Sunday, June 27, 2010

Maia Sings!

This is a big shout out to a good friend Maia Von Lekow, who was featured last week in a Guardian piece by Daniel Metcalfe! I was lucky enough to catch her set three times in february this year. It is soulful, funky and so smooth. She and her funky basist can keep me on the dance floor all night!

I say she is on her way to fame and fortune! Here is what Daniel says about Maia and the Nairobi music scene:
           I had another gig to catch. I drained my Tusker Malt and taxied to the other side of town, past the grey business district, to the jacaranda-lined avenues of Karen (after Karen Blixen, author of Out of Africa). Taxis are easy to find in Nairobi and generally safe, but they're not cheap. A tenner down, I arrived at a modest-looking entrance to one of the city's most relaxed nightspots.
           Talisman on Ngong Road is a loungey, woody restaurant and bar, where sun-beaten blondes sipped gin and tonics and well-to-do young Kenyans basked on low-slung sofas. Here I discovered Maia von Lekow, a twenty-something Kenyan artist, the daughter of Tanzanian jazz groover Sal Davis. A quarter Arab, a quarter Luo, and half European, Maia fuses her musical influences like a lounge chameleon. She sings in English and Swahili. "Bit of a difficult audience," she confided to me on a break. Barefoot, she soon roused them with a rendition of Peggy Lee's Fever. To Maia, the biggest problem is the lack of instruments. "Everyone's trying to write something, but it's running so fast. There are so many drummers, but no drums."
            Maia, who lived for years in Australia and Ireland, performed in February's Sauti Za Busara festival in Zanzibar and on 4 July is set to play at Blankets and Wine – a once-a-month event in north-west Nairobi.
Here is a link to some of her stuff on Myspace. Here is her profile at Busara Music Festival.

Love it.


Here is a nice video about CAR. That is pronounced "see"-"ay"-"are" as in the letters, not "car" as in the vehicle. Ever heard of the Central African Republic? Well you may not need to. Some skeptics believe it will cease to exist as a nation in the near future, here is why:

CAR was supposed to have elections in March, then May, and now, after rewriting the constitution to allow the current government to stay in power as long as it takes to run an election, who knows? They are likely waiting for some rich pro-democracy group to come in and fund the election.

There has not been a peaceful, free or fair election since the one that launched the first rebellion in 1960 when France 'pulled out' and left the brutal Jean-Bedel Bokassa in their place.

For more info here is the BBC profile, here is the HDPT website.

Saudi Breasts: Political Weapons

On a fateful day in May of 2007, Dr Izzat Atiya of Egypt's al-Azhar University issued a fatwa offering a way around the segregation of sexes in the workplace. Some say it came to him in a dream:
"A woman at work can take off the veil or reveal her hair in front of someone whom she breastfed."
Suckling at the teat of a woman "at least five times a day" would, according to Dr. Atiya, make any man into a son in the eyes of Allah, and such a familial bond would allow them to work together harmoniously.

Noting the obvious sexual temptation that the naked breasts of a co-worker may stir, he offered that "the man should take the milk, but not directly from the breast of the woman." This did little to calm the swelling of disapprobation from the ranks of Islamic legal scholars at the time. Realizing his error, the good Dr. issued a full retraction and the swelling subsided... until this month.

Shaikh Abdul Mohsin Bin Nasser Al Obaikan, a member of Saudi Council of Senior Scholars and advisor to the king, issued the same fatwa in early June. This time, he claimed, it would be useful to allow woman to travel alone in cars with foreign drivers.

One anonymous Saudi woman put it quite succinctly:
"Does Islam allow me to breastfeed a foreign man and prevent me from driving my own car? I have not breastfed my own children. How do you expect me to do this with a foreign man? What is this nonsense?"
Now the men of Saudi Arabia are in a little more than a handful of trouble. Not only do they face mountains of opposition from their female counterparts but also a righteous and opportunistic group of Saudi women are using the fatwa to their advantage. Unless all women are permitted to drive in Saudi Arabia they will breastfeed men all over the place. The campaign will be launched under the slogan "We either be allowed to drive or breastfeed foreigners." Nice tactics.

I hear there has been a shortfall of drivers in Saudi Arabia lately. One way or the other that won't last long.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Two heads are better

I am happy to introduce a vastly intelligent and widely renowned gentleman-poster who will be joining me here on SuperBear. Not only will he expand the scope of the blog intellectually, but hopefully he'll help to keep things tidy. I do get sloppy sometimes. Welcome to my wee brother Ben!

Thursday, June 24, 2010

The UAE is a bad country

Here is the Human Rights Watch page for UAE.

