"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
Recently I read Susan Strange’s seminal book, “States and Markets”.Strange, who died in 1998, was a long time academic in the field of international relations and international political economy.The book was originally published in 1988, and focuses on “power” as a concept to analyze relationships in international politics and economics.Indeed, one important point she makes is that the fields of politics and economics are often split, providing for academically “clean” theories and methodologies, but loosing the capacity to understand what is happening in the real world.As Palan’s foreword notes, “Markets are integrated, politics affects economics, economics affects politics, and structural power has this uncanny ability to travel between different contexts.”Interestingly, Strange notes that, “In real life, durable conditions in political economy cannot be created which ignore the interlocking interests of powerful people.The problem – which never has an easy, quick or permanent solution – is to find that balance of interest of power that allows a working set of bargains to be hammered out and observed.”Important in any analysis, according to Strange, was the question “who benefits” (Cui bono?).
In her model, Strange identifies four key “structures of power” in the world economy, namely security, production, finance and knowledge.This seems somewhat random (or maybe evolves through time) in terms of sectors, and the balance of power between states and firms may also evolve.With some of the reading I’ve been doing recently, the question of power in the telecommunication and internet domain is particularly interesting.A great read for this has been Laura DeNardis’, “The Global War for Internet Governance”. Power and responsibilities are spread out over a range of institutions, both public and private, and constantly shifting (and arguably, not always clear).In a sense, this is “multistakeholder governance”.However, with the economic and political importance of the internet only increasing, is this sufficient?Knowing the economic importance – including with significant impact on poverty reduction – is this sufficient?Cui bono?
13.3.2019, Niamey, Niger.
 See, for example, May’s, “Strange fruit: Susan Strange’s theory of structural power in the international political economy”.
 A point also made in the above article by May.
One of the key points from Thomas Piketty’s landmark study, “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”, is that the world is returning towards “patrimonial capitalism”: a state in which the economy is dominated by inherited wealth.Linked to this phenomenon is a particular form of financialization, with its emphasis on “shareholder maximization” and “leveraging”, as argued by, for example, Ronald Dore. Finally, numerous authors, but most notably Tim Wu, Jamie Bartlett, Scott Galloway, Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake have highlighted the specific issues that the current high-tech sector, with lack of supranational governance, raises.Looking forward, there is cause to believe that while absolute poverty may be reduced around the world, many of the poor may not be able to further close the gap.
Ralph Hamann identified three risks for developing countries with regards to the “fourth industrial revolution”, namely: a) “worsening unemployment”, b) “increasing concentration of wealth”, and c) “bias baked into algorithms”.This is not a comprehensive list, as major issues (e. e.g., how people have access to the internet), are not included.In the global debates – for example, on the future intellectual property governance – ignore the interests of the poor in developing nations.
Within the development sector, the attention regarding technology has been on how to increase investment in the digital sector in developing countries and on how to increase access to connectivity, digital skills, and “e-services”.This has focused a lot on infrastructure questions and market context, often through close cooperation with large technology multinationals. There has been some attention on governance in the “developing” country but not on a global level nor on the impacts of the “intangible economy” mentioned above. The same limitations can be seen in initiatives such as the World Economic Forum’s “Internet of Things (IoT) for Sustainable Development Projects” or the UN’s Commission on Science and Technology for Development: governance, in particular from a pro-poor perspective is limited.
Living here in Niger, with regular power cuts (we have the luxury of a generator), the heat (a data center would need some serious cooling), challenge of education (high demographics, limited investing in the sector) and relative isolation (no access to the sea, surrounded by “complicated” states make it hard to imagine cabling), it is hard to be optimistic regarding Niger’s future role in the digital economy of tomorrow.Mobile technology is one source of optimism – even some of the beggars have smartphones… The high level of up-front investment needed to be a technology player is of course a significant issue in such a poor country.
2.3.2019, Niamey, Niger.
 Numerous publications by Ronald Dore, but in particular his 2008 article, “Financialization of the global economy”.
 Tim Wu, “The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age”.
 Jamie Bartlett, “The People Vs. Tech: How the internet is killing democracy (and how we save it)”.
 Scott Galloway, “The Four: The Hidden DNA of Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google”.
