"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
I just finished reading ‘Hidden Hand’ by C. Hamilton and M. Ohlberg. Briefly summarized, the book is an explanation of influence operations by the Chinese communist party around the world and it essentially argues that this is a specific and urgent issue for the West. The book makes provides an extensive overview of how the Chinese government and security services are organized with regards to influencing foreign governments and societies. The links with economic interests and the Chinese abroad are particularly interesting. The book – in particular for someone not particular versed in the subject – is a very good introduction and overview. The book is convincing in its argument that the Chinese communist party makes the Chinese ‘state’ different than a ‘regular’ state / government and that they put extensive effort in espionage and lobby abroad. It is something that is an issue, and arguably one that is somewhat underappreciated.
Where the book is weaker is regarding how the nature of the Chinese efforts is different than that of other powers. Espionage (industrial or otherwise), influencing (through financing NGO’s, thinktanks, students, etc.) are not a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. And attacking the Chinese of trying to get more influence in international organizations is of course somewhat hypocritical if we look at the state of IMF / World Bank governance and the UN Security Council.
For both the EU and Africa, the big question is how to deal with this. Clearly ‘size’ is an issue, and hence (supra-national) unity becomes more important. This is of course relevant both with regards to the US and China. Both Europe and Africa benefit from multilateral governance – a bigger issue and concern when the two major global players have at best an opportunistic relationship with this.
01.01.2022, Brussels, Belgium
I just finished reading ‘Empty Planet’ by D. Bicker and J. Ibbitson. Briefly summarized, the book essentially argues that the demographic challenge is not rapid population growth (as is often argued) but the opposite. The book makes a strong case that this is already the case (or a near certainty in the short-term) in many countries (including large population ones like China). Moreover, while we are used to deal with population growth – we have grown beyond numerous population milestones that predicted our certain demise since Robert Malthus – this is hardly the case for decline at the rate we will face it.
Some link the decline in population growth to increases in inflation and others to slower technological progress. It is becoming such a source of concern that some countries are making drastic policy changes. Of course, it should be noted that some point out that the changes in the demographic pyramid could be managed through better health (at old age) and other changes (such as remote work and the increased use of technology).
What does that mean for Africa and development? First, while Africa has a demographic opportunity, it is certainly not automatic that it will reap the benefits. The demographic shift needs to be accompanied by significant investment to reap the potential benefits. Secondly, Africa’s population growth could help address the foreseen labor gap in Europe, but this necessitates reflection and policy action in a wide range of areas such as migration and education. Who would have thought that within a decade or so, when we speak of a ‘migration crisis’ we will not be speaking of too many migrants but too few…
26.6.2021, Brussels, Belgium
A year on after we first heard about the new coronavirus. Here in Europe, we are still facing significant restrictive measures. These range from school closures, limits on group size, limits to travel and face masks remain ubiquitous. It seems just like yesterday we were in Niamey, deciding if it was better to stay or to go due to the pandemic.
But while the developed world has suffered, a big question was how developing countries would fare. I have touched on this in the past blogs. In terms of direct health impact, the impact outside of the West has been mixed. But even though the impact has been significant in some countries and region, the absolute worst-case scenario that some feared has been avoided so far. However, there is some evidence that the economic impact could be significant. This has been argued by the IMF, and the UN fears a ‘lost decade’. This even after here too, there was some initial optimism.
An interesting and valuable contribution to this reflection has been a recent research article by Egger et al. In it they present data from household surveys that were conducted in 9 developing countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. This is particularly valuable as headline economic data is sketchy at best from developing countries and it is challenging to understand how this reflects on how people are living.
They note that, ‘A full 50 to 80% of sample populations in Bangladesh, Burkina Faso, Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Rwanda, and Sierra Leone report income losses during the COVID-19 period. If these effects persist, then they risk pushing tens of millions of already vulnerable households into poverty… By April, many households were already unable to meet basic nutritional needs.’ Not only is there the risk that progress made on poverty reduction will be lost (as argued above in the UN commentary), but the authors note that, ‘Following on decades of steadily increasing incomes across major world regions, the sharp rise in global poverty in 2020 that we document is unprecedented. The median proportion of respondents across our sample countries experiencing reduced income is a staggering 67%, and negative effects are experience by households across the socioeconomic spectrum.’
I started working on development issues in 2004, on South East Asia. I remember how in Indonesia – even 7 years after the Asian financial crisis – people would still reflect on how it impacted their lives. The poverty rate increased from 17% to 24% in some 2 to 3 years and Indonesia ended up having a much reduced poverty reduction rate going forward (see this paper, for example). Politically this also resulted in many changes – arguably the 1999 secession of East Timor (and the war), the end of the Suharto regime, and the rise of terrorism (e.g., the 2002 Bali bombings) were all at least in part linked to the economic developments.
