Sunday, May 06, 2007

Yeltsin burried, Bush plays drums.

On April 26 Boris Yeltsin was buried. I remember a book from my childhood in my fathers library "Boris Yeltsin". On the cover was a stern looking white man. I never got to read it. He is credited with ridding Russia of communism and ushering in democracy but he is also held responsible by some for the Chechnya massacres in the 90's. Later in life, I loved watching the video of him doing some crazy dance - completely intoxicated! He liked to consume more than his fair share of alcohol and have a good laugh, which sometimes led to him stumble off planes and once he attempted to conduct an orchestra at a very important meeting in Paris (to the embarrassment of his countrymen!) I found him hilarious! He made Bill Clinton burst into a fit of uncontrollable laughter once while he maintained a straight face. I could go on and on. But on April 26, the man with a good sense of humor had come to the end of the road and Russians lined the streets to see him off and many said good things about him. The kind words may very well be out of respect for the dead but all in all, it seems that history will not be too harsh on Boris Yeltsin. Meanwhile, I watched (on TV) in total amusement as President Bush played African drums at an unknown function. It was hardly as entertaining as Yeltsin's crazy dance but it had me in stitches! Made me wonder how he will leave and how history will judge him but I am sure nobody but me will remember April 26 as the day Boris was laid to rest and Bush played African drums!

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Is China starting to buckle?

"China appreciates Sudan's efforts in restoring peace in Darfur but is expecting more flexibility on the Annan plan," Mr Zhai said after meeting President Bashir in Khartoum.
Zhai is China's Assistant Foreign Minister and he was referring to the plan proposed by former UN Secretary General Koffi Annan for a hybrid UN-AU peacekeeping force.
Prior to this, China had refused to get involved in the Darfur conflict.
Obviously the greater powers (read US) have a lot to do with this. Now, is China going to remain vocal on social issues in Africa? I happen to think this is only unique to conflicts in which the US is involved.
Guess we will wait and see...

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

An NGO to address leadership issues in Africa

A panel discussion was held on possibilities for sustainable growth in Africa. They discussed if donor countries are meeting their unprecedented commitments for aid and debt relief and what African governments are doing to create the conditions for sustainable growth. Among the panel members were Mbeki (SA), Bill Gates,Tony Blair, Sirleaf (Liberia), Kaberuka (ADB) and  Bono. This session of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum, "The Shifting Power Equation," was titled "Delivering on the Promise of Africa."

It was amazing to me how they all made valuable contributions and Tony Blair ever so modestly brushed on Africa's problem of poor leadership - they call it the "good governance" issue. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to understand that there can be no planning if there is no leadership or direction.  Why is there nobody who will address this issue?


Diplomacy in itself has let down the people of Africa in the sense that it comes in the way of addressing the continent's biggest problem – leadership. For example South Africa could have stopped the madness in Zimbabwe by now but its only a few weeks ago that it "took a firm stand against the recent assault of opposition leaders in Zimbabwe".


Amazingly, one individual has shown interest in addressing the issue.Sudanese billionaire Mo Ibrahim (of Celtel fame) created a 5 million USD cash prize for Africa's most effective head of state. Harvard University has the task of measuring and ranking the effectiveness of the African leaders.


Each year the winning leader will, at the end of his term, get $5m (£2.7m) over 10 years and $200,000 (£107,000) each year for life thereafter. "We need to remove corruption and improve governance," Mr Ibrahim said.

Unfortunately, this good billionaire is in the noble fight alone!

Moreover, most corrupt leaders amass a crude amount of wealth and since corruption usually comes with nepotism, there are also extended family beneficiaries. So you see, the pay-off is not even close to offsetting the opportunity cost of not stealing from government coffers. I can almost see one cheeky corrupt president chuckling at the thought! (Think the GWB chuckle!)


Diplomacy itself has let down the people of Africa in the sense that it comes in the way of addressing the continent's biggest problem – leadership. For example South Africa could have stopped the madness in Zimbabwe by now but its only a few weeks ago that it "took a firm stand against the recent assault of opposition leaders in Zimbabwe".


Here is a plan - I would like to start an NGO that advocates for the building of an institution whose primary role is to apply checks and balances on African leaders. This could be under the auspices of the African Union or the United Nations or even independent of these existing organizations.


Just like WTO governs rules of  international trade, this institution would set rules for leaders and have the power to bring leaders to task for failing their people in failing to comply with these rules of "good governance". This institution would address issues of corruption, freedom of speech, influence peddling, enforcing term limits etc. It would bring to book those leaders who would otherwise not be tried by their own courts for these crimes.


