Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Wanted: Sponsors for African Nations Tourney

As promised: More on commodities traders and their alleged role in rising prices

A Washington Post piece today backs up yesterday’s inquiry here into the role of new investors played in the rise of the commodities bubble. For farmers wanting to sell winter wheat, when the market price today is the below the value of the same wheat in the futures markets, Steven Pearlstein argues, something is amiss.

Interesting factoid or smoking gun? One economist claimed that during 2006 and 2007, as much as $100 million in investments per day was entering commodities markets. By February and March of this year that number shot up to $1 billion. More numbers. The value of all derivative contracts traded in the Spring of 2005: $3 trillion. Today: $8 trillion.

From Pearlstein:

Speculators have always played a prominent role in commodities markets, but in the past year, they have literally overwhelmed them, causing a dramatic increase in trading volume, volatility and prices and disrupting many of the normal relationships between producers and end-users.

Many of these were the same hedge funds and hot-money investors who had gorged on sovereign debt of developing countries, tech and telecom stocks, subprime mortgages and commercial real estate and now needed a new thing to focus on. Others -- including, it is said, some sovereign wealth funds -- looked to commodities as a hedge against the falling dollar. But perhaps the biggest push came from pension funds, foundations and university endowments whose managers had all gone to the same conferences and read the same academic papers, suggesting that a basket of commodity futures would provide a good hedge against stock and bond market declines.

To meet the needs of these investors, Wall Street and Chicago's commodities houses came up with all sorts of new vehicles, including exchange traded funds, index funds and structured investment vehicles -- the commodities equivalent of mortgage pools and asset-backed securities.

Of course there’s the small question of what to do about this. The problem remains, as Pearlstein reports, nobody at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, or its regulators, feel that these traders had much impact on commodities prices. (How responsible are traders for changing diets and tightening food supplies?) Pearlstein fears that if the CFTC says anything about the role of speculation, the U.S. Congress may want to take a look at regulatory reforms, something no trader could live with. It is an election year in the U.S., after all.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Senegal’s Wade bets local rice can make the country self-sufficient by 2015

As more than 1,000 people marched in Dakar to protest high cost of living, Senegal’s President Abdoulaye Wade claims he has created a plan to make the country self-sufficient in rice by 2015.

He calls for a massive crop expansion and irrigation program that will increase rice production six-fold to 600,000 metric tons. The government estimates that 250,000 hectares of land are currently free in northern part of the country and the Casamance River valley. Irrigation shouldn’t be as difficult because rice is presently grown near the edge of the Senegal, Saloum and Casamance rivers, and irrigated from recessional flooding.

IRIN admitted that most agriculture experts they spoke to gave their tepid support for Wade’s targets, but nobody came out and guaranteed they would be met. One expert claimed the biggest problem will be increasing yields, but the Minister of Agriculture argued that Senegal’s rice yield of six metric tons per hectare is better than Thailand’s. (The United Nation Food and Agriculture Organization isn’t too certain about the government’s numbers.)

Then there’s the issue of money: One estimate calls for $335 million in funding is necessary for infrastructure costs and leveling the land. That amount presently equals the country’s entire agriculture budget.

Mark supplying credit for rice producers and processors as another issue. Like most West African farmers, Senegal’s rice producers buy supplies on credit and then payback the loans when they sell their crop. However, those with bad credit have been denied anymore loans, basically kicking them out of future rice production. One way to break the credit log jam would be for investors and donors to establish cooperative banks to work with farmers of all credit histories, says the Council on Non-Governmental Organizations and Development Support.

The biggest obstacle facing this project is that few Senegalese eat local rice. That's because local rice is hard to find in the country’s markets because it carries a bigger price tag than imported rice from Thailand and Vietnam, who together control 75 percent of Senegal’s market. As world rice prices have hit record highs, people must shell out more to continue eating the grain.

Rice dependency remains a problem throughout the continent, says the Alliance for a Green Revolution in Africa. A little more than half of the rice produced in Africa is consumed by local people, the group says. In many countries, rice imports have increased lockstep with rice demand. The group says it is working with farmers from different countries to create stress-tolerant rice seeds that are palatable to local tastes.

Does Ghana need an affirmative action law for women?

In the Ghanaian Chronicle, I. K. Gyasi says no tokenism is necessary for Ghana’s women.

I admit that Ghanaian women still face obstacles and suffer injustices. Ideas of male physical and mental superiority, inhuman widowhood rites, unjust accusations of witchcraft against older women with consequent confinement and even torture of such women, attempts to deprive widows and their children of a portion of the deceased husband's property, female genital mutilation and other injustices still plague our women, whether educated or not.

However, those agitators who create the impression by implications that our women have achieved nothing and that there is a deliberate policy to keep women down ought to face two realities.

In the first place, there is no official national policy that deliberately sets out to keep our women down. Secondly, Ghanaian women, both the educated and uneducated, have demonstrated beyond all reasonable doubt that they have what it takes to make a success of their lives without affirmative action or tokenism.

A common charge brought up by women's advocates is lack of education or lack of educational advancement for our women.

…Of course, I am willing to admit that, perhaps, here and there, a female appointment may have been the result of political patronage or some other consideration. But can we honestly say that, if that is even true, some male appointments have also not been the result of political patronage or some other considerations?

In any case, did the women not have to be qualified first? Were they appointed because they had beautiful faces or could talk?

As I admitted above, there are still obstacles that slow down or prevent women's advancement in certain areas. But women's rights advocates should accentuate the positives by showing how far they have come instead of indulging in self-pity and self-denigration. They can make it if they want to.

Cherry tomatoes from the Gulf of Guinea?

From New York Times.

Italian researchers report that the nutritional content of tomatoes — cherry tomatoes, in this case — improves when the plants are irrigated with diluted seawater.

Cristina Sgherri and colleagues at the University of Pisa grew cherry tomatoes with normal irrigation water and with water diluted with 12 percent seawater. They found that the seawater tomatoes were about 60 percent smaller by weight, on average, than those grown with regular water. But the seawater tomatoes were tastier, with higher acidity and a higher concentration of sugars.

Where the seawater tomatoes really stood out, though, was in concentrations of antioxidants, including vitamins C and E and chlorogenic acid. The findings were reported in The Journal of Agricultural Chemistry.

Researchers are presently looking towards Sicily, but could the same thing be done in coastal West Africa?

Monday, April 28, 2008

The effect of globalization on world food prices

Mauritania, a country that only produces 30 percent of the food necessary to feed it’s people, is feeling attacked on all sides. Sure, it’s not news that global food prices have risen, some say by 45 percent this year alone. But for Mauritanians months away from the nearest harvest, the Washington Post reports, the situation on the ground is worsening. The story noted a sharp increase in the sale of livestock, meaning farmers are selling wealth – and milk producers – to pay for food.

While poor weather has hurt crop production and the U.S. government’s decision to set aside corn for biofuels has adversely affected food prices, the story ponders what role has been played by globalization. First, globalization has tied food markets together, a mostly positive thing in places like West Africa. On the other hand, it has failed because of the mostly one-sided relationship between rich and poor countries.

Drive the money changers out of the Co-op
For instance, in a recent Spiegel article, questions are being raised about the role being played by commodities speculators. Some say financial investors have crashed the party of the once cloistered world of commodities buyers. They’ve begun taking advantage – and hugely profiting – from commodity pricing mechanisms by temporarily purchasing many futures of say, wheat or rice, at very low prices, driving demand (and prices) up, guarantying the seller a profit, but wreaking havoc in the real world. Their victories have brought other investors on board. With more people now betting on staple foods, even the Commodity Trading Commission has begun to recognize its possible effect on world food prices by driving up demand and (possibly) leading to the hoarding of foodstuffs. In their defense, investors claim that they arrived at the market not to artificially drive up prices but because they saw that world food stocks were not going to meet demand, so they merely “bet” that prices would increase.

