Dec 30 2009

New Year Resolution #1: move faster on GM crops

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 8:24 AM

Bolder calls for adopting genetically-modified (GM) seeds in Africa present the number opportunity for fast, dramatic output improvements. August and influential bodies such as the African Union and individual African governments continue to tread too cautiously around the process and prospects for limited but significant GM-based agriculture. African farmers have urgent needs and urgent action on promtoing GM would likely win more praise than the current desultory approach to incorporating advanced technologies in seeds and crop selection. While Burkina Faso’s movement on GM cotton is laudable, it is also a notable exception. Individual governments continue to move too slowly on GM, in contrast with India where GM cotton is now the norm and in the U.S. where GM crops have raised productivity with no ill effects. Greater use of GM crops, more quickly and safely, would result from sub-regional approaches to testing and approving GM seeds. Today each African government essentially wishes to “reinvent the wheel” for each set of GM seeds to be planted on its national soils. Cooperative approaches to regulatory approval, which would lower costs of scientific testing and speed approval, are nowhere evidence.

Interestingly, the main concern about GM crops in Africa is no longer that they’re unsafe. Africans are tired of being told other countries have to breed seed for them. They want to be part of the research, not just importers of produce by others. It is more about self-worth than it is about ideology.

The question of course is how quickly can Africans themselves ramp up their capacity to breed GM seeds, as opposed to purchasing them from Monsanto and other international, corporate seed companies. My preference is that Africans develop their own seed capacities alongside those of the Monsantos; so that African farmers can more rapidly gain the benefits of a technology that can raise their incomes and living standards. In Burkina, Monsanto’s GM seeds are being used. So much the better if there is an African supplier as well. But if there is not, should Burkina farmers not use GM seeds even though these seeds require lower pesticide applications, so enhance farmer safety as well as raise cotton output dramatically?

Dec 25 2009

Gay rights and the Christmas spirit in Uganda

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 10:45 AM

The anti-gay hysteria engulfing the charming country of Uganda has finally been met with a stern rejoinder by a prominent Ugandan high in the Anglican hierarchy.

The Archbishop of York has condemned an anti-homosexuality bill going through parliament in Uganda. John Sentamu, who was born in Uganda, said the laws being debated were “victimising”.

Under proposed legislation, Uganda would threaten gays and lesbians with jail for life if convicted of having sex, and gay people who had sex with a minor would be subject to the death penalty.

Sentamu told the BBC the Anglican communion was committed to recognising that gay people were valued by God.

Africans continue to lose precious time, resources and credibility by going down various cognitive “rabbit” holes. Homosexuality, which is taboo in Africa, is one of these rabbit holes. Forgive me for wondering how in a Uganda still dependent heavily on foreign aid, how is it possible to find the money to pay for incarcerating convicted gays and lesbians.

I suspect that in Uganda’s case, these misguided politicians are merely doing the bidding of the Christian right. Perhaps perversely, these religious nut-jobs from America may actually do more damage in Africa as they lose status and power in America. Africa may become, for the Christian Right, the final frontier — before they destroy themselves through their own moral and mental contradictions.

Dec 24 2009

Stories We Tell About Africa (and those we don’t)

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 9:00 AM

Africa is overshadowed. With the U.S. economy flailing and Obama escalating a war in Afghanistan, with legislation to expand health-care poised for passage, with unemployment high, food-stamp rolls expanding and insecurity rampant — no wonder why Americans have less ardor for saving others around the world. The urgent question is, can Americans save themselves?

With the end of the first decade of the 21st century, the position of Africa in the “world system of consciousness” has reverted to past patterns. No longer are the needs of Africans center stage. Their health and wealth still matters; the need to promote peace, settle conflicts and reordering Africa’s dysfunctionall political boundaries remains urgent. Yet Africa has been overshadowed on the world stage, and that is good.

Saving Africa was always more of a sop to the diminished morality of Westerners than a serious developmental enterprise. Having retreated from the top priorities of the rich of the world, Africa retreats, not into obscurity but rather into self-reliance. Let the new decade bring more emphasis on the trials and succsesses of Africans, toiling in Africa, with Africans and for Africans.

The call for African self-reliance is no cover for complacency or to a furtive opportunity to ignore the failures of African political leadership and social structure. No matter the highs and lows of having Africans do for themselves, the power of narrative will continue to project onto reality the familiar meta-narratives of the past. More so than any other part of the world, “sub-Saharan Africa,” — “black Africa” — remains the object of self-generated fantasies and delusions by those from elsewhere in the globe.