Of course getting leaders to sign up for membership in such an institution would be an uphill task but this is just a thought and can be built upon by you the reader.

What other roles could this institution play? And what functions could be added to make it palatable enough for African leaders to sign up for membership?



Saturday, February 24, 2007

China - Did you say yellow colonial masters?

Much is to be said about the wave of Chinese investment in Africa. The resource poor nation's thirst for raw materials and energy as well as market for cheap consumer goods is driving trade and investment across the poor continent of Africa with trade between the two standing at more than 40 billion a year having more than tripled since 2000.

So you ask why some think this is a bad thing?


China's business style of "no questions asked" is in sharp contrast to that of Western countries whose aid and investment come with "ties" for example world bank loans. Sometimes African countries are expected to meet certain standards, which could be anything from democratic principles to forest policy - all entirely up to the donor.


Not China.


Driven strictly by business savvy and ignoring all of the socioeconomic problems of its trading partners, China has drawn sharp criticism from Western governments and some NGOs for not going beyond trade to address social and political issues such as corruption, good governance and human rights. Beijing has been accused of being too cozy with Mugabe's corrupt Zimbabwe and the genocidal Sudanese regime but is the coziness based on trade or political support? I would think the former.


We must ask ourselves this: has the Western way of doing things in Africa lifted Africans out of poverty? The answer is a resounding no.


In late July, Zambian miners rioted against Chinese-owned mines when union leaders accused mining management of violating labor laws. They complained of poor working conditions, low pay and lax safety standards in the mines. Correct me if I am wrong but is it not the government's duty to protect its citizens from exploitation by putting in place strong labor laws?

 It is time Africans took their destiny in their own hands and stopped blaming enterprising foreigners for their lack of good leadership.

Is it China's duty to police African governments to act in the best interests of their people? Why should China be concerned with the corruption rates in Zimbabwe or the genocide in Sudan over its own gains from trade? No reason.


In short, China owes Africans no duty of care.


The major difference between the attitudes of China and the west is that China's conscience is clean of colonialism. They can afford to treat Africa like any other trading partner without opening historical wounds for Africans. The West should therefore continue its efforts in sorting out the mess it created but also let the new player bounce its own ball.


Chinese have been noted by corruption watchdog, Transparency International as one of the most rampant bribers in Africa and it is definitely possible that an unquestioned business relationship will bring out the worst in African leaders but it is about time Africa came to terms and dealt with its worst problem – leadership. Until good governance is achieved, there will be no gains from trade, no peace, no chance of competing in the global market and no chance of escaping poverty.


Raising legitimate concerns that come with the Chinese wave of investment in Africa is indeed important; but even more important is channeling those concerns away from feelings of xenophobia against the Chinese toward challenging African governments to making laws that protect their people from exploitation and give them equitable gains from trade so as to lift them out of poverty.

Olivia Byanyima.








Sleepless in New York

Nearly all our day-to-day decisions, actions and challenges can be described by some economic theory; but the subject of economics remains largely esoteric. While undertaking graduate studies at Columbia University in the city of New York, the study of economics gave me sleepless nights as I suspect it has many scholars before me. I stayed awake analyzing the situation in Africa today and the more I learnt the more I realized that although there isn't one single thing I can do to save the situation, there may be a couple of things I can do and one of them is to share with you my analysis of why our continent may be chained to an unachievable dream of economic development or at least an unrealistic path to the said development.


I come from a family of revolutionaries. Right from a great great grandfather King Ndagara, the last king of Buhwejhu who died fighting the colonialists. My family tree is scattered with dead heroes. People who saw right and wrong and no in between, people who shook establishments and went against status quo hoping to make a positive change for others in spite of the imminent losses to themselves. The revolutionary in me awakens more with every book I read. Sharing knowledge, ideas and the unanswered questions of my sleepless nights in New York, will if nothing else, help me understand this world better.


Foreign Aid

Official development assistance (ODA) is one form of foreign aid. There are several forms of foreign aid – grants, loans and humanitarian aid; we could even choose to call preferential trade agreements that developed countries extend to developing countries a form of aid. But Official Development Assistance (ODA) specifically refers to grants and loans and it will define the scope of foreign aid in this piece.