Subsidies, anyone?
Another sticky issue remains subsidies, where rich countries continue to protect their farmers through expensive and complicated financial assistance schemes while demanding poorer nations pry open their markets to rich-world manufacturers. In the U.S., the tentatively agreed new five-year farm bill – quick caveat: it is by no means complete or ratified – appears to be retaining the $5.2 billion subsidy program intact along with $1.8 billion in tax cuts at a time that U.S. farmers (or U.S. farm companies who earn most subsidies) are milking big profits from higher food prices. In defense of farmers: The amount of their new profits is debatable: labor, equipment and transportation costs have all risen along with the price of crops.

Trade, the Mauritanian example
Trading mechanisms are also fraught with issues. The Mauritanian government recently signed a fishing deal with the European Union, which agreed to reduce catches in Mauritanian waters by more than 40 percent while dropping its royalty fee 10 percent to €86 million per year for five years. In the meantime, few are asking what will happen to the the country’s fishing stocks – especially octopus and coastal shrimp – which are nearly fully exploited, the legacy of poor resource management in the 1990s when 125 boats trolled the waters for fish. The new agreement sets aside 43 licenses for international trawlers.

As local artisan fishing boats have long played David to international Goliaths, they create a tremendous amount of employment – one estimate has local fishers responsible for creating at 30,000 jobs – and provide nearly €80 million in foreign currency.

Thus, the government of Mauritania is in a wicked predicament: earn much needed cash today while gambling against tomorrow’s fish stocks. At least one environmental group claimed the best way to conserve numbers of octopus is to make them only available for the local fleet, which still employs inefficient methods, but will increase demand for the fish, create many new jobs and bring in boatloads of cash for Mauritanians. Some of the fish could be put aside to better feed the population, which is now under food emergency. Of course, all this will mean tearing up the fishing treaty with the European Union and potentially destabilizing the government’s most profitable foreign export, worth 15 percent of its GDP.

With these issues in mind, the European Union agreed to push out the boundary where its boats can fish; set aside monies to develop the Mauritanian fishing industry. One EU commissioner claimed the treaty will continue to look at fish numbers to insure European boats do not continue to over fish; strengthen monitoring of catches, and help police pirate fishing; Finally, EU ship captains will promise to increase the number of Mauritanian locals employed on their boats.

More aid = less trade?
One economist – Ghana’s George Ayittey, argues that for decades foreign donor schemes hard-headily ignored the importance of agriculture even though roughly seven out of ten Africans earn at least some of their living in this sector. If development actors dealt with farmers at all it was to push them to produce cash crops for sale on the international market, an even more questionable action because between 1972 and 2002 most commodity values fell by 70 percent. Ayittey claims that if farmers are free to grow what they want, and they are given support to upgrade transportation and food processing infrastructure, not only will farming become more profitable, but it will lead to development.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Will China be the donor who cares?

Interesting quick take on Chinese – African relations from Africa-Asia Confidential:

When China evacuated 400 construction workers from Mongomo in Equatorial Guinea in early April, it marked the culmination of a labour dispute with a difference. In several African countries, notably Zambia and Congo-Kinshasa, Chinese companies have been criticised for their treatment of local staff. In other African countries, like Sudan, Ethiopia and Nigeria, Chinese technical staff have been kidnapped by dissident groups. But in Equatorial Guinea the tension was generated by the local authorities clashing with labourers imported from China.

What can Africa learn from Brazil’s resource management techniques?

File this under: Peripheral issues of rising food costs. In Brazil, where we’ve long heard tales of falling Amazon trees to make room for lumbering, gassy cows, but now environmental groups are teaming up with farmers and rancher types to create certification systems for eco-sponsible soy and beef production. The argument: If farmers can make money becoming eco-friendly, they’ll have more incentive to be eco-friendly.

There’s a long-standing debate within environmental groups on how much voice to give business interests. In this story, however, the argument goes that giving ranchers a seat at the table will insure that environmental laws could be better followed.

The same goes for logging companies. One of the issues facing Brazil is that many of its forests are privately owned, making environmental laws difficult to enforce. Brazil’s President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva offered land concessions to timber companies promising to practice proper forest management on the country’s still substantial public forests. It’s an important – and forward thinking – step because world timber demand is projected to remain high, making the depth and breadth of the Amazon basin looking increasingly attractive for timber concerns everywhere. Setting the foundation for proper forest management could make things easier in the long run.

Similar issues are affecting Benin. (See, I told you.) The World Rainforest Movement – viewpoint: “Community-Based Forest Management is not Only Possible it is Essential” – argues the country’s growing population has driven up demand for arable land. One village sitting within the lgbodja region has made available 5,000 hectares to initiate forest management. That, along with hedgehog breeding and bee keeping, may provide alternative economic activities that will keep villagers from cutting down more trees to plant crops. The plan is to move to other villages in the area. Another worry is that non-local farmers have been encroaching on the forest land, cutting trees to plant. As tenants, these roving farmers cannot plant trees. Conflict could be alleviated if the tenants are also given a stake in matters.

In Cameroon, we can see the counter-factual. (What happens when nothing is done?) Rapid forest degradation can be blamed on industrial logging without any national or local oversight. Environmental groups blame the government which looks the other way as industrial logging companies use a free hand over the land. The end result: Cameroon is Africa’s leading timber exporter with little affect seen in the country’s GDP.

Not so fast, says a World Bank report. Slash-and-burn agriculture and fuel wood demand could be responsible for up to 90 percent of the country’s deforestation. But really, the report goes on to say, they are secondary effects of tropical timber harvesting. The issue is that timber industry activities are closely linked to happenings in the agriculture sector – which must deal with growing population and low productivity – and the political economy: namely, a lack of commitment to reform from the government, especially the executive branch; opposition to reform from key actors – foreign logging companies and Parliament – and, taking these issues into account, failure by actors to devise a compatible forest strategy outside of “give it all away for whiskey and prostitutes.” (I made that last part up.)

The vacuum we call pain and suffering in Africa

In a post yesterday, I tried to broaden our humble debate by illustrating a social issue taking place in a country going through somewhat the same situation as some African states. In this case, we tracked a story that investigated what changes arise in China in families that can now purchase their first cars?

Let’s be certain: I am not implying that African countries completely resemble the changes in China – how could anyplace? But, I’ll argue some similarities exist. For instance, a majority of countries in sub-Saharan Africa now enjoy their greatest spurt of economic growth in decades. While debate certainly exists on the viability of growth as an indicator on how economic performance affects all levels of society, some people are certainly making more money than before. (Just look at the new fancy boutiques opening up in Ouagadougou – of all places! – for that one.)

So, let them eat cars? I think not. (More anecdotal proof: There are certainly more cars in Ouagadougou now than when I first arrived here in 2003; it can’t be all those kids traipsing in from villages buying them.) The point is African issues don’t happen in a vacuum. Broadly speaking, what happens on the continent may appear worse and more dreadful than issues afflicting the rest of the world. I’d argue the opposite. Problems facing African governments are very similar to issues that worry every other government. Job creation, for one. Environmental management, for another. Immigration, for a third. And so on.

For those who’ll pipe up and say, "What about Darfur or former-Zaire or Zimbabwe?" or "Why does genocide and funny-mustached dictators and resource rape always take place in Africa?" To that I say, put down your newspaper and/or quit opening junk mail from Mia Farrow or Jeffrey Sachs or whomever. (Yes, their calendars and magnets are very pretty, but throw that tripe away.)

Anyway, I’d like to start investigating some issues reported in other places and see how they could apply to sub-Saharan Africa or West Africa or Benin or wherever.

Our next post is about resource management in Brazil. Hold on to your hats.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Ouagadougou calling: Meningitis’ deaths in Burkina Faso top 800, arrives in capital city

At the end of March, the Burkinabé government had tallied 650 deaths due to meningitis throughout the country. The ministry of health has now listed the death toll at 800 out of more than 8,000 cases, says Agence France Press.

What’s worse, meningitis mortalities have been reported in Ouagadougou, the nation’s capital of somewhere around 1.3 million (depending on the day). The meningitis bacteria usually attacks the pharynx, and is usually transmitted through close contact through sneezing, coughing, sharing utensils or kissing, making those who live in close contact (like in Ouagadougou) or in crowded areas like markets (as in Ouagadougou) more susceptible.

However, the most affected areas are centered near Burkina Faso’s border with Cote d’Ivoire.

