announcement sounds like the first blast in an upcoming trade dispute between the two countries. If so, a quarrel of this sort would harm both nations.

According to the World Trade Organization, agriculture products make up the majority of Burkina Faso’s exports. While a good portion of this is cotton, Burkina Faso does have a large tomato industry and tomato trucks are often seen traveling towards Ghana. Ghana receives 60 percent of all Burkina Faso’s exports, far outpacing the European Union, the second largest destination with 15 percent.

By receiving 12 percent of Ghana’s exports, Burkina Faso is the third most popular destination for Ghanaian goods. One can often find tomato paste containers from Ghana in the local markets.

In Guinea, commission investigating civilian deaths takes the slow lane

The investigation into alleged killings of civilians by Guinean security forces is faltering, says IRIN:

Citizens and international observers are worried that if people's grievances are not addressed then the upcoming anniversary of January's deadly military crackdown could trigger more protests and violence.

At least 137 civilians were allegedly killed by the army and police during unprecedented citizen uprisings in January and February, international rights advocates say. One Guinean human rights group puts the number of civilians killed at at least 230.

The commission into the violence was created in May by a unanimous vote in parliament but the members of the commission have yet to be sworn in and begin their work.

"We do not have much hope that this commission will produce any positive result," Thierno Maadjou Sow, president of Guinea's Organisation of Human Rights (OGDH), told IRIN on 22 November.

"There are people who are implicated who are close to those in power so it is difficult for the justice system here to function properly," he added.

Taking it to the streets: Can the informal sector feel Africa's good economic vibe?

Remember those hawkers who were kicked off the streets of Dakar because they were creating a nuisance?

It’s been a busy few days for them. On Wednesday, Nov. 21, the hawkers protested the measure by taking to the streets, blocking traffic, attacking cars, burning tires, damaging business and ransacking the mayor’s office along with the local electricity company. Police responded with teargas and made an estimated 200 arrests. One report claims that two people were injured by bullets.

On Thursday, the government temporarily backed off the ban and allowed hawkers to return to the streets. The compromise could last until the end of December when the predominantly Muslim Senegal celebrates Eid-el-Adha, the Islamic festival, due this year around December 20.

It sounds like an eerie calm has descended upon Dakar.

The economy of informals
We never got into this during the past post, but it’s a good time to discuss the issues surrounding the informal sector.

When the term was first introduced, the “informal sector” encompassed the great many enterprises in the developing world not registered with a governmental authority. These entrepreneurs steered clear of their governments because:

  1. the process is too time consuming, sometimes taking up to 180 days in certain cases; or,
  2. The expense is too prohibitive, occasionally cost as much as three months salary.

These ideas were first popularized by the Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto who claimed that by forgoing licensing with the state, businesses remain locked outside the legal formal economy, unable to benefit from its rights and protections, like selling shares, applying for formal credit, possessing legal safeguards from fraud or purchasing insurance. Without these protections, business owners keep their firm underground, stunting its growth and paying heavily to steer clear of the long arm fo the state.

Due to the casual nature of these businesses finding their role in economies are obviously difficult. Researchers have settled on these statistics regarding the informal sector:

  • It makes up 72 percent of non-agriculture employment throughout sub-Saharan Africa;
  • 90 percent of the continents’ new jobs will be created in this sector;
  • In Senegal alone, the informal sector churns out more than 40 percent of the country’s GDP.

While impossible to back these claims up, one must read de Soto’s countless examples of the small boutiques, the little bars or even tailor shops tucked inside houses to understand the reach of the informal sector. (You could also just walk around my neighborhood.) If the governments of the developing world could find a way to bring in these businesses from the cold, de Soto argues, they would unlock a great potential in economic growth (and an increased tax base).

Many reasons exist for the massive growth of the informal sector. Researchers claim that African private sector isn’t creating many jobs. In Africa, generally, it is difficult and expensive to fire full-time workers, so employers hire contract workers or temps – which officially place them in the informal sector. (My feeling is that governments in countries with high unemployment rates making firing difficult to protect workers from malevolent employers who fire people at will just to engage others to work at lower wages.) Secondly, researchers point out that even 15 or so years after the World Bank’s structural adjustment programs, governments remain the largest employer in many African states. However, the government workforces have stagnated.