The situation is absolutely terrible.

I keep saying to myself that people would not keep coming if the abuse wasn't worth the extra income. While perhaps it is true, I no longer think this is an acceptable position. This state is filthy rich. It can afford to treat people decently.

Here is Amnesty International's page.

Although you sometimes hear claims about 'bolstering efforts' and 'renewing commitments', the UAE has yet to sign any major international treaty on human rights.

On the other hand — when it comes to human trafficking, in Qatar you need your employer's permission to leave the country. Now that's a lot of power in the employer's hands. In the UAE, if you make it to the airport and request a flight home, you're given a ticket and told to never return. Is that at least a little justice?

Most Failed Index

 Foreign Policy magazine published the 2010 Failed State Index this week. Somalia topped the list and can still be referred to as the most failed state in the world. Ignoring the awkward grammar of that title, what can be said about the functionality of the index and the sensibility of the concept?

Over at Aidwatchers, the concept is not well recieved:

One can only speculate about the political motives for inventing an incoherent concept like “state failure.” It gave Western states (most notably the US superpower) much more flexibility to intervene where they wanted to (for other reasons): you don’t have to respect state sovereignty if there is no state. After the end of the Cold War, there was less hesitation to intervene because of the disappearance of the threat of Soviet retaliation. “State failure” was even more useful as justification for the US to operate with a free hand internationally in the “War on Terror” after 9/11.

While the 'failed state' label may have its glaringly biased implications, the index itself is telling. It measures twelve signifiant variables including demographic pressure, refugees, human flight, uneven development, human rights, and public services. In doing so it thankfully does not label one state or another 'failed'. What can we glean from the index then?

Well, lets take for example the fact that Kenya is in the red but Eritrea is in the orange. I would argue that in Kenya people have more political freedom, more freedom of expression, more opportunity for advancement, more access to loanable funds, more mobility, and a freer press than in Eritrea. This index as you can see, does not count these factors. In Eritrea they have fewer refugees, less group grievance and more even development. So, Eritrea makes its way to a higher ranking despite having a dictatorial government that controls mobility and the economy.

The factors that make Kenya a more comfortable place to live have more to do with civil society and less with government than the factors taken into consideration for this index. Which factors are most important for understanding the socio-political situation in a country? As always, there is never one index that can please everyone.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Mo says No

The Mo Ibrahim foundation has decided for the second year in a row, not to award the coveted Excellence in African Leadership award. The 5 million dollar cash prize, as I discussed in an earlier post, is awarded to an African leader who have been democratically elected, served within their constitutional term limit and have left within the last three years. As he expressed in this piece for the Financial Times, Mo and his team were just not impressed by anyone this year.

This year, like last year, the prize committee – chaired by Kofi Annan, the former United Nations secretary-general, who is independent of the board – has decided not to make an award.
So does that mean that African leadership has been, as The Economist might say, “hopeless”? And has the foundation, established to celebrate good leadership in Africa, ended up proving that there is no such thing?
No. Whether there is a winner of the prize or not, the purpose of the foundation is to challenge those in Africa and elsewhere to debate what constitutes excellence in leadership. The standards set for the prize winner are high, and the number of eligible candidates each year is small. It is always likely there will be years when no prize is awarded.

Though a disconcerting that there is no leader worthy of the prize, it's still nice to see this organization keeping their standards and not just doling out the cash to candidates who came close.


Empty buildings everywhere

Rent in Abu Dhabi is exorbitant and not expected to fall. There are thousands of empty apartment buildings in the city — and new buildings go up every month.

I can't make sense of it, other than if we are looking at seriously lagged housing demand or a very forward looking construction boom (I suppose the city would see it that way). But how could developers afford to be so forward looking?

According to an assessment of the property market put out by the Urban Planning Council, current demand is outstripping supply. So why then are so many spaces empty? There is only one thing that makes sense of this: the housing/rent market in Abu Dhabi is not a market.

Land is allocated on the basis of merit not demand. Any local in Abu Dhabi is guaranteed an income so they never feel the pinch. Foreigners are prohibited from ownership in all but select areas, so locals can procure plentiful territory in this deserted country with limited competition.

Furthermore, since Islamic banking does not allow interest, there is little opportunity cost for investing in housing. There is little to lose if your building stays empty (little more than capital depreciation, which admittedly is high in this environment), even over a long period of time.

Putting these ideas together you get the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, a dusty, desolate place filled completely with empty apartment buildings and 'villas'. The contradictions never cease in this place, and don't imagine this changing for years to come.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Wavin' Ads

I am completely caught up in the World Cup Fever. One unavoidable fact when this happens is that advertisements are bombarded at you. One in particular that caught my attention immediatly was this K'Naan "Wavin' Flag" music video.

