"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
Following up on my earlier post on Patrick Chabal’s, “The Politics of Suffering and Smiling”, I now want to comment on another part of the book, “Striving”. This part of the book focuses more on the “politics of economic activity”, from the perspective of people and communities. (Chabal rightly comments that the perspective on African economics is often from a global / macro perspective). Chabal approaches the question from three angles: labour, trade and rent. I will focus on the last one, in part because of my development cooperation background and, as Chabal states, “… African economies are largely based on rent.” (p. 108)
The other two sections (labour and trade) do have some observations that are important to keep in mind in the African context. For example, the importance of work in the informal sector, the importance of reciprocity versus the market per se and that (thus), “… economic rationality requires the cultivation of ‘traditional’ networks and values, which economists see as impediment to the development of a market economy.” (p. 112). If I see the importance of connections (in particular family and ethnic) in the careers of my family back in Guinea I can only support this argument. In contexts with weekly-enforced (frankly non-existent) contract and labour laws and where you never know if your next salary will be paid (or, with inflation, what it will be worth), it is clear that people need networks and ‘flanking’ strategies to survive. Chabal’s comments on trade are also interesting, in particular the widespread nature of it. Spend some time in West-Africa, and you quickly have the feeling that everyone is either a civil servant or ‘un commercant’. There is minimal movement up the value chain. Chabal then highlights a range of reasons why this is the case, but the important thing to take away from all this is that it has deep roots (and political science should understand this) but is not necessarily static.
With regards to rent, Chabal starts by placing the concept (not specifically African) in context. He does this by looking at the links between status and rent, explores its collective aspects and finally looks at it in the post-colonial era – in particular through aid. To start with the first link, status, it is clear that the role of traditional chiefs has always included an important dimension of sharing out rent and that this was (and is) linked to status. Linked to the second linked, it is also clear that it follows a collective pattern – family, village, and / or ethnic group. The colonial period complicated this by introducing another dimension of accountability (upwards, to the colonial authority). It also created space for new power ‘entrepreneurs’(colonial administrators) and, “… it is well to point out that there had occurred a dangerous breach between power and accountability, which had fateful political consequences after the end of colonial rule”. (p. 124).
In the post-colonial period, aid was introduced which potentially has become a distortion and a boost to rent-seeking. Chabal says that the distortion was by, (1) putting the countries at the mercy of donors, (2) encouraged keeping trade before industry, (3) provided funding to keep the bureaucracy in a way that was not sustainable, and (4) created a situation in which elites were (more) accountable to external actors than their own populations. “Amplifying what had happened under colonial rule, the relationship between political elites and outside donors made possible an ever-closer convergence between power and rent. Divorced from its moral and ethical base, power offered virtually unlimited opportunities for politicians, who could in this way accumulate vast resources without having to account directly to the population.” To get or maintain legitimacy, politicians could either use coercion or rent, reactivating the “traditional” politics of reciprocity. (p. 125)
Looking at the four points, they are interesting, but I’m not sure I fully agree. The 1st point is a simplification of the situation. Not all African countries were at the mercy of donors – and definitely not all the time. Aid-recipients played donors against each other (most evident during the Cold War, but event today) and some aid programs, while maybe interesting for rent-seeking at local or project level are clearly not sufficient to move the political elites. The incapacity of European countries (and the Commission) to ‘buy’ cooperation on migration issues is a good example of how limited this influence is. Of course, this does not mean that sometimes policy was blamed on donors or if donors cut funding in specific sectors that the states did not pick up the slack.
The second point is linked to the one above. I’m not sure the focus on trade – or lack of industrial investment – is because of aid. Aid may not have (sufficiently) encouraged it and possibly in some cases have had a ‘Dutch-disease’ type effect. But surely the lack of investment (local, by state or private sector) and foreigners is at the core of this and not aid? I would argue that at the very least aid probably – in certain countries- supported it a little bit (through policy reforms, critical studies, infrastructure that could be used to support industrial development such as electricity or roads, etc…)
The third point is in the same way debatable. Could the bureaucracy that aid has supported have been better and more efficient? Surely, even most in the sector would agree with that. But to argue that the problem in African countries is too much functioning bureaucracy is surely not true (unless maybe through a crowding-out argument).
