Saturday, August 29, 2009

On the Triumph of the Commons

I have always hated when, in basic economics classes, professors hasten to raise ecologist Garrett Hardin's "Tragedy of the Commons", as the definitive argument against voluntary collective action on environmental issues. An article in the New Scientist, disputes Hardin's thesis and suggestions and instead poses that the effective management of the environment and survival the human species depends on our ability to reason and find common ground. Author Mark van Vugt writes, that over-exploitation of natural resources is not inevitable if we act collectively.
Today we understand human nature and motivation far better than we did in Hardin's day. In particular, we know that individuals do not always act selfishly but also have some regard for the interests of others and the natural environment. Games such as the prisoner's dilemma and the public goods game demonstrate that under certain conditions people do behave altruistically (New Scientist, 12 March 2005, p 33). Besides, countless success stories attest to the fact that communities can overcome the tragedy of the commons without a great deal of coercion.
Neo-classical economists love to conjure the "Tragedy", when they want to undermine any call for collective social or environment action. I doubt van Vugt's article will change many of their minds. Nevertheless, it sure is great ammunition for poking wholes in the basic assumptions in one of their favorite amoral theses.

Friday, August 28, 2009

New Social Protection Partnership, Senegal and UNICEF

UNICEF and the government of Senegal are partnering together to deliver 3.800 FCfa or $8 US a month to the children of vulnerable families in the country. The monthly minimum wage in Senegal is around 40,000 FCfa or $87. Effective partnerships like the child social protection agreement between Senegal and UNICEF could serve as a model of how the government can overcome institutional constraints and ultimately win the fight against poverty.

According to an article in the national newspaper Le Soleil, the purpose of the program is to mitigate the adverse effects of high food prices in the short-term, reduce poverty in the medium-term, and prevent the inter-generational spread of poverty. The funds will be principally designed for children ages 0 to 5.

Despite having one of Africa's longest and most stable constitutional democracies, Senegal has been unable to effectively deliver social protections, or reduce widespread poverty and chronic unemployment--- an unemployment rate of 48% with 54% living below the poverty-line. The West African nation ranks a low 156 out of 177 according to the Human Development Index, a composite measure of general well-being among the population. The remaining roadblocks to translating economic growth into social equity are lack of financial resources or political will for industrial policies and social programs to reverse these trends. Partnerships between Senegal and intergovernmental agencies like UNICEF can be effective but only if they are implemented efficiently.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Rural Japanese Voters in Revolt

The upcoming elections in Japan could be a referendum on the nation's development policies over the last 20 years. Rural farmers blame the ruling Liberal Democrat Party for promoting an uneven development model that favored urban centers over smaller towns and cutting social protections for the most vulnerable populations. Now, it is widely expected that the Liberal Democrats could face a thrashing at the ballot box later this month.

According to CBS News, Japanese rural voters are revolting against the status-quo in economic development.
Voters here blame former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, a Liberal Democrat, for policies they believe benefited urban centers at the expense of rural Japan. During his five years in office from 2001-2006, Koizumi championed free market reforms to steer the world's second-biggest economy out of its "lost decade" of the 1990s.

He privatized government entities, relaxed trade restrictions on food imports, loosened labor laws, pushed banks to purge bad debt and cut pork-barrel spending. To slash costs, Tokyo ordered smaller villages and municipalities to merge.

Critics point to Koizumi's reforms for exacerbating the urban-rural divide and creating an underclass of temporary workers unprotected during economic downturns.

European Power, African Sunlight

Previously, I blogged about a 400 billion Euro plan to power Europe with sunlight from the Sahara desert. Desertec, as the $573 billion initiative is called, would be the world's most committed solar power project to date. The lingering question is to what, if any benefit will such a project be for north African nations who themselves face widespread energy shortages and routine blackouts? Not to mention the long history of colonialism/ neo-colonialism that has taken place via the exploitation of Africa's natural resources. Will the sun be any different?

Nevertheless, European investors are looking to capitalize on Africa's most abundant resource. Cash-strapped north African governments are unlikely to challenge what could turn out to be another economic opportunity and revenue source. Below is a short video from a Dutch news station describing the German lead project, the technologies and scientific processes that will be used to harness the power of the African sun.

Monday, August 24, 2009

What A Malaria Mosquitoe Wants

Malaria continues to be Africa's number 1 killer and one of the main reasons why mortality rates continue to be so high in West Africa. There are extensive efforts by scientists, governments, and activists to eliminate the threat of Malaria, if not prevent the high cases of fatality throughout Africa. But one of the most cost effective and potent ways of fighting Malaria and the mosquitoes that carry the disease continues to be education.

