"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
Internet, Digital, and Africa? (Part 1)
I’m working on an essay (thesis) for a course, and the subject is the participation of Africa in internet governance.A big topic – and a target of 15 000 words for the essay – so my plan is to break down parts for this blog.With the recent EU Joint Communication on Africa mentioning a “partnership for digital transformation”, the topic is clearly in the “zeitgeist”.(I would of course point out that I decided on my topic many months ago…)I won’t add the bibliography for the blog posts – maybe at the end I’ll upload the final thing with the full bibliography, but all references are available if needed.This first entry is from the background, dealing with the importance of “digitalization" in general.
The development of information and communication technologies (ICTs), so-called “digitalisation”, and the “internet economy” are all having a profound impact on society and the economy. According to a recent UN report, “Digital technologies are rapidly transforming societies and economies, simultaneously advancing the human condition and creating profound and unprecedented challenges.” (UN 2019, p. 6). According to one author, “Networked digital information technology looms ever larger in all of our lives. It shapes our perceptions, conditions the choices available to us, and remakes our experience of space and time.” (Greenfield 2018, p. 8).
There is no clear consensus on what should be included in the “digital sector”, which can include everything from hardware (e.g., mobile phones), e-commerce, paid services, free services, advertising, dta, etc… which can be difficult to clearly value (IMF 2018, pp. 1-2). A 2011 report by McKinsey stated that 21 percent of GDP growth in mature economies the previous 5 years was linked to the internet (Manyika and Roxburgh 2011, p. 1). The World Bank, based on other work by McKinsey, estimates that in 2014 the financial worth of cross-border data flows was US $ 2.8 trillion; 45 times more than in 2005 (World Bank 2018, p. xv). E-commerce sales in 2017 were estimated to be US $ 29 trillion, growing 13% from the year before (UNCTAD 2019a). Digital data and so-called “platformisation” (referring to businesses like Facebook, Uber and Amazon that function like global platforms) are key elements of this new economy: seven of the eight largest companies in terms of market capitalization are platforms that work with data (UNCTAD 2019, p. xv). Haskel and Westlake have focused on the “intangible” dimension of this “new economy” (i.e., the large companies in this new world often have limited capital – much of their value is based on technology and branding), and show – as an example – that investment in intangible assets as share of GDP in the EU is catching up with investment in tangible assets as a result of technological change (2018, p. 26). Just to illustrate the point, the market capitalization of Amazon on March 7th, 2018 was larger than Walmart, Target, Carrefour, Tesco and the 7 following largest retailers combined (2018, p. 3).
Looking forward, there is no reason to believe that the impact of ICT changes and digitalisation will lessen. In fact, there are many reasons to believe it might even intensify and accelerate. Technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), blockchain, web-based services / cloud computing, mobile-based services, and even e-commerce are still in their infancy. In many ways, this may amount to a new industrial revolution, and the impact on states and society could be similar (Medhora 2018). According to the Internet Society, “In a hyperconnected economy, no sector of the economy will be untouched by technology… This rapid change will disrupt businesses and increase pressure on societies, in particular on jobs and economic opportunity. Business models and the nature of work will be profoundly changed.” (2017, p. 25). Inevitably this will also impact Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA), where there are a range of low- and middle-income countries and Least Developed Countries (LDCs) as defined by the UN.
16.03.2020, Niamey, Niger.
 Specific definitions and list of platforms vary in the literature, for a good overview see Poell, Nieborg and van Dijck 2019).
Populism, what is it?
I’ve recently written an essay on populism, a subject much in the news the past few years.In the popular media, this is often the result of migration or (unfair) trade relations, where the West is the victim.This is surprising, as one would think that we are in a world designed and dominated by the West…
Populism is a complex and contested concept.Movements considered right and left wing and / or with positions across the political spectrum have been considered populist.One explanation for this wide scope of policy positions ascribed to populists is the debate around the drivers of the phenomenon.Essentially, there are two approaches.According to Algan et al.’s analysis of Eurosceptic populism, “The first one is a cultural backlash against progressive values, such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and a shift toward national identity.The second explanation emphasizes economic insecurity, stemming from either globalization and technological progress (typified by outsourcing, increased competition from low-wage countries, and automation) or the sharp increase in unemployment in Europe in the aftermath of the recent global financial and economic crisis.” (2017, p. 310).Some have suggested that the two drivers are linked; e.g., Rodrik argues that the latter economic driver may make it easier for politicians to mobilize on the former nationalistic driver (Rodrik 2017).
