The Case Against Zero Hunger and the Sustainable Development Goals

With 2016 just around the corner, we are mere days away from getting started on the next set of development goals, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). I have been able to follow the long consultation process that led up to their adoption in bits and pieces, through a conference in Seoul in 2012 and some related work on the food security side in Rome in 2014. I have a bit of an issue with the ‘Christmas tree approach’ to development goals (hang everything up and hope it sticks) embodied in the 17 goals and 169 targets the UN has adopted to guide the next 15 years of development work. But here I want to address one goal in particular: Zero Hunger.

I don’t like the concept of Zero Hunger as a development goal. This is not the most popular opinion in the place that I work, and so I thought I would give a few reasons to explain myself. What follows are the four main reasons for which the 2nd SDG is simply not good enough for me.

1. It’s not a goal. It’s an anti-goal. A goal would be something measurable, not just ‘find whatever I think we should eliminate, and eliminate it’. Zero anything is more of a vision. The underlying logic behind Zero Hunger is that it must be possible, and therefore can be a useful development goal. I address this point further down.

2. It’s confusing. Zero Hunger as in absolute Zero? The food insecure in Switzerland too? There’s no reason not to focus on them, sure, but let’s define terms. Is getting to absolute zero the same thing as getting to the current level of developed countries in general? And does it solicit the same approaches? I think no in both cases. Maybe we are on the cusp of large gains in the access, availability and utilization of food across the world- gains in the past decade alone have been astounding, and that’s good news. But the quality of food insecurity in richer countries in my estimation is very different from that in poorer countries. Food insecurity dropped with development in these former countries, but has kept steady at low levels for decades- even FAO stops counting undernourishment when it drops below 5%. To have this type of food security be the focus of the SDGs is to miss the point; sure, developed countries have gains to make, and it’s important to push them along that path- but to have that distract from the monumental effort required in developing countries is to miss where the largest impact can be had.

3. It’s not coherent with other goals. The goals on poverty reduction aren’t well linked to the food security goals- on one hand there’s ‘Reduce by 1/2 the number of people living in poverty…’, and on the other ‘End hunger, ensure access to safe nutritious food all year long’. That’s not the current relation of poverty reduction to reduction in food security though. People get less poor, then less food secure, not the other way around. FAO and WFP’s State of Food Insecurity annual report from back in 2013 had a great graph showing progress on the 1st MDG from 1990 to 2010. In this 20 year period, the prevalence of poverty dropped by almost half, while reductions in food insecurity (malnourishment and underweight) were of only about 10% points. How are we to get zero food insecure people while only aiming to reduce the number of people living in poverty by half? More importantly, if poverty is such a problem, why are we not running a ‘Zero Poverty’ campaign?

4. It’s not doable by 2030. It’s not. A goal is not, should not be, something that you walk into knowing that you will fail. You have to actually be able to do it. In Sudan WFP is cutting its support to tens of thousands of people. Not because there are fewer food insecure people, just because WFP doesn’t have any more money. It’s being disguised under the auspices of more ‘sustainable programmes’ to help people in the long term, but the fact is that WFP is helping fewer people who need help; it is cutting people off from support (bad, dependence-inducing support, but still support). Meanwhile the government of Sudan bombs towns, cuts off humanitarian access, and we have to shut up about it, because if not, we get kicked out. Rwanda is housing Congolese refugees for 20+ years now, and they’re not going anywhere soon; they still need support. What about international dialogues and agreements in the past 5 years makes anyone think that things are changing so much that in the next 15 years all these problems can be solved?

Food security is, like everything else, a matter of politics as well. And politics are…well, complicated. In a United Nations that continues its tradition of ambivalence toward governments that oppress their people, it becomes impossible for development and humanitarian actors to effectively support food security, much less eliminate food insecurity.

In this light I would have much rather seen an SDG goal and targets for food security that talk about humanitarian access to protracted conflicts, about the right to food, about government accountability, and about pushing states to capitalize on the truly great gains in food security over the past decades. Instead we are left with a vague wish list,the unfathomably dense idea of saying ‘I know, why don’t we just end hunger?’.

Bigger is Better? Firms and Principles for Job Growth

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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.

Not so sure how ‘fundamental’ logframes are…

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Special Economic Zones in Africa: What Lessons from China?