Foreign aid usually refers to a transfer of income from one country to another. It is meant to benefit both the recipient and the donor country even though the latter intention is not usually expressed. The recipient's interests are mostly economic growth and development while those of the donor are typically financial and/or political.


Financial gains are accrued by producers in the donor country if the recipient country buys donor exports using aid dollars or if consultants are hired from the donor country to provide "technical assistance" on aid-funded projects. Political gains for the donor are illustrated best by the case of African former French colonies in which France used aid for political support – countries received aid only under the explicit agreement that France would be consulted before these African countries voted on any important issue at the United Nations. The US also gave aid to Spain on the terms that it could build military bases on their soil.


The donors design the machinery that implements the transfer of aid. This gives the donor leverage or the ability to use aid to bring about the recipient's compliance with any action that's in the donor's interest. Limiting the analysis to financial interests, the donor is most likely to set up the machinery in order to ensure that the recipient country imports its goods and services. This is usually done subtly but can also be done explicitly in form of set conditions, as is with the case with "procurement tying" which clearly specifies where all the materials and equipment used in aid funded projects must be imported from. It's anybody's guess where that might be.


There is a strange theory in economics called the transfer paradox, which postulates that a transfer of income may worsen the recipient's terms of trade while improving the donor's terms of trade if the recipient has a higher propensity to spend on its export good than the donor. English translation: A transfer may cause the donor's export prices to rise relative to its import prices and the recipient's export prices to fall relative to its import prices leaving the recipient worse off and the donor better off after the transfer.

This theory was stumbled upon when, after World War II, France demanded war reparations payments from Germany (payments to compensate for France's loss during the long war against German invaders). The effect of the payments on either country sparked a historic argument between two great economists, John Keynes and Hecksher Ohlin. Keynes argued that Germany would have to decrease its export prices on top of paying the war reparations and would therefore suffer greatly but Ohlin argued that Germany would not necessarily have to worsen its terms of trade. Eventually, the reparations were never paid out but the theory of the "transfer paradox" was born. It explains a situation that arises when a transfer of income leaves the recipient country worse off and the donor country better off. Interestingly, when a recipient country uses all of its aid dollars on imports from the donor, the transfer is "a fully effected transfer". On the other hand, when the recipient country spends only a small portion of the aid on imports from the donor and the rest on local goods, the transfer is "an under-effected transfer". Note the subtle implication of the semantics!


Clearly, a fully effected transfer could lead to a case of the transfer paradox – decreasing welfare of the recipient country and improving that of the donor. But interestingly, the IMF is very persistent in encouraging "full aid absorption" which in English means spending aid on imports. So is the IMF misleading poor African countries? A good hypothesis for research would be: under what conditions is a country most susceptible to the transfer paradox phenomenon when there is full absorption of aid as recommended by the IMF? But even without complicated and rigorous statistical analysis, I believe our policy makers – legislators, ministers, politicians should be aware of these ambiguities when dealing with aid issues.


The contradictions of foreign aid are not a favorite subject for many but books like "Confessions Of An Economic Hit man" give a chilling account of how foreign aid has long been used, along with other more vicious and even bloody tools, by the US government for purposes of "empire building". And if that is too conspiratorial for your reading appetite, there is the argument between two renowned economists – Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly that echoes that of Keynes Vs Ohlin. It is spelt out in two books – " The end of poverty" by Jeffrey Sachs and "The White Man's Burden" by William Easterly. Jeffery Sachs is a strong proponent of aid for development while Easterly thinks aid has failed to work in the past for various reasons and there is no reason it will work now as long as proponents of aid do not address the old reasons for failure of aid to promote growth and development for recipient countries.

All the ado notwithstanding, the world's richest countries announced a $50 billion increase in aid at a G-8 meeting in July 2005 mainly aimed at meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) articulated under the auspices of the United Nations. Now is definitely the time to investigate the many contradictions of foreign aid because like it or not, the money is on its way!


My people have a saying "Mira; mir'omuriro, chweera; chweera obunuzi" (If you swallow that which is now in your mouth, it will burn your throat like a fire and yet if you spit it out, you will lose out on so much sweetness).

During my sleepless nights, when I am not thinking about the enormous bills that come with living in New York, I find myself wondering what my great-great grandfather King would have done as a leader. In the light of these contradictions, would he have performed a crude cost benefit analysis and accepted the aid if the benefits outweighed the costs or would have rejected foreign aid outright - based on principle? I am more inclined to believe that he would choose the latter but of course I will never know.


Olivia Byanyima.





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