Nov 30 2006

Half Full or Half Empty

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:05 PM

African affairs are a mixture of good and bad news, raising the question over and over whether the glass is half full or half empty? In a breakthrough deal brokered by the foundation headed by former U.S. president Bill Clinton, the price for a combination of 19 different drugs used by children with HIV/AIDS was driven down to a mere $60 a year, or about five-times less than the current cost. The ability to drive down the cost of these and other HIV/AIDS therapies is remarkable, a credit to the improvisational skills of reformers. There is probably no bigger “market failure” in global capitalism than the mis-match between those who need pharamaceuticals and those who make and sell them for a profit. At least within the narrow but significant arena of HIV/AIDS, new partnerships between producers and enlightened consumers are doing what was considered impossible only a few years ago. Three cheers.
At the same time, violence continues to stalk Africans who have worked hard to sustain a fragile peace in Southern Sudan. The BBC reports violence between Southerners and the forces deployed in the region by the government in Khartoum. What this means for the uneasy peace between north and south Sudan is anyone’s guess. A resumption in fighting between north and south is a scenario to be feared, however, with the violence likely to rival that being seen in Sudan’s western Darfur region.


Nov 24 2006

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:55 PM

“The fundamental reason why Africa had the worst Aids epidemic was because
it had the first Aids epidemic.” — John Iliffe


Nov 24 2006

Thick Description

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:53 PM

Clifford Geertz’s death at the age of 80 late last month merited a major obit in the Times and served as a reminder to me of the influence this celebrated anthropologist had on both journalism and African studies. Geertz’s contribution to these fields arose almost incidentally out of his legendary field work in Indonesia. In 1973, Geertz published a collection of essays, “The Interpretation of Cultures” that established him as a public intellectual. Geertz argued that the task of an intelligent observer was to provide “thick description” of the web of human behavior he called culture– for the purpose of identifying “meaning.” To Geertz, cultures — both alien and familiar — were socially constructed as was significance itself.
Humans lived, Geertz argued, “in webs of signficance he himself has spun. I take culture to be those webs.” There was a related proposition that reinforced Geertz’s revolutionary approach: the centrality of what he called “local knowledge.” By emphasizing the diversity of human society and culture, Geertz addressed the challenge of relativism in a novel way, by insisting that there was no universal standing in opposition to the situational. There was only “local knowledge,” in the sense that the webs of significance could only be decoded one locale at a time. Geertz’s conclusion served to protect the anthropological project, of course, but also provided intellectual ballast to the “common-sense notion out of which journalists made sense out of the world. Not only was all politics local, everything was local: confirmation, for journalists, that their methods matched reality. The juxtaposition of local knowledge and culture is such a common place today that it is hard to recreate the intellectual excitement over the ascent of cultural explanations of human society. The influence of Geertz’s way of thinking on African studies was enormous, if indirect. Geertz’s influence on journalism was indirect and largely unrecognized but nonetheless real. At a time when journalism was being reinvented in the wake of the Watergate exposes, Geertz\’s provided a philosophy and a methd for journalists to engage in &quot;thick description&quot; of all manner of from welfare recipients to prisoners to pro football players. In my own journalism, especially on Africa, I have been inspired by Geertz’s willingness to concede the impossibility of absolute judgements while at the same time insisting that, even if all truths are partial, some truths are better endowed than others. Relativism, in short, was no concession that anything goes. For journalists, Geertz provided an immense intellectual service by elevating intelligent observation both as an empirical method and an epistemological pursuit. In my own work on Africa, he is a beacon. His death has prompted me to revisit his classic works, which I hope will re-animate my own description of African cultures. common-sense notion out of which journalists made sense out of the world. Not only was all politics local, everything was local: confirmation, for journalists, that their methods matched reality. The juxtaposition of local knowledge and culture is such a common place today that it is hard to recreate the intellectual excitement over the ascent of cultural explanations of human society. The influence of Geertz’s way of thinking on African studies was enormous, if indirect. Geertz’s influence on journalism was indirect and largely unrecognized but nonetheless real. At a time when journalism was being reinvented in the wake of the Watergate exposes, Geertz’s provided a philosophy and a methd for journalists to engage in “thick description” of all manner of “sub-cultures,” from welfare recipients to prisoners to pro football players. In my own journalism, especially on Africa, I have been inspired by Geertz’s willingness to concede the impossibility of absolute judgements while at the same time insisting that, even if all truths are partial, some truths are better endowed than others. Relativism, in short, was no concession that anything goes. For journalists, Geertz provided an immense intellectual service by elevating intelligent observation both as an empirical method and an epistemological pursuit. In my own work on Africa, he is a beacon. His death has prompted me to revisit his classic works, which I hope will re-animate my own “thick description” of African cultures.