Another reason so many political agendas can be called “populist” is that it might be more of an approach than a policy agenda.In their analysis of the literature, Elchardus and Spruyt note that, “Authors using a minimalist definition of populism focus on those elements of populism that are always present in discursive formulations of populist ideology and in populist rhetoric, regardless of context… They identify tow such elements that can be considered as the core of populism as a thin ideology.The first is the centrality and elevated status of ‘the people’ or more precisely ‘the ordinary people’… The second core trait of the thin ideology of populism is articulated on the basis of that vertical view of the social structure: the betrayal of the ordinary people by an elite that uses its power to its own advantage… (2016, pp. 113-114).This anti-elitism is important to take note of.Outside of the European context, Mead, for example, has argued that this is a key tenant of the United States’ Tea Party movement (2011, p. 34).Muller, in his overview of populism takes a similar line: “Populism is not just any mobilization strategy that appeals to “the people”; it employs a very specific kind of language.Populists do not just criticize elites; they also claim that they and only they represent the true people.” (2016, p. 40).
A range of studies have argued that there are links between the rise of populism and economic factors.According to Algan, et al., in the context of Europe, “There is a statistically and economically significant relationship between regional unemployment and a decline in trust toward the European Parliament and national parliament.” (2017, p. 312).De Vries and Hoffmann make a similar observation, noting that, “Our findings show that fear of globalisation is the decisive factor behind demands for changes away from the political mainstream… This effect is particularly evident when it comes to right wing populist parties, but is also present for left wing populist parties.” (2016, p. 3).In the US and the Tea Party, Mead has argued, “That federal deficits produce economic growth and that free trade with low-wage countries raises Americans’ living standards are the kind of propositions that clash with the common sense of many Americans.” (2011, p. 34).In the context of Australia, and the rise of the populist One Nation Party, Mughan, Bean, and McAllister argue that economic insecurity was a key driver of the rise of the party (2003, p. 631).
03.02.2020, Niamey, Niger.
Algan, Y., Papaioannou, E., Guriev, S., and Passari, E. (2017), “The European Trust Crisis and the Rise of Populism”, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, pp. 309-382.
Rodrik, D. (2018) ‘Populism and the economics of globalization’, Journal of International Business Policy, 1, pp. 12-33.
Elchardus, M., and Spruyt, B. (2016) ‘Populism, Persistent Republicanism and Declinism: An Empirical Analysis of Populism as a Thin Ideology’, Government and Opposition, 51:1, pp. 111-133.
Mead, W. R. (2011), ‘The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy: What Populism Means for Globalization’, Foreign Affairs, 90:2, pp. 28-44.
Mughan, A., Bean, C. and McAllister, I. (2003) ‘Economic globalization, job insecurity and the populist reaction’, Electoral Studies, 22, pp. 617-633.
Muller, J-W., What is Populism?, Penguin Random House UK, 2017.
De Vries, C., and Hoffmann, I. (2016) Fear not Values. Public opinion and the populist vote in Europe, EUpinions, Bertelsmann Stiftung.
The franc of the African Financial Community is starting to undergo some significant changes. Or at least the West African one (the other is the Central African FCFA). The West African states – both Anglophone and Francophone – are planning to adopt a common currency (the Eco). At least for the Francophone countries that are part of West African FCFA zone, this means moving from one common currency to another. A first step in this direction was taken recently, when at least symbolically, the link between the FCFA and France was cut by removing the rule that existed that meant that half the foreign currency reserves of the FCFA states had to kept on a special French treasury account (in exchange of the French currency exchange rate guarantee) and by France withdrawing from the BCEAO (the West African States’ Central Bank).
The FCFA – including its peg to the French franc and then the euro- has been much criticized, for a good overview of the key points I would recommend Pigeaud and Sylla’s, “L’arme Invisible de la Francafrique: Une Histoire du Franc CFA”. A recent article in the Jacobin, though written with a very clear angle, is also very good. Aside from the historical colonial roots of the FCFA that bother some (for a great history of France’s relationship with Africa, Bat’s “Le Syndrome Foccart” is a great read), two of the main points of criticism are the rigidity of the party (which means austerity is often the only adjustment mechanic during crises) and the structural overvaluing of the currency, in particular with regards to other developing countries.
The advantages of the FCFA has, in particular, been its stability (minus devaluations by in 1948 and 1994) and the lack of inflation in the FCFA zone (which is in stark countries with several other countries in West Africa that have had their own currencies). This, together with the longevity of the FCFA, are remarkable.
The new currency would possibly be pegged to a basket of currencies (though there is no consensus yet), and, presumably, the BCEAO could decide on the rate of coupling (and change it). Nevertheless, the challenges of currency unions when faced with crises is clearer than ever since the eurozone tribulations of the past years. Moreover, there is even less of a transfer union between the ECOWAS states, less convergence (including in national policies), and less performant governance (both at the national and regional level).
Speaking to people here in Niamey, there is still some skepticism how this will work out for the common man. For them, the macroeconomic arguments and the political / independence arguments are somewhat abstract. For them, the stability of the currency seems an important element – for the rest, they are somewhat agnostic about the technical aspects. For a political scientist, with an interest in Africa, it’s all very interesting. If the development perspectives of the region improve; so much the better. Otherwise, it will be a hard sell.
08.01.2020, Niamey, Niger.
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.
Foccart, France and Africa
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.
Technology and Development
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
Online encampment of A. S. Barry. Disparate and not-so-disparate thoughts on international relations, development, writing, and life.