I first saw K'Naan on a tiny stange at UBC in Vancouver, Canada. He was honest, fluid and a fantastic performer. I have been fortunate enough to have seen K'Naan in concert three times in Western Canada and he has never let the crown down. Well, until Coke bought this K'Naan's song.

I heard this song several months ago and thought is was a nice tune, but it didn't catch me like his live shows did. Now its just making me sick. So to embrace the sickness, and to forward the repetition I face on a daily basis I have four five videos to look at today.

The first is the arabic mix with Nancy Ajran. Notice how the back up dancers are not exactly modest looking. Do you ever see arab youth dressed in the way?

I love the one arm punch.

The next one is the spanish version, compare these backup dancers to the arab ones:

The Chinese version:

Here's how I first heard it:

Here's the US pop version:

Whew, survived it? Damn that gets annoying! What would you say K'naan got paid to have Coke rewrite his song?

Here is the full list of versions (some are probably not official):
The Arab World: "Wavin' Flag/Shagga' Bi Alamak Da" by K'naan and Nancy Ajram
Brazil: "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan and Skank
China: "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan Jacky Cheung and Jane Zhang
France: "Wavin' Flag " by K'naan and Féfé
Greece: "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan and Professional Sinnerz feat. Komis X
Indonesia: "Wavin' Flag/Semangat Berkibar" by K'naan and Ipang
Japan: "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan and Ai
Nigeria: "Wavin' Flag (Naija Remix)" by K'naan and Banky W. & M.I.
Spain: "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan and David Bisbal
Thailand: "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan and Tattoo Colour
Vietnam: "Wavin' Flag" by K'naan and Phuong Vy

Monday, June 21, 2010

Photo of the Week -
Super Salmon

This is largest salmon ever found. It was more than 1.3 meters long and weighed more than 40 kilos. This bad boy is a Chinook. The Chinook are known for using their giant rocklike snouts as a weapon against bears. The great fish clamps down its mighty jaws and the rock hard snout crushes anything in the vicinity, often inflicting great pain on the weary paws of a hungry bear.

A sight like this is enough to strike fear into the hearts of bear.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Website of the Week -
A Bombastic Element

Bombastic is a prolific blogger whose interests spread across all things African. On top of discussing important issues with a wry sense of humour, he somehow always manages to collect captivating links and videos. A Bombastic Element is essential reading material for the Africa enthusiast.

*Shudder* This ^ would be the most annoying thing in the world.

Dear Kenya,
GM Tastes Bad

After years of praising food in Kenya for being fresh, nutritious and delicious, I despair at the news of President Mwai Kibaki deciding to degrade Kenya's food supply and allow GM crops.

It is a bad idea for many reasons in addition to the fact that GM food is often less nutritious almost always tastes worse. Kenya does not have the technology to cope with the complications that GM crops bring with them. Issues like pest control, nutrient leakage, and cross pollination will all threaten Kenya's biosphere. Kenyan farmers will find themselves in the pocket of biotech companies that have a history of extortion. (I don't even need to provide you with links for that claim.) Big deals like this one only reinforce the structure of Kenyan politics and the rampancy of corruption.

Earlier this month Hatian farmers rose up against Monsanto. Powerful stuff. If only Kenyans could see this!

HT: Structurally Maladjusted

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Kyoto Prototype

On my last visit to Nairobi a few months ago I was fortunate enough to be introduced to a fascinating fellow by the name of Jon Bohmer. Jon is the founder of an energy solutions company called Kyoto that won a huge competition put out by the Financial Times (and another from Brit Insurance Designs of the Year) for their solar oven. Kyoto has high hopes for revolutionizing all Kenyan energy systems.

Jon's wife Neema is a well respected member of a Somali tribe in Kenya that has recently inherited a vast expanse of beautiful land in the Rift Valley. Their plans for this land are just as grand as the land itself. But before getting into the big picture ideas, Kyoto has been not-so-quietly offering up innovations for saving energy. Take a look for your self.

The question that is invariably asked about projects like this is: Do these products actually sell? For now the answer is still no. Jon explains that it is difficult to get people to change their habits especially with regard to everyday routines such as cooking, washing and lighting.

According to the WHO, 1.6 million women and children die each year from smoke inhalation. This does not come a surprise for people that have seen the way food is cooked. However, out of all the products the one with the least appeal is the solar oven. Despite its obvious health advantages, people just can't get with the idea that you can cook with the sun (when it is out) and would always rather see a flame or proper oven at work on their food. I suppose sometimes you'd rather spend the extra money to get what you like.