ChinafriqueThe government of Ethiopia announced earlier this month that the long-awaited and carefully planned Bole-Lemi Industrial zone (a Special Economic Zone, or SEZ) would finally be seeing light by the end of the fiscal year. The first government-lead economic zone of its kind in the country, it will cost an estimated 49 million USD to set up. And it looks like this is only the beginning; five more such zones are planned in the country. The trend is also visible a little to the south, in Tanzania and Kenya- also Nigeria. What could possibly be pushing this renewed interest in the Special Economic Zone, you ask? Because it’s not as though this is the first time (PDF-p.61) governments on the continent have warmed to the idea of SEZs. What makes the Ethiopian Minister of Industry so eager to tell the world that this new SEZ will be the “key for [their] industrialization”? Why the Chinese of course.

The Chinese?

Okay, so it’s not just the Chinese. But if you look at who is funding many of the new SEZs popping up in African countries, or if you look at the countries who are hosting conferences on SEZs, those who are in the boardrooms and Prime Minister’s Offices, providing the policy advice, giving the lessons learnt and helping to draw up the master plans, you’ll find a likely group of suspects: China, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan and Korea (to a slightly lesser extent).

You’ll find no shortage of people to explain to you why this is exciting, not the least of who work in the World Bank. And they are right: the twist on South-South cooperation that is this African SEZ development in partnership with Asia has some great benefits that were not there beforehand. Take China. Not only does it have the experience setting up over 100 SEZs in its own country, Chinese politicians are playing for keeps, showing how serious they are about producing actual sustainable results in the zones they manage (Oh yes: you see, in addition to helping states set up SEZs, China has already set up a number of its own SEZs on the continent, run mainly by Chinese capital interests). Plus the Chinese are in large part subsidizing the establishment of these zones, making them more accessible to governments who previously who not have ventured that far into exploring this type of economic tool.

The real gains from partnering with East Asia

But (I know you felt this coming) all is not cotton candy and unicorns. This opportunity of learning from the East Asian development experience in this particular area is a real one, but one must be oh so careful when going down this road. After thinking it over, I’ve come to the following conclusion: the greatest benefit from East Asian collaboration on SEZ development for African countries is not the money they get to make the Zone, and it’s not the capital they attract. It’s not even the vaunted technology transfers that always make the list of plusses. The greatest benefit is the actual technical advice, the capacity gains one gets from being with a partner on the ground and seeing how they go about doing things. It’s the gains in policy-formulation, in learning literally how you write up a new law, who the best person or company is to talk to about X subject, and so on. You don’t need to copy your partner 100%, but you need to see what they are doing, who they are talking to…

Of course, the potential is there for gains from SEZs for the economy which come from the SEZ itself- that’s after all one of the reasons it’s being built. Chief among these are more competitive industries (ideally able to compete in global markets i.e. to export), technology transfers, skills acquisition, technology transfers, and so on. The expected benefits are certainly there. But the more one looks at it, the more one sees that the value from these gains is pretty ephemeral compared to the possible value of the technical know-how and policy-savvy that I mentioned earlier. This is certainly not the main line of reasoning that one hears in the papers, however. The real value of the partnership is not where it initially appears to be.

‘Leading Dragons’ is not enough

Partnering with Asian countries, especially with China, often leads to the following line of reasoning. Since wage rates in China are climbing, one can anticipate a very substantial shift of manufacturing jobs out of the Middle Kingdom and into the backyard of lesser developed Southeast Asia and Africa. Establishing SEZs with Chinese cooperation is a means of making sure that African economies get their share of this so-called ‘Leading Dragon’ effect.

But this is dangerous thinking. For one, this phenomenon isn’t a sure thing; it’s contingent on rising wages in China, but no one is sure if wages for these unskilled manufacturing jobs will keep rising at the same rates- imagine a slowdown in wage increases which lasts for a good 10 years. Where is your massive influx of manufacturing jobs now? The second point is that even if this is the case, and the demand for labor in manufacturing industries (along with the requisite relocation of said industries) actually happens, African countries still find themselves in a race-to-the-bottom competition. Without concrete gains in productivity, without harnessing the technology, then all these economic opportunities are little more than passing fancies; one cannot drive a shift in economic structure on another country’s costs of labor.

