Rwanda: Paul Kagame, the friendly dictator who freed millions of Rwandan from poverty

Moctar Aboubacar:

The unfathomable ambivalence of leadership on the continent: Kagame.

Originally posted on Konakry Express:

I am against all forms of dictatorship. Beyond political and moral reasons, because my father was a victim of the tyranny of Sekou Toure. Myself, I almost ended up at Camp Boiro, for a simple identity check, the same day I arrived in Conakry to spend my vacation in 1964. I escaped only because, when the military was in the process of taking our names, my father and the then Minister of Planning, Barry III, arrived to extricate me from the clutches of torturers.

Furthermore Touré’s dictatorship has ruined foundations of the socio economic development of Guinea and torn the society to the point that the country is still unable to recover, 31 years after the bloodthirsty dictator’s death. Because of it, I lived for decades in exile, sans-papiers.

But, if I were Rwandan, I would have signed, like the almost 4 million signatories of petitions out of an electorate…

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Rodrik’s Triple Trap and Growth Prospects in Africa

Many factors lead people to write about heterodox economics in development. This has obviously been greatly informed by the Eurozone debt crisis and political fiasco of the past 4 years where the good old criticism of ‘the system, man’ has gone beyond simply blaming the excesses and transgressions of the financial sector and the superwealthy, to reach at issues of basic wealth distribution and equality and discrimination in society.

The attraction of the schools of thought which reject neoclassical economic models of growth and convergence to me is that they come with concrete policy tools and prescriptions, which are drawn in many cases not from an ideological contre-posture to the Washington Consensus or the like, but tied to concrete cases of economic success. The policies that East Asian countries like Korea, Japan and Taiwan used to develop since the 1950s have been used to highlight and guide policy advice for current developing countries. In short, my appreciation for heterodox development economics has been rooted in the suggestion that it can actually achieve economic development.

So when my favorite thinker in this line, Harvard’s Dani Rodrick, starts getting pessimistic, I get worried. Rodrick has given talks and put out papers in the past year or so looking at the shifts in labor among different sectors of an economy, the productivity of those sectors, and the rate of growth of the countries. The diagnosis, apparently, is bleak.

Developing economies, Rodrik argues, are facing a triple trap of economic structural change. Convergence in productivity certain sectors of manufacturing has slowed down compared to previous decades, meaning that transitioning an agrarian labor force to manufacturing will be less effective than before at increasing productivity. However, the service sector has its own pitfalls (a leitmotif of many development economists), mainly in the high barrier to entry that it has, presented by the higher skills needed to enter this labor market and the lower number of workers that it can absorb. And the third trap is that of primary-resource-led development. The argument here is also a classic- agriculture and mining are too dependent on demand + investment in commodities, or they are simply not sustainable. Besides which, the more high productivity sectors such as mining are invariable much less labor-intensive. Much of African growth over the past decade (stellar by the way) has been led by high primary commodity prices.

The outlook is somewhat grim. African countries’s real issue according to Rodrik seems to be a mix of their high urban informal sectors, which are apparently very unproductive, and the can’t go here, can’t go there conundrum.

I wonder though. Countries like China and Korea achieved high growth in part because they first saw huge increases in factor accumulation- they brought more labor into their manufacturing sectors, and they bought and used more machines- before productivity went up much (this is Krugman’s famous ‘perspiration not inspiration‘ argument (pdf) regarding East Asia’s development). African countries haven’t seen this sort of shift (at least not into the formal sector manufacturing jobs), so it is perhaps too early to say that manufacturing cannot lead to very solid growth. We simply haven’t seen much sustained manufacturing growth- not even in inputs, forget productivity- in African countries to be able to tell what factors would push it forward. The optimists on Africa will not stop talking about the rise of an African consumer. Imagine a growing manufacturing industry which benefits from rising costs of production in China on one hand and rising demand on the continent on the other.

To achieve this, it’s clear that the large informal urban economy (think Nairobi) would have to be addressed by policymakers. Finding way to drive labor into the most productive sectors of the economy (Rodrik’s opinion on the best way forward)? This isn’t the fight-the-comparative-advantage Rodrik I know. Imagine if you raise the productivity of these informal urban micro-firms and production centres, just a little, and the effect that might have. Imagine subsidy programmes which encourage larger scale production, social protection which drives people to larger firms, and skills and business education which makes individuals more productive.Let’s see if Dani Rodrik can start proning more solutions as well.