 Jonathan Haskel and Stian Westlake, “Capitalism Without Capital: The Rise of the Intangible Economy”.
 Ralph Hamann, blog on the www.conversation.com, “Developing countries need to wake up to the risk of new technologies”.
 For example, in the Sustainable Development Goals, that drive the current development agenda, “information and communication technology”, under SDG 9, has access to internet and mobile network as targets.
 For example, see the EU-AU Digital Economy Task Force.
 For example, see the A4AI (Alliance for Affordable Internet).
I’ve had a complicated relationship with Joseph Conrad. This has been mainly through my relationship with the Heart of Darkness.
I don’t specifically remember the first time I read the book, but it was while in boarding school in the DRC (then Zaire) in the early to mid-1990’s. The sense of chaos into which the country was descending – which would seem me and my family being evacuated and eventually move to Europe – and from which it has until today not fully recovered, leant a certain amount of familiarity to the story. But as I grew up, also intellectually, and become more “radical” in my sensitivities to white-black relations and colonialism / imperialism, in line with authors such as Chinua Achebe, I became critical of how Africa and Africans were portrayed in the novel. Since then – maybe the “conservative turn” that comes with aging? - I’ve become much more sympathetic to the novel.
The language used by Conrad can, at times, be from a different age. (His novel, The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’, is at the very least, strikingly titled…) But the complexity of Darkness is striking, in particular the fact that when reading it with nuance, it is clear he’s mainly criticizing the white presence in Africa. Aside from that, the story is gripping, and has inspired some great stories (e.g. the movie Apocalypse Now or Naipul’s A Bend in the River, both favorites of mine.
Recently I read Maya Jasanoff’s, The Dawn Watch: Joseph Conrad in a Global World. A great biography of Conrad, which shows how he was shaped by his world (as a Pole at a time when his country was often effectively off the map; as a sailor in a great phase of globalization; as an immigrant writing in “new” language), as was his writing. More than anything, what the world is and how we see it is constantly in flux. This causes tension, both at the individual and collective level, and that was an important part of Conrad’s analysis – and his life experience made him uniquely suited to observe this. Jasanoff illustrates this very well in her brilliant book. One can only look at the world today, in particular the tensions through the current wave of financial and technology-driven globalization and wonder what there is to uncover and highlight.
Niamey, Niger, 11.11.2019
I recently read an interesting article by Crewe and Fernando, “The elephant in the room: racism in representations, relationships and rituals” (Progress in Development Studies, Vol 6:1, 2006, pp. 40-54). The article looks at the (possible) impact of racism in the international development industry and how even with the best intentions, through working-methods, culture and practices discrimination and exclusion can occur within and throughout the working relationships. While I find that the article rests a lot on anecdotal examples by the authors, some of which is also very much a case of perspective, it does raise some important questions and issues.
This has been of interest to me since I started working in development cooperation, back in 2004. I even think it is something that has been with me since my youth. Being mixed-race, raised first very much as a “Guinean” and then as an expat, to end as a “minority” in Europe and then working in development cooperation has given me a range of experiences and perspectives. For example, being a Dutch donor representative in the Philippines and Indonesia was confusing for many of the NGO partners – they expected “standard” Dutch people. This resulted in not being recognized when you were going to be picked up to “feeling” like we were more on the same side (i.e., I was also “non-white” like them, versus “the North”). I have also been in a fair share of meetings where colleagues make general comments about Africans to only quickly and uncomfortably apologize to me. (Of course, many Africans also discriminate between each other, racism / discrimination is a universal phenomenon – just thought I’d note this here).
I will avoid getting into a debate on what racism is – that requires an essay and not a blog post – and opinions can differ on the matter. What I found particularly interesting in the article was the focus on language, timing, place and consultation rituals and symbols to understand the “systems of exclusion”. Donor agencies are in the lead on the language used in development cooperation (SDGs, logframes, aid effectiveness, etc..), the decision-making process and timing (funding decisions and project cycle management), the consultation rituals (PRSP’s, donor conferences, etc…), and the symbols of expertise (what is considered “knowledge” and important). Especially when I worked in a Dutch development NGO that was very sensitive to developing co-ownership with local partners and really worked to invite the participation and influence of those it worked with, these were difficult issues. How do you marry your own needs (financial responsibility, your own donors / politicians / tax-payers, communication and marketing in a competitive environment, and your own policy analysis) with those of your partners? I remember working in Uganda, trying to develop a joint program with several local partners, but several did not want to work with one of the others because that NGO was openly for gay rights… Hence, I’m not entirely convinced that these issues of power imbalances are the result of racism (though there is some of that) or rather structural power issues in the development industry.
