Sep 27 2006

Property Rights in Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:46 PM

BOZEMAN – I’m spending the week at the Political Economy Research Center (PERC) in Bozeman, Montana. The director, Terry L. Anderson, is a pioneer in understanding the power of property rights to expand economic opportunity and growth. Property rights are taken for granted in the U.S, and disputes over property rights presume that a whole set of institutional arrangements that help secure these rights. Not so in sub-Saharan Africa, where land and property disputes are common because of a lack of land title and registration systems (and much else) that would protect the integrity of an owner’s claims. For many years, Terry has engaged the issue of property rights and Africa, especially in the area of wildlife protections. Wildlife sanctuaries and parks in Africa often suffer from encroachment by people living nearby and poaching is a common problem. My own studies of land-use and agriculture in Africa caught the interest of Terry and his colleagues who invited me to visit and share ideas. Happily, the PERC family is keenly interested in African problems. The importance of property rights to ordinary Africans cannot be understated. The establishment of clearer rights is not inconsistent with customary, or traditional land-use arrangements in Africa, and potentially carries a revelatory power to ignite economic growth and expand human freedom and economic justice. Many ordinary African farmers remain unable to fully develop their lands because of insecure rights to their use. I’m here to learn more about PERC’s approach to land-use and property rights – and find ways to apply these ideas to the African predicament.

Yesterday I made a presentation to PERC scholars, including Terry, on the state of property rights in Africa. I drew on examples from Uganda, Malawi, Ghana and Cameroon. Some excerpts from my talk:

“Africa is large. Land is a comparative advantage, relative to the rest of the world. Yet the advantages to Africa of its relatively cheap and plentiful land are virtually cancelled out by the failure of Africans to construct a system of property rights and thus gain the benefits of such rights in the form of markets for land and property.”

“The lack of clear, written and recorded property rights mean conflicts over land and its use are common in Africa. Indeed, perhaps no other single factor fuels so much conflict in Africa as conflict over access and ownership of land.” “Aid donors ignore the issue of property rights (and that may be a blessing). The subject of property rights gets scant attention in Africa, obscured by seemingly more urgent debates over hunger, disease and violent conflict. Curiously, donors fund a lot of projects in Africa but none on land titling and land registration and virtually none on land
redistribution. That’s partly because many donors are European and they are ambivalent about promoting markets in Africa.”

“With the breakdown of the African state in recent decades, traditional authorities and customary rules have been re-legitimized. African governments are no longer trying to dismantle these traditional arrangements; the state is often trying to bolster its own contested credibility by latching on to the growing appreciation of tribal leaders and ethnic customs. The trouble is that customary land ownership has many shortcomings and offers none of the benefits of private ownership.”

“The ordinary African is usually trapped between coercive national governments and traditional authorities when it comes to asserting control over his land.”


Sep 27 2006

African Bio-Tech

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 6:42 PM

On my return trip to the U.S. from Malawi, I stopped off in Nairobi last Thursday, where I met one of Africa’s leading thinkers on the use of bio-technology in Africa. I plan to publish on the topic in the coming months. Though no panacea, bio-tech offers some clear benefits to African farmers. With an urgent need to raise food production, especially in chronically food-insecure places such as Malawi, African farmers – and their governments – should explore every possible option for more productive use of land.


Sep 18 2006

Adapt or Burn

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:50 AM

ZOMBA – I met Malawi’s leading expert on climate change the other day, a young geologist at the University of Malawi’s Chancellor College in the provincial city of Zomba. The geologist bears the magnificent name, Cosmo Socrates Ngongondo. Earlier this year he published a striking paper in the peer-reviewed journal, Quartenary International, on declines in rainfall in the southern part of Malawi, historically the poorest and most densely populated part of the country. The paper bears a intimidating title, “An analysis of long-term rainfall variability, trends and groundwater availability in the Mulunguzi river catchment area,” but Ngongondo’s message is easy to grasp. Farmers in southern Malawi are right when they conclude their lands receive less rainfall than 50 years ago. Ngongondo’s analysis of rainfall data, from 1954 to 1998, charts the decline. His paper stops short of providing an explanation for the decrease in rainfall, though when I met with him in his university office he explained that farmers would be wise to adapt their methods to cope with shorter growing seasons and lighter rains. The options: more diverse crops that require less water and mature more quickly. “Climate change need not be a disaster for Malawi’s farmers,” he says. “They can adapt, and should, because the old weather patterns of the past are not likely to return.”