The fourth point is, in my opinion, the most valid one. It is clear that being able to communicate to donors and the international community has become a vital skill for African elites. And it could be that this comes at the cost of local accountability and real legitimacy. In particular when combined with the point on the effect on rent of aid. The difficult in creating a political space for downward accountability in African governance and politics has been evident. Whether it is move the electoral agenda beyond ethnic and patrimonial politics to real policy arguments or the weak role of parliaments and civil society, this is a fundamental issue and it seems likely that the role of donors is important in this. The amount of time some ministers spend in meetings with donors (in-country or outside) is sometimes shocking (in particular when compared to the time they spend in parliament).
Niamey, Niger, 23.04.2018
One of the joys of being back in Africa is the stimulation to read and re-read some good books on the politics of the continent. Where the latter is concerned, I’m currently re-reading Patrick Chabal’s, “The Politics of Suffering and Smiling”. The book, named after a famous Fela Kuti song, was published in 2009 by Zed Books in a series that aims to, “change the way we think about non-Western political ideas”. The author, Patrick Chabal, died in 2014 and was a leading specialist on Africa in the mold of Basil Davidson and Stephen Ellis. Another book of Chabal’s, “Africa Works”, which he wrote with Jean-Pascal Daloz, made a huge impression on me when I first read it. The way it approached African societies and politics was a revelation to me and triggered a lot of thoughts and reflection in me.
In, “The Politics”, Chabal aims, “… not to construct a political theory of Africa but only to try to theorise politics in Africa – that is to engage in the theoretical discussions that can provide added value to our understanding of how power is exercised on the continent.” (p.2). The “demarche” used (more on that later) is very interesting as discussions and analysis of politics in Africa often seems to be a case of applying frameworks and theories developed elsewhere on Africa. Yet at the same time, you cannot help but feel that this may not be the full story. Without ‘exoticizing’ Africa too much, it’s clear some local adaptation is needed. (Whether it is best to do this at the continental level, Sub-Saharan Africa level, or somewhere else, can be debated and probably depends on what exactly is being discussed.) The books is structure around seven core chapters covering a range of topics important to politics in the context of Africa (Being, Belonging, Believing, Partaking, Striving, Surviving, and Suffering.). “In their own way, they [the chapters], mirror the cycle of life as it is presently experienced in Africa. They also chart the incremental complexity of lives as they are lived, from the consolidation of social identity to the search for resources and status…” (p. 23).
Looking at the first of these chapters, “Being”, the goal of Chabal is to look at how individuals fit in their environment by looking at origin, identity and locality. My goal here (and other chapters I’ll look at) is not to review the chapters as such but rather offer some personal reflections on some elements brought forward by Chabal. And in development cooperation, the assumptions and simplifications regarding ‘being’ are massive. Essentially, the assumption is the model of a Western state, with individual citizens and consumers. Hence, policies made by the government are those of the country and thus of the people. This, while it is clear that even high-level strategies, such as the Sustainable Development Goals or the country’s Poverty Reduction Strategy are hardly known or discussed. So where does this leave ‘ownership’? Currently the 2018 state budget in Niger has led to numerous demonstrations. Foreign donors support the government strongly, in particular in the current migration context where Niger has an important role, and the budget is submitted to a range of international frameworks (IMF, WAEMU). Do – can – African elites maintain the balance?
Another very interesting point raised in this chapter is the distinction between power and authority in the African context. “… in long-established and institutionalized political systems power and authority very largely overlap, though they are never equivalent. In African countries, on the other hand, the two are quite clearly separate… Not only must authority and power be conceptualized separately, they must also be placed in their appropriate context.” (p.41). This is of course critical, also in the earlier mentioned position of elites between donors and the local population. From this perspective, the current wave of Islamization (or rather, the rise of a version of Islam more rooted in Arabian Islam) is interesting. On one hand, it is possible that this is the result of the increased outreach by Arab countries through missionary work and through trade and development cooperation. The parallels with the earlier 19th century West African jihads is also interesting as they were a form of resistance to the colonial powers.
Niamey, Niger, 18.04.2018
I have been interested in questions of migration, identity and society for a long time. Probably this is due in part to my own background (Dutch mother, Guinean father), the fact that we moved around a lot when younger, the debates that took place in the Netherlands when we moved there in my mid-teens, my overall interest in politics and international relations, etc. While when I was young this was more of a struggle – at some points I felt I had to choose between being Dutch or Guinean, European or African, black or white – I now no longer have that. (At least not at a conscience level – not sure about the sub conscience). However, I do find the theme and issues around them fascinating to explore and thing about, both at the level of the individual and societies.
