Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Trouble with Africa(n Aid)

African Update has posted an interview with author, Robert Calderisi, who spent three decades working on international development, most of it with the World Bank where he held several senior positions. (Read his critical opinion of former World Bank president, Paul Wolfowitz here.) He is the author of The Trouble with Africa.

Check it out here.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

Precarious Prefets

Guinean Prime Minister, Lansana Kouyaté, fulfilled one of his long-promised governmental reforms yesterday with the nominations of seven new governors and 30 new prefets for Guinea (out of a possible 33). The decree, signed by President Lansana Conté, effectively reverses almost all his previous governor and prefet appointments to date. has a more detailed report available to read (in French) here.

Two initial observations on my part:
  1. The president's acquiescence is a positive sign that perhaps a smooth transition to democracy will be possible in Guinea, and that Kouyaté's government is, in fact, legitimate.
  2. While only one of the new governors and three of the 30 prefets nominated are women, this should be considered an improvement from the previous total of zero.
So, what does a prefet do, anyway? For those of you not familiar with the byzantine layers of complexity of French bureaucracy (which has been painstakingly maintained in Guinea even after its independence), he essentially functions as an administrator of an area comprising 100,000–500,000 people, coordinating various functions at a local level, as well as effecting policy edicts from Conakry. To the ordinary Guinean, however, a prefet is most recognized as the patron ("boss") in flowing boubous who lives in a mansion and swoops in and out of town in a shiny new SUV

Since independence, but especially during the reign of Conté, prefets have become known in Guinea as some of the largest perpetrators of the corruption and graft that has earned Guinea's ranking as most corrupt country in Africa. They often earned their positions through their connections to Conté or to the party.

During my time in the préfecture of Tougué, I got to know two prefets (who also happened to be my next door neighbors). The first, Mouctar Banti Diallo, was so embroiled in any number of scandals involving the re-routing of money destined to fund projects in my préfecture, that it became something of a town joke to cite him as the prime suspect in every theft, from missing cows to missing chalk. He eventually was sent to Pita (where he was run out of town for similar shenanigans during the January riots).

Banti's replacement, Boubacar Baldé, wasn't much better, getting the plum appointment after heading up Conté's reelection efforts (you know, the one where he got nearly 100% of the vote). He spent only a scant few months in Tougué before falling terminally ill and spending the next year in Dakar and dying back in August of last year. Incredibly, Conté hadn't named a successor until yesterday's decree.

The fact Kouyaté has, in one fell swoop, replaced almost every single one of these corrupt do-nothings, suggests that he, too, recognizes the inherent corruption at all levels of Conté's government, and understands the need for fresh blood and capable administration on a local level—to regain the confidence of the Guinean people, if nothing else.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Guinea Gets an "F"

Foreign Policy released its 2007 failed states report, and guess who made the list.

Of course, Guinea isn't the most spectacular failure of a country (that honor goes to Sudan). Guinea ranked 9th on the list, compared to 11th last year—a surprisingly small change considering the recent level of unrest that has racked the country. Then again, considering it was facing stiff competition from war-torn countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and Somalia, so perhaps its position is about right.

The embarrassing result comes as the latest in a string of ignominious honors for a country so gifted in natural resources, water sources, and rich soil (another being Transparency International's corruption survey in which Guinea was named the 2nd most corrupt country in the world). The ranking also serves as another ringing indictment of Lansana Conté's nearly 25 year-old regime that has utterly failed to institute the smallest meaningful reform since assuming power.

One would hope that the government formed under newly appointed Prime Minister Lansana Kouyaté will be given sufficient latitude by President Conté to institute the reforms Guineans so desperately need. Such optimism is tempered, however, by a recent interview with French television station, TV5, where an ever-stubborn Conté reaffirmed that "Il n'y a pas de transition ouverte. Je suis le chef, les autres sont mes subordonnés" ("There is no open transition. I am chief, the others are my subordinates"). He goes on to minimize the significance of the bloodiest protest Guinea has known during Conté's reign in January and February, in which more than 100 Guineans were killed by army and police actions:
"Quel est le pays qui n'a pas connu d'événements comme ça, d'événements douloureux ? [...] Ça arrive à tout le monde d'avoir des moments de difficultés, d'incompréhensions entre la population et le pouvoir"

("What country doesn't know events like this, painful events? [...] These sorts of difficulties, these misunderstandings between the population and the government happen to everyone.")
Lest there remained any doubt, Conté has made it clear: he's still captain of the S.S. Guinea, even as it sinks beneath his staggering corruption and intransigence.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

The Untapped Markets of AIDS, Malaria, and Famine

Libertarian Kenyan economist, James Shikwati, has made a name for himself by providing a counterpoint to the conventional wisdom that increased aid from western countries is the only antidote for curing Africa of its poverty malaise. He advocates putting an end to "this awful aid" he sees as responsible for maintaining African nations in perpetual states of poverty and for Africans to capitalize and profit from "the untapped markets" of AIDS, malaria, and famine.