On thing Jon believes firmly, if incorrectly, is that he cannot give these things away for free. He argues that a free item that necessitates a change in behaviour, is not likely to be used, whereas a small investment of money obligates a small change of behaviour. I disagree. If people are fully aware of the financial and health related gains in a new product, they are just as likely to use it either way. Jessica Coen and Pascaline Dupas agree. They set up randomized trials in Kenya using bed nets to test this question. They found that free ones were just as likely to be used as ones that cost 3USD. Unfortunately this study is not open to the public but one using pregnant women as the sample is.

Whereas all of the smaller products can save people time, effort and money if they so choose, the bigger projects in the works promise structural change. As of very recently, Jon and his team can install an array of private, portable, affordable and easy to maintain solar powered appliances including solar water pumps, solar air conditioning, solar desalinization, and general solar electricity. In the areas of Kenya that get sun everyday these really work well, including the land he has married into! Their scope for energy production in the rift valley is huge. He says within two years they'll be up and running, providing Kenyans with cheap and reliable electricity! A recent study of medium sized firms in Africa found that electricity was a major constraint on growth.

Another project that seems a bit further off involves algae. According to Jon, algae can be used for cleaning and fertilizer, but most importantly algae is a great source of nutrients. He believes firmly that algae can be the source of food security for millions of poor East Africans and beyond. If energy/money saving solar ovens can't find demand among the poor, will edible algae?

Also in the works is a Kyoto Institute at Narok University, where the team hopes to disseminate the value of solar energy and other innovative energy solutions. Maybe he'll be able to convince a young troop of Kenyans that a little algae for breakfast is a good thing. Go Kyoto!

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Incentives of Recognition

Here is an excerpt from a recent NYT op-ed calling for the 'de-recognition' of weak African states by the international community:

"If [de-recognition] were to happen, relatively benevolent states like South Africa and a handful of others would go on as before. But in the continent’s most troubled countries, politicians would suddenly lose the legal foundations of their authority. Some of these repressive leaders, deprived of their sovereign tools of domination and the international aid that underwrites their regimes, might soon find themselves overthrown."

Hwhile my first reaction is to conjure up in my mind a situation where this idea might wield any beneficial results, my second (more entertaining perhaps) reaction is to say go for it! We gave them their identity the first place and it's not really working out, so they honestly don't deserve it any more. Maybe if we ignore them for a while they'll just get better on their own. In fact lets de-recognize all of the headaches in the world!

But then again, we could definitely do a better job of ruling those places over there so lets not be passive about this. Being the humanitarian that I am, I say why don't we just buy them all up and create new states and good governments that provide for their citizens? And while we are at it, we should also revoke all of their human rights; I really can't stand hearing about all the atrocities any more, also that'll make them easier to rule when the time comes.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Economists Get Rhythm

War, Rent Seekers, Dutch Diseases, Elite Capture, and One Trillion More Problems in Afghanistan

The NYT today reported that one (1) trillion (a thousand billion) USD worth of mineral deposits have been found across Afghanistan. For a country with a GDP of 21 billion (neighbours Iran make 778 billion, Pakistan 421, Uzbekistan 72), this could be a real boon.

We could go off and discuss how GDP isn't a good measure because of differences in populations,  inequality, the black market, non-market transactions, the non-monetary economy, environmental considerations and externalities, but that is for another time. For now, we can tell there is a trillion dollars sitting underneath one of the most war-torn nations on the planet! What could possibly go wrong?

For decades natural wealth has been discovered in dozens of developing countries, but rarely has it translated into anything beneficial for the average citizen. Why? What becomes of all that wealth?

The most obvious outcome in this case will be an intensified struggle for ownership/control of the land. For details on this I would advise reading someone familiar with the conflict (you know who you are). I will gloss over the civil conflict side for now and simply predict more terrorism and more war. Instead of dwelling on the war as we probably should, let us suppose ISAF is able to gain and keep control over large areas of land to allow for the extraction of these minerals (Ok, a huge leap, I know), what else will go wrong?

The Afghanistan government will likely hand over the rights to mining companies in the US or China for a little cash in the back pocket. Whose back pocket would benefit is not exactly clear. Elites will have to battle for it. In any case, one group - be it the central government or otherwise - will sell off the stuff quickly to seek a little rent. Whats wrong with that?

Finding a great source of wealth outside the (marginally) taxable labour of citizens of their nation and rife with corruption already, the Afghanistan government will allow elite capture of the mineral wealth and ignore their obligations to infrastructure, institutions (ie. health and education) and people. Well, I suppose they won't be worse off than they were before, right?