We shall see what that means for the post-covid world around the globe.
05.04.2021, Brussels, Belgium
Last Tuesday, the 1st of December, I started a new job. Working for the European External Action Service (EEAS), I am now a Policy Officer working on Africa. After three years in Niger I am very excited to now have this opportunity.
With regards to this blog, I have to reflect on what approach I will take and what is needed in terms of procedures. First of all, it goes without saying, that everything on this blog is strictly personal and in no way does it reflect the position of the EEAS or any other institution. Secondly, I will have to check if any particular permission is needed for this type of activity (and if so, get it). Finally, I might want to “angle” the perspectives taken in the blog – for example avoid topics that might be particularly controversial. (I have not yet made up my mind on the latter).
Nevertheless; food for thought. But a good “problem” to have!
6.2.2020, Brussels, Belgium
While most of the political attention is on the upcoming US election, last Sunday Guinea held presidential elections. The context of the elections is complex: the transition to democracy is recent and tentative at best; the (undeniably lacking) constitution was revised just before the elections (and arguably without broad consensus and with a questionable referendum); the 82 year old president decided again be a candidate (this was only possible due to the change in constitution); and the political landscape remains highly fractured (including along ethnic lines). While official results are still awaited, the tension has already meant some violence (and here).
It is difficult to predict what this will mean for Guinea going forward. While the African Union and ECOWAS observation mission have been relatively positive, it is difficult to see this process as a serious step forward in terms of democratic consolidation. Several challenging elections in Africa remain this year.
Democratisation in Africa remains a combination of steps forward and steps back. In many cases fundamental challenges remain. While in academic and professional circles there is some debate about if Africans want (or should want) democracy and elections, survey data seems to suggest that Africans themselves seem to desire democracy and open elections. It might be a case of Churchill’s, “Worst option but for all the others.”
22.10.2020, Brussels, Belgium
Of course, any piece of writing with a title like this one has to start with a disclaimer / caveat: Africa is not a country. There are huge differences with regards to make-up of the economies, governance challenges, and stages of development. South Africa, Niger, and Cabo Verde are very, very different. Nevertheless, significant similarities – in particular with regards to development – are shared, including the challenges faced that emanate from the global economic context.
In a famous (and pessimistic) paper, Harvard professor Dani Rodrik had already showed the challenges. (Too) briefly summarized: have any chance of sustaining high growth rates, Africa would have to find pathways that are so far unknown (and unlikely). However, a recent article by EY Global sounded a more positive note, highlighting the shift in FDI from traditional extractive industries to telecommunications, retailing and services.
The impact of digitization is still unclear. As I have noted in earlier blogs, much of the key technology and leverages of power are controlled by non-African actors. There is also the question to what degree digital platforms create employment compared to the industries they displace (the famous story that Instagram was bought for 1 billion US $ while it only had 13 employees) or create less valuable jobs (e.g. Uber, Deliveroo, etc.).
Some see opportunity. A recent World Bank report does see “three possible reasons that could lead less skilled workers in Sub-Saharan Africa to benefit more from the adoption of digital technology than in other regions.” Unfortunately, this does seem to be based on some (at the very least) questionable logic. The first reason is that Africa’s manufacturing sector is small to begin with and Africans earn so little, that automation may be a limited risk. The second is that demand for many products is so low that automation may (though this is a gamble at best) increase demand. And finally, digital technology may increase access to (adapted) services in Africa. The latter argument is the only one that really inspires any sense of optimism in my opinion.
An article for the ECIPE by Erik van der Marel notes that the 2008-9 financial crisis caused digital services trade to “de-link” from goods related services trade. He expects this to continue following the COVID-19 crisis. As a result, growth in globalization will lean heavily on digital trade and cross-border exchanges in intangibles. Access to technology, bandwidth, ideas, and legal enforcement will be critical in this context. Is Africa ready for this? It will be of critical importance to have any perspective of the rapid growth needed to eradicate poverty.
13.09.2020, Brussels, Belgium
Global collective action on climate change was deficient even before the advent of COVID-19. As with several other areas of global governance, the lack of leadership is a key reason for this. If this is to be remedied, it is essential that the EU not only reaches its own targets regarding climate change measures but also makes climate change a priority of its external relations. So far, beyond fine words, its “climate diplomacy” has been mixed bag at best.