Aware of my own cosmopolitan, liberal and internationalist bias (see my background, working in development and for the EU, etc…) I particular enjoy reading ‘opposing’ arguments. Having studied political science, I do feel that the conservative tradition in all its various shapes and forms is critical to understanding how the world works and should work. Questions of identity and migration, the role of tradition and religion, etc., cannot simply be approached from a liberal or internationalist position. Not only would our analysis likely be wrong but we would also not comprehend the positions taken by others.
In my own work I’ve also been confronted by the balance of positions with regards to migration. IOM has a voluntary return program for migrants, and in the Belgium office for which I worked (as is the case for many ‘European’ offices of IOM) this was the core business of the office (both regarding budget and staff). How ‘voluntary’ these returns are can be questioned as can the safety and economic perspectives of the returnees in their countries of origin. At the same time surely the recipient countries can decide who gets asylum and who doesn’t? (And as a corollary to this: once they’ve decided they do not want someone on their territory be assured that that person leaves?)
While working for DG NEAR my tasks focused on the implementation of the cooperation foreseen in the EU-Turkey refugee deal. While the work and the projects I was involved in were fairly non-controversial (hospitals, schools, NGO projects, etc.) it was unmistakably part of a deal to reduce the number of migrants / refugees arriving to Europe. But once again: surely this is a legitimate position to take?
At the same time, we can all understand the drive people feel to better their lives or that of their children. In my case, my father went to France to study and then returned to Guinea with his wife and children. It is clear that by studying in France my father very much improved his perspectives in life. It is a similar drive that pushes Syrians (who may be physically safe in Turkey, but feel they have limited perspectives in a camp there) or middle-class Africans to cross the Mediterranean to reach Europe. Few of those arriving in Europe are refugees in the classical / limited sense of the word and have not passed through another (safe) country. Moreover, as the irregular pathway to Europe is expensive, it’s also not necessarily those with the greatest needs that necessarily make it. Yet even if all this is the case, we can still ask the question regarding the ‘absorption capacity’ of host countries. (And layer in the discussion of compatibility of Islam with Western values and the discussion becomes even more complex.)
All of this by way of introduction to say that I recently read Douglas Murray’s, “The Strange Death of Europe” in the hope that it would be a good conservative perspective on the current debates on migration. Having read several good Dutch books on the matter, I was hoping to have a good European (or at least UK) perspective on the topic. Unfortunately, I was sadly disappointed.
I have a long list of complaints, but I will highlight a few example / extreme cases. To begin with, there are some factual errors. For example, on the EU-Turkey deal, on page 85, he states that, “In return for a payment from the EU to the Turkish government of six billion Euros as well as visa-free travel across Europe for many Turks, the number of migrants coming into Europe had lessened considerably.” It should be noted that more than a year since the deal Turks still don’t have visa-free travel and that no payment was made to the Turkish government for six billion Euros. (3 billion was engaged in projects, mostly implemented by European NGO’s, European financial institutions, and international agencies.) While this is still an understandable error or confusion, there are even worse mistakes.
While discussing the case of Ms. Hirsi Ali in the Netherlands, on page 155, he states that, “… based on untrue claims made by a television station, the Minister of Immigration and Integration of Hirsi Ali’s own party, the VVD, withdrew her citizenship.” This is not true and easily verifiable. First of all, Ms. Hirsi Ali admitted the claims in the tv report that she had lied on her asylum application when she submitted it in the Netherlands (namely about her name and the fact that she had lived 12 years in Kenya – she had claimed to have come straight from Somalia – and had not mentioned that she had spent several days in Germany before arrival in the Netherlands). Secondly, Ms. Hirsi Ali’s Dutch citizenship was never withdrawn (the Minister in charge had started an investigation and procedure to do so, but it was suspended). While one may argue that the Netherlands should have protected and valued Ms. Hirsi Ali more and better, it does not strengthen the author’s arguments to make these kinds of errors.
The book is good in its analysis of the lack of policies between the 1950’s and up to the 1990’s in Europe on questions of migration and integration but there is a certain lack of structure in the argumentation that makes it hard to draw conclusions. Unfortunately, the author focuses very much on problems with Islamic migrants in his argumentation, so sometimes it’s not clear if his position is about migration itself or the position and integration (or lack of) of Muslims. In the Netherlands we have had periods of Indonesian, Balkan and Afro-Caribbean migrants and their descendants and it would be interesting to contrast how that has gone and is perceived with that of Muslims from Turkey, Morocco and / or Pakistan. The limited attention he spends on Eastern European migration(in both absolute and comparative perspectives) is a similar miss, and this lack of structure runs through the book.