Nov 20 2006

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 4:31 PM

“Aids is a by-product of the human mastering of the natural environment that
has been the core of African history.”
John Iliffe


Nov 20 2006

Water, Dams, and Danger

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 4:28 PM

Many African countries are poised to launch a new wave of dam building. Dams are central to the production of hydroelectricity in Africa, and hydro is the main source of power in many of the most important African countries south of the Sahara. In recent years, hydro production has been hampered by droughts, and low water levels in lakes and rivers. This has been especially the case in east Africa. But the ending of droughts can bring unexpected problems. In Kenya, heavy rains threaten to burst a dam, providing a grim reminder of the unpredictability of African climate. Between 1.5 million and 1.8 million Kenyans have already suffered under the heavy rains and severe flooding, the UN says. For an authoritative survey of dam-building in Africa, see the International Rivers Network’s web site, which maintains extensive files on African dams and hydro projects As IRN notes: “Although Africa’s great rivers are considered “under–dammed” by global standards, the continent’s large dams (more than 1,270 at last count)have consistently been built at the expense of rural communities, who have sacrificed their lands and livelihoods to them yet reaped few benefits.
Africa’s dams have done considerable social, environmental and economic damage, often with complete disregard for the human rights of dam–affected communities, and have left a trail of “development–induced poverty” in their wake. More dams are being planned every year. Dam proponents long to develop Africa’s huge hydropower potential, but projects routinely overlook the social costs to local communities, economic costs to river–based livelihoods and human health, and environmental costs to river ecology. In addition, climate change is expected to increase extremes of drought and flooding, with the result that Africa’s already highly variable climate and hydrology will be even more difficult to predict, making hydropower even more risky and water resources even more precious.


Nov 19 2006

Electrifying Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 4:31 AM

The journalist John Dvorak is one of the shrewdest observers of the computer scene. In an article for Marketwatch, he manages to both highlight the folly of the so-called $100 laptop and reinforce my view that electricity is the most neglected technology in Africa. Efforts to promote the Web and wider computer usage are well and good, so long as even more energetic efforts are being made to promote access to electricity. In his story for Marketwatch, Dvorak summarizes my argument and quotes me making what he describes as a “profound” point: “The fact that these people need electricity more than they need a laptop is only part of the problem,” Dvorak quotes me as saying. “The real problem is lost mind share. The [African] people are harmed because these sorts of schemes are sopping up mind-share time of the people who might be doing something actually useful.” The challenge of spreading electricity beyond African elites in cities is a challenge that is both expensive and management-intensive. In its new edition of “African Development Indicators,” the single best source of statistics on Africa, the World Bank provides the definitive data on electricity access. The numbers remain dismall, with less than 5 percent of all Africans south of the Sahara receiving reliable electricity service. The cost to bring electricity to something like half of all Africans will run into the tens of billions of dollars. There are innovative advances to be made of course in solar and other alternative forms of energy. Computers and the Web will be all the more valuable when electricification in Africa becomes the norm. My good friend Guido Sohne, a software engineer in Accra, Ghana, agrees with me on this point. Sohne, who is a smart observer of the effects of new technologies on African life, writes: Saw Dvorak’s article quoting you, there was a thread in LinuxAccra where I also covered this and we seem to have reached the same conclusions. What was really news to me was the following quote, and I would be grateful if Dvorak could let me know the sources he used for this. I am specifically interested in ‘government inteference’ regarding building cheap machines for the ‘Third World’. In fact AMD has a slew of low-end parts in the $100 laptop. But the company, at the same time, is discontinuing its own initiative to make cheap machines for the Third World, citing government interference and other problems.