While I am by no means an optimist of the “Africa Rising’ type, the continent has not yet had its final word.

The science that wasn’t: The orthodox Marxism of the early Frankfurt School and the turn to critical theory

Moctar Aboubacar:

‘Grasping the failures of revolutionary marxism’

Originally posted on The Charnel-House:

Marco A. Torres
Platypus Review 5
May-July 2008

NOTE: I’m republishing this piece by Marco Torres from 2008 because it underscores the shift away from revolutionary optimism toward critical pessimism that took place among more perceptive Marxists during the 1920s and 1930s. The Frankfurt School, as it’s come to be known, is exemplary of this turn. Nevertheless, this does not mean they ceased to be Marxists. Rather, they represented an attempt to grasp the failure of revolutionary Marxism using the tools of historical materialism itself.

As the economist Alfred Sohn-Rethel explained, this critical reappraisal “began towards the end of the First World War and in its aftermath, at a time when the German proletarian revolution should have occurred and tragically failed. This period led me into personal contact with Ernst Bloch, Walter Benjamin, Max Horkheimer, Siegfried Kracauer, and Theodor Adorno and the writings of Georg Lukács and Herbert Marcuse…

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Government, Humanitarian Assistance and not Wanting to ‘Develop Darfur’

I was speaking with a UN protection specialist this evening over drinks in Sudan’s Western Darfur, where I have just arrived for a short assignment. We got to talking about (what else) work. And talking shop in Darfur, I am rapidly learning, involves a lot of sighing and disgusted hand gestures.

idp-otash-nyalaThe Darfur region is in an awkward position by humanitarian relief standards. Funds from the normal international donors are drying up and conflict in the region, while certainly down from five years ago, is by no means absent. The number of internally displaced people still living in IDP camps is pushing a million and a half, grouped together for over ten years, caught in (and sometimes party to) a series of power struggles- national (tensions between Khartoum and periphery states such as North Darfur), administrative (States keep getting divided in Sudan, not unrelated to Khartoum’s desire to keep things quiet), local (the Shiekh leaders of IDP populations have their own agendas, which often clash, so a series of mediations is always necessary to keep tenuous peace and order).

But the money is drying up, and humanitarian organizations don’t really know what to do about that. Aid allocations to Darfur are falling, and have to compete in space now taken up by an unprecedented number of crises in the world: Ebola in West Africa, unrest in the Central African Republic, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan…

So the UN agencies and their partners (to say nothing of the government) find themselves with all these displaced people, who have been living in a sort of protracted emergency situation in camps for many years, for whom there will soon be very little assistance (money) left. And all of a sudden these agencies are realizing that they should probably not have kept treating so many people as freshly arrived IDPs for so long. People in the camps are now used to receiving their monthly allowances of food and other items for their household. Thinking on how to avoid creating these protracted emergency situations is happening, for example by changing approaches, working on recovery and resilience from day one, using market interventions such as cash transfers and vouchers to support people- Syria and Lebanon are a good example of the beginnings of this change.

But in Sudan, the fundamental issue is not a technical one.

Back to my conversation with my colleague in West Darfur. While agonizing over the absence of any long-term vision for transitioning out of the untenable IDP situation in Darfur, she told me that for her, the issue was that the government had little interest in sustainable solutions in the region at all: “That’s the problem: they don’t care about developing Darfur”.

The charges are serious. New funds for Darfur coming from Qatar and administered through the Darfur Regional Authority are creating extra confusion when agencies working on the ground try to choose which areas to intervene in. Some police and intelligence services, especially those who take orders directly from Khartoum, are more interested in keeping a certain degree of tension in the region than in protecting the population. Humanitarian assistance, especially in the still insecure areas of the region, have to pass through the filters of sometimes armed groups, who will arrange to take their share of goods first…

What can international agencies do in this situation? A few things, certainly. Taking the example of protection issues, my colleague talked about how women’s centres were paired with work being done by UNDP on rule of law within IDP camps, to create a safe space for women and link them up with viable livelihoods. Okay.

But I am convinced that in so many cases, particularly where there is conflict, humanitarian assistance has all too easily labeled itself as a technical solution to a technical problem, when the reality is that the problem is fundamentally more political than technical. That is to say, without rethinking the approach of Humanitarian agencies sitting in the capital city who are more interested in preserving the space that they currently have to operate (Sudan is wont to throw you out of the country at times) than in challenging the overall approach to delivering assistance and ensuring a solid transition out of conflict– without rethinking the assumption in the UN that the government should always be in the driver’s seat– then there is de-facto no longterm plan, no recovery, no return to normalcy possible.