So who is James Shikwati, and how exactly has he risen to prominence? As this article in the New York Times explains, he's the creation of Lawrence W. Reed, a conservative thinker and economist. Reed "discovered" Shikwati when the Kenyan, a former rural high school teacher who had been rejected for numerous graduate school programs in America, emailed him with a simple question: “Do you assist individuals who would like to know more about the free market and individual liberty?”

Reed sent books, reports, magazines, tracts — even occasional sums of money" to encourage Mr. Shikwati to pursue his capitalist education with a passion. Today Mr. Shikwati is considered "a one-man think tank," who has created the Inter-Region Economic Network, giving speeches on five continents and even being toasted at a dinner at the Heritage Foundation in Washington DC.

What, exactly does Shikwati propose? Here is an excerpt from his interview in Spiegel Online two years ago:
Huge bureaucracies are financed (with the aid money), corruption and complacency are promoted, Africans are taught to be beggars and not to be independent. In addition, development aid weakens the local markets everywhere and dampens the spirit of entrepreneurship that we so desperately need. As absurd as it may sound: Development aid is one of the reasons for Africa's problems. If the West were to cancel these payments, normal Africans wouldn't even notice. Only the functionaries would be hard hit. Which is why they maintain that the world would stop turning without this development aid.
Rather than refocus aid and redirect towards those who need it most, Shikwati would have us believe that all aid is bad, that its only salvation for Africa is to open it to free-market capitalism. Along these lines, Shikwati proposes that rather than considering those dying from AIDS, famine, and malaria to be blights on Africa's economic prospects, Africans should consider them uniquely African "untapped business markets" that Africans should be profiting from.

Jeffrey Sachs, author of The End of Poverty, noted economist, and longtime proponent to African aid describes Shikwati as “shockingly misguided, amazingly wrong," adding, “this happens to be a matter of life and death for millions of people, so getting it wrong has huge consequences.”

Shikwati's proposals have had little traction in his home country of Keyna; however, The New York Times correctly points out that his greater influence may be abroad where capitalists can use Shikwati as the African mouthpiece for their "the freer the market, the freer the people" agendas.

Friday, June 15, 2007

Household Slavery

It was an all-too-common sight during my time in Guinea: often when I visited my neighbors, I'd be introduced to a young girl I had never seen at the school ironing clothes, making dinner, or sweeping the foyer. When I would ask the girl her name, she would inevitably smile shyly and turn away, not understanding my French. These girls, household servants, were not directly related to the family—they were confiées, given awat by poor families to richer ones in bizarre and complicated forms of exchange I never understood even after two years in the country.

Now, Human Rights Watch has recently released a new report on Guinea focusing on this long-standing injurious practice: the wide-spread abuse of adolescent girls in the form of household help. The report, impressive in tackling a rarely talked about issue of West African culture, is available for download here. The report includes short accounts from the victims of this servitude-bordering-on-slavery. Here's an excerpt:
Sometimes my employers beat me or insult me. When I say I am tried or sick, they beat me with a whip. When I do something wrong, they beat me too.… When I take a rest, I get beaten or am given less food. I am beaten on my buttocks and on my back. —Rosalie Y., age 9
The report only stumbles when it comes to making its recommendations. The report calls for the new government, led by Lansana Kouyaté, to take the initative in combating the abuses of child household labor in Guinean society by strengthening the judiciary and supporting police efforts to follow-up on reports of household abuses. That's a tall order for a government and police force that has yet to gain the respect or trust of the population (especially after the murderous rioting of January and February), but such are the always-idealistic-rarely-realistic recommendations of Human Rights Watch.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Sarkozy, Unplugged

Who ever said the French don't know how to have a good time? Looks like the meeting with Vladimir Putin during the G8 conference a few days ago went well beyond the staid diplomatic chit-chat:

Approximate translation from the French:
Ladies and Gentlemen, I apologize for my lateness, due to the length of the dialogue I just had with Mr Putin (vomits in mouth). So, how should we do this? You want to ask me questions? (smiles and sways like a birch in the breeze) Are there any questions? (nearly cracks up) Yes, yes, well, um...