Here is (part of) the thread in the LinuxAccra mailing list.


Nov 18 2006

Darfur: A breakthrough

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 11:44 PM

The Bush administration appears to have acheived a breakthrough in the international push to police the Darfur region, and thus prevent further atrocities from occurring, especially those carried out by the Sudanese government. The new deal, briefly described, calls for the expansion of peacekeeping forces to 20,000, apparently with the blessing of the Sudanese government. The deal comes in the wake of reports of renewed fighting. The difficulties facing Sudan extend well beyond the troubled Darfur region, scene of horrific human rights abuses and the inability of the African Union to bring one of its member governments into line with international norms. Sudan’s government also faces challenges from its 2-year-old peace accord with southern Sudan. The accord gives southerners autonomy and a regional government that is rapidly expanding, raising hopes for an independent southern Sudan. The importance of monitoring the peace accord between north and south Sudan was raised Friday at the African Studies Association meeting, being held this year in San Francisco.


Nov 10 2006

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:51 AM

“The African rogue state should be left to the fate it deserves – implosion and state collapse.” – George Ayittey


Nov 10 2006

Corruption: a Family Affair

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 5:45 AM

The London-based activist group, Global Witness, has done a public service for years in tracking the exploitation of natural resources by governments in the developing world. I first ran into GW in Cambodia, where I wrote a front-page article for The Wall Street Journal on an innovative program to monitor the Cambodian government’s management of its country’s forests. In recent years, GW has concentrated on Africa and done significant work, especially in exposing the bad behavior of Angola’s ruling clique. GW advocates greater transparency on payments made by multinational oil companies to African governments. Angola is the poster-child for this campaign because the country’s government doesn’t publish accurate fingers on its oil revenues and foreign oil companies refuse to publicize their own payments, citing government demands for secrecy. GW rightly argues that by publicizing payments to African governments for oil sales, the chances will increase that the money from oil will be used more responsibly. GW is now shifting its formidable investigatory powers to Equatorial Guinea, an oil-rich West African nation that harbors among the least effective and most corrupt governments in the world. A single family, the Obiangs, essentially treat Equatorial Guinea as a private preserve. In a new report, GW exposes some property purchases by the son of the president of Equatorial Guinea — notably a posh $35 million beach property in Malibu, California. Since the president’s son earns $5,000 a month as “minister of forestry,” GW contends that he can only have been purchased the property with ill-gotten gains. GW is expert at the shame-and-blame game. Such campaigns have been honed on corporations, where the image of executives and the need to protect the value of a consumer “brand” often conspire to force improved better. But shame-and-blame are less effective when the object is an African government. Stronger medicine is needed. In a better world, of course, activist and concerned governments around the world would call for the peaceful ouster of the Obiang family from atop EG’s government. Should the family spurn the chance to leave quietly, the United Nations should declare the government illegal, strip it of its powers and run EG as a protectorate until a democratic government emerges. GW of course advocates nothing of this sort, trusting instead that more information about the evil-doings of corrupt African elites, will force positive changes in their behavior. I do not share such hope. Better to expose national sovereignty as the fiction that it surely is in Equatorial Guinea. Let the UN, or some designated body, run this small country in an enlightened manner, investing the vast oil revenues into public services, of which virtually none exist today. Let the Equatorial Guinea become a model of enlightened international management — and then the country can serve as a warning to larger African countries that are held hostage by corrupt governments, such as Nigeria and Angola. Continue to steal, and these governments should their license as well, and go directly to jail.


Nov 07 2006

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:17 AM

“In practice, colonialism, with its implications of racial superiority, was replaced by a combination of neocolonialism and government by local elites who too often had learned to despise their own African traditions and the mass of the people who worked the land.”
Julius Nyerere, 1998


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