Sep 18 2006

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:46 AM

“We prefer poverty in freedom to riches in slavery.”
Sekou Toure, 1957


Sep 18 2006

The Loneliest Man in Malawi

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:37 AM

I spent Sunday afternoon with one of the loneliest men in Malawi. Chris Banda is the general-secretary of Malawi’s professional soccer “Super League.” Fifteen teams compete in the league, which plays from May to November. Africans love soccer, both their own leagues and European competitions. While Malawi is no powerhouse, the level of play at today’sgame was high. Longtime local champion, the Blantyre “Big Bullets,” defeated a feisty underdog from the capital, Lilongwe, one goal to nil. The goal came on a spectacular strike from 40 yards out and essentially ended the game.

As interesting as the contest was, my conversation with Banda was more so. His task is to raise money for a league based in one of the world’s poorest countries, where life expectancy is declining and 15% of the adult population has HIV. “It is difficult to devote money to sports in the midst of a national crisis,” he admits, but he says Malawians deserve the simple pleasures of a well-played soccer match and he insists that, somehow, money must be found to keep the game afloat in his country. The trouble is that the league has no television sponsor, and attendance at games is sparse, partly because poverty prevents the masses from coming up with the mere 75 cents required for a basic ticket.

I listened intently to Banda talk about the struggles of pro soccer in his country. Most of the 15 teams are sponsored by government agencies. Commercial sponsors are few and the cost of running a team for a season – about $35,000 to $45,000 – are significant in a country where similar amounts can fund a health clinic for a year. I expressed my sympathy for the plight of the soccer and assured Banda that I was not a foreigner who would deny Malawians their opportunity to enjoy home-grown competition. “I’m so happy to hear that,” Banda replied. “One of our teams is for sale right now. Maybe you’d like to buy it.”

I considered falling back on my usual I’m-a-journalist cover, but I told Banda I’d ponder the possibility.


Sep 16 2006

Africa “Lite”

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 4:43 PM

BLANTYRE – My gorgeous hotel in the heart of Malawi’s largest city, Blantyre, has absolutely no water. The toilet doesn’t flush, and management has slipped a Xeroxed letter under my door alerting me to the problem. Of course, the entire city lacks water because of the failure of the water company’s main pump, so my hotel has an excuse. Still, my toilet won’t flush and only a trickle comes out of the sink, not enough to even brush my teeth. Management’s confession that the hotel’s backup tanks – a full 10,000 liters – have been exhausted wins high marks for candor, but the emergency response – buckets of water brought to one’s room – seems ominous.

For the visitor to Malawi from North America or Europe, the collapse of essential services in Ryalls Hotel, one of Malawi’s best, is ominous indeed, especially since in my 9 days in the country I have learned that the research and aid programs for this poor African country are determined by the proximity of a first-class hotel to what aid workers call “our impact areas.” The key to stylish living in Malawi, for aid workers and the agents of the international community who arrive regularly to provide social and technical uplift, turns on the choice of a hotel. Entire aid projects are designed, at bottom, on their proximity to a first-hotel. Clever foreigners struggle mightily to identify an “impact” area that is within 45 minutes drive from the center of Blantyre, Zomba or Lilongwe, the capital. In each of these cities, comfortable lodgings can be obtained from $50 to $150 a night. The Ryalls Hotel and the Mount Roche are the two priciest digs, though prominent aid agencies (The World Bank, United Nations and U.S. A.I.D., for instance, have negotiated special rates that bring the charge close to $100 a night. Esconced in one of these hotels, an aid worker can have a sumptious breakfast before 9 am, spend 6 hours in a hot, dusty and impoverished village a mere 50 minutes away by dirt road, and then return before sundown to the comfort of an air conditioned room, with the latest movies on the telly.