Another example of this is are the arguments around liberal values (e.g. tolerance of gays, Jews, women) and (presumably Muslim) migrants. He mentions a range of examples of rapes and sexual violence, but never provides macro statistics. So even if instinctively we feel there may indeed be a specific problem with regards to this the argument of the author remains a bit anecdotal. It is similar in the chapter, “A Tyranny of Guilt”, where he gives a range of examples of politicians being apologetic about things (colonialism, slavery, racism, etc.) and that somehow this represents a ‘European guilty condition’. Even the argument that some Ancient Greek writings were passed on to us via Arabic somehow is an argument to show the ‘European guilty condition’… I find it badly argued. Of course, there are some – mostly historic- things that some Europeans show regret about. But is the position of say, the Turkish government regarding the Armenian genocide, somehow better? And while some people are (maybe) driven by this ‘guilt’, isn’t it a bit simple to reduce Europe’s asylum policies to this?
The most important chapter is, “What might have been”. After almost 300 pages complaining about what politicians have done, one expects that finally here there will be suggestions. Here, however, we are very much let down and at times descend into the comical. On page 296, “The first way would have been to go right back to the basics of the problem: principally the question of who Europe is for. Those who believe it is for the world have never explained why this process should be one way: why Europeans going anywhere else in the world is colonialism whereas the rest of the world coming to Europe is just and fair.” This is simply ludicrous as an argument. With the exception of some ‘no borders’ fringe organizations no one thinks this and definitely not the main conservative, socio-democratic and liberal parties that have dominated European politics. That is why other than rich tourists or via the asylum system it is essentially impossible to legally enter Europe.
He then goes on page 297, “Europe is the home of the European peoples, and we are entitled to be home-centric as much as the Americans, Indians, Pakistanis, Japanese and all other peoples are… It is not in Europe’s power to ‘solve’ the situation in Syria. Much less is it within our gift to simultaneously raise living standards in sub-Saharan Africa, solve all world conflicts, protect liberal rights universally and rectify all problems of political corruption across the world.” This too is another straw dog fallacy – no one, at least not main stream and with influence is claiming either of those points…
When he goes on to suggest policies, starting on page 298, he proposes the hosting of refugees in the region from where they come, the processing of asylum claims outside Europe, improved deportation / departure of those who are not allowed to remain in Europe and proper vetting. Again, no one would argue with any of those points. Aside from the fact that most refugees are in regions bordering their country of origin, efforts like the EU-Turkey deal mentioned earlier are exactly for that. There is nothing original or that hasn’t been worked on by all mainstream politicians since the 1990’s.
The author then loses himself in some silly points that are not necessary. On page 303 he states that, “The move from Jean-Marie Le Pen to his daughter Marine Le Pen, for instance, is clearly a move of significance.” Is that so? Why? He doesn’t spend a line explaining why this is the case while it is clearly debatable. On page 306 he goes into a rambling section with regards to Western culture and Christianity which really makes no sense, to end with the conclusion, “To re-inject our own culture with some sense of a deeper purpose need not be a proselytizing mission, but simply an aspiration of which we should be aware.” What?
The current debate on migration, whether in Europe, in the US, or anywhere around the world is complex. I wanted to go further into it (including reviewing a book by Paul Scheffer and presenting some of my own perspectives), but as this post is already long, I’ll stop here for now
Niamey, Niger, 03.03.2018
I recently read an interesting book by Irvin D. Yalom, “Becoming Myself”. The book is a memoire by the author, a renowned Stanford psychiatrist and author of both fiction and non-fiction. The book covers a broad range of topics in brief chapters, ranging from his youth, his reflections on his field and craft, reflections on books he has written, his life and marriage, and on growing old. It’s a good read that I would recommend.
While the book does not cover international relations or development, it did trigger me to think again about the links. From my time working in conflict areas, I’ve long felt that psychology and psychiatry are much ignored in politics, international relations, and development cooperation. I remember missions in the DRC, Liberia, and conflict areas of Indonesia and the Philippines where I would meet beneficiaries of a range of projects and it was clear that much more attention to the human, mental and psychological sides of conflict and poverty would be desirable. Also, the psychological impact of development and humanitarian aid is worth considering. What is it like to be vulnerable and dependent? How does one transfer out of such a situation mentally? The recent scandals such as the sexual exploitation (allegedly) by Oxfam staff in Haiti after the earthquake only highlight the importance of this.