And this is not just UNDP’s job either. Each agency, country and partner has their own role to play in changing the approach to countries where the priority is calm over peace, status quo over improvement and tension and fear over partnership. The risk in doing this is being expelled from the country, or forced to leave or otherwise not be able to help those who could be helped. The danger in not doing it, besides compromising the very raison d’etre of humanitarian work, is in knowingly being a party to a power game where the winner is decided in advance. And it’s not the people you are working for.

The Problem with Global Income Categories

With so many countries experiencing rapid rates of growth, with so much income disparity and with so many countries whose particular demographic/economic situations are of a complexity which belies the simplicity of mere income-based rankings, how come the World Bank’s famous global income categories, measured in Gross National Income per capita are still used with such authority?

Several possible reasons stand out: 1-because GNI per capita and global income categories are widely understood and used categories, useful for communicating and coordinating with a multitude of international actors; 2-because these categories can be indicative of countries’ capacities to produce goods and services; 3-because many developing countries have embraced the terminology derived from these categories, with attaining the middle income category being seen as a significant achievement.

The Middle Income Angle
Much of the debate within international financial institutions, development agencies and global fora is focused on identifying the position and role of middle income countries in global development assistance architecture. Key considerations include whether to continue to allocate resources to middle income countries, whether or not to prioritize certain middle income countries in global aid and lending strategies, identifying the role of middle income countries as emerging donors and sources of development experience and expertise, as well as specifying the type of engagement that the international development world needs to take in middle income countries.

The conventional view espoused by the main development and lending organizations as well as some OECD donor countries is that rapidly narrowing poverty gaps and growing GDP in middle income countries, along with increased capacity to formulate and actuate viable development solutions means that a higher priority should be given to lower income countries in development assistance, and at the least that support to MICs should not come at the expense of support to other categories of countries, such as LDCs.

Middle income countries have better access than their lower income counterparts to funds through their tax bases or their ability to enter sovereign bond markets, mobilize more competent bureaucracies and provide additional support for expanded social safety nets, and therefore less in need of development assistance.

The critique to the conventional view suggests that while specific country needs and responses by the international community may change with a ‘graduation’ to middle income status, this does not necessarily mean that serious problems do not exist within MICs, or that less priority should be placed on all middle income countries.

Recent studies have noted that with 74 per cent of the world’s poor (living on under 1.25$ per day) now living in middle income countries, the only way to make significant gains in the struggle against global poverty is for international development cooperation to give special attention to poor people, not just poor countries.


Living the middle income dream at $ 2.25 a day

Moreover the growth in GNI that can push countries across the imaginary line to another income category is not necessarily a reflection of commensurate increases in the wellbeing of all of their population. Many countries have persisting inequality and ‘pockets of poverty’, often in underserved regions or among marginalized populations, which national governments are often unable or unwilling to address. In short GNI growth by itself is misleading, and efforts must be made to better represent the relative quality of growth in global-level discussions.

While the conventional view generally acknowledges a broad diversity in countries which cuts across income categories, it still makes reference to and accepts these categories as approximate indications of the overall wellbeing of a country. However the link between income and other areas of development is not always very clear, and discussions on a variety of development-related topics, including food security, run the risk of becoming misleading if they take their cue from income categorizations.


A great peek at the economic and social systems sides of the current Ebola outbreak

Scuba-diving and Presidential Aspirations in Djibouti


I am not making this up.

Djibouti’s Vision 2035 is some sort of long-term development strategy, which I’m sure incorporates a lot of analysis (well, whatever you can get with the data available over there), squeaky clean charts and glossy hard-copies. But it also has this gem, front and center (I added the red):

Djibouti Vision 2035

Aim of the vision

Djibouti aims to become the largest logistic hub in Africa, using 100% green energy. Also the country hopes to become the number two destination in the world for scuba diving after Sharm-el-Sheik.

Objectives of the vision

  • To address different challenges ahead and risks on the way within the country.
  • To fulfil aspirations of the President and his government.
  • To encourage Djiboutian citizens to take ownership of this vision themselves
  • Encouraging Djiboutians to achieve their own success
  • To join fast-paced and very competitive new world

OK now, a couple of questions/observations…

1. Why stop at number two in the world? You have until 2035 to pull this off you know

2. The president of Djibouti will certainly be a man, at least up through 2035

3. What happened to the aspirations of the people again? How hard is it to replace “the president and his cabinet” with “the people”?