The current European Commission has made action on climate change one of its priorities with a, “European Green Deal”. While it can be criticized (in particular if it promises enough money), there does seem to be general cautious optimism (incl. from civil society organisations such as the WWF). Of course, climate change and the steps needed to address it - transforming our industrial system, our financial sector, and our personal habits – are massive challenges. Even within the EU the Commission cannot engender the needed change by itself. While the European Parliament is generally an ally (both regarding climate change but also the need for a pan-European approach), individual Member States and the Council often have divergent positions. It remains to be seen what the “Green Deal” delivers.
The Green Deal includes an external component, which focuses on the EU’s global role. While the communication from the Commission does include a range of examples, both the main text and the annex (the “roadmap” of key actions) are vague with regard to a possible climate diplomacy. This is a missed opportunity. First of all, “Green diplomacy” has been on the EU agenda at least since the 2003, when the European Council launched an initiative in this area. A 2018 resolution of the European Parliament on “climate diplomacy” called for a range of actions. In a blog the HRVP points out the importance of this “Green Deal diplomacy”, but unfortunately also remains largely unspecific with regards to specific actions and priorities. Moreover, dealing with global issues is a specific obligation of the EU under the Treaty. The lack of progress is disappointing.
Secondly, the need for global leadership on climate action is evident. If climate change – and the measures needed to address it are matter of debate in the EU, this pales in comparison with the debate in the United States. While poorer and developing countries have to balance difficult current priorities with the needed actions and face challenges to ensure the necessary investments, richer countries need to lead the change and action needed. This is even more the case if we take into account total contributions to causing climate change (by some calculations G20 countries are responsible for 80% of greenhouse gas emissions). Someone needs to fill the leadership gap by clearly prioritizing climate diplomacy.
Third, EU has had mixed results with its development of climate diplomacy. At least since the 1980’s, the EU – or European countries – have played an important role in environmental negotiations (e.g. treaties protecting biodiversity or implementing environmental regulation via the acquis). With regards to climate change specifically, EU results have been complicated. While there was strong support for the Kyoto Protocol, the Copenhagen conference in 2009 was a failure for the EU. Even the recent COP 25 in Madrid, where the priority was to address outstanding issues from the Paris Agreement, was largely disappointing. The EU positions on climate change face internal political tensions and the global context (marked by the UNFCC process) is complex (and the role of the EU institutions specifically is somewhat unclear). Nevertheless, the successes show EU leadership via climate diplomacy is possible and in light of the importance of the issue warrants reflection.
What is to be done? The Green Deal’s action plan has as an action entitled, “Strengthen the EU’s Green Deal Diplomacy in cooperation with Member States” (with its “indicative timetable” noting “from 2020”). As the Green Deal notes, “The EU will continue to promote and implement ambitious environment, climate and energy policies across the world. It will develop a stronger ‘green deal diplomacy’ focused on convincing and supporting others to take on their share of promoting more sustainable development. By setting a credible example, and following-up with diplomacy, trade policy, development support and other external policies, the EU can be an effective advocate. The Commission and the High Representative will work closely with Member States to mobilise all diplomatic channels both bilateral and multilateral – including the United Nations, the G7, G20, the World Trade Organization and other relevant international fora.” The Green Deal lists a wide range of opportunities where climate diplomacy could play a role (e.g. EU – China summits, trade negotiations, the single market as standard-setter). The Council has always been more tentative, for example emphasizing Member State sovereignty in energy matters and the need for energy security.
If the EU is to really make climate diplomacy a priority, the relevant EU institutions (notably the Commission and EEAS) will need to develop a clear strategy. The above-mentioned resolution from the European Parliament provides a broad range of concerns and issues and can complement the somewhat limited perspectives of the Green Deal on climate diplomacy. The resolution also makes concrete suggestions with regards to the functioning of climate diplomacy in the EU (e.g. calling for the High Representative to coordinate this effort, specific funding and structures for climate diplomacy, and a regular dialogue with the Parliament on the matter).
A specific communication on climate diplomacy from the Commission and EEAS would focus the attention of all (in particular the Council and Member States, but also between Commission DG’s) and could form the basis for a strategy and dialogue. The range of EU stakeholders involved, the many tools for the EU (the UNFCC process, bilateral / regional agreements, development cooperation, enlargement negotiations, etc…) mean that a clear and monitorable overview is essential. Moreover, the ongoing debate on these issues within the EU mean that a strategy is also important to guide and understand the internal EU political factors. Indeed, the importance of the linkages between domestic and external policies for Europe’s “geopolitical ambitions has been noted.