The following funny video is one of several featured on the a campaign designed to creatively inform the public on simple facts regarding the disease and ways to prevent its spread. At the end of their latest short cartoon the narrator reminds us to "be careful in the dark. Malaria carrying Mosquitoes only bite at night."

Photo Essay Highlights the "Oil Age" in the Developing World

There is an absolutely amazing photo essay in Foreign Policy Magazine called "Scenes from the Violent Twilight of Oil". The essay provides moving images and included captions of some of the world's most important oil producing states like Venezuela and Nigeria and reminds us that even as the world looks to lessen its dependence on "black gold" in the future, the resource still colors our present---for better or worse.

Children play in the halo of a natural gas flare in Ebocha. The name means "Place of Light," after the flare at an Agip petroleum refinery that has burned there, night and day, since the 1970s."

You can enjoy the rest of the photo journal by clicking here.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Guest Appearance on Radio Show, "Real Talk With Ray Baker"

Below is a recent discussion I joined on "Real Talk With Ray Baker". We reviewed the case of Georgia death-row inmate Troy Anthony Davis, the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) and the state of the US-Africa trade relationship. Ray's show is one of my favorite sources for up to date information and he keeps me honest in his questioning. I always learn a lot from being a guest. ( The file may take a second to load)

Austin Thompson On "Real Talk with Ray Baker" by aus10

Monday, August 17, 2009

Neoliberalism on Trial in Zambia

The former president of Zambia, Frederick Chiluba was regrettably acquitted on charges of corruption and stealing public money from the country. The press today has run a series of articles presenting criticism of the decision and the lack of justice for corrupt African heads of state in general. The cruel irony is that the BBC, New York Times and other media outlets conveniently neglect to mention that it was neoliberal policies imposed by western technocrats that facilitated the secrecy and corruption in Zambia during the Chiluba presidency.

I first learned about Frederick Chiluba writing a college research thesis about the development of opposition to privatization amongst civil society organisations, particularly trade unions in Southern Africa from 1991-2001. Chiluba won presidential elections in 1991, unseating socialist president Kenneth Kaunda who had held power since independence from British colonial rule in 1964. Chiluba's victory was heralded as a triumph for multi-party democracy and anti-statism but eventually his administration plunged the country deeper into socio-economic crisis and political corruption.

Like in other African countries, western financial institutions sought to exert their influence on public policy in Zambia by extending liquidity on the grounds that the state adopt anti-social external conditionalities. Chiluba egotistically accepted the Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs) of the World Bank and IMF cutting price controls, ending public subsidies to various sectors of the economy, and most importantly privatizing public-owned assets like the strategically important mining industry. With the backing of international financial institutions and under the rhetoric of liberal democracy, President Chiluba purposefully ignored the human consequences of his policies on mineworkers, their families and other poor communities---not to mention trampling over basic civil liberties when opposed.

Today, the adverse impacts of neoliberalism in Zambia have made it politically unpopular to ignore the terrible human consequences and economic shortcomings of such policy prescriptions. Despite this fact, other African governments continue to routinely accept unjust external conditionalities on the cash that they receive from foreign investors. Frederick Chiluba may have escaped justice for his crimes against the Zambian people, but the neoliberal prescriptions that facilitated his downfall and ruined the economy should not.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Making HIV/AIDS Funding Recession-Proof

There is a growing consensus among the scientific and human rights community that the best way to help lengthen the lives of millions of people who are HIV/AIDS positive, is to universalize access to quality treatment and expand medical care rights. But universal access to antiretroviral treatment will require significant new investments from state governments. So what to make of this human rights necessity in light of the so- called Great Recession of 2009?

Taking on experimental roles in the struggle against HIV/AIDS, non-governmental organizations and for-profit corporations are picking up some slack as state governments face new fiscal constraints due to the global recession. Pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Mylan have committed to lowering the prices on medicines for patients with drug-resistant HIV as part of an agreement with former President Bill Clinton and his Clinton Foundation. Despite the good work of non-state actors, it is easy to recognize the dangerous possibility that some state governments will use the current recession as a justification to withdrawal from providing medical services to the poorest individuals living with HIV/AIDS.

The International AIDS Society, which is the world's leading independent association of HIV/AIDS professionals, has warned that sharp national budget cuts from HIV/AIDS support in the developing world have already taken place by some state governments. The continued trend of underfunding vital social and public medical programs will only cause serious setbacks to getting HIV/AIDS treatment to areas with the greatest amount of need, the Society has said. The global economic downturn is also having an adverse effect on migrants as important AIDS programs are threatened by donor and state government program cuts, warned a new UN report released at the 9th International Congress on AIDS in Asia and Pacific.

In the past, wealthier Western nations have spoken about their intentions to financially support developing countries in the fight against HIV/AIDS. However, the president of the International AIDS Society, Julio Montaner blasted the G8 for their apparent lack of concern with the HIV/AIDS crisis, even calling their silence "criminal" after their last meeting. He also accused them of using the crisis as a cop out.