During my studies in political science I remember having one course in political psychology. It was very interested, but very broad, covering everything from the psychology of politicians to voters. It’s not evident how to do so – clearly basic needs are a higher priority and other things (such as larger projects and public finances) are more ‘visible’ things to finance as a donor. Furthermore, the cultural dimension would be a big gap to close – how do you adapt very Western focused concepts to other settings? And finally, the impact would be difficult to demonstrate (and with aid and public policies these days we only want measurable output, preferably economically quantifiable.) But if questions such as radicalization, gender rights and family planning, or the drive to migrate by individuals are key things we want understand and influence, isn’t understanding the psychology of people critical? And Fanon already made the link decades ago...
Niamey, Niger, 27.02.2018
We arrived in Niamey (Niger) on a Tuesday in the middle of October, somewhere in the middle of the afternoon. As we exited the plane, the warm air came down on us like a blanket. For our 10-month-old son, this was his first taste of Africa. An old bus, somewhat needlessly, drove us the 20 or so meters from the steps of the plane to the arrival hall. After the usual waiting and formalities – a series of bottlenecks at airports anywhere on the globe – we were taken to the hotel that would be our home for the next month and a half or so.
This is my first visit to a Sahelian country in a long, long time and the amount of sand and dust was what impressed me first. We had to wait for a bit before leaving the airport as the President of Niger had just returned from a trip to Indonesia and Australia – basically the single road to downtown was blocked off while he gave his speech at the airport and his convoy got going. Passing by the single-track railway (literally built into the middle of the road to town) and train station that (reportedly) have never been used, we descended into town. By the side of the Niger river we arrived at the “Grand Hotel”.
The name is a bit of a mystery: from the terrace of the Grand Hotel you can see the “Hotel Gawaye”, which is clearly bigger… If the “grand” is a reference to its “grandeur” is more than a little bit presumptuous… The final possibility that I could think of is “grand” as in the older brother – which would be believable.
First of all, I acknowledge my position of privilege. In what is a very, very poor country, we had air conditioning, a toilet that which each flush probably uses more water than many locals do in a day, access to coffee that was the same price as the US $ 1.90 poverty line, and the food was abundant. Furthermore, the room was cleaned, laundry done, and every time there was a power cut the generator kicked in.
Nevertheless, the physical “tiredness” of the building and its infrastructure was incredible. Clearly, there is no depreciation fund nor regular investment in an asset that did generate revenue (rooms were basically EUR 100 and more). Staff, though overall friendly, clearly lacked training and guidance. Loud conversations – including at night and in public areas of the hotel- would constantly take place, staff would smoke in the hallways and sleep on the couches in front of the guest rooms. Cleaning did take place, but it was limited – clearly the tables in our room were not cleaned once in the six weeks, and the spaces in cupboards or under the beds were probably not cleaned in the past six years…
While we were at the hotel at several times VIP’s (heads of state or government) from different African countries stayed at the hotel. Nevertheless, there is competition… In addition to the Gawaye (which, to be honest, is just as exhausted as the Grand), the Chinese have recently built a hotel which clearly is currently the most luxurious in town and with the best service (though has a shitty view and no garden). With the AU Summit taking place in 2019, other hotels are also being built.
But the overall mystery of how a business ends up this way remains unclear to me. Is it the lack of competition? Is it corruption? Is it something linked to the French colonial period? Is it linked to Africa (or this part of Africa)?
Niamey, Niger, 18.12.2017
One would want the first blog entry to be brilliant. However, it is probably best to leave room for improvement. Taking the second approach, this introduction will be brief and mainly try to address the ‘why’ of this blog.
To begin with, some background. Having grown up in Africa, and worked for a long time in development cooperation ( on Africa and Asia and in global policy roles), I’ve been left with a lot of questions. These range from the practical (along the lines of, ‘what works and what does not’), the more philosophical / historical (along the lines of, ‘why is the world as it is’), but also personal and psychological (along the lines of, ‘what does all of this mean to me’).
Though I have written bits and pieces on and off, this has never been very structured. This site and blog is an attempt to improve on this. Also, the exercise of having run a website briefly in an earlier work position has given me a bit of appetite to explore a bit more the how and what of this. Finally, Duncan Green, a prominent development blogger (amongst other things) for Oxfam has given excellent overview of the more serious reasons to blog (and he has further interesting posts, including on blogging and development).
So here we go!
p.s., more on the website name, logo, and quote later…
Niamey, Niger, 03.11.2017