"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
One of the big joys in this world, for me, is basketball. The NBA is the pinnacle of the basketball world. For someone looking from outside the United States, it is clear that the NBA does have its issues. These are mainly the extreme commercialization of the game, which drives an extremely liberal interpretation of the rules to ensure entertainment (one example is the NBA’s interpretation of travelling violations, which in practice is even more open to taking steps then the already highly liberal text of the law).
This year the Toronto Raptors became NBA champions, beating the all-powerful Golden State Warriors (some injuries helped…). Interesting has been the “African” contribution to this win. Serge Ibaka (Spanish, but originally from Congo) and Pascal Siakam (from Cameroon). African players are not a new phenomenon, not even as key players in NBA championship teams – I remember watching Hakeem Olajuwon from Nigeria win two championships when I was younger.
But particularly interesting this time is the role of Masai Ujiri as the central executive of the Raptors. He essentially constructed this team, including making several high-risk and gutsy trades. To see an African make it to be the top executive of an NBA team – and win – is impressive and a good positive story. Others have said it better, so if interested to know more, please follow this link.
18.6.2019, Niamey, Niger.
The long list of conflicts and coups throughout West Africa and the Sahel does make the question of achieving sustainable peace and security a recurring one. The countries are very diverse with regards to economic structures (and performance), ethnic composition, colonial history, geographic realities, climatic challenges and other key factors that may underlie specific drivers of conflict. Yet, as argued by Denece and Rodier, they all face persistent internal conflicts, jihadist terrorism, and / or the spread of criminal activity (2012, pp. 36-37). This points to a problem of power – or rather, the lack of power of state institutions.
Regardless of if we agree with Bodin, Weber, Hobbes or any other classical approach to the importance of the state’s “monopoly of violence”, the lack of this monopoly by states in West Africa and the Sahel is one key common characteristic that stands out. The two sides of the coin – legitimacy and capacity – are both important. It is also important to keep in mind that this goes beyond “governance”, a concept that has become so diluted in international development debates that it has become almost pointless, even if many of the efforts individually (less corruption, equality, etc…) are good in principle.
We can take the security sector as an example. The recent attacks in Mali, coup attempts in Burkina Faso, or the recent conflicts in Chad which necessitated an intervention by the French air force all show the perilous state of the security sector – and hence the monopoly of violence by the political leadership – in the region. As noted by Bryden and Olonisakin, “The potential for structural change remains limited across many African settings. National processes of [security sector] reform continue to face resistance and are being challenged by internal and external factors. Faulty assumptions which guide security sector reform interventions, and the sometimes conflicting strategies and interests of external stakeholders, limit the extent to which radical change is possible even in such settings. “(2010, p. 232).
While there can be little doubt that external actors can militarily impose order on a region and people (at least in the short term), whether they can imbue a state actor with legitimacy is not clear. In some cases – see the above example of the French intervention in Chad – one can even argue that external actors are even undermining the legitimacy of a regime most likely kept in place purely by force. That legitimacy needs to come from the people and the political process – whatever shape it may have.
Unfortunately, in the case of West Africa and the Sahel, there is limited reason for optimism in this regard. Chabal and Daloz once noted that, “Our (admittedly far from cheering) conclusion is that there prevails in Africa a system of politics inimical to development as it is usually understood in the West. The dynamics of the political instrumentalization of disorder are such as to limit the scope for reform in at least in two ways. The first is that, where disorder has become a resource, there is no incentive to work for a more institutionalized ordering of society. The second is that in the absence of any other viable way of obtaining the means needed to sustain neo-patrimonialism, there is inevitably a tendency to link politics to realms of increased disorder, be it war or crime… Consequently, the prospects for political institutionalization are, in our view limited. Nor is it likely that the recent democratic experiments in Arica will lead to the establishment of the constitutional, legal and bureaucratic political order which is required for fundamental reform. Such change would have to be driven by popular will. Only when ordinary African men and women have cause to reject the logic of personalized politics, seriously to question the legitimacy of the present political instrumentalization of disorder and to struggle for new forms of political accountability, will meaningful change occur.” (1999, p. 162).
The farce of “elections” taking place in Benin show that even in countries that are deemed to be “positive” examples of democratization, with regular elections, little politics is done through formal institutions (elections, parliament, etc.) Even Senegal managed to have a presidential election without a debate. Unfortunately, the politics of the formal institutions in many African states is often a Potemkin village. Citizens of these states will have to refuse to accept this for things to change. Only then can the political system and the state gain sufficient legitimacy to start working on the important task of gaining the monopoly of violence. Soldiers are of course also citizens, and there is (on the basis of self-reporting), some reason for optimism, as newer generations of soldiers may have a different attitude than their elders. For external actors, the guiding principle to any intervention should be to, “do no harm” to the development of citizen agency in these states.
10.5.2019, Niamey, Niger.
Bryden, A. and Olonisakin, ‘F. (2010), “Enabling Security Sector Transformation in Africa”, in Bryden A. and Olonisakin, ‘F. (Eds.), Security Sector Transformation in Africa (Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces), pp. 219-233.
Chabal, P. and Daloz, J-P. (1999), Africa Works: Disorder as Political Instrument.
Denece, E., and Rodier, A. (2012), “The Security Challenges of West Africa”, in OECD, Global Security Risks and West Africa: Development Challenges, West African Studies.