All of the elements of climate diplomacy will face challenges and trade-offs, both in terms of diplomatic strategy and technical measures. Yet the EU is in a strong to position to make significant contributions to the global political process, if it gets organized. With the current Commission’s geopolitical and green ambitions, it will be interesting to see where the EU’s climate diplomacy goes. For global climate justice, it is essential that the EU’s climate diplomacy finally gets serious.
26.08.2020, Brussels, Belgium
The past few weeks, and arguably the past years, have not been kind to the Sahelian countries. As mentioned before, due to the Covid-19 situation, we have been in Belgium since June. A week ago, an attack killed 8 people, including several French NGO workers as they were visiting a national park just outside Niamey. The park was famous for the West-African giraffes that lived there. The area was considered safe, and when were in Niamey we visited several times as a family. Of course, this will further hit the (limited) tourist sector – France has already put pretty much the entire country as a “red” zone as a result of the attack. Those living in Niamey are like to face further restrictions.
In addition to this, the past few months Niger has also faced financial and human rights scandals hitting the army. The economic crisis linked to Covid-19 will inevitably hit the country hard. Regionally, the recent coup d’état in Mali, even if the civilian government was very unpopular (and many welcome the coup), does not augur well for the region.
Ever since the war in Libya and the French intervention in Mali in 2013, the question remains if the situation is improving. The G5 Sahel is having difficulty getting operational. While a lot has happened in terms of technical assistance (including by several EU member states and a CSDP mission) and a lot of development cooperation has taken place (not only did partners of Niger scale up efforts, but countries like the Netherlands started a relationship with the country). But with the overall impact of Covid-19 unclear, it is certain that the economic impact will be disastrous (though never seen before low growth seems certain; only question how low and for how long). The fact remains that no clear victory has been gained against the terrorist movements in the region since 2013. Unfortunately, the past few years may have been “easier” than what’s ahead.
21.08.2020, Brussels, Belgium.
The past few weeks, following the filmed death of a hand-cuffed black man in the United States while he was being arrested, has seen a massive rise in anti-racism demonstrations across the West. These demonstrations take on a range of issues, from the original question of police violence (both in the United States and abroad) to questioning the memory and historicism of slavery and colonialism (often by “attacking” statues of historical figures with links to the issues such as Belgium’s king Leopold or leaders of the Confederacy in the United States).
Race and identity are difficult issues. It’s even more difficult when it comes to factoring in historical events, with today’s perspectives. It’s also clear there are worrying issues today that have their roots in the past. The statistics on police brutality against African Americans in the United States are shocking, clearly the problem goes beyond “a few bad apples”, and now they are regularly filmed, impossible to deny. But even in development cooperation, while arguably not dealing with such blunt violence, there still are questions to ask about how we deal with race. And the questions may also be important for overall international relations.
I had to think of a quote in Ta-Nehisi Coates’, Between the World and Me, “Difference in hue and hair is old. But the belief in the preeminence of hue and hair, the notion that these factors can correctly organize a society and that they signify deeper attributes, which are indelible – this is the new idea at the heart of these new people who have been brought up hopelessly, tragically, deceitfully, to believe they are white. These new people are, like us, a modern invention.” Identity, individual and social, is really fascinating. It can be beautiful and build powerful links between people, but also exclude, cause violence and be tragic. All based on the social and chemical processes between us and within our brains.
18.06.2020, Brussels, Belgium.
We made it out of Niamey and to Brussels two weeks ago. We were allocated seats on a Belgian Air Force plane that left the DRC and flew back to Belgium via Niamey. We were very fortunate to get seats; clearly there was significant demand. For now, commercial flights remain suspended and it is not clear when they will start again. The flight itself was particular – military medics with protective suits and masks checked us before bordering and we landed at a military airport in Brussels with all the formalities were done in a huge canvas tent. We appreciate how privileged we are to have had this option which is clearly out of reach for close to all the people in Niger.
There is a lot of confusion / unclarity about the current situation regarding the virus. There is some evidence that even though Africa seemed to have avoided the worse scenarios, cases are rising and are also having an impact on management of other health risks such as malaria and hepatitis (interesting article). Even the situation in Europe is very unclear. Nevertheless, the massive negative economic impact of the situation so far remains confirmed.
Recent, in addition to the economic impact, there has been attention for the political impact. Several elections have been postponed and different countries have taken exceptional measures at the limits of their constitutions. At least for some conflicts, the virus is a serious complicating factor. There is some debate about what the long-term impact could be.
We will see what the future brings.
18.06.2020, Brussels, Belgium.
Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.