Of course, no project manager would ever admit to organizing their entire programs around the availability of creature comforts of ex-pat staff and visiting experts. After all, Malawi is blessed with a moderate climate and a relatively low incidence of crime. People are friendly, polite and even shy. Malawi’s calm and careful atmosphere already earns it (along with a few other African countries, such as Ghana) the sneering moniker, Africa ‘lite.’ A cynic might conclude that, given the ease of a foreigner’s life in Malawi, that some sacrifices in the name of “foreign assistance” might be incurred by talent imported into the country.

Apparently not. One prominent anthropologist has spent more than 20 years visiting Malawi, all from a comfortable base in the old colonial capital. No nights spent in malaria-infested villages. No meager meals day after day. No sharing a bedroom with farm animals.

I myself have quickly adopted the same approach. I came to Malawi thinking I might sleep in remote villages, fighting off mosquitos and evil spirits during nights spent on foam pads in mud huts. But I’ve opted for using Western-style hotels as a launch-pad. While Ryalls has no running water in bathrooms, the outdoor pool is still functioning. So is the exercize room and the air-conditioning.

And all for a nightly fee that exceeds 50 percent of the official GDP per capita.

I am not alone. No less a self-sacrificing crusader than Oxfam is holding a staff meeting starting today in the country’s premier resort hotel, high in Zomba’s picturesque mountains. Oxfam is pondering its “strategic goals” for poverty reduction, so such elegant surroundings may inspire deep thoughts. Or perhaps not. Perhaps Oxfam should have held its staff retreat in the village of Mapelera, southwest of Blantyre. I spent half the day in Mapelera and its environs, courtesy of some helpful World Vision staff. The village has no running water, no electricity and no air conditioning. But there are plenty of poor people.

True, these people are less poor than they used to be, thanks to a crude, Rube Goldberg-esque irrigation system they’ve built for themselves, using gravity and earthen canals to steer water from the river that gives the village its name. Oxfam’s Malawian staff, and some bigwigs visiting from London, might not find the creature comforts to their liking. But the everyday suffering they experience – notably the meager food – might help them “channel” the actual mentality of the poor in Malawi. For curiously there are no poor people helping to devise Oxfam’s poverty strategy for Malawi. Actual poor people are too busy being poor to spend weeks in posh resorts or to commute to their impoverished home villages in the way I did today and the way virtually all foreign experts to this Africa ‘lite’ do the year-round impoverished village a mere 50 minutes away by dirt road, and then return before sundown to the comfort of an air-conditioned room, with the latest movies on the telly.


Sep 14 2006

Journalist to Journalist

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 4:27 PM

ZOMBA – A few days ago the Public Affairs Officer of the US Embassy in Lilongwe,Malawi’s capital, asked me to give a presentation to a group of Malawianjournalists. I was happy to do so, and not only because the U.S. PAO is the most helpful I’ve ever met in my African travels. I like African journalistsand always benefit from meeting them on their home turf. On my first nightin Malawi, I’d dined with the top independent political journalist and was surprised to learn that, in addition to his reporting skills, he also wrote novels and works of history. This one man is a literary firehouse, the Malawian equivalent of George Orwell. His name is Willie Zinga and, sadly, none of his works are in print in either Britain or the U.S. I am still hoping for the chance to dine with him again before I leave the country – and get one of his novels as a gift.

I also want to tell Willie the story of my meeting with about 35 journalists, split roughly equally between radio and print people. In my presentation, I emphasized the importance of “giving voice to the voiceless,” by including ordinary people in reports. I’m especially insistent that radio stations do so, since radio is the medium of the masses in Africa and call-in programs are increasingly popular. The trouble with call-in shows, however, is that the only people who can afford to telephone are wealthy and advantaged. So the disadvantaged are never heard on radio. One way to remedy this deficit, I proposed in Lilongwe, is for radio stations to bring ordinary people – police, nurses, farmers, street peddlers – into the studio for vigorous discussions. Alternatively, radio producers can take to the streets, and broadcast from a central market or a hospital or even a football pitch. As far as I know, few radio stations in Africa have done this and mostly African airways are dominated by elites. This is a big improvement from the days – as recently as 10 years ago – when government controlled everything that was said on radio. Still, radio will become even more vital in Africa when a greater diversity of voices fill the air.