I recently finished Jean-Pierre Bat’s, “Le syndrome Foccart : La politique française en Afrique, de 1959 à nos jours”. A big book, covering France’s politics and policies with regards to Africa – in particular its former colonies. The book is a great read, providing a good overall framework but also a lot of interesting insights into specific events and issues. The main threads are the influence and important role of Jacques Foccart, who was a close confident to Charles de Gaulle and his “Mr. Africa”, the importance of the former colonies to French presidency, and how relevant the concept of “Françafrique” is as a framework to look at France’s policies and politics.
It’s difficult to summarize 50+ years of history, so I won’t even attempt to do so here. A few interesting points stood out for me. First of all, the network of former colonies has been important to France – and in particular the French presidents – as a means to ensure France’s international stature. As a result, French presidents have invested a lot of personal resources into the relationships with the leadership in these countries. Jacques Foccart was unique in this, as he was personally close to de Gaulle, important in the French center-right political (party) network, had close links to the secret service (having been employed by them) and had a strong relationship with African elites from the colonial times. A further consequence of this was the tradition of a strong “Africa” cell in the presidency, for a long time circumventing the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Basically, this was only redressed in the late 1990’s.
A second noteworthy element is how unclear it is that this (supposedly) close relationship with these African countries does not seem to have really improved France’s decisions. Historically, it is hard to see how support for dictators like Bokassa or the Habyarimana regime, in particularly militarily, was ethically ever a good idea (even at the moment). And the support of secessionist movements during the Biafra war or civil wars in Zaire – merely with the goal of ensuring French regional influence – is extremely harsh. But even from simply a “realpolitik” perspective, some serious errors were made (one example is the transition in Ivory Coast after the death of Houphoet-Boigny).
A third (and for now final) noteworthy point is the lack of focus in much of France’s policies and politics in this area, which makes it hard to say there is a “Françafrique” concept. France’s interests have long been divided between different state actors (e.g. Ministers, security services, presidency, political parties, etc..) and private actors (e.g. private companies), and overall global movements with regards to Africa and development. Another strong influence has been the “Europeanization” of French politics – including the relationship with Africa.
The importance of France here in Niger is clear. The French embassy is very big, the French international school is the largest foreign school here, and the French army is present (including with fighter jets). At the same time, the growing role of other actors is also evident. The US embassy is probably as large as that of France, and the US has at least one drone base in the country (there are rumors of a second one being run by the CIA). A lot of infrastructure is being built by other actors such as Turkey, India, Saudi Arabia and China. The latter also have gotten into more strategic sectors that long were a French monopoly, such as oil and possibly uranium. Where does this leave France? And where does this leave Niger?
5.4.2019, Niamey, Niger.
The past years, there has been a lot of attention paid to security issues in the Sahel region. It even made the 2019 Munich Security Report (prestigious, but probably better not to be mentioned…), according to which, “The Sahel region or “African arc of instability” faces an interrelated set of security challenges, which exacerbate each other and have prompted some observers to describe the states in the region as the most vulnerable in the world. Although both the United States and the European Union have recognized the importance of the Sahel in their respective regional security strategies, for a long time the region did not feature high on the international agenda. This has changed since the French-led intervention in 2013 in Mali, which put the Sahel and its security challenges in the international spotlight.” The report provides a good overview, including on the international impact. Noteworthy is the spike in amount of fatalities in the region as a result Islamist attacks, which has gone from around 200 / year for several years in 2016, to over 1 000 in 2018 (based on research by the Africa Center for Strategic Studies.
Recently, in Mali, 160 villagers were killed in an attack. While (seemingly) not done by Islamists, and had a tribal / ethnic dimension, it is clear that the overall Malian and Sahelian context of violence played a role. In particular the failure of the state to play a role as guarantee of security stands out. An interesting backgrounder by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute provides a good overview of some of the interventions. At its core, looking forward, it joins the many calls to better and faster implementation of the G5 initiative (in particular the military “joint force” component), the need for development initiatives, and the tricky situation of elections (four out of five of the countries will hold elections this year).
All of this advice is useful and well argued. However, one cannot help but feel a certain amount of frustration. Surely, even back in 2014 (when the G5 initiative was set-up), we knew that security was important. While the international community has pushed for such a multi-national structure, is this the best approach? (The backgrounder points out much of the criticism in this regard.) Moreover, are approaches by international partners towards the region even understood with regards to how they impact insecurity? There has been some criticism, for example of the EU’s CSDP missions and France’s army’s military interventions to support the Chadian regime.
The state having a monopoly of violence is a critical definition of a state going back to Jean Bodin (1576) and Thomas Hobbes (1651). Even more than the capacity of the national armies in the Sahelian countries, their legitimacy is probably the first issue to address if they are to have a positive role in the future. A very interesting recent OECD paper in their West African Papers series shows the “praetorian” history of military forces in the region, and notes that, while some progress has been made, “This must not distract from the fact that in all three countries, a visible section of the armed forces remains at odds with democratic principles. The behaviour of sections of the Malian armed forces in the aftermath of the 2012 coup and recent speculations about a failed military coup in Niger in December 2015 illustrate this. It is too early to assess the political progress in Burkina Faso and the extent to which recent events will affect civil-military relations. In Chad and Mauritania, by contrast, the armed forces are firmly entrenched in power and there is little to suggest that this will change soon.” Here in Niger, for the elections in 2021, the main potential candidates for the ruling party (which is almost certain to win) are the current Minister of the Interior (who is charged with organizing the elections…) and a high-ranking army officer. Clear civilian oversight, professionalism, and technical solutions such as public expenditure reviews of defense expenditure, might be more important than jet fighters and new uniforms for security in the Sahel.
28.3.2019, Niamey, Niger.
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
Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.