The natural course of action for a government that has found a revenue stream is to develop that stream. Investment will pour into resource extraction at the expense of other public investments. Any large endeavours into any other economic activity will be sidelined and currently active sectors will eventually crumble. This is a concept known as the Dutch Disease.

If the investment into extractive industries is wildly successful, at best a dubious proposition given the security situation, then Afghanistan has the potential to export a massive amount of minerals. If they export enough to influence the world price then their terms of trade could fall and they could experience immiserizing growth. Given the elite capture of revenue, the rent seeking and the disease from the dutch, a fall in the terms of trade could outweigh the gains from growth.

 All of these perils of extractive industries (and I haven't even mentioned environmental degradation) are general and applicable to any economy. Afghanistan is a special and complicated case where America (and others) are at war with the Taliban. For Afghans only one thing is certain, bringing that money to the surface will only cause more trouble.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Colloquialism - The World English Game

As much fun to say as it is to play!

Round 1 (easy):

1) In Munich what is a 'handy'?

2) In Abu Dhabi what is a 'saloon'?

3) In Freetown what is a 'golden summer'?

Answers after the jump!

Rightly Put, Sarkozy

President Nicolas Sarkozy, rounding off a two-day France-Africa summit in Nice earlier this month, said this:

 "Africa's formidable demographics and its considerable resources make it the main reservoir for world economic growth in the decades to come."

Without proper institutions and a firm rule of law it will continue to be very easy to dip in to that reservoir and take as much as you like. China is getting it done, that is for sure. If you think this old map is striking, I imagine one from today would have a lot more red.

A lot has been written about China propping up dictators and breaking UN sanctions while on their way to establishing good relations across the continent. One thing is certain: they don't discriminate on any moral grounds. They put their money where it will be sure to yield significant returns.  

I took this photo on the Mombasa road in Kenya:

I wonder what favours these nice roads are buying? Sweetened trade deals? Mining rights? Exclusive access to markets?

I need a moustache of understanding

Website of the Week - Gapminder

You may say that is old news. Well, that may be true; it blew up on the scene in early 2006. Since then they have not only been updating their software, statistics and style, but also producing an ever growing number of videos promoting "a fact based world-view." I use quotation marks because that is a direct quote from the site, but also because macro facts such as these have been the folly of development economics since the 60's. However, if we are aware of their limitations, as those at Gapminder are, the numbers are still compelling.

Gapminder is best put to use when debunking myths. One of my favourite myths is the answer to the question "What stops population growth?". On numerous occasions I have taken up the task of overthrowing popular misconceptions apropos this topic.

A popular fallacy I have dealt with is that war, disease and natural disasters help to curtail the growth of our population. If we do not closely examine the issue of population growth it is easy to fall into that trap. As Dr. Rosling will show you, the complete opposite is the case:

Broadly speaking, better health care and better education are the only things that slow population growth rates. (China notwithstanding)

Many other entertaining videos can be found at including this one where Dr. Rosling predicts when the income per person in India will catch up to the US.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Mo Ibrahim's 10 million dollar Cash Prize

Mohammed Ibrahim is a big cheese. He made his billions (2.5 US, according to Forbes) by launching  a telecommunications company called Celtel in several African countries. With Celtel now sold to the Zain group (for 3.4 billion US), Mo has taken up the task of improving the political landscape in Africa. He created the Mo Ibrahim Foundation in 2007 with the purpose of stimulating debate on good governance, collecting data and creating statistics on good governance, and recognizing achievement in African Leadership.

Toward this end, he created an African Leadership award. To be considered for the award leaders must have been democratically elected, served within their constitutional term limits and have stepped down within the last three years. Joachim Chissano from Mozambique won it first in 2007, then Festus Mogae from Botswana, and last year they decided not to award any African Leader. Bad news guys! Better shape up, you wouldn't want to lose out on a cool five million USD over 10 years and a further 200k a year for life!

The Foundation also releases quite a tidy index on quality of governance in Africa.  Here are some rankings:

(It seems that this islands do better than the mainland. Why would that be the case?)

Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi over at AidWatch show off some of the FT's interpretation of the Mo index. Pretty graphics. Of course, I am skeptical about the statistics, especially their usefulness for comparisons across countries and across time (diff in diff type). However, I think Mo is attempting to do something noble and should be encouraged. Given the history of big men in African politics, creating an extra incentive for leaders to be good seems necessary.

Creating incentives for leaders to step down gracefully, another goal of the foundation, is also very important. If people like Qaddafi and Mugabe would just slip away, I'm sure their nations would greatly appreciate it. 