Having written my own “delusion” about Africa — “Married to Africa,” a memoir of my marriage to a Nigerian — I’m keenly aware of how “the other,” in this case me, a white American of Russian and Italian ancestry — can mold the encounter with “ordinary Africa” in their own fashion. I might say I’m even obsessed with the willingness of outsiders to appropriate “African-ness” to their own ends, diminished or uplifting, moral or amoral. Africa remains, far too often for those who embrace it as an “imaginary,” a blank canvas, a place without history.

A few days ago I picked up an old copy of “West With the Night” Beryl Marham’s memoir of living and flying (a plane) in colonial East Africa. Hemingway this story of a woman adventure in Africa and loudly proclaimed Markham’s writing on Africa to be far superior to his own. Hemingway liked to find eternal verities in the African bush, or on Kilmanjaro (where he set one of his most famous short stories). But Markham refused to universalize her African experience. She was wise. Early in “West With The Night,” she writes true words about the impulse of visitors to Africa to create a web of their own illusions — and then to live and die inside this web. Her words bear repeating and not only because she seems to be writing to me:

“So there are many Africas. There are as many Africas as there are books about Africa …. Whoever writes a new one can afford a certain complacency in the knowledge that his is a new picture agreeing with no one else’s, but likely to be haughtily disagreed with by all those who believe in some other Africa.”

Dec 21 2009

Chinese labor in Africa: a question of fairness

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 7:12 AM

The importation of Chinese workers into Africa — from manual laborers to engineers — causes teeth-gnashing and complaining but so far few legal or policy reactions. Yet across Asia, the practice of Chinese companies bringing their own labor to the job site, especially construction sites, is sparking a backlash. In general, governments in Asia are much more willing to protect their national interests than governments in Africa, even when the interests at stake rest with laboring classes. As more Chinese workers sink roots in Africa, the complacent official response will be tested since ordinary Africans will want to know why the Chinese must favor their own workers over the people living in the very markets that Chinese companies and the Chinese state seek to profit from.

Dec 19 2009

Sudan 2.0

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 12:43 PM

The onset of a new year brings the calendar close to a referendum on secession for southern Sudan. The International Crisis Group, which tries to forecast global crises, forsees a new one in Sudan because of a failure to prepare for the vote, which was the crucial part of a 2005 agreement to end a long civil war between northerners and southerners. Southerners are expected to vote for independence. In the months ahead, ICG forsees some kind of violent conflict beween Sudan’s regions that would prevent the election from coming about. The U.S., having brokered the deal on the partition vote, ought to insure that the vote indeed occur. Any partition of Sudan will have broad implications for political boundaries in Africa, where disputes over sovereignty by sub-national groups remain a major issue. In the Congo, for instance, the eastern region has a legitimate claim on independence  and I’ve written elsewhere of the importance of new political arrangements in any effort to achieve durable piece. In short, the emergenece of a South Sudan nation is critical to the resolution of many disputes in Africa.

Dec 17 2009

Kidnap me, I’m in Africa

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 1:57 PM

Having spent the past week in an African country, I suppose I should feel grateful I avoided being kidnapped. A report in the Ecoomist finds a rise of kidnapping in Nigeria, with targets increasingly being other Nigerians, not foreigners. The cause of kidnapping is the desperation of poor, but enterprising people on a daily hunt for cash – and the presence, close by, of wealthy people whose very existence offers rich opportunities for those willing to snatch them. As if to underscore the reality of this new threat, The New York Times magazine published a profile this month with a repentant, if self-professed, kidnapper in Port Harcourt, my wife’s benighted hometown. 

Setting aside the media hype over the latest “heart of darkness” trend, there is a disturbing trend to explore here: The economic boom in Africa is creating a new strata: not a thin layer of super-rich but a wider band of the prosperous and well-off. The swelling ranks of this African upper-class is igniting a scramble by the have-nots for ways of getting even. In Kenya, where I spent the past week, roberry and organized extortion remain the preferred means of “narrowing” the gap between rich and poor. Property crime in Kenya is thus, for the rich, a new form of taxation, and for the poor, a rough but effective way of redistributing wealth. In Nigeria, kidnapping is the new frontier in the redistribution wars. How long with it take before this latest Nigerian improvisation will turn up elsewhere in Africa?

Dec 02 2009

Annan in Nairobi

Category: Uncategorized<ADMINNICENAME> @ 4:34 PM

I’m sharing the streets of Nairobi this week with Kofi Annan, an African elder statesman tasked with sorting out the political crisis in Kenya. Annan is pressing Kenya’s leaders of its power-sharing government to fully cooperate with the International Criminal Court, which is investigating post-election violence of some two years ago.

No doubt Kenya needs far-reaching political reform. Factions in the government are at serious odds, creating a stalemate in a country that enjoys a dynamic economic alongside of rising crime and inequality. Reform of police is a major priority; this week, the police force announced no more new hires until a new approach to policing can take root in a department that’s been tarnished by serious breaches of human rights.