Here’s more on the disease that killed more than 1,300 Burkinabé last year.

If a tree falls in Liberia, who will profit?

Three companies in Liberia are getting ready to begin logging, creating jobs and funding basic services, the government and other development agencies say.

The United Nations Security Council banned Liberia from exporting timber in 2003, after learning warlords were diverting profits to purchase weapons, expanding fighting in that country and Sierra Leone. At that point, timber sales made up 20 percent of the country’s GDP, increasing significantly from 6 percent more than a decade before.

A World Bank forestry export working in Liberia told IRIN that logging will begin bringing in nearly $2 for the Liberian government this year, but that amount will jump to $26 million by the end of 2010. As part of the reform agreed to by the government to have the timber ban lifted, an international group of development agencies, the World Bank and USAID will monitor logging and profits to avoid illegal logging and the siphoning of revenue.

A group of internal and West African environmental organizations argue that the international group nor the Liberian government has not been stringent enough in properly vet those groups and individuals applying for logging licenses. One particular problem they see is loopholes in the rules against awarding contracts to “those who have aided and abetted civil disturbances.”

As former Liberian-based human rights campaigner Shelby Grossman points out in her blog, the groups are most likely speaking about Maryland Wood Processing Industries, owned by Abbas Fawas, a Lebanese man that allegedly worked closely with Charles Taylor. There’s a whole host of ugly stuff about Abbas on the internet; absent from the trial against Charles Taylor, his name does appear in testimony at the Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Most importantly, it is unknown whether Abbas has applied for a permit to continue logging.

It should be remembered that the Liberian president recently tabled a law that would make it illegal for foreigners to own business in 26 sectors, a move supported by most of the local business community. The bill came about over fears of Lebanese power within Liberian economy.

In their press release, the environmental groups also claim that the country -- like other West African nations -- has not passed a proper community rights law that will codify who exactly will profit from the extraction of resources, a noted method to insure rural development.

In Mauritania, the future's so bright, they gotta wear shades?

Mauritania’s first democratically elected civilian president in nearly five decades, Sidi Mohamed Abdallahi Ould Cheikh, recently celebrated his first year in office. IRIN has an interesting piece on the changes he’s brought to the country and the obstacles he faces.

He has allowed long-banned political and religious associations, a very popular move. Islamist-leaning parties like Tawassoul and the Rally for National Reform and Development are now well established.

Cheikh campaigned for the post on a pledge to end slavery in the country, and signed that into law less than nine months ago. While it’s immediately hard to tackle such an institutional problem, at least one human rights campaigner gives him props for trying. Another bonus is thelong-standing issue of nearly 20,000 Mauritanian refugees living in Senegal has also begun to be seriously addressed.

His more limited success has come in the battle against corruption and modernizing the public sector. All this happens with the backdrop of Mauritania’s 2001 discovery of large oil deposits, which has yet to really pay off. The government recently estimated the unemployment rate to hover around 32 percent. Things are made worse by the world’s rising food prices, especially in light that sandy, dry and hot Mauritania can only grow 30 percent of the food stocks necessary to feed the population.

Adding more economic pressure to the country is what the Western media perceives as a growing terrorist threat, especially after four French tourists were killed and another wounded on Christmas eve by members of an Al-Qaeda linked terror group. The killings led to the cancellation of the Paris-Dakar rally, usually an economic boom for the country. In early February, gunmen attacked the Israeli embassy in Nouckchott, wounding three people. The tourism industry continues to suffer from the fallout of these attacks.

Another pressing issue is the pan-West African problem of drug smugglers using the long, deserted West African coastline as a port to transfer drugs to Europe. If smugglers, who rely on corrupt military and government officials, become entrenched in the country, it could lead to instability and lawlessness.

Another radio closure in Niger

Niger’s Higher Council for Communication closed down for an “indefinite period” an Agadez-based privately-owned radio station for allegedly broadcasting interviews with people who have been the victims of human rights violations by government soldiers, Reporters Without Borders said.

Raliou Hamed-Assaleh, manager of Sahara FM, told the Paris-based journalist organization that he was summonsed to Niamey April 18 after a northern-based governor and chief of police accused the station of broadcasting “dangerous” statements and appealing to ethnic hate and violence.

He told the group: “All we did was broadcast an account of something that happened.”

The government also told Hamed-Assaleh the station could face possible prosecution.

Amnesty International, in an April 3 report, cited a new wave of executions and forced disappearances of civilians committed by government troops fighting the Tuareg-led Movement for Nigerian Justice.

On August 24, 2007, the Nigerien government decreed a state of alert – which has been extended to May 24 – making it illegal for journalists to quote members of the rebellion or for reporters to speak with them. The ban also covers any live debates regarding the military and political situation in the north.

On March 12, the government suspended local broadcasts of Radio France International after the French network held a day of solidarity for correspondent Moussa Kaka, who has been in prison since September 20 for alleged ties with members of the rebellion. Kaka was recently brought before a judge protesting the government’s case against him centers on phone and wire taps, which are not admissible under state law.

Buy that first car and the rest will follow

A story about upward mobility – in China. Since 2000, car sales in China have increased eightfold, and a good portion of that increase comes from people who have never owned a car before.

Anecdotally you’d think the increased mobility of having an automobile would rapidly transform Chinese culture, especially in rural areas. It has. The biggest difference? Better chances to meet girls and marry.

In Africa, where some people are beginning to consistently make more money, I can’t prove it but I have to believe that car sales are also increasing. So, Africans you have this to look forward to.

Biofuel wavering by governments leads to uncertainty in shipping industry

Will governments continue to use biofuel in the face of criticism? It’s not certain – the United Kingdom is sending mixed messages while the U.S. continues ahead, for the time being.

But this uncertainty has lead has created a minor shortage in the fuel tanker industry, which must transport biodeisel on special chemical carriers. Ship owners would like the U.K. government to allow biodiesel to be transported on oil tankers.

For now, ship owners are standing pat – until things clear up. That means ship owners won't be investing in building or transforming current tankers for the near future, possibly creating a transportation bottleneck down the road.

In Britain, the government recently introduced a law that requires at least 2.5 percent of gasoline sold in stations to come from crops, such as soy or palm oil. The sticking point is the 2010 threshold, which pegs 5 percent of gasoline deriving from these plants. Prime Minister Gordon Brown has admitted the government is currently reviewing the 2010 rules. Also up in the air is Britain’s involvement in the European Union rules that state by 2020, 10 percent of gasoline will be plant based.

In the United States, where an estimated 80 ethanol refineries are under construction, the government stipulates that by 2012, 7.5 billion gallons of gasoline must be made by ethanol. By 2017, that should increase to 35 billion gallons. Presently, the U.S. consumes about 385 million gallons of gas per day.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

I have a new post at Voices Without Votes where we try something different and attempt to jump more quickly into the media cycle by posting bloggers' opinions directly after a big news story, like last night's whipping in Pennsylvania. I am not certain how well it worked -- we didn't find too many citizen media types with posts just hours after the results were in -- but the style of the post itself is something different for the site.

UN Report on the security situation in Cote d’Ivoire

From Secretary-General, dated April 15.

The good news is the overall security situation stable, along with the country’s budding political atmosphere. However, the report raises worries about the disarmament about the northern-based Forces Nouvelles and militias in the western part of the country. Violent crime remains a concern, especially armed robberies.

In the political arena, the opposition party Rassemblement des republicans held its convention in Abidjan and named Allassane Dramane Ouattara as the party’s candidate for the presidential election scheduled for November 30. The ruling Front populaire ivorien held a rally in the former rebel capital Bouake.

Prime Minister Guillaume Soro attended a Women’s Day celebration in President Laurent Gbagbo’s hometown, and claimed the northern-based prime minister has a good working relationship with the president.

Civil society groups still clamor to be included in the Ouagadougou Agreement. Burkinabé president Blaise Compaore expressed desire to hold a national meeting with such groups.

Regarding the sticky issue of voting rights, more than 110 mobile courts have been dispatched throughout the country to issue duplicate birth certificates to any Ivorian over the age of 18 and not part of the previous census. By April 8, the courts had issued more than 565,000 certificates. They hope to finish by the end of the month.