Speaking of those two, some other brutal bastards that are still in office include:

Isaias Afewerki 
Laurent Gbagbo 
José Eduardo Dos Santos 
and, pictured below with the Obamas,
Teodoro Obiang Nguema:

Do you think a cash incentive is enough?

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Song of the Week - Sorrow Tears and Blood, Scatter Everything

Because Fela always lights it up...

...and beacause the broadway hit FELA! is huge and up for 11 Tonys!

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Whoring, and Shakira sings the World Cup song

This is a disgrace to all the fantastic South African musicians. There are at least five groups that could easily come up with a better and more popular song than that one.

If that song and video did not do enough to perpetuate African stereotypes we have this, the Roberto Cavalli designed outfit for the opening show:

 Could we conceive of an African skirt that is not made of grass!? Could we? All she needs is a bone through her nose.

It is as annoying to see so many Africans lending a hand to the media creating this pantomime. A perfect example is all the West African football stars in commercials acting like they are going home to Africa to play football. It could not be further from the truth. First of all South Africa is nothing like West Africa. Not in language, nor style, nor climate, nor ethnicity nor... ok wait, their skin color may be the same at times. Also, quite unfortunately, an overwhelming number of South Africans hate other Africans. Its like a Chinese person saying they are going home, home to Indonesia!

It reminds me of when I was a young lad staying at a cheap all-inclusive resort at the coast of Kenya. I was fortunate enough to witness the hotel entertainment for one evening. It consisted of several Kenyan men and women dancing on stage with green plastic grass skirts and fake animal skin to some kind of obnoxious, over-produced Kenyan music. Even at that tender young age, and after a few too many rums, I knew there was a reason why I especially did not enjoy that particularly uninspired piece: for the entire audience, it justified their ignorance and ill-founded prejudice.  

It is increasingly clear that this World Cup, contrary to the lyrics of that song, is not for Africa the burlesque, nor South Africa, nor the majority of South Africans.

(That being said, I am still excited for the World Cup!)

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

A dollar a day
keeps the doctor away

The arbitrary measure of poverty that the World Bank concocted out of thin air several decades ago, and the language that surrounds that famous "dollar a day", is unfortunately stuck in our discourse on poverty.

Widespread efforts have been made to redefine poverty, focusing on access to basic amenities such as health care, habitation and education. A broader view, as encouraged by Aramrtya Sen among others, would analyze poverty in terms of an "individuals potential to function", which is to focus on what can be achieved with a certain level of income and the barriers to opportunity. This highlights constraints beyond access to basic necessities, such as broader monetary conditions and power relations.

These ideas, although pushing the concept in the right direction, often miss the blaring problem that the language of the World bank has created. 

"A dollar a day": doesn't it sound like a magic dollar arrives at the doorstep every day? Ok, perhaps you don't explicitly think like that, but the phrase certainly misses the biggest problem with income for the poor; the risks associated with uncertainty and inconsistency. 

As Eleni G. Medhin, the director of the Ethiopian Commodities Exchange, once suggested, the risks that a poor farmer must bear are greater than any speculator, investor or human being on earth. If the rains fail, people will die. (For those relying on income from medium sized firms, unpredictable policy changes seem to be most crucial.)

Buzzing around the Kenyan countryside with my friend Teddy, I came upon this cow carcass.  Prior to my visit the rains did not come, and then they did not come again. As Teddy put it, "This Maasai was a millionaire, now look at what he has got."

Where is the next dollar coming from? Who is it owed to? These are critical questions for those living with no social safety net.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Photo of the week - Liwa

Every eight years the human body generates 100 trillion cells. That is, every single cell you had eight years ago is now no longer a part of you; you are completely new. Therefore you are not what you were, and you are not the stuff of which you are made.

Unless... we are like a sand dune; ever giving and ever receiving grains of sand from dunes around, yet somehow maintaining a consistent guise. We are never static, never solid... unless we are captured in a pretty picture.

Liwa Dunes, like the meringue of my dreams, rise hundreds of meters from the desert floor

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Thoughts on Migration Innovation

Migration is a major issue. Yet is seems to always take a back seat to other issues, such as climate change, trade, aid, and so on. Ok, migration does recieve attention from the media and some political elites, but innovation of the concepts and practices of migration and migration law is scarcely heard of.

Lant Pritchett is one of my favourite authors on the subject of migration and a true innovator. Here and elsewhere argues that the world ought to adopt a system that is more like the UAE (without the widespread abuse).