Temp Slave
In the case of Senegal, however, we’re speaking of informal workers, who account for 7 out of every 10 jobs in Africa. Like the informal businesses they most often work for, workers are locked out of government-sponsored privileges like sick leave, defense against wrongful termination and social protections like social security. Most often, informal workers are made up by self-employed folks who don’t collect salaries – if they don’t work, they don’t get paid.

Speaking generally, informal sector workers trail their formal counterparts in education levels and hours worked. Wages are normally lower for informal workers, and their incidences of poverty are often higher, especially for families whose primary breadwinner belongs to the informal sector

If collecting information on the informal sector is difficult, the transient nature of street vendors makes gathering data near impossible. Leveraging information from Benin and Niger and extrapolating it, researchers can say with some probability that street hawkers make up 30 percent of informal activity in urban settings around the region.

One interesting fact: The caveat of small sample sizes aside, researchers found that street trade incomes are generally larger than the legal minimum wage. Tellingly, at least 40 percent of street vendors in Niger and Benin claimed they were not searching for work in the formal sector. Of those who were, most preferred securing employment in a shop, which most likely also resides in the informal sector.

Here’s what I can add from what I know of street hawkers in Ouagadougou. Most are quite young, recent arrivals from the countryside and understand that toiling a few years in the sun will be paid off by (hopefully) landing a job in the shade. They remain diligent workers in expectation of catching the eye of a boutique owner who will hire them.

In the IRIN story, which covered the riot and its aftermath the most thoroughly, it didn’t come across these hawkers from Dakar were demanding employment aid – just the right to continue selling on the street. "We are not against [the president's idea], but on the condition they give us a space to set up our stalls and sell our things," Fallou Seck, delegate of the collective of street hawkers told IRIN. "We are citizens who have the right to work."

If the above findings on vendors’ relatively higher salaries are true, then we are not speaking of people working to survive, but successful entrepreneurs, a fact researchers point out comprise the majority of informal businesses. The overall theme of the media coverage, however, points to people living pretty much on the edge. Perhaps this stems from issues brought up in the Associated Press story of beggars, most likely talibé, providing much of the daily nuisance on the streets of Dakar.

Marchand ambulant, où tu vas?
Senegal’s government is literally between a rock and a hard place. The government claims between 50,000 and 100,000 vendors clog up Dakar’s streets, harassing pedestrians and slowing down the city’s already snail-pace traffic. This adds up to $226 million in losses per year for the government – although the stories don’t investigate that claim. While meeting with members of the vendors’ union, the Prime Minister and Dakar’s mayor proposed limiting street hawking to three specific geographic areas and opening up a few other streets on the weekends. They’d also like to register the vendors with the city.

Let’s take this issue from a different point of view. Granted, traffic in Dakar is terrible and the touts are worse than obnoxious. (Admittedly, I got pick pocketed in Dakar, but it was my fault.) The bottom line is street vendors fulfill a specific need. If they would disappear from downtown Dakar, how would the city’s thousands of professional commuters purchase cell phone minutes, newspapers and even fruit? For those who have sat in most bars and restaurants know that West Africans have long been accustomed to young vendors marketing products at tables. What will customers think if this service is taken from them?

Another issue I have not seen raised is how Africa’s expanding economy affects this issue. Senegal’s economy grew at healthy four percent between 2000 and 2006, but the country is bracing for widespread protests against raising prices and falling wages. (Public unions organized nonviolent marches Wednesday.) Is this proof that Senegal’s newfound economic expansion is not trickling down to the neediest? Or, is it true that workers with the lowest wages are last in line to feel the benefits of globalization?

Stay tuned for more. Somehow Africa must figure out how to benefit the growing members of the informal sector.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

How to learn to love biofuels and win this war

The argument exists: The production of eco-friendly biofuels could inadvertently create food security issues as farmers will rush off to plant sugar beets while ignoring growing maize or wheat or other crops humans consume.

However, the Government of Mozambique is pushing ahead with its first convertible biofuels plant. The plant, located just an hour north of Maputu, will be able to produce more than 5,000 litres of biodiesel an hour from plant oils, reports IRIN.

The facility remains idle because the quality of the organic crops are not up to standards, but the government remains committed to the idea.

The production of biofuels will reduce the country’s dependence on the expensive and volatile petroleum market, said the country’s Minister of Energy.