As it is, many of these Chinese-backed export zones risk becoming enclaves of special economic activity and subsidies, in unfair competition with the host country’s other domestic industries. What is more, in many cases the leadership/managerial roles in running these zones are left exclusively to the partners- that is, out of African hands. Who will ensure that the technology transfers will happen properly, that skills will be acquired, and that in short, the venture does not just become another ill-fated economic experiment? As it stands, the Africans run the risk of missing the possible high-tide brought on by the Chinese.

The East Asian Miracle- Ignored

The real value of these Africa-Asia SEZ cooperation initiatives is not, I said, where it initially appears to be. This is also because a very partial and partial (this play on words sound better in French: partiel and partial) account of how these Asian countries have used SEZs in their development seems to be privileged when it comes time to explain the role of these economic zones in East Asian countries’ development. These conferences on the subject that are held seem to drive past the larger development experience and come right down to the point: ‘How did China/Singapore succeed in establishing and managing its SEZs?’

But when you look, especially in the Chinese case, at the history, you find that it tells you more than what is being said today (it seems so at least). Case in point: Chinese establishment of SEZs was the result of and a response to gains in factor accumulation (mostly capital, some labor) as its economy enlarged, not the other way around. Now, it’s true that with 7-10 million people in Africa’s least developed economies entering the job market each year, there is a chance that smart, adaptive policies and the right type of capital inputs can bring about large economic expansion. But this isn’t really what the Chinese did, nor does it take the lesson that the Chinese example is giving.

Then there is the standard argument that the likes of Dani Rodrik have been giving against the export-led model of growth, which applies in part here too: for the East Asian Tigers, first came gains in productivity, then exports-oriented industrialization, not the other way around. Exports played a smaller role than often thought in the actual economic takeoff of the likes of Korea and Taiwan. Both these points come to the same (cautious) conclusions: 1) SEZs are the result, not the start, of a certain economic process, and have been effective in Asian countries which have already seen important gains in capital and labor inputs. 2) Economic zones have led to globally competitive domestic industries (mostly) after these industries have gained in productivity (usually through gradual competition with industrialized countries’ exports in the domestic market).

It is not clear at all that this same dynamic is taking place in East Africa. Rather, the SEZs appear to be treated as the solution in and of itself to the question of factor accumulation and total factor productivity.

The Most Important Factor

I attended a talk by Japanese professor (and industrial policy scholar) Kenichi Ohno last summer in Korea, and he said something which really gave me pause. He said that, in the process of advising the Prime Minister of Ethiopia’s office on how to set up Special Economic Zones, he received what he considered to be the best question, from some Ethiopian official. It was something like: ‘Can you show us an example of a well-written proposal? What should go in it? What does the Table of Contents look like?’

This was the best question because it was precisely with information like this, Ohno said, that the government would build the expertise necessary to successfully manage a Special Economic Zone. Once this know-how is transferred, no matter the partner -be it the Chinese, the Japanese, the Europeans, or other Africans- Ethiopia would have the tools necessary to achieve their goals- whatever those be. It struck me as a very true point. The know-how, the technical skills, the transfer of concrete experience goes miles beyond the ideology, the money, the ‘comprehensive development experience’ and the pitfalls of debates that inevitably turn to a meaningless merry-go-round of “developmental state or free market? Import substitution or export orientation?” etc.

It remains to be seen how well this know-how and these tools will be transferred and used by African countries, but this is without a doubt the richest experience that can be gleaned from these new SEZ partnerships.

Korean Aid: from ‘Development Experience’ to ‘experience development’

I have recently changed jobs, leaving the ‘scary D.C. organization’ I was at for the more moral-hazard-free (haha) shores of the United Nations here in East Africa. I am working on implementing a project funded by KOICA, the Korean aid agency. The past few weeks have been a time of adjustment (to the new country, to work) and my first discovery of how Korean aid operates on the ground. It is too early to come to any conclusions, but safe to say that there are many interesting questions and doubts to follow up on. I look forward to doing this as I move along in my writing here.

So, the ‘new’ donors. Or the ‘once alienated, slowly being brought into the fold’ donors. Japan. Korea. Brazil. South Africa….others.

There is something fascinating about countries that have paid their dues to the World Banks and IMFs and then turned around to become worldwide donors, regional powerhouses, or even to add a brick or two to the mosaic of countries and agencies with their own little niche in the world of international cooperation.