Though price-cutting actions of pharmaceutical companies are very relevant, the vast majority of antiretroviral funding comes from governments and non-profit donors. We must do everything in our power to secure more public resources for the struggle against HIV/AIDS. Despite progress, in South Africa alone it is estimated that 61% of deaths are attributable to HIV/AIDS related complications. State governments should be encouraged to do more even as the means to do so are more constrained under the current economic slow-down. If the international community and individual state governments fail to live up to their prior commitments regarding HIV/AIDS funding, it will be a casualty not simply of the recession but misdirected public priorities.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The World Bank is Singing a New Tune in Africa

Brandishing an empathetic new tagline on its main website, "Working for a World Free of Poverty", the World Bank is obviously looking to address the main criticisms of its past performance and recast its formerly tarnished image. Yesterday, World Bank President Robert Zoellick finished a week- long visit to Africa in order to vocalize the Bank's committment to economic development despite the deepening recession. Among other things he emphasized that the Bank is... looking toward a world that is no longer dominated by the United States and other advanced economies?
"We need multiple poles of growth and that will make for a more solid and
balanced international economy and there is absolutely no reason that Africa
can't be one of those multiple poles of growth."
To label the call for a more egalitarian economic world-order by World Bank President Robert Zoellick as ironic, would be a supreme understatement. Zoellick, an appointee of George W. Bush, was one of the key signators of the Project for the New American Century (PNAC), a neo-conservative document that believed the US "must have a secure foundation on unquestioned U.S. military preeminence" among other imperial objectives for the 21st century. Certainly, the world has changed enormously since the 1990's with agressive calls for reform in the world economy to empower developing countries in the 21st century. Zoellick proclaimed the Bank's support for an"African Century for Development" and the creation of a new asset management unit to work with government-controlled funds to invest in African economies with the highest growth potential to spur private-sector activity.

Like the Obama administration, (which has also been looking to reform the US image around the world and Africa in particular), the World Bank is clearly focusing on delivering a message of partnership rather than paternalism in relations with African governments. Whether or not the new World Bank rhetoric will match actual World Bank policy depends on the character of the conditionalities placed on African countries in order to receive support. Let's hope they can get it right this time and avoid reviving the "Washington Consensus" of privitization, liberalization, and strict political-economic managment that ruined the prospects of genuine poverty eradication and development in recent years.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Presidential Term-Limits and Democracy

Niger is moving to eliminate term-limits through a referendum. The United States and its European allies have swiftly condemned the referendum and the possibility of incumbent President Mamadou Tandja serving another term as anti-democratic. The attempt to end presidential term limits in Niger is by no means novel. Several other developing countries have also moved to alter their constitutions in order to remove constitutionally mandated limits on the executive branch. In nearly every case, referendums have been the result of presidents appealing for more time to carry out the will of their constituents.

The traditional thinking in the West is that term limits are absolutely necessary to prevent tyranny and the ability of a 'bad' person to become president for life. This belief has been an important aspect of Western liberal democracy for hundreds of years and many continue to believe that term-limits have a universal merit for all human kind. Certainly, there have been a very long list of authoritarian governments that have used the veil of democracy to support their absolute rule. But it would be wrong to argue that there exist no reasonable arguments in support of the elimination of presidential term-limits or to unfairly demonize other countries that try to make them.

Commentators are wrong to immediately characterize every challenge to traditional liberal democratic term limits as anti-democratic. There can hypothetically be legitimate scenarios in which citizens in developing countries desire the ability to experiment with other forms of democracy based upon their own realities. For example, in many unequal developing countries parliaments are often controlled by wealthy elites who favor a weak executive branch in order to prevent any comprehensive attempt at political or economic reform. In another context citizens may favor the policies or programs of an incumbent president to any challenger in the opposition. Term-limits encourage changes in a given course of action but hinder the ability of people to choose continuity.

The effect of short term limits can have a detrimental effects on long-term social and economic planning. In countries struggling with the effects of long-periods of structural poverty and marginalization, development goals cannot always be defined according to 4 or 5 year time horizons. Many of the most successful examples of economic development have come from Asian countries with 15 to 20 year plans. There are many, many countries that have performed abysmally when it comes to poverty reduction and provision of basic necessities that have term limits, with executive branches that lack clearly defined agendas for the long-term---including Nigeria, which was quick to criticize the referendum vote in Niger.

Many intellectuals and policy-makers are resolved to oppose altering a constitution to change term limits even when the majority of citizens in a given country vote to do so. These liberal commentators make the philosophical argument that majority rule can easily lead to tyranny over the minority without "objective" constraints such as term-limits to protect them. However, this reasoning is contradictory and unfortunately often goes unquestioned when raised. There is no objective way to predict that in all cases rule by the majority will lead to tyranny just as it is impossible to assume that representative systems cannot exercise absolute power i.e. oligarchy.