“They are labour intensive, and can generate agricultural and agro-industrial employment, self-employment and income, particularly in rural areas, where the incidence of poverty is highest," he told an international conference on biofuels in Brussels.

Tough talk on biofuels
Last month, Jean Ziegler, a UN consultant on food rights, called for a five-year ban on the production of food to fuel because the conversion of maize, wheat and corn to fuel was driving up food prices worldwide.

Ziegler used incendiary language to denounce the practice. "It is a crime against humanity to convert agriculturally productive soil into soil which produces foodstuffs that will be burned into [as] biofuel,” he said at a press conference.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organization recently referred to his comments as regrettable.

In other news, his much too-nuanced talk got him a rebuke from Africa Flak.

IRIN quoted Jeff Tschirley, head of the FAO's Environment Assessment and Management Unit: "FAO strongly feels that food security and environmental considerations must be fully addressed before making investments or policy decisions, and we are actively working to ensure this happens.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch
However, at least two development consultants claim that small farmers will not be able to participate in marketing biofuels because of markets of scale: These farmers grow crops like sorghum on small plots, but biofuel plants like the one waiting completion near Maputu will rely on large plantations with large labor forces.

Another problem facing these farmers is poor infrastructure – which coincidentally is a major contributor to food security – where farmers’ crops are stuck in rural areas, far away from food markets and biofuel plants.

Marcos Freire, a project coordinator at the the Mozambique Institute of Agrarian Investigation, said urban dwellers will feel the effect of higher food prices. This won’t be so bad, he said, because farmers will be paid more for their work.

Algeria and Mali step up cooperation border security

As a means to finding a political solution to growing lawlessness along their common border, the governments of Algeria and Mali agreed to set aside a €1.75 million fund to bolster security.

The English edition of Echorouk online reported the two countries met in Algiers in an attempt to ward off cross-border attacks, cut down on illegal immigrants passing through the region and stamp out smuggling from either side of the border. This was the tenth time the two countries met since 1995.

“The two sides agreed to step up security notably between the southern Algerian towns of Tamanrasset, Adrar and Illizi and the northern Malian towns of Kidal, Gao and Tomboctou, on the other side of the border,” the paper said.

In a recent interview with the newspaper, Hadj Ibrahim Ghouma, a Tuareg leader in southern Algeria, pressed the governments to expand armed security forces of locals on the increasingly lawless border region.

In view of the instability in the region, it has become more than necessary to involve directly the local residents, that is, the Touaregs themselves in the protection of the country’s southern borders with the setting up of armed vigilante groups operating, of course, under the close supervision of the National Popular Army.

Such armed vigilante groups will be in charge of combing every inch of the southern areas of Illizi province without any respite to ward off any cross-border terrorist attack.

These vigilante groups should be made up of local Touaregs whose advantage is to know every nook and corner of the Algerian south.

I should remind you that such armed self-defence groups called “Maharrissat” did exist in the 60’s and 70’s and did a rather good job by clearing the southern areas of all banditry before being dissolved abruptly by the Authorities in the 80’s.

Their reinstatement at this juncture will be, I guess, a good thing in view of the unpredictable situation now prevailing in the south.

This is your country on drugs

Why does small Guinea-Bissau have such a big drug problem? According to Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, this is why:

To appreciate the malaise of a country like Guinea Bissau, imagine that you are a policeman there and are tipped off about a drug shipment coming in by plane. First, you have to find a car to drive to the landing strip, and get official permission and money to fill up the gas tank. There is no way to call for backup without a two-way radio and no electricity to charge your mobile phone. If you reach the scene of the drop in time, the next challenge is to build a makeshift roadblock to stop the truck from off-loading the cocaine. Strangely, the truck's driver is wearing an army uniform and is not too concerned when you seize his cargo. You take him to the police station in the back of the car - without handcuffs, because you don't have any. A senior government official intervenes to try to secure his release. The police chief refuses, and is so incorruptible that he sleeps beside the drugs to prevent the multi-million-dollar evidence from disappearing. Later that week, the suspect is released into the care of the military, and the police chief is fired.