While the legal framework for the electoral process has not been finalized, its budget has: $83 million, which the Ivorian government will chip in $18 and the European Union, Japan and Korea will provide $25. This currently leaves $40 million unaccounted for. (Any takers?)

The International Crisis Group is a little less sanguine about the political situation. In a recent report, the group points out that in the presidential election certain candidates may be willing to go to extremes, reigniting a potentially explosive environment.

The report also claims implementation has been shaky of many of the Ouagadougou Accords that brought a halt to the civil war. Importantly, they claim voter identification has not completely determined who is a citizen and who may vote. However, the largest worries go to all major political parties sticking to the Ouagadougou Accords and insuring the election is carried out in a transparent manner, with proper identification for all registered voters and a security situation that allows people to vote in peace.

Peace = lower malaria rates?

Peace in Cote d’Ivoire does not bring down malaria rates, says IRIN.

Statistics galore: At least 6-out-of-10 clinic treatments are for malaria, the story points out, and 20 percent of pregnant women have the mosquito-born disease, leading to low birth weights. Historical numbers were not available.

The question remains: Why do people get malaria in the first place? Never mind the how, we’ve covered that part here. We need to investigate the social aspects of the disease, and a post on Yahoo Answers (I couldn’t find anything better) claims that malaria thrives where people live in close quarters, in wet, “dirty places” (not my term) where mosquitoes thrive. Oftentimes these people lack the money – and/or will – to clean up the mosquito zone.

A different take. Environmentalists and international development agencies like USAID and the World Health Program have guilted African countries away from using DDT or other pesticides which will go after the mosquitoes that carry the disease, argues Paul Driessen in Spiked Online. Driessen, the author of Eco-Imperialism: Green Power, Black Death, claims that the most effective way to kill the mosquitoes in peoples’ homes (or at least where they sleep) is the combination of spraying DDT and using bed nets and screens, when necessary.

Yet, in a Reuters blog on the issue (which I must give a hat tip for the Driessen piece), a certain Ed Darnell contends DDT is an overrated (and dangerous) method of reducing mosquitoes in homes. A better solution would be better medical systems and education (and money) to drain those mosquito breeding areas.

Questions linger after Benin’s local elections

Doubts have been cast on Benin’s local and municipal elections, held Sunday, where voters attempted to cast ballots for more than 26,000 candidates.

Claiming the polls suffered from “inadequate practical or organizational preparation,” ECOWAS monitors have called voting to take place in five southern localities where people could not cast ballots. In other areas, monitors reported that ballots ran out in some polling stations and party symbols and names were missing from others.

Voice of America reported Sunday that many of the 5,000 polls opened late.

A Beninois journalist told VOA that issues stemmed from “complications” from the autonomous election board, which was attempted to hold two elections – ministerial councils and local councils – were held the same day. That sentiment backed up by President Boni Yayi, who spoke Sunday night.

Benin is generally ranked favorably by Political- and Human-Rights organizations. Freedom House, from the United States, which concentrates mostly on political freedom and civil liberties, terms the country “free.” Using indicators like safety and security, economic opportunity, rule of law and transparency, the Mo Ibrahim Index of African Governance ranked the country 13 (out of 48) sub-Saharan African governments.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Headline of the day

Peace keepers' dilemma: Keeping the peace where there is none

Don’t blame peacekeepers for the prolongation of Africa’s continuing crisis, argues François Grignon and Daniela Kroslak of the International Crisis Group. That’s because the continent’s bloodiest conflicts – like Chad, Somalia, Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo – can only be solved through political accommodation that tackle their root problems, which lies outside the purview of peace keepers.

The problem is the international community is more willing to send off these peace keepers and emergency humanitarian groups, but remain unenthusiastic to begin the arduous political process of bringing all parties to the negotiating table and keeping them accountable. When fighting restarts and civilians are involved, peace keepers are blamed for not doing their job. Without peace deals, however, the peace is quite hard to maintain.

Take the example of Darfur:

[P]ublic pressure has drawn attention to the international community’s inability to protect civilians. The consolidation of initiatives under the AU–UN banner will only bear fruit over time if negotiations go beyond the superficial sticking points—such as compensation for crimes committed, and janjaweed disarmament— and deal with the root causes of the conflict. That means establishing greater and more equal representation of Darfurians at local and national levels, and greater sharing of wealth. Despite the humanitarian effort on the ground, civilians in Darfur continue to suffer because the international community has put insufficient political pressure on Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir to ensure that the government adheres to its past commitments. Addressing the root causes of the problem, and providing international support, will also be crucial if Unamid is to make a difference on the ground and avoid becoming a new scapegoat, blamed for its impotence in the effective protection of Darfurian civilians.

Finally, military operations usually create a void that needs to be filled by reformed government structures. Any peacekeeping force engaged in forceful disarmament of militias and area domination can only carry out these activities for a few days. Once a vacuum is created, it has to be filled by agreed state structures. If not, the same or other armed groups will quickly regain or expand their territorial control. The protection of civilians can only be successful operationally in partnership with the state. There is no way around that.

Sadly, in Darfur and beyond, the world seems more willing to contribute money to humanitarian efforts than to tackle the causes of conflicts. Peacekeeping missions are often used as a Band-Aid for complex conflicts, and are rarely equipped to do the political work that is vital to addressing the causes. In complex emergencies such as those facing the DRC, Sudan, and Somalia, the hostage population can only be sustainably protected if an effective political strategy accompanies the deployment of peacekeeping operations.

Niger getting into the Patriot act

Staring down the barrel of a 14-month northern rebellion that has taken the lives of at least 70-soldiers and countless other civilians, the government of Niger recently passed a new anti-terror law, Reuters reports.

The law, ratified Sunday, makes it illegal to posses or manufacture explosive devices or radioactive materials along with the acts of hostage taking and attacking transport.

"The integration of this anti-terrorism law into our judicial structure equips our authorities to fight both effectively and legally this scourge that spares no country," said Justice Minister Dagra Mamadou.

He is most likely speaking about the Tuareg-led Niger Justice Movement, MNJ, which began a rebellion in February 2007 demanding more local political autonomy and a greater share of Niger’s profits made from its extensive uranium mines, located around the northern half of the country. Niger enjoys one of the world’s largest reserves of uranium, a mineral which has seen a nearly seven-fold increase in price since 2000.

The government’s new law comes at the heels of a new report by Amnesty International asserting that Nigerien troops have participated in at least eight extra-judicial executions in Agadez region. The London-based group maintains that the troops killed the civilians between March 22 – 25 as a response to casualties the army faced in skirmishes with the MNJ.

The report also documents instances of torture and beatings by the army, forced disappearances and arrests and soldiers attacking property, burning houses and camps.

Mauritanian parties in power form new coalition

From Afriquenligne, with a new look for its website:

About 30 political parties in the ruling presidential majority in Mauritania have decided to form a new coalition to uphold the democratic achievements of President Sidi Mohamed Ould Cheikh Abdallahi's regime, according to a statement released to PANA here on Monday.

The parties said in the statement that they supported the policy of the president and his government, which is faced with current challenges "to foster sustainable mechanisms of political change and the success of the reforms initiated" by the post-transition government.

The coalition regards the presidential election of March 2007 as a turning point in the political history of Mauritania.

The Mauritanian government has made the strengthening of democratic achievements, national reconciliation, social cohesion and improving living conditions for all the major planks of its policy.

The formation of the new coalition came amid rumours of an imminent cabinet reshuffle.

Open letter from Human Rights Watch to Ban Ki-moon

United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-moon is currently touring four West African states. On the eve of that trip, Human Rights Watch wrote an open letter to the Secretary General regarding outstanding human rights issues in Liberia and Cote d’Ivoire.

Here are the excerpts.


While the [Liberian Truth and Reconciliation Commission]—empowered to recommend for prosecution the most serious offenders—has made significant progress chronicling a record of abuses, there appears to be no national strategy and little discussion by Liberian or international actors for holding perpetrators of war crimes and crimes against humanity to account. Human Rights Watch believes that the many victims of these unspeakable crimes deserve justice for what they have suffered, and that prosecutions of the most serious crimes committed would go a long way towards consolidating and firmly anchoring respect for the rule of law in Liberia.