The absence of term-limits does not necessarily give presidents the right to wield absolute power over their citizens. Even in a system without term limits incumbent presidents that perform poorly can be voted out of office in a transparent system. The bigger issue is whether or not there exists transparency, accountability and opportunities for wider citizen participation. The absence of either transparency or democratic participation however, can occur in countries with term-limits and regular elections. Frankly, I think a healthy debate about the limitations of conventional thinking on presidential term limits is long overdue and may actually wind up increasing, not diminishing the prospects of genuine democracy in the developing world.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Basic Minimum Income For All: A Missing Piece to Africa's Development Puzzle

Though they are abundant in mineral-resources, many African governments are notoriously corrupt, incapable of delivering vital social services or responding to domestic structural unemployment and poverty. New York Times recently reported that during the current economic recession more export-oriented African economies are having difficulty attracting foreign investment and private capital.

Kudos to the Times for including the commentary of Emira Woods, a native of Liberia and co-director of the progressive Foreign Policy in Focus, who rightly commented that foreign direct investment has not effectively "trickled-down" to the poor in African nations and therefore cannot be relied upon as "the way to solve the many problems facing African countries". Woods' perspective is unfortunately left out of many of the most important economic policy debates, despite overwhelming evidence to support her conclusion.

Yes, development theoreticians and practitioners should work toward a rebound in economic growth rates, but simultaneously they must also ensure that GDP wealth is distributed on a more equitable basis than in past years. In my opinion, one simple approach to doing so would be a guaranteed basic minimum income for citizens of mineral-resource exporting countries in Africa. Although there is a need to further analyze its feasibility, the strong conceptual grounds for a basic income grant should put it front-and-center in the African development debate.

A basic minimum income, is "an income unconditionally granted to all on an individual basis, without means test or work requirement." Unlike other general minimum income strategies, the minimum basic income is designed to give the recipient the cash directly rather than through indirect transfers like food vouchers, minimum wages or public housing. The cash would be given either to households or individuals without any restrictions on how the income could be spent by recipients. However, implementing a basic minimum income system does not abdicate the responsibility of African governments to deliver social services because the basic income "supplements, rather than substitutes, existing in-kind transfers such as free education or basic health insurance." According to the Basic Income Grant Coalition, characteristics of the ideal basic income grant would minimally,
  • provide everyone with a minimum level of income,
  • enable the nation's poorest households to better meet their basic needs,
  • stimulate equitable economic development,
  • promote family and community stability
  • affirm and support the inherent dignity of all
There have already been extensive discussions in post-apatheid South Africa about the benefits of a basic minimum income there as a solution to lingering poverty and inequality--- so far little progress has been made. Namibia attempted a small-scale guaranteed minimum income program that achieved mixed, but mostly positive results. This past February, news reports in oil-rich Libya claimed that the country's oil revenues were expected to be distributed directly to the Libyan population. President Muammar Al-Gaddafi called on the government to begin the direct transfer program as a strategy to root out political corruption and improve social development.

There is also new evidence from other developing regions that direct cash-transfers can be an effective means to tackle poverty and inequality. Duncan Green, Head of Research for Oxfam GB writes in his latest blog post, about the success of conditional-cash transfers in Latin American countries. Cash transfers in Brazil for example are responsible for helping lift 16.5 million Brazilians out of poverty between 2003 and 2007. Green is conscious to note that the success of cash transfers in some middle-income Latin American countries can not necessarily be transplanted in regions like Africa where the vast majority of the people are poor.
" transfer programmes may have to be adapted to low income countries, for example putting more emphasis on targeting poor regions rather than means testing, which is expensive and not much use when nearly everyone is poor. Insisting on conditioning cash payments on school attendance or health check-ups may not make sense when schools and clinics are either absent or of dismal quality. In that case, the government has to sort out supply of essential services rather than just focus on increasing demand."
Unlike the Latin American cash transfer model, a basic minimum income would provide unconditional cash transfers for the poor in African countries where poverty-stricken populations make-up the majority of citizens. In addition to pooling revenues from mineral resource exports, ideally official development assistance from the West could be diverted to help fund minimum income systems---a type of foreign assistance that can benefit African people directly. As we are witnessing in the current crisis, whenever the global economy suffers a recession Africa's growth shifts into reverse due to decreasing external demand. A basic minimum income could be a part of a long-term sustainable economic growth strategy of stimulating local demand in Africa. A guaranteed basic minimum income won't solve all of Africa's economic and social development problems, but it certainly would be a great starting point.