 I agree with him, there ought to be more international migration in the world. I don't know exactly how this ought to happen, but Dr. Pritchett has some good answers. I understand that tensions can arise when immigrant populations threaten the livelihood of domestic citizens, but in most cases the benefits to migration far outweigh the costs.

Here in the UAE, foreigners (migrant workers) make up around 70% of the population. It is uniquely the highest per capita population of expatriates in any country on earth. The legal system that governs foreigners and their rights, is just as unique.

Basically, we have no rights. No right to a fair trial, no right to free speech, no right to freely associate, nothing. As such, human rights are frequently violated. But what are the benefits to this system? Over the next few days I will ponder this question and post when I come up with any insightful ideas.


The bottom line is that the restriction of international migration has a critical, depressive effect on the wages of the poorest people in the world. 

A story I heard once will help to illustrate my point. In California during the 1950's, many Mexican migrants worked the tomato fields. In the late 50's a new international migration law was passed which restricted the flow of workers across the border. As a result the owners of the fields could not afford to produce tomatoes any more and the Mexicans were out of work. 

For a short while the fields fell fallow. Quickly, though, a machine was invented that mechanized the process that once relied on the hands of labourers. Tomato production went through the roof, profits to California land owners soared and the wages of the poor in Mexico fell accordingly.

One could argue that this was in fact good for the world because the migration law forced innovation and led to higher returns. However, this labour saving technology, which is akin to restricting labour movements across boarders, depresses the wages of the poor. Which is more concerning, the returns to land in California or the wages of the worlds poorest people?

Until we can all move freely to wherever best suits our tastes and abilities, labour saving technology is bad for the world. Restrictions on migration not only keep poor people poor, but in light of modern innovation, also hurt the prospects of wages rising, ever.

Its also unfair! Just ask people:

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Website of the Week - Structurally Maladjusted

Written by two audacious and delightful gentlemen out of Washington DC, Structurally Maladjusted is a blog that keeps pushing the right buttons. Mostly focusing on Latin America and US foreign policy towards LatAm, it digs and jabs - these guys know their stuff.

Any preconceived notions about anything Latin American you may have had will be throughly ripped apart and left for dead. This is not your average flaky commentary inculcated by the rhetoric of either populist leaders or American partisans - it is thorough. So get into it.

Friday, June 4, 2010


This video doesn't mention the 'tin can town' outside of Cape Town that I posted about earlier. South Africa has been building oppressive structures since the 1930s and somehow cant stop. They plan out places for poor people to live that will keep them poor. With no space for society, no space for creativity and no space for business, these oppressive designs have kept and will keep poor black people poor.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Song of the week
- The Boss

Because the Godfather knows how to cool us down on this hot Thursday in the desert. Get down!

Rambling On About Value

Sitting in a business meeting yesterday I heard the word value in about ten different phrases, and not once was it clearly explicated.

Value is a concept that is vexes economists and political activists alike, especially when they attempt to confabulate across the aisle. Adam Smith and Karl Marx, two eminent thinkers that have been fallaciously placed in these two camps respectively, can help us understand what value has come to mean in our modern, advanced capitalist world.

Adam Smith, perhaps the most misinterpreted philosopher ever, wrote about two kinds of value, use value and exchange value: "Nothing is more useful than water but it will scarce purchase anything, scarce anything can be had in exchange for it. A diamond, on the contrary, has scarce any value in use, but a very great quantity of other goods may frequently be had in exchange for it."

Delineating between use value and exchange value holds no water these days and this is principally due to the Marginal Revolution, which ushered in the notion of relative scarcity (which Smith was obviously familiar with). Diamonds are scarce, water is not (yet), therefore they hold vastly different values. Obviously there is more to value than this, but the marginal way of thinking about utility is powerful and resilient.

Where the neoclassical economists that followed the Marginal Revolution have an abstract notion of utility, Smith, aware of the effect of scarcity, retained a notion of value-in-use. He explained that the real price of something "to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it." He continued (in what can be considered today a Marxist fashion) by claiming, "Labour alone, therefore, never varying in its own value is alone the ultimate and real standard by which the value of all commodities can at all times and places be estimated." Smith believed wages would tend toward equality across all vocations in the long run. Tell that to the Reganites!

Where Smith grappled with the notion of labour, time and effort creating exchange value, Marx went one step further by establishing in his labour theory of value the notion of 'socially necessary' labour time as determinant of wages. The socially necessary (or normal) time it takes to do something in an industry is socially contrived and therefore dependent upon power and politics. 