During your discussions with representatives of Liberia’s government and civil society we therefore urge you to emphasize the importance of accountability for past human rights violations, and also to encourage them to develop a strategy for prosecuting those allegedly responsible for the most egregious crimes. Given the persistent weaknesses in the Liberian justice system, international support is very likely to be necessary to ensuring justice for these crimes.

Cote d’Ivoire:

Impunity for Past and Ongoing Human Rights Abuses: Côte d’Ivoire is characterized today by an intense focus on the part of nearly all actors with a stake in the Ivorian crisis—at both the international and local levels—on the process leading towards upcoming presidential elections, currently scheduled for November of this year. While Human Rights Watch salutes the progress that has been made in implementing the Ouagadougou Agreement and the role the United Nations has played therein, we are concerned that in its narrow focus on elections, the international community risks losing sight of the need to resolve issues of impunity for human rights violations that are critical not only to calm during the upcoming elections themselves, but also to long-term prospects for peace and stability.

Despite the relative decrease in political tensions since the signing of the Ouagadougou Agreement, impunity for past and ongoing violations of human rights persists. Should political tensions rise in the lead-up to elections, Human Rights Watch is concerned that the prevailing climate of impunity could facilitate a dramatic resurgence of human rights abuses, which in turn could threaten the integrity of the elections themselves. It is therefore imperative that the international community begin to work with the government of Côte d’Ivoire in advance of the elections to tackle issues arising from impunity and the need for justice.

The letter called for three ways the United Nations could continue its critical role:

  • Initiate a public dialogue regarding the human rights abuses that occurred during the civil war.
  • Publish the findings of the 2002 study on human rights violations in the country
  • Push the Ivorian government to accept a mission of the International Criminal Court to asses the possibility of an investigation regarding crimes committed in the country.

Wade: hear no evil, see no evil

From AfricAsia:

Senegal's President Abdoulaye Wade said Monday there was neither famine nor hunger riots in the west African country, blaming a recent rally on opposition groups.

"There is no famine in Senegal. There are no hunger riots in Senegal," Wade said while inaugurating an agricultural project in this village 80 kilometers (50 miles) south of Dakar.

Wade's comments followed an article in the French daily Le Parisien, widely commented upon in Senegal's private media, about the rise in food prices in Senegal and a March 30 rally against them.

Police cracked down hard on the rally, banned by the authorities, using batons and teargas and arresting some two dozen people.

Wade blamed the rally on opposition groups looking to gain attention and journalists seeking "sensation."

The Senegalese government has moved to soften the blow of rising food prices, which it blames on cost increases in the international market, by cutting taxes and increasing subsidies on staples.

The tomato can kids: When an army of young beggars comes knocking, what to do?

The Associated Press recently ran a story about a young boy from Guinea-Bissau named Coli, whose parents sent him to live in Senegal with a marabout, an Islamic teacher, where he spends his day begging for food and money and his evenings learning Koranic verses. Coli eventually tires of spending his days on the street as a talibé and attempts to make the journey home to find his family.

As IRIN reported a few months back, this West African tradition of talibés sprung out of people giving alms to beggars (one of the five tenants of Islam), which expanded into a way to pay for religious teaching. In today’s tougher economic times, the cultural practice has been mostly stripped of value and has become a form of institutional begging. A Senegalse NGO simply refers to it as child exploitation. Other supporters claim that walking a few years as a beggar will provide a person with proper appreciative outlook as an adult.

These kids are seen everywhere, known throughout West Africa for carrying around large tomato paste cans on string.

The rub for most people is that for the marabouts, having an army of youngsters begging for you has become big business. From the Associated Press:

There are 1.2 million Colis in the world today, children trafficked to work for the benefit of others. Those who lure them into servitude make US$15 billion (€9.5 billion) annually, according to the International Labor Organization.

It's big business in Senegal. In the capital of Dakar alone, at least 7,600 child beggars work the streets, according to a study released in February by the ILO, the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Bank. The children collect an average of 300 African francs a day, just 72 US cents (45 euro cents), reaping their keepers US$2 million (€1.3 million) a year.

Most of the boys — 90 percent, the study found — are sent out to beg under the cover of Islam, placing the problem at the complicated intersection of greed and tradition. For among the cruelest facts of Coli's life is that he was not stolen from his family. He was brought to Dakar with their blessing to learn Islam's holy book.

In the name of religion, Coli spent two hours a day memorizing verses from the Quran and over nine hours begging to pad the pockets of the man he called his teacher.

Another IRIN story explains that breaking this tradition – at least in Senegal – has proved very difficult. First, the twin issues of poverty and large families helps keep the tradition alive. (Coli was sent away because his parents could basically no longer afford him.)Also, marabouts hold extensive social and religious influence in society, and many of them do not have much to do with talibés. Thus, the government of Senegal is very reluctant to regulate these informal Koranic schools. (You can often see the talibés – called garabouts in Burkina Faso – sitting around their marabout, singing Koranic verses at night. It’s quite a sight.)

In a weird piece of personal history, I once taught at an engineering school in Ouagadougou that accepted students from all over West Africa. A former student of mine came from Senegal and spent three years as a talibé, an incredible biography not the least because he was about to earn a higher degree in engineering and become a very high wage earner. He looked back on the experience as being mostly positive, but admitted his parents had him live with a nearby uncle instead of being at the home of the marabout.

Tostan, the Senegalese NGO mentioned above, is lobbying Senegal’s government to regulate the Koranic schools, providing these Talibés with a stronger curriculum and reducing the need to beg.

Monday, April 21, 2008

A place at the table: What value for fertilizer in Africa’s green revolution?

From the Guardian:

The underinvestment and neglect of African farming go back to colonial times, but became increasingly apparent as the western development agenda gathered force. In the 60s and 70s agriculture was squeezed to pay for industrial development. But with the arrival of structural adjustment packages - deregulation, trade liberalisation and sharp cuts in state expenditure - imposed by the west in the 80s, the damage began to bite. The Washington consensus ruled that, freed from state intervention, the market would stimulate African agriculture, explains Steve Wiggins, a research fellow at the Overseas Development Institute. State funding was stripped out of state agricultural extension services, research and development, and farmers' marketing and credit facilities - all elements critical to Asia's green revolution.

The effect was catastrophic. Without improved seeds and availability of credit for fertiliser, productivity limped along. At every turn, farmers were knocked back. Kevin Watkins, of Oxford University, points out that where they did manage to improve yields, they faced exorbitant costs for transporting goods to market because of inadequate rural roads. Often when they got to market, they found it flooded with imports dumped by the west.

Through the 90s, aid flows began to increase as anxiety grew about how African development had stagnated. But the orthodoxy that the state had a role only in health and education - not in fostering economic growth - persisted. Donors were hostile to investment in agriculture: between 1990-02 and 2000-02 aid was rising but the amount going into developing agriculture dropped by 43%. It currently amounts to only 4% of all development assistance to the continent. Malawi in 2006 was the case study that proved the orthodoxy wrong: to avert famine after a catastrophic harvest, the government subsidised seed and fertiliser. The results were a good harvest, thousands of lives saved, and continuing economic stability.

One of the untold stories about Malawi’s now infamous move to reintroduce fertilizer subsidies is the fact that small farmers were being slowly squeezed out because global fertilizer prices were slowly, but steadily increasing for most of the decade. By at least one account, in 2007 alone, prices skyrocketed 200 percent.

Fertilizer, our friend
African farmers use much lower levels of chemical fertilizers than farmers elsewhere, even though the continent’s fertilizer use has doubled since 1970. According to a study by Oumou Camara and Ed Heinemann, up through the mid-1980s, national governments delivered fertilizer inputs, often as loans, which farmers repaid at harvest time. To increase farm productivity, governments also began subsidizing these crop inputs. As pointed out above, when structural adjustment policies went into effect across sub-Saharan Africa, governments were forced out of the fertilizer business – subsidy programs were thrown aside as well as state-run distribution systems. However, the private sector could only pick up fertilizer input distribution chains in a number of states, resulting in the overall decline of the crop manures.