Niamey, Niger, 14.12.2018
Earlier in the year I started a distance course via the School of Oriental Studies (SOAS) of the University of London. My 1st subject was on multinational enterprises which was interesting and very different from the usual “development” stuff I have dealt with. My final essay was on financialization, an interesting and complex issue.
I’m now doing global public policy. We’ve just started, so it’s fairly theoretical at this point. Having worked for a range of institutions, including the Commission, some of it seems familiar, but some of it fairly far.
Several articles discussed the impact of the “Washington Consensus” and international donors. Essentially, international donors are imposing policies on developing countries. Having worked in development cooperation, I’m much less convinced that donors have so much influence on policies in developing countries (even the “donor dependent” countries). One article by Kown et al., “Shaping the national social protection strategy in Cambodia: Global influence and national article”, gives an interesting overview of the “policy dynamics” regarding Cambodia’s development of its social protection strategy. It’s clear that donors had influence, running projects, with technical assistance, etc… As the author states, “The article has pointed out that, in introducing the NSPS, the Cambodian government relied heavily on technical and financial support from global agencies.” Nevertheless, the article goes on to conclude that, “… global influence without substantial financial commitment had only limited impact on the national government. The national government, despite their eagerness for policy ownership, would rather have others take financial responsibility.” While it is clear that donors play a role, financing one thing and not another, and clearly push language and international agendas, it remains unclear to me how much this impacts real policy and policies on the ground. I remember the cotton budget support program for Benin that was supposed to privatize the cotton sector, but in reality just gave the monopoly from the state to a friend of the president who then became president… The IMF and World Bank are the point of the spear of the Washington Consensus, but in most African countries they’re still pushing many of the same structural reforms of the past 40 years (electricity sector, harbor, road maintenance, etc…) If policy only exists on paper and has no impact in the real world, is it a policy?
Niamey, Niger, 01.11.2018
As a political scientist, especially one trained in Europe (the West?) elections are, for me, a central pillar of democracy and good governance. Working in development cooperation has only increased this – the cycle of elections and electoral monitoring seem to be a central point in all cooperation programs. 2018 has also provided its list of elections and foreshadowing for the future is also on its way. In Niger, just a glance in the local papers makes it clear that everything politically is seen through the perspective of the future elections (in particular the 2021 presidential elections).
Yet contested elections, in a context of severe credibility questions, have become almost a standard in Africa. Of course, there are exceptions such as South Africa, Tanzania, Ghana, and Senegal. But if we look just at some of the elections so far in 2018, it is clear there are many problematic cases. In Mali the elections took place in a country torn apart by conflict (and saw the re-election of an incumbent who’s had limited success; the results are not accepted by the entire opposition), Chad has announced that donors will have to pay for its elections (national assembly and local) or they won’t take place, Egypt and Zimbabwe elections took place in a highly authoritarian context which predictably saw the government candidate elected, and the DRC will finally (it seems) have its much delayed presidential election but the governing party is likely to win since all potential important opponents have been barred from registering and / or entering the country.
Elections, for all their limitations and flaws, are meant to express the will of the people for their leaders and policies. In turn, they are meant to legitimize the choices made politically. But is their any chance of this happening in these cases? Are we moving towards or away from democracy? What is the input of external actors such as donors? And how can African countries - also in the context of poverty and limited space and options for public debate - have real policy and political discussions?
Niamey, Niger, 05.09.2018
The field of development is full of thinking, reflection and other intellectual activities. Academic institutions, think tanks, institutions (e.g. the World Bank), civil society actors (incl. professional development NGO’s), and politicians all get in on it. Many (all?) of the issues faced in the social sciences apply to work in the field of development (too many variables, reverse causality, etc…) Even the use of randomized control trials in development faces issues, and they tend to work only for very specific actions (not the big theories). A lot of ideas and theories have seen the day, sometimes disappearing in the past, and sometimes reappearing (explicitly or otherwise).