The most fascinating element is probably how these countries use the knowledge and lessons, the know-how gained throughout their history in their development programmes. Some countries are more high-profile about it than others. Some countries prefer sticking to policy advising, others like very technical advice, others still prefer direct, on-the-ground action. But there is one thing in common with all ‘development experience’-related programmes from new donors: they are all new.

Take a country like Korea. I will spare you the story behind Korea’s economic development. But it was just in 2010 that Korea joined the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, and it was just two years ago that its Knowledge Sharing Program got off the ground. Everything is still in planning. Here and there, scattered in Southeast Asia and Africa, one can find Korean-aid funded ‘pilot projects’ with grand visions of scaling-up once they get the ‘Korean development model’ down pat (good luck).

Because all of these initiatives are new (yes, you can also find older initiatives as well, the best example of which is Brazil’s social protection/school feeding know-how being exported), and because the road ahead is not paved, there is often a lack of clarity in how one gets from the experience of development to the packaging of an aid/development programme.

I used to be a big fan of discourse analysis, so if we order things by ‘frame’, we get something like this:

  1. The development itself. This is the string of policies, the events, people and decisions that drove economic growth and that produced whatever result we see. Needless to say, this is an ephemeral concept, and not really analyzable in and of itself, if not to make a simple statement: Korea’s GDP went from X to Y in A years.
  2. The perception of the development experience. How do countries order and understand the course of their economic and social, political and cultural history? How do they perceive the ‘success’ and ‘failures’ of policies after the fact?  To what do they attribute it? We can add to this one more dimension, that of ‘who’? Who perceives a policy as a success? The state? Civil society? Scholars within the country? This is in my mind one of the key points that will inform what road new donors’ aid (and especially Korean aid) goes down over the next decades.
  3. How these countries’ different actors make the leap between their understanding of how their country developed and their ‘aid philosophy’. To what are development successes attributed, and do related policies form part of the plan when the higher-ups decide where the money goes? Are there countries that retain one discourse about their own development and employ greatly differing or non-sequitur aid allocation strategies?  (The short answer, from what I know of Korean aid, is yes)
  4. The packaging of the development experience. That is, how aid-related ideas are perceived to travel in space and time. What is seen to travel well and what is not. There may also be an interesting variation by region (ie. Different policy advice, different programs etc. depending on the region the recipient country is in, and not depending so much on similarities in economic, political or social structure).
  5. The actuation of the development experience. The concrete policies and programs that come out of the ‘packaged development experience’ and their effects. The idea, when one hears talk about a ‘model’ (the ‘Korean model’, and so forth) is that repeating the same experiment will lead to fundamentally similar results. To my knowledge there has been very little literature looking closely at this question. (Should you know of any though, I would be happy to hear about it!)

Memories of Busan: HLF-4 and the Private Sector

A new paper by the Canadian Council for International Co-operation and the think-tank the North South Institute, as well as an insightful Oxfam blog post have inspired this look back at what Busan got wrong with the private sector, and how to fix it.

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In November of 2011 I received the opportunity to volunteer at the Busan High Level Forum on Aid Effectiveness (HLF-4)…’s Global Civil Society Forum. It was a 3-day Forum bringing together the voices of civil society in preparation for the actual High Level Forum. Speaking English, French, Spanish and Korean with the participants, sitting in on plenary sessions, helping to translate the final document, or interpreting for a Guatemalan participant during his presentation were definitely some of the highlights for me.

Many different agenda were brought together in the plethora of plenary and splinter sessions, but two main ideas kept coming up. The first was the need to shift the aid paradigm to a discussion on ‘development effectiveness’ and not ‘aid effectiveness’. The second was born out of concern that further involvement of the private sector in bilateral aid could be dangerous to sustainable development and democratic ownership of the development process.

These concerns reflected an apprehension that the agenda set for the HLF, along with the blueprints for a ‘global partnership’ for aid and development were all really just an excuse for donor countries to justify ‘privatizing ODA (Official Development Assistance)’ and partnering with the private sector to offset their declining aid allocations.

“Effective Use of Declining Aid Resources”

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Me (far right) translating for a Guatemalan delegate during a Busan Civil Society Forum session

The result, after several days of meetings, was the Busan Global Partnership for Effective Development Cooperation, a mouthful of a name. But for all its good language, the actual High Level Forum’s final document did not take civil society’s concerns very seriously. There is certainly progress in the discourse and focus of the international aid community. Busan did make some positive steps:

  1.  It put forward the idea of a global partnership for development
  2.  It embraced a discourse of ‘development effectiveness’ and ‘democratic governance’
  3. It emphasized several core values and rights placing people closer to the center of development processes.