Today, the situation is different. Each country more or less has its own sector that purchases and distributes products depending on weather conditions, credit availability, etc. In some more urban countries, farmers can strike deals directly with producers and sellers. However, small farmers in remote areas remain under served by the free market system.

With population density increasing and many of Africa's farmers continuing to farm single cash crops, much of Africa’s soils today lack the nutrients they once had, degrading farmland and further depleting agriculture production – all in the face of increasing population.

What keeps prices high? Up to 90 percent of potash and nitrogen fertilizer sprayed on African crops is imported; although six African countries produce phosphate fertilizers. We can blame high transport costs and increased production costs, which have lead to African farmers running deficits to pay for fertilizers while crop yields have stagnated.

Another problem, until recently, was falling world food prices. When prices do increase, fertilizer use rises, creating demand and further augmenting costs. The problem remains that many countries have a limited number of suppliers, which keeps supply low and prices high, especially when factoring in transportation costs farmers must pay to go and find the products.

Is prodigious Nigeria's influence felt too much on African Movie Academy Awards?

From Ameyaw Debrah in ModernGhana.Com

I have always had a problem accepting the [African Movie Academy Awards] to be a truly African award scheme due to its overabundant Nigerian influence. A lot has changed since the inception of the awards including a change in the size and design of the award trophy but one thing that hasn’t changed from day one to date is the undeniable fact that most of the nominees and eventual winners are Nigerian. As the countdown to the 2008 edition heats up, Nigerian actors and movies AGAIN seem more favoured to win the major categories.

According to a recent press release, top contenders for the Best Actor nod include Nkem Owoh (Stronger than Pain); St. Obi (Check Point); Kenneth Okonkwo (African Soldier); Kanayo .O. Kanayo (Across the Niger) and O.C Ukeje (White Water). The rest are Van Vicker (Return of Beyoncé) and Kofi Buknor (Run Baby Run). Those gunning for the Best Actress are Stella Damasus Aboderin (Widow); Kate Henshaw-Nuttal (Stronger than Pain/Rivals); Dakore Egbosan (Caught in the Middle); Genevieve Nnaji (30 Days/Keep My Will); Rakiya Atta(Across the Niger) and Jackie Appiah (Princess Tyra). So where are the actors from Kenya, Uganda, Zambia or South Africa?

I am sure you get the drift and direction of the awards. Most of the non-Nigerian nominations seem to be from Ghana. Quite frankly I don’t think the awards qualify to be even called a West African Movie Academy Awards let only the grand African awards it purports to be.

Liberian refugees in Ghana to be repatriated in six months?

From The Inquirer:

Latest reports from Accra, Ghana say the Government of that country and Liberia in collaboration with the UNHCR have signed a tripartite agreement for the repatriation of Liberian refugees from that country within six months.

The tripartite agreement was signed last Wednesday at the Ghanaian Interior Ministry, following discussions between the three sides.

According to Deputy Information Minister, Gabriel Williams, who is currently in Accra, Ghana, he told this paper yesterday that the agreement spelt out that the repatriation process began as of April 15, 2008.

Mr. Williams, who spoke to this paper when he was contacted on the issue to provide details of the agreement, said the Ghanaian Minister of Interior, Mr. Kwanena Dartels, signed on behalf of his country while the Deputy Internal Affairs Minister of Liberia, Madam Estelle Liberty who is heading the Liberian delegation to the talks signed on behalf of Liberia.

In a related development, a court in Ghana is expected to rule next Friday on whether the Ghanaian government acted correctly or wrongly over the issue concerning the repatriation of the refugees.

The court's ruling comes against the backdrop of a petition filed with the court by some human rights groups who contended that the Ghanaian authority acted wrongly and reportedly mal-handled the refugees.

As oil prices climb, what future for Africa's rail system?

Just a half decade ago, the freight rail industry in the United States was teetering on the edge of relevance. Its infrastructure was shoddy. People where moving goods by other transport. Major railroads laid off nearly 5,000 workers in 2002. Today, many of those jobs have been rehired. New tracks have been added for the first time in 80 years. Further upgrades to rail infrastructure has also been completed, increasing train speeds and delivery times. As the Washington Post points out, trains are much more efficient than trucks: A train can transport a ton of freight on just one gallon of diesel fuel, three times more energy economical than a semi.

Blame it on the combination of growing global trade, high gasoline prices and environmental marketing: freight rail is back in the United States.

On the rails in Africa
What about Africa? Although catching up, business on the continent still suffers from high transport costs and a host of other infrastructure issues, which keeps it in the lower tier of world trade.

It’s not that Africans don’t acknowledge the bonus of having a good rail system. They merely have to hark back at their history to find that reliable, efficient transport is a necessary ingredient of trade. “All new countries must remain ‘savage’ as long as the lack a means of transport,” began a 1904 New York Times article on railways in colonial Africa. It’s true. Africa’s colonial masters exploited the continent’s people and resources through a relatively vast network of railroad lines, mostly built with forced labor. Following independence, some of those railways expanded; in many places, however, they fell victim of neglect due to financial reasons or war and chaos.

A widespread argument today claims that better transport infrastructure means easier movement of people, and possibly more important, goods. It will allow landlocked countries like Burkina Faso, Niger and Mali with better access to ports in Lome, Abidjan and Tema, Ghana. Also, efficient rail service will decrease distances of the supply chain. All this will boost trade and economic opportunity, of course. A World Bank program has been launched to develop all forms of African transport, including rail.

Other factors exist: A smooth running railway is much less dangerous than a hundred thousand trucks – many of questionable repair – on the roads. Railways, if planned correctly, will also decrease traffic in clogged urban areas.

Hot Links
How to bring this about? The African Union – along with national transport ministers – is currently toying with the idea of “linking” African countries via a number of key corridors to create a continental-wide rail system. However, hurdles exist in this scheme, argues Jeff Radebe, South Africa’s minister of transport. First, there are a good number of missing links, especially in underdeveloped African countries. Also, in some countries it remains difficult to bring the private sector on board in government schemes (more on this later); funding commitments are hard to come by; and, cross border issues remain.

Regardless, Radebe points out that the following projects are already underway:

  • Linking the lines of South Africa, Botswana and Namibia
  • Strengthening ties between South Africa and Mozambique and Lesotho and ports in South Africa;
  • Increasing regulatory ties in east Africa also, between Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Zambia and Swaziland.

In the dream stage remains a plan to link the rails of West Africa and South Africa. Also, to create a rail/pedestrian/auto bridge over the Congo river to connect Brazzaville and Kinshasa.

Don’t call it privatization
The World Bank would like shift of the responsibility of Africa’s transport infrastructure from a primarily government function to one involving the private sector. These partnerships will most likely come in the form of national governments working alongside international concerns, but the World Bank also envisions small- and medium-sized entrepreneurs getting on board. This web of public/private partnerships will help create adequate legal, regulatory – and most importantly – financial framework to build better transport across the continent, increasing trade, competition, access to rural areas, etc. More than ten years ago, the World Bank argued that throughout Africa problems remain liberalizing the transport sector, where partnerships like these are not only difficult to initiate – but illegal. (They didn’t say which ones.)

Yet, the approval of the private sector is vital to build the continent’s necessary transport infrastructure, because: 1) let’s be honest, transport is primarily used by commercial entities; 2) national governments have a long history of backing away from regulatory and financial responsibilities in the transport domain, especially equipment heavy physical infrastructure like railways; 3) the private sector can provide a large amount of funding, which can be hard for governments to accumulate. (A point I don’t really agree with, unless you are talking of “international private sector.”); finally, 4) providing the public sector with a voice will increase service.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Could this mother’s little helper work in Africa?

From the Guardian:

Mothers should be paid to stay at home if they want to when their children are young, according to a report to be launched by the Conservatives' shadow minister for the family tomorrow.

State help for families has been channelled under Labour into tax credits to pay for nurseries and childminders but what most mothers want is to work part-time or not at all, particularly when their children are under five, the controversial review by two leading academics for the think-tank Policy Exchange argues.

It argues mothers should be paid an allowance to spend either on formal childcare such as nurseries, informal care like grandparents helping out, or on subsidising a parent to stay at home. It argues the current free nursery places for three- and four-year-olds could be scrapped to fund the new allowance.