This is a true story. And it is not an isolated case. Nor is Guinea Bissau the only country in the region vulnerable to serious organised crime. Convoys of heavily armed four-wheel-drive vehicles travel at high speed across the Sahel region of Western Africa, bringing hasish from Morocco via Mauritania, Mali, and Niger to Chad and beyond. This drug trafficking equivalent of the Dakar Rally covers 4, 000 kilometers of inhospitable terrain, across regions controlled by rebel groups and terrorists associated with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb. These forces are probably profiting from the drug trade. At the very least, their collusion enables the traffickers to obtain fuel, spare parts, accommodation, and guides.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The Guess Who: UNAIDS and its small problem with statistics -- and the truth

UNAIDS, the United Nations coordinating organization to combat AIDS, admitted it overestimated the size of the world-wide HIV-AIDS epidemic and will drastically slash the reported number of people suffering from the disease.

The Geneva-based organization calls these reductions a “revision of estimates” made after reviewing its research and monitoring methodologies. The adjustments, however, are substantial, bringing into question a decades worth of AIDS advocacy.

UNAIDS admits it overestimated the number of people with new infections at 2.5 million, a cut of more than 40 percent from last year’s calculation of 4.3 million. More startling is the reduction of last year’s assessment that 40 million people were infected with the disease. This statistic now reads 33 million.

Also, according to the group, the number of people dying each year from HIV-AIDS dropped from an estimated 2.9 million in 2006 to a revised 2.1 million.

UNAIDS officials claim their reassessment of the disease’s reach in India led to the greatest reduction in its prevalence and mortality rates. The advocacy group also admitted that “important revisions of estimates” took place in Angola, Kenya, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

Alarming issues
UNAIDS statistics have long been questioned by researchers and health care advocates. Today’s Washington Post provides a takeaway message from the group’s announcement:

Having millions fewer people with a lethal contagious disease is good news. Some researchers, however, contend that persistent overestimates in the widely quoted U.N. reports have long skewed funding decisions and obscured potential lessons about how to slow the spread of HIV. Critics have also said that U.N. officials overstated the extent of the epidemic to help gather political and financial support for combating AIDS.

"There was a tendency toward alarmism, and that fit perhaps a certain fundraising agenda," said Helen Epstein, author of "The Invisible Cure: Africa, the West, and the Fight Against AIDS." "I hope these new numbers will help refocus the response in a more pragmatic way."

Over the past decade, global spending on AIDS has grown by a factor of 30, reaching as much as $10 billion a year.

But in its role in tracking the spread of the epidemic and recommending strategies to combat it, UNAIDS has drawn criticism in recent years from Epstein and others who have accused it of being politicized and not scientifically rigorous.

For years, UNAIDS reports have portrayed an epidemic that threatened to burst beyond its epicenter in southern Africa to generate widespread illness and death in other countries. In China alone, one report warned, there would be 10 million infections -- up from 1 million in 2002 -- by the end of the decade.

Peter Piot, the Belgian doctor who formed UNAIDS in 1995 recently lashed back at critics who, he says, worry too much about his groups’ estimates, which diverts attention from solving the AIDS riddle.

In a recent speech, he claimed:

"The challenge is ... complicated by the mixed messages circulating around the world," Piot said. "Denialist statements such as that 'UNAIDS overestimates the size of the epidemic,' and 'There's too much money for AIDS' don't help, not least because there's clearly a massive gap between what's needed and what's available."

Methodological questions persist
The scientific community has long held misgivings about the methodology UNAIDS uses to gather its prevalence estimates. Throughout much of the past decade, the group primarily relied on sentinel surveys, which monitor the prevalence of HIV in women who attend: 1) prenatal clinics; or, 2) clinics for the treatment of sexually transmitted diseases.

By only tabulating AIDS rates of sexually-active patients who visit health clinics, UNAIDS researchers admitted they wanted to track the people or groups most likely contribute to the expansion of the disease. This will provide them with a leg up when combating a concentrated malady like HIV-AIDS. Another advantage of this system is that these surveys could be taken anonymously because the clinics are settings where blood is often drawn.

Critics point out that UNAIDS long ignored the common practice of household surveys, which make use of large survey sizes in discrete geographic regions. (One of the problems with STD clinics is they most often reside in large cities, although much of Africa’s population still lives in rural areas.) Because household-based surveys are more thorough and time consuming, they are not susceptible to the wild variations of the sentinel surveys.

An example of inconsistent results recently took place in Burkina Faso. UNAIDS, using 2001 sentinel studies from various health clinics around Burkina Faso, reported the national AIDS rate stood at 6.5 percent, a much higher rate than anyone predicted. The next year, UN researchers conducted a similar study and saw the rate fall to 4.2 percent. After repeating the study once again in 2003, UNAIDS reported the average tumbled down to 2.3 percent.