It really failed to impress on certain other counts, though:

  1. It failed to speak specifics about the nature of the partnership it was supposed to build
  2. It did not reach a clear conclusion on the nature of BRICS and NIC involvement in the new aid architecture
  3. It pushed for increased private sector participation in development aid without sufficiently defining the parameters and expectations, the dangers and safeguards that need to go along with it. (The non-binding, sidelined Joint Statement (pdf) was a good first step)

This last point struck me as the most important at the time; the private sector is the bulk of most economies, the driver of growth and creator of wealth, but is also a potentially harmful partner in a development context. Moreover the shift to the private sector seemed to be more about donor country funds shrinking with the onslaught of the financial crisis, and less to do with a sudden discovery of how awesome private sector actors were.

Evaluating the Private Sector in Development Since Busan

So this Canadian Council for International Co-operation report on bilateral donor approaches to development cooperation is certainly edifying in this respect. It discusses how top OECD donors have incorporated (‘partnered’ with) the private sector into their bilateral aid programs, and what this has come to mean for development effectiveness, especially in a post-Busan context.

The paper looks at the type of private-sector partnership and promotion aid, and notes that it focuses mostly on macro-level interventions (the famous business-enabling environment), on firm-level projects, including public-private partnerships. The conclusions it reaches speak to the fears that were present at the Busan Civil Society Forum, namely that partnering with private sector actors in development, in its current form:

  • Tends to favor economic shifts driven from outside the beneficiary country
  • Tends to forgo local capacity building and offers little incentive for funding mechanisms to favor the domestic private sector
  • Tends to confound private and public results
  • Does not lend itself well to evaluation due to a lack of data and to the various mechanisms though which private-sector aid takes place

A notable point that came out of the research: despite many references to rights, to sustainability and to gender, it is not clear at all that these issues were given special consideration on the aggregate.

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Oxfam: “The World Bank’s private sector financing arm doesn’t know the environmental and social impacts of nearly half its portfolio”

Case in point: a recent audit released by the World Bank’s Compliance Advison/Ombudsman says that the World Bank’s International Finance Corporation (IFC) is very poorly informed about the environmental and social impacts of its financial market lending portfolio. The logic of lending to financial markets is very clearly not coupled with principles of sustainable development, social or environmental impact.

Questions

Erinch Sahan at Oxfam asks an important question “can aid money be a meaningful driver of growth?” That is, can bilateral assistance, partnering with the private sector, become part of the solution?

On one hand I think that we have yet to see a country in which aid, in general, has become a meaningful and sustained driver of economic growth (never mind equitable distribution of wealth). What we do have are countries that have successfully used growth strategies to achieve (more or less) inclusive growth.

Partnering with the private sector certainly has its benefits. But one of the more serious side effects that it comports is to evacuate the donor country from the aid process (take a look at how European multilateral public-private partnership funding mechanisms like the Africa Enterprise Challenge Fund are structured- it’s just layer after layer!). In so doing, this tends to also evacuate the recipient (‘partner’) state from the processes of its own development. This was the big argument brought against the World Bank’s PPIAF, that it put pressure on governments to do business with international firms, and then to concede to often disastrous changes in the provision of social goods, like water or electricity.

So, we know the dangers. We can see the evolution of the involvement of private sector actors in bilateral aid (more of them, with ever more diverse mechanisms of action, centered on macro and firm-level interventions).

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The 2nd Seoul Civil Society Forum, one of the many Post-Busan evaluation conferences

Busan’s HLF-4 was one step on the road to consolidate and legitimate what evidently turned out to be an ad-hoc appeal to new sources of money, or new ‘partnerships’ to use the pretty term. It reached out to Chinese and other emerging economies’ capital, just as it did to companies, in order to buttress lagging ODA numbers. In its haste to create the semblance of unity in the form of a partnership, it gave no more than lip-service, non-enforceable, if-you-don’t-mind-sir recommendations on how to properly integrate these new sources of funding. And even those didn’t make it into the final document.

Before the Private Sector Party Jumps Off…

Okay, but what are the responses? What specific private sector funding mechanisms have worked and in what context? How can governments preserve policy coherence all while harnessing the financial power and access to financial markets that private sector partners can provide?