Still not as bad as considering spending 10 billion to redesign all your cities to take the shape of animals.




This is What We Don’t Know

Another reminder of how much we don’t know about African countries for lack of proper data.

The challenges are fourfold: (1) national statistics offices have limited independence and unstable budgets, (2) misaligned incentives encourage the production of inaccurate data, (3) donor priorities dominate national priorities, and (4) access to and usability of data are limited. The Data for African Development Working Group’s recommendations for reaping the benefits of a data revolution in Africa fall into three categories: (1) fund more and fund differently, (2) build institutions that can produce accurate, unbiased data, and (3) prioritize the core attributes of data building blocks.

Bigger is Better? Firms and Principles for Job Growth

Should developing countries prefer big firms or small firms? Are slow gains in productivity and hiring across all small firms preferable to seeing faster graduation of a few small firms into larger ones? Can big firms really pull an economy up, like they say (or not) happened in East Asia?

The latest post from World Bank’s Africa Can blog toes the line like a boss. (Very informatively though):

At the end of the day, size may not be as much a driving force for business development as the ability and propensity to create vital linkages between small and large firms. These do not only facilitate transfers of skills, know-how, and technology, but they also promote economies of scale by reducing the entry costs for small firms.

This seems to be what lots of OECD countries are struggling with too: how to achieve a balance between the advantages of large, multinational firms and the higher potential for immediate job creation and innovation of small firms.

But in developing countries, Dani Rodrik tells us that the trend for these lower-productivity segments of the economy (by and large small firms, often informally set up), is on the rise:

Productive heterogeneity – or what development economists used to call economic dualism – has always been a central feature of low-income societies. What is new – and distressing – is that developing economies’ low-productivity segments are not shrinking; on the contrary, in many cases, they are expanding.

Something is obviously not going right. Dani says essentially that leading with the firms is the more effective thing to do- find those more productive sectors of the economy and make sure that they are well equipped to absorb new workers. With so many people employed in informal microenterprises in some of these countries though, it seems kind of hard to tell if that would really be an easier transition than removing barriers to formalizing existing enterprises, and giving them the proper assets (training, work space) to become more productive.

Other noteworthy tidbit in this World Bank article: In the United States, “small (young) firms contribute up to two-thirds of all net job creation and account for a predominant share of innovation.” Weird.

The Anti-History of Korean Development

Here is an excerpt from an article that I wrote a while back on knowledge sharing in Korea:

Korea’s knowledge sharing initiatives are bearing the ill effects of the monopoly that the Korean state holds over interpreting and re-producing the Korean development experience. Given the continued political significance of certain historical policies and given the serious fragmentation problem of Korean aid, this means that not only is serious doubt placed on the idea of a single unified ‘Korean model’ or a single ‘Korean experience’, but formulating development policy based on aspects of Korean development can be highly politicized, and may in turn suppress any new innovative interpretations of how Korea developed.

For me that is the crux of the issue. International development has this way of warping common sense sometimes- why would knowledge pass through so many channels in any other case (business, civil society, libraries, groups of people, various associations, particular genders, generations, regions, etc.), but when it comes to development policy, the state and a select group of closely related academics get the monopoly?


Yes, the labor code existed. But does that mean that it was enforced, or that the labor movement did not have to fight tooth and nail to get where they are today?

Policy formulation is one thing; sure, you need technical experts to formulate policies, to make sure that they are complementary to one another, that they tie into global norms and regulations, and to a certain extent that they fall flush with other engagements that the country in question is making abroad (read: that it complements their diplomatic, get-the-copper-out-of-Africa strategies) .

But actually deciding what falls into the pan of ‘development history’, and how that history is interpreted and identifying what worked, what did not, who benefited and who did not, is something that is too contentious to leave to the state.

And the result is this: where is the voice on urbanization and the bad effects of eminent domain in the Korean development experience? The Korean government is fond of talking about how it built is social protection on private firms in the 1960s and 1970s before moving it to the public realm; but where is the story on the labor movement, and where are the denunciations of the growth policies that abused so many workers during the country’s industrialization? You can’t find stories like this (not proper ones at any rate) when the state is in full control of both the discourse of the country’s history and the lessons that are to be take therefrom.

It would be great to do an ‘anti-history’ of the Korean development experience, or a ‘People’s History’ Howard Zinn style, and see what development policies could come out of that…

Chris Blattman

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