About the same time, a different group of researchers published the results from a household-based survey which estimated the national prevalence rate to be 1.8 percent. Another benefit of household-based surveys is they provide researchers with important geographical information on the spread of AIDS. The researchers found that only 1.3 percent (on average) of rural people are infected, along with 3.6 percent of people living in urban areas. Yet, even these numbers can be deceiving: In the predominately Muslim rural north, for example, only .1 percent of the population is afflicted with HIV-AIDS, while up to 3.7 percent of people in the far southern part of the country. The study also found that prevalence rate for AIDS in the capital Ouagadougou to be as high as 4.2 percent.

Looking deeper
While UNAIDS should be applauded for acknowledging its shoddy science, I still have serious reservations with the group’s announcement.

Most importantly, UNAIDS kept with its sentinel surveys long after the knew these methods provided exaggerated claims of the spread of the disease. According to its own publication, the 2007 AIDS Epidemic Update, the group continually overestimated AIDS prevalence rates in 25 different African countries. (These rates include all adults between 15 and 49 years.)

Some of the “overestimates” were minimal, like the UNAIDS .8 percent rate of prevalence for 2004 in Senegal while a household survey found a .7 percent prevalence rate.

Some figures were staggering.

  • In Botswana, researchers reported the AIDS prevalence rate in 2004 to be 25.2 percent, one of the highest in the world. That same year UNAIDS claimed the rate to be 38 percent. In 2005, the UNAIDS said the rate fell to 24.1 percent;
  • In Central African Republic, UNAIDS announced the 2004 prevalence rate to be 13.5 percent. A 2006 household survey predicted the rate to be 6.2 percent. In 2006 UNAIDS reduced its estimate to 10.7 percent;
  • In South Africa, researchers claim that in 2005, some 16.1 percent of the adult population was infected with the disease. UNAIDS put that number at 20.9 percent in 2004 and 18.8 percent in 2006.

Reviewing this data, one can see the group had plenty of time to revise and update its methodology. A cynic may even point out that as researchers began to lob criticism at UNAIDS’ findings, the group slowly began downsizing its estimates. If that's true, why did it take until 2006 for this to begin happening?

This is a group responsible for a $2.6 billion budget (in 2006-07), an organization that refers to itself as the UN’s coordinating body in the fight against AIDS. One would think it would want the most thorough, most geographic and gender specific information available regarding the disease it purports to fight.

The problem with these high estimates is that UNAIDS also views itself as a major portal in AIDS fundraising. Of course, the group never referred to its questionable statistics when it had its jar out for donations.

That didn't stop officials from making wild claims. In 2005, UNAIDS released a report claiming a “looming funding gap of $18 billion for H.I.V./AIDS in developing nations between 2005 and 2007.” This shortfall, the group said, could hurt access to prevention programs against HIV transmission and would jeopardize the antiretroviral treatment to 75 percent of individuals clinically qualified to receive these medicines in 2008 and slow down the progress made in providing support for AIDS orphans and other children affected by the disease.

The short version: If we don't get you're money, people are going to die.

Data-free research
Regular readers of this blog (my mother and some guy in Minneapolis, Minnesota) will no doubt understand my obligation to puncture what I feel is time-honored, but reality-free stereotypes of Africa. One of the most hallowed of those myths is that the continent of Africa doubles as a hospice for AIDS patients. This legend, perpetrated in part by the media of all stripes and fashionable personalities of all shades, provides for the rest of us a perfect symbol of Africa: A continent full of emergencies like AIDS, the slow, silent killer, producer of death, leaving only widows and orphans in its wake. Yet the subtext remains the same: Africans are too dumb, too foolish, too conservative and too horny to understand what the rest of the world already knows: AIDS kills! Stay away from it.

From Africa to the rest of world, the message clearly remains the same: We are constantly in trouble and we could use some more help.

Of course, UNAIDS, a long perpetrator of this myth for its private gain, has come out of the darkness and (somewhat) begged our forgiveness. In the coming weeks and months we will judge the contrition of this most high-paid and well oiled group. I guess they could start by merely telling the truth and quit being so damned arrogant.

Update: Added link to Washington Post story