Worries about their children's welfare are a bigger deterrent to women working than childcare costs, the report concludes, suggesting that making childcare cheaper will not solve their dilemma.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Reason #522 why African leaders remain quiet in face of tragedy in Zimbabwe

Short answer: I could say that most African leaders are cowards, but let's continue anyway for the sake of argument. It’s about sovereignty, stupid.

This brings up a different facet of this morning’s debate on self determination and power in the era of genocide. We’ll get to what I think is the overall issue in a second. First, southern African states and Zimbabwe:

From Stephanie Hanson at the Council on Foreign Relations:

Even in South Africa, where President Thabo Mbeki’s policy of quiet diplomacy toward Zimbabwe has been widely criticized, change seems to be afoot. Ahead of the SADC meeting, the head of South Africa’s ruling ANC party and current presidential front-runner, Jacob Zuma, spoke out against the delay in releasing Zimbabwe’s election results. Mbeki, by contrast, said there was “no crisis” (Times-SA) in Zimbabwe. While Zuma did not attend the SADC meeting, the region views him as South Africa’s “de facto leader,” says Sydney Masamvu of the International Crisis Group. Yet it’s unclear if these shifts will have any effect over Mugabe—who refused to take phone calls (Thomson Financial) from African Union leaders last week and didn’t even attend the SADC meeting.

Experts say one reason African leaders remain quiet in the face of regional turmoil is their strict interpretation of the concept of sovereignty. The African Union enshrines the principles of sovereignty and noninterference in the affairs of another state in its charter, which some analysts say has discouraged even soft, diplomatic initiatives to respond to crises. This makes it an ineffective body, writes Quentin Wray, a leading South African columnist. The African Union, he says, repeatedly sends the message, “if you are unlucky enough to live under tyranny you’re on your own.” An op-ed on Uganda’s New Vision website suggests the body reconsider its stance on sovereignty, calling it “a major contributing factor to the suffering of Africans.” At the same time, monitors like the International Crisis Group say the African Union played a positive role in resolving the Kenya crisis earlier this year.

Some experts suggest Africa’s leaders also find it useful to turn a blind eye to the misdeeds of others. That way, writes Joshua Kurlantzick in the New Republic, they can insulate themselves from criticism, too. Other analysts worry the African Union’s failure to act on Zimbabwe might embolden other leaders to mimic Mugabe’s behavior. With elections on the horizon in Ghana, Angola, Cote d’Ivoire, and Guinea, the precedent of Zimbabwe is cause for concern.

Call the question, Mr. Roberts
The question I pose: In the face of a withering nation-state, must African leaders cling to supra-sovereignty no matter how badly it reflects upon them? First, I don’t think the nation-state is going away, but it has felt some blows, whether real or perceived; this is especially true in Africa.

Take globalization, for instance. The rise of capitalism over the past few centuries has been inextricably linked to the development of the nation state. But what happens when capitalism “breaks away from its national moorings”? The state, Noelle Burgi and Philip S. Golub argue in Le Monde Diplomatique, is reduced to becoming merely a caretaker – not mucking things up for the post-national companies doing business within its boundaries. Some would argue that is why the Europeans are slowly shifting their idea of sovereignty upwards to a more a multi-national conglomeration.

Things are different in Africa. For one, African governments – for a host of reasons – feel much weaker and less legitimate than their European counterparts. (Note African worries over multi-party democracy.) Even the most bullying state leaders feel at the beck and call of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The World Health Organization and UNDP are often very involved in governmental affairs; so are numerous NGOs, who make important policy decisions in some countries. Foreign investment may be miniscule throughout most of Africa, but it is growing, putting more power in the hands of outsiders. Let’s not forget political and financial arm twisting by super foreign powers like the United States, or in this neck of the woods, France.

It is no wonder then why one can hear whispers of further African integration, either through regional bodies like ECOWAS or a continent-wide organ like the African Union. Although many may scoff at the practicality of a United States of Africa, a more relaxed policy of overseeing the needs of regional trade and cross-border issues like the environment, immigration, traffic, food and agriculture has already taken hold on many levels.

For all the perceived slights against them, African leaders still hold a lot of power. If they have to wag it to remind the world every once in a while, so be it. (It’s one reason they stand behind Mugabe, who has already beat the colonists once.) Africans will also point out that it was less than 125 years ago that the continent’s was carved up virtually tabula rasa, and its borders officially ratified just four decades ago. The fight for independence took a long time; leaders are not easily going to give that up, no matter what obstacles they face.

Talks over Liberian refugees in Ghana concluding

The News:

Discussions among the tripartite committee set up to conduct an orderly repatriation of thousands of Liberian refugees from the Buduburum Camp in Ghana are concluding, Information Minister Dr. Laurence Bropleh has disclosed.

Minister Bropleh told a news conference at his Capitol Hill office Wednesday that discussions among representatives from the Liberian government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and the Ghanaian government have being cordial.

"The government wants an orderly repatriation of Liberians living in the camp and has ensured that our citizens are treated fairly while awaiting their final repatriation back to Liberia," Dr. Bropleh noted.

According to UNHCR official record, there are about 42,000 Liberians currently living in the Buduburum Camp following the expiration of the voluntarily repatriation exercise last June.

Liberian refugees have been living in the Buduburum camp since the civil war erupted some 18 years ago.

Ghana celebrates noise awareness day

Concerts and speakers planned?

From Accra Mail:

As we mark this year's noise awareness day, we need to pursue noise reduction as a poverty reduction strategy to reduce our outpatient visits to ear clinics.

To pursue a better institutional collaboration, the police would have to be equipped to respond to persistent noise nuisances rapidly since most regulatory authorities do not work 24 hours and on weekends and holidays.

A national agenda to undertake massive noise education should be the priority of metropolitan, municipal and district assemblies with support from the Environmental Protection Agency. This will help citizens to know their rights and responsibilities to reduce noise when the peace is breached by the lawless few in our communities.

As a way of further enhancing our existing land-use schemes, there is a need for authorities to weed out or refuse permits to noisy development projects that find their way at the wrong places. Every community especially residential areas and other sensitive facilities should have permissible and prohibitive levels of noise scribbled on buildings. Slogans prohibiting noise making and others that encourage noise reduction should be mounted at entry points to various communities.

As we commemorate the 3rd National Noise Awareness Day, it is our fervent hope that noise reduction will be everybody's priority to reduce its stress related symptoms and save our hearing. We must call on all communities to desist from activities that expose the youth and aged to excessive noise. We want return to pristine times when pleasant and soothing sounds like birds singing and wind movements in trees are heard.

Why all the media attention on Zimbabwe and Tibet?

Do Robert Mugabe’s ongoing actions in Zimbabwe and China’s policy in Tibet put them in the axis of evil? An interesting question posed by Seumas Milne, in Comment is Free:

…[O]n the basis of the scale of violence, repression and election rigging alone, you would be hard put to explain why these conflicts have been singled out for such special attention. In the violence surrounding Zimbabwe's elections, two people are currently reported to have died; in Tibet, numbers estimated to have been killed by protesters and Chinese forces range from 22 to 140. By contrast, in Somalia, where US-backed Ethiopian and Somali troops are fighting forces loyal to the ousted government, several thousand have been killed since the beginning of the year and half the population of the capital, Mogadishu, has been forced to flee the city in what UN officials describe as Africa's worst humanitarian crisis.

When it comes to rigging elections, countries like Jordan and Egypt have been happy to oblige in recent months - in the Egyptian case, jailing hundreds of opposition activists into the bargain - and almost nobody in the west has batted an eyelid. In Saudi Arabia there are no national elections at all, let alone the opposition MPs and newspapers that exist in Zimbabwe. In Africa, Togo has been a more flagrant rigger, while in Cameroon last week the president was given the job for life. And when it comes to separatist and independence movements, the Turkish Kurds have faced far more violence and a tighter cultural clampdown than the Tibetans.