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Mr. Wizard, dead at 89

I have fond memories of Mr. Herbert as I grew up watching him on Nickelodeon. His show was always entertaining—especially the one where he made the volcano blow up. He almost, but not quite, made me appreciate science.


The last couple days I've been turned on to several different strange and funny things that I figured I ought to share. No, they don't have anything to do with Mr. Wizard, but as long as I'm updating the blog, I thought I'd mention some of them here.

1.) First up is this strange video of Johnny Depp being assaulted by piano-playing, sword-wielding pirate children on a Japanese talk show. Obviously, something is lost in translation:

2.) The next link is to another website called "Overheard in New York" that captures random bits of interesting conversations that, you guessed it, were overheard in The Naked City. Here are a couple examples:
Street hawker: Take it -- slit your wrists with it, roll your drugs in it -- I don't care. Just take it.

--43rd & 7th
Comedy promoter: Colorful paper! Free colorful paper! Use it to wipe your ass!

--Times Square
3.) Our third and final link comes from a forum for Student Doctors in which each poster takes a turn at describing things they learn from their patients. Apparently, they are true stories. I liked these in particular:
When I volunteered in an ED, this was my favorite line of questions/answers with teenage females:

1. Is there any chance you could be pregnant? No.
2. Do you take birth control? No.
3. Do you have unprotected sex? Yes.
4. When was your LMP? 3 months ago.
5. Now, let me ask you again, is there any chance you could be pregnant? No, I told you that already.
If somehow a ping pong ball should make its way into your rectum and you cannot retieve it, do not mix yourself a cement enema--as this will only make your problems worse.
Read more here.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

“From those to whom much is given, much is expected.”

You may have seen news reports (like this one) on Friday how multi-billionaire, Bill Gates, the Harvard dropout, finally received his degree from his alma mater.

Like you, I didn't pay the story much mind of the story until I had an opportunity to read Gates's actual remarks, available here.

Gates begins his commencement address by joking about his (lack of) college experience, but the mood quickly turned somber when he expressed his one big regret about his time at college: "I left Harvard with no real awareness of the awful inequities in the world," adding that it took him "decades to find out" about the unbelievable levels of poverty and disease that only grow worse in developing countries.

Gates spends the next twenty minutes expressing his disbelief at the levels of inequity he has experienced in the world and of his efforts to better understand the issue and raise awareness through advocacy. Here is an excerpt:
If you believe that every life has equal value, it’s revolting to learn that some lives are seen as worth saving and others are not. We said to ourselves: “This can’t be true. But if it is true, it deserves to be the priority of our giving.”

So we began our work in the same way anyone here would begin it. We asked: “How could the world let these children die?”

The answer is simple, and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidize it. So the children died because their mothers and their fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.

It's an impressive speech made all the more powerful by the fact that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has an endowment of more than 33 billion dollars. Of which they recently gave more than 10 million to Purdue University to improve food storage techniques in ten African countries.

Video of the afternoon commencement exercises (with Gates's speech at the end) is available for download here.

Friday, June 8, 2007

30 minutes for Guinea

Between losing a war in Iraq and myriad other crises punctuating the Bush administration (where Bush's recent approval ratings have tied his all-time low at 32%), Condoleezza Rice took a break from arranging the deck chairs to receive Lansana Kouyaté, the new prime minister of Guinea, for a brief thirty minute rendezvous at the White House. reports (in French) that the issues on the table were America's continued commitment to ensuring a stable transition of power in Guinea (if we've been seeing America's commitment, I'd hate to see its apathy). Rice also hammered home that any economical aid will only come with concrete evidence of Guinea's continued political reform.

A spokesperson for the State Department explained that the U.S. will watch closely the Guinean legislative electives tentatively rescheduled for December for indications of the next steps to take in tightening Guineo-American relations.

Some steps are already being taken, however; former volunteers have been told by Peace Corps administration that the organization plans to return to the country in a few months, barring any further countrywide protests of the sort seen in January and February.