A good overview is provided in Akbar Norman and Joseph E. Stiglitz’s chapter, “Strategies for African Development” in the 2012 book, Good Growth and Governance in Africa: rethinking development strategies. After describing the issue (i.e., the disappointing development and social indicators in Africa, in particular when compared to South-East Asia), they provide a good overview of the various approaches to what was the challenge of development in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). They divide the approaches into categories, namely: (1) “the role of geography” (e.g., challenge of the tropics, challenge landlocked nations, etc.); (2) “Africa in the global context” (e.g., colonialism, neo-colonialism, etc.); and (3) “governance” (basically everything to do with the flawed policies and institutions in Africa). (There is some overlap with Collier’s, “poverty traps”). Of course, the many countries and experiences in Africa, the issue of causality (e.g., “does trade cause growth or growth cause trade”?), and even the basic question of how to understand and quantify “development” remain.
The article then, contrasting itself with the “Washington Consensus” / neo-liberal approach, stresses the importance of the role of the state in any effort to develop. A development policy (industrial policy, correct sequencing, learning and technology, etc.) are critical. Also important is a specific growth-focused and locally adapted governance agenda (in contrast with the overall nebulous “good governance” that is often used). This can then be the basis for a pro-poor (i.e. social, job-intensive) development agenda. Agriculture is important to Norman and Stiglitz (in line with Asia’s green revolution) as is the availability of credit. Aid can help and play a role on specific issues (e.g. climate change) but the question to what degree aid is / can be growth-enhancing is still open.
The article is an interesting overview and provides food for thought. One thing that has worried me is that the East-Asia approach to development may no longer be an option. As Rodrik has raised in a very interesting piece, “It is now well documented that manufacturing has become increasingly skill-intensive in recent decades. Along with globalization, this has made it very difficult for newcomers to break into world markets for manufacturing in a big way and replicate the experience of Asia’s manufacturing superstars… it seems as if the escalator has been taken away from the lagging countries.”
Maybe companies based in large African states like Ethiopia, Nigeria, Kenya or South Africa can still develop around a local and regional market (like Dangote, for example). However, it is indeed difficult to see how this type of industrialization can take place in smaller African states – unless you find a real niche. An alternative would be to ‘jump up’ and go (e.g.) into services, but that too poses many challenges (education, necessary infrastructure needs such as electricity and internet bandwidth, etc.)
Niamey, Niger, 18.06.2018
A suicide attack took place in Diffa, in the east of Niger, close to the border with Chad and Nigeria. There are 9 dead and some 40 injured, but the figures may change as several of the injured are in critical condition. The suspicion is that Boko Haram is behind the attack. There are several militant / Islamic groups active in the Sahel, including off-shoots of Boko Haram.
It’s not a unique event, as there have been more attacks in Niger, though mostly on the Western border with Mali. Particularly covered in the media was the attack on U.S. soldiers at the end of 2017. It put a lot of attention on the nature of the U.S. military presence here (including the new drone base being built by Agadez), and the overall presence of foreign troops in Niger (including the unclear legal context, unclear mandates, and unclear operations).
The overlap of Islamist movements and a wide range of local demands and conflicts is clear. There have been numerous secessionist movements in the regions over the past hundred years. Islamism – and in particular questions of interpretation as both sides of conflict lines are Muslims – may be a driver of the conflict, but it’s certainly not the only and probably not a root cause. When I worked for ICCO on the Mindanao conflict in the Philippines the historic evolution of the opposition to the Manila government from left-wing framing to Islamist framing was very evident. The economic drivers in the Sahel are also clear. I recently read Lawrence Wright’s, “The Looming Tower”, a great read. One of the most interesting parts was to read about the development of Islamism in the Egyptian context, including the ideological, political, strategic, and religious arguments and splits within the movement.
The famous (summarized) von Clausewitz quote that, “war is politics by other means” probably means that violence is likely to remain part of human relations in one way or another. And the appeal of (suicide) bombings for the weak is clear – they may have few other options to have an impact. Yet an attack by poor African Muslims on other poor African Muslims in a remote corner of the world remains shocking. It also seems very, very pointless.
Niamey, Niger, 07.06.2018
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
Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.