The crucial difference, of course, and the reason why these conflicts and violations don't get the deluxe media and political treatment offered to the Zimbabwean opposition or Tibetan separatists is that the governments involved are all backed by the west, compounded in the Zimbabwean case by a transparently racist agenda. But it's not just an issue of hypocrisy and double standards, egregious though they are. It's also that British and US involvement and interference have been crucial to both the Zimbabwean and Tibetan conflicts.

It’s an interesting matter, especially for Africa followers. Are things actually worse in Zimbabwe than they are in Congo Kinshasa? Why continue the diplomatic hand-ringing over Zimbabwe when other corrupt nations like Cameroon and Guinea are allowed to skate?

In a perfect world, all countries would be treated equally. Of course, that’s not true. One could make the argument people worry more about fighting in places like Zimbabwe because there is something to fight for. (Would we care if Mugabe was a former liberation fighter and present corrupt leader in Mauritania? Would we care more if we knew Mauritania had oil?)

Politics of despair?
Before we go too realpolitik on you, here’s an interesting reply to the column, in the Guardian’s letters section:

Does he believe we should calmly look the other way as a tyrannical dictator tears the heart out of a once relatively prosperous country? Should we clap politely as the Olympic torch passes through? Are we moving towards a world-view in which progressive opinion does nothing no matter how dire the situation on the basis that there is always somewhere worse and that none of us have entirely clean hands? This seems to me truly the politics of despair.

In my mind, Milne’s underlying question is this: When should countries invoke the human rights doctrines meant to protect people in nasty places? They came into use after the end of the Cold War – and more recently during the “War on Terror™.” Of course a doctrine such as this is completely subjective – the importance of human rights remains in the eye of the beholder, especially when the beholder has a foreign policy and military capabilities. But I’ve got to wonder, five years into the Iraq war, how much muscle remains in these philosophies?

Responsibility to protect (what? whom?)
Born out of the ashes of atrocities in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, members of the United Nations attempted to agree on a methodology that would decide who is ultimately responsible to protect citizens or groups in places where they have been targeted for large-scale abuses or loss of life. The doctrine, called Responsibility to Protect, (with fancy post-millennial designation of R2P) attempted to elevate the twin beliefs in human rights and intervention over the philosophy of state sovereignty.

As you could well imagine, R2P has faced some serious rhetorical obstacles. The idea of self-determination and sovereignty plays an essential role in international affairs. As do worries about the misuse of Western “intervention.” (For better or worse, R2P was used in the justification for the war on Iraq, leading Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch to claim “better late than never” is never a justification for intervention.)

There’s more. From Simon Jenkins:

I regard the way I am governed as superior to most. But I am not so arrogant or naive as to believe I can change other states by persuasion or war. The latter is an infringement of self-determination and has proved starkly counterproductive. The greatest boost to the overrated Islamist threat is from just the power projection Miliband supports.

In the non-interventionist 1990s, the thinktank Freedom House charted a steady growth in democracy worldwide. With the advent of the democracy crusaders Blair and George Bush this trend has probably gone into reverse. The cynical appeasement of China and aggressive treatment of Russia and the Muslim world has done no service to democracy. Indeed the cause has fared better in south-east Asia and Latin America, where outside pressure has been least in evidence.

However, those who hold out support for R2P claim the idea has been hijacked by politicians in large, very powerful countries. Intervention has been much more fruitful on the regional level, especially in Africa, argues Thelma Ekiyor of the West African Civil Society Institute. For example, the African Union mission in Burundi; to a lesser extent, ECOMOG’s work in Sierra Leone and Liberia. There’s also the present AU work in Darfur.

For better or worse, the rest of the world has a habit of looking the other way when it comes to Africa’s problems. It’s crisis in countries like Sudan and Somalia and perhaps Kenya or Guinea or Niger that will keep Africa’s diplomats (and perhaps soldiers) busy. With memories of colonialism and poorly planned interventions fresh, it’s probably best this way.

Let’s get real
In the end, the American in me claims debates like this are mere abstractions. The ideas of R2P and rhetoric over intervening before the next “human rights catastrophe” comes down to much more practical ideas: What exactly is happening? Where is this happening? Who are the country’s friends? How powerful are they? Do they have things we want?

No one will ever consider intervening in China over anything. The same goes for Zimbabwe, for very different reasons. China is too powerful; Zimbabwe, in the eyes of those who make the decisions, is not worth the cost. These arguments trump all others. Of course, interventions are not equal. It can take things other than “shock and awe” to change someone’s mind. Like George Bush, we can practice “quiet diplomacy” in the case of China and Tibet or Thabo Mbeki in the case of Zimbabwe. Of course, what has that gotten us?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Will the last defender of biofuels please stand up

You know, I’ve been kind of waiting for someone to come to the defense of biofuels. Yes, it seems the subsidy regime currently employed in the U.S. and Europe is pretty whacked (as the kids would say). But that doesn’t completely nullify their importance, does it?

"Don't tell me, for the love of God, that food is expensive because of biodiesel. Food is expensive because the world wasn't prepared to see millions of Chinese, Indians, Africans, Brazilians and Latin Americans eat," Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva told Reuters.

Lula, a former union leader, rebuffed accusations by Jean Ziegler, U.N. special rapporteur for the right to food. Ziegler this week called biofuels a "crime against humanity," though he referred mainly to U.S. ethanol derived from corn.

"The real crime against humanity is to discredit biofuels a priori and condemn food-starved and energy-starved countries to dependence and insecurity," Lula said at a conference of the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization in Brasilia.

I love your sugarcane...
Gasoline in Brazil is now made through sugar cane, which the country can process for nearly $1 per gallon, at least fifty percent cheaper than processing gasoline (in January 2006, at least). This is because Brazil’s government has not subsidized the country’s sugar makers in the past ten years, keeping costs low, unlike the hefty subsidies handed out by the United States and countries in the European Union.

The popularity of cane-based ethanol has gone through its highs and lows in Brazil, usually fluctuating with the price of oil. However, Brazilian consumers can now purchase “flexible fuel” cars which run on both types of gasoline.

Yet, Brazil’s ethanol industry is not without its critics. Expanding sugar cane harvests, like corn in the U.S., will decrease species diversity and create a land rush that has already displaced some beef and soy farmers (and helped lead to the quickening destruction of the country’s forests).

...but I hate your corn-based ethanol
The problem with U.S. ethanol is that it is made with corn, and costs nearly one-third more to harvest and produce than Brazilian sugar cane. It also diverts an essential food crop to energy production, decreasing supply and driving up prices. It also boosts the use of expensive farming techniques (like irrigation) while expanding monoculture farming. Yet the United States continues to import more than 60 percent of its oil, which is now hovering near all-time record prices, while Brazil has become energy independent (also thanks to huge oil reserves.)

Some scientists in the U.S. found that creating biofuels out of switchgrass produced much more environmental savings and more efficient type of ethanol. Yet, this plants also has its own environmental issues: it requires 45 percent more energy to create the fuel than the fuel produced, according to another study.

Meanwhile, in Burkina Faso...
When Lula visited Burkina Faso in October, he called for a biofuel revolution on the continent. However, I haven’t seen anything on it.

Ransom facts

I just spoke to a friend who had her house broken into the other night – while her whole family was asleep in their beds. Anyway, barking dogs woke the family up, and the noise scared the thieves off, but not before the robbers could make away with a few laptops. The next morning, when her husband went to the police to report the crime, their first question was: Did the thieves leave a number?


Apparently, thieves have been breaking and entering into peoples’ houses, making off with their goods and then offering to sell the goods back to them. Rumors have it getting your laptop returned to you will only set you back around 100.000 FCFA, about $240. The reason for this, my friend says, is that thieves usually have to sell the purloined laptops out of the country to make a profit. So they may as well cut their losses and sell the computers back to their happy owners.

March, April and May have always been the toughest months in Burkina Faso – the hungry months as they say because the stock from last year’s harvest is getting thin and this year’s harvest hasn’t been planted yet. Young village men are also often just waiting for the rains to start so they can plant. These guys often end up in Ouagadougou looking to see if they can make a few extra CFAs doing odd jobs, making life a little worse for those permanently in town doing odd jobs.

Call it a domino effect, but (anecdotally at least) crime seems worse during these hot months. This year, of course, everything is different because everybody is hurting due to the high price of food and other goods.