I spent most of my 90 minutes with Malawi’s journalists talking about how to identify ordinary people as interview and profile subjects – and then how to both protect and present the views and life experiences of these people. I wasn’t prepared for any wrenching ethical questions, so I was taken aback when a younger journalist earnestly asked me, , what should he do when a government official tries to bribe him, in exchange for writing a favorable story. I didn’t answer his question. I simply said that the many voiceless Africans in his midst would never try to bribe him – so there’s another reason to push ordinary people into the Africa’s mainstream media.

I’ve since moved on from the capital to the provincial city of Zomba, Malawi’s capital at independence and a favorite city of the British colonialists. Zomba’s broadbands options are limited, and the city and its surroundings essentially go completely dark at nightfall. The only place a visitor can find a Web connection is in the center of the town, and the place closes by 6 pm.

Fortunately Zomba has ample charms, which include the legendary Africanist Stephen Carr with whom I spent a few rewarding hours on my arrival in Zomba. Carr is so wise and judicious on the subject of African agriculture that I felt the glow of his intelligence for days, taking the edge off my inability to send or receive emails.

Tommorrow I’m meeting with the leading person on climate change in Malawi. The weather is weirdly cool here, prompting many Malawian farmers to ask, “Where’s the heat?”


Sep 08 2006

A Cold Country

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:18 PM

LILONGWE – It is late afternoon and I am meeting with a prominent farmer in Malawi, the elected chairman of the largest farmer organization in the country, NASFAM. The weather is unusually cold, with temperatures falling into the 60s in the early mornings and evenings. She is wearing a heavy sweater and insisting that Malawi is supposed to be warm this time of year. But the climate is changing. One of her fellow farmer-activists, Dumisa Nthara, is sounding like Al Gore. “Climate changes are adversely affecting us,” he says. “The farmer in Malawi is now unable to predict when to grow his crops.”

“September is supposed to be hot,” he says. “Look how cool it is today.”

Malawi is one of poorest countries on Earth, and also among the most dependent on subsistence farming. The country, in the southern part of Africa, a thin strip of land sandwiched between much larger Zambia and Mozambique, is bedeviled by poor soils and high population density, which means there isn’t enough land to go around. HIV/AIDS is also taking a heavy toll on the country’s life expectancy. And now here comes climate change. Just how many stresses and setbacks can one small African country take?


Sep 07 2006

Hotter Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:31 PM

Since I just visited East Africa for a month, which is having its own heat wave, I wonder already about the negative effects of climate change on an Africa already burdened by a difficult geography. This report from the re-insurer Lloyds of London suggests that climate change may be the biggest wildcard in Africa’s future.

Concerns are growing that global warming may “cancel out Western aid and devastate Africa.”


Sep 05 2006

Ike Okonta on Africa Works

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:24 PM

Ike Okonta, the brilliant Cambridge-trained Africanist, reared in the Niger delta, wrote me the other day about my “manifesto” on the importance of understanding African society and political economy from the standpoint of the normal and normative rather than the pathological and dysfunctional.

She wrote from Britain:

“Many thanks for this manifesto. I have always insisted that my continent is ‘normal’ just as Europe or the US is ‘normal.’ Any meaningful analysis of the African condition must proceed from the assumption that the people are simply just that, ‘people,’ with their faults and virtues, their high and low moments. That Africa has had a tough patch to hoe these past 600 years is clear enough. The actors of this tragic drama are local as well as foreign. Opposed to these actors is the real Africa – ordinary people plodding on against staggering odds, and while at it blessing the world with music and laughter. There is much I rue about my continent, but I wont exchange it for any other in the world.”


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