Marx saw labour as a personal ability to make one's work available to capitalists, those in power. Any value that the labour created beyond what it took to replenish the labourers ability to work, that 'socially necessary' amount, he called surplus value. This, he thought, was the ultimate source of profit and ultimate form of exploitation.

The notion of tying together value and power is one that ought to be taken seriously, despite the efforts of economists at removing dirty politics from the realm of economics. This concept of a political/labour theory of value has been all but lost in today's economic discourse, as most modern economists argue that things are valued solely by what would be given up to obtain them.

Though I disagree with Marx and Smith about the existence of a cardinal measure of value, their labour value, Marx was right about the power relations inherent in value. Those in power (corporations...) will do as much as possible to extract value from people and parallel to Marx's theory, one great way they have found out how to do this is through advertising. 

Today we have advertising that helps is to value things more and more. Advertisers have cleverly created an entire new notion of value where people can enjoy not only a fictional story behind a product while consuming it, but also feel as if they are a part of a select group of people that can afford to enjoy such products. This may afford them some feeling of conspicuous leisure through what Thorstein Veblen would call 'pecuniary emulation'.  

Many stories could be told about the distorted value that advertising creates. Particularly tragic are those that involve children; they get 'em when they are young. Anne Becker observes the consequences of US advertising on Fijian youth. In the first three years of US ads eating disorders went from affecting no child to affecting fifteen percent of children. A more recent study in the United States found that banning advertising of junk food could cut the number of overweight children between the ages of 3 and 11 by 10% and the number of overweight adolescents by 12%. If the happiness of a child depends less on what appears to be given to other children, parents need not keep up with the Joneses and so will spend less on such unnecessary items.

I would like to think of value as the capability of a good to increase the well being of a person or a society. Of course this is quite open to interpretation, but even being phrased in this manner, I believe, ought to strip away or at least call into question many of the social constructions that inflate the value of goods in our modern advanced capitalist world. 

How does a diamond increase well being?

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

"Just MPESA his ear
back on"

Nairobi, Kenya, 6am: Legishon, a night watchman, stumbles drunk to work, work he should have been doing since the evening before. He fumbles with the keys to the gate of this modest plot of land in the suburbs that he has been guarding for the past 4 months. Finally managing to remove the lock and chain, he swings open the gate to find the gardener, Anthony, a Luya man of about 36 years. The watchman slams the gate closed loudly and points his finger daringly in the face of the gardener. "You Luya are not to be trusted, why are you here watching the house?" he imposes. Angered by the late watchman, and tired from the sleepless night, the gardener shouts back, insulting the guard and his people, the Maasai. Legishon picks up a rock and throws it at Anthony's head, splitting his ear open wide. 

At the hospital Anthony is denied treatment because he has no money, no insurance and no prospects for paying. He calls his employer Theodore. Theodore picks up his phone, acknowledges the gravity of the situation, presses a few buttons on the phone and sits back, satisfied that he has helped out his injured gardener. He sips his beer and continues on with his evening.

It is that easy. In Kenya, if you want to send money to your family, if you want to pay for a bill, if you want to put down collateral on a purchase, you press a few buttons on your phone and presto, money is sent to anyone with a cellphone and an MPESA account. And like that indeed, the doctor received payment and stitched Anthony's ear back on.

Most urban people in Kenya have a MPESA account, some 10 milllion out of 30 in the entire country, and keep it well stocked with money incase a situation, like this one, arises. It has revolutionized bank transfers in Kenya.

One downside to MPESA is that it is a monopoly. Being a monopoly, MPESA kiosks can charge substantial fees for transferring and restocking accounts with money.

Can you think of any other reasons why MPESA might have any adverse repercussions? A potential one was recounted to me by Theodore himself: Men in Kenya often leave their home to find work elsewhere in the country and, when they can, bring money back home to provide for their family. Now, with MPESA, they don't have to travel back home, they can simply send it back, and the family never gets to see their father/husband.

Other than that, any ideas? All in all, I think it is a fantastic system and I wish it would spread around the world!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Prospects for the poor in South Africa

For a previous post about FIFA in South Africa, I hoped to find some better figures to share with you. I found some:

According to Citi, FIFA profited 1.8 million USD from the World Cup in Germany, equivalent to 0.8% of South Africa's GDP, and are expected to better that figure. Grant Thornton has predicted the boost to South Africa's economy will be around 0.4% of their GDP.

Though disconcerting, this is of course neoliberalspeak. What is most upsetting is the news of evictions and restrictions. Like in many major events in cities with high populations of poor people, there is a rug under which authorities hope to sweep any and all 'blemishes'. People are being sent to squatter camps.

"Blikkiesdorp" - Afrikaans for "Tin Can Town".