Answers to questions like these are needed, like, yesterday. Because for one, the Post-Busan Partnership Framework is proving to be a slow, slow process. Another reason is that new and emerging donors like South Korea are more and more eager to jump on the private sector bandwagon, but not as conscious of its pitfalls.

A year and a bit after Busan, I can’t help but regret that the Civil Society Forum’s voice was given so little weight.

Dissonance in Development Discourse: ‘Africa Rising’

I recently wrote my frustration with the conception of risk and vulnerability in the African continent as dealt with by a Davos World Economic Forum debate. There is a similar line in the ‘Africa Rising ’ discourse, which as the Davos debate, centered almost exclusively on growth, investment and interest in the continent’s economic future. What is missing from these conversations is a serious consideration of how growth is benefiting the citizens of each country, and how international development efforts and international capital should approach this evolution.

Part of the problem is a dissonance between aid/development actors and business and investment actors when it comes to developing economies on the continent. The discourse of shared growth, welfare, investment in local economies and the like are pillars of the broader aid/development discourse, and are put into practice through different programs and policy advising.

The business and investment end does not have the same angle of attack. To be sure there are differences between foreign direct investment and financial speculation, bank driven investment and the like. The nature of the investment and the timeframe considered for the investment are such that in the latter case, there is a smaller incentive to care about second-degree causes of success, such as a country’s education level. There is a tendency across the board to look at indicators such as the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, ‘hard’ infrastructure such as roads, electricity, internet, but also the ‘soft’ infrastructure indicators that are laws, regulations, corruption indices and the like.

This is why debates like Davos can come up, and this is why McKinsey and Co. keeps coming out with reports (relevant and useful though they may be) on how Africa’s rise is being driven by privatization, low inflation rates and other ‘strong fundamentals’. So, that the question of ‘whose benefit’ has not been featured as prominently as it should be in a certain (nebulous) sector’s articulation of ‘Africa Rising’ is certainly one glaring obstacle.

Nairobi Marketplace

Nairobi Marketplace

African Consumption

There is another very interesting line, running parallel to the previous one, but with a more African-centered focus: it’s the way in which Africa’s rise is equated with the rise of an African middle class and of an African consumer. (This is a real leit motif of whoever is in charge of African markets research over at McKinsey, because they are all over this one- and here, and here). The actual numbers are very interesting. Consumer product industries slated to grow by 400 billion dollars by 2020. Private consumption on the continent rose by 568 billion dollars from 2000 to 2010. All very exciting stuff.

It’s exciting because an African consumer of enough significance could really change the way foreign capital looks at African countries, in addition to deepening markets for African businesses. In pointing this out, these reports, op-eds and books play an important role in getting the message out- that is, we are long past the days when ‘development’ in African countries meant simple aid money. Okay, all well and good.

Upon Further Inspection…

But this discourse and these studies are still very detached from that of shared growth and social welfare. The business community, the investors who have African countries, companies, and projects in their portfolios aren’t as eager to talk social protection, insurance and welfare.

And yet there is a real need to do so. Not simply because there is a large vulnerable population on the continent, but because sometimes the very growth that is touted in all these statistics comes at the expense of the more vulnerable population. So yes, there is a rising African consumer. But when you look closer, you learn that 81% of African private consumption is concentrated in 10 countries- only 5 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa (and they are all pretty much the usual suspects). One more step and you learn that a vast majority of labor on the continent is informalized. Another step and you see that while Diaspora communities returning ‘home’ can bring some economic advantages, it also perpetuates existing social inequalities.

You can be satisfied with the quotation here below for only so long…

In the 1990s African economies embraced the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) structural adjustment programmes, which advocated free market policies.“The introduction of liberalisation, which focused on private sector-led growth, is key to the growing middle class on the continent,” said Bategeka. “Countries introduced sound economic policies which controlled inflation, benefiting investments in their economies.” Source

…before you remember what structural adjustment also did to the African state’s ability to protect the most vulnerable in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the end…

There is nothing wrong with growth. But when you keep listening to Davos and to McKinsey and the others, it is easy to forget that growth and wealth in and of itself is not the end goal. Equatorial Guinea is classified by the World Bank as a High-Income country since 2007, even while 77% of the population lives on less than 2 dollars a day.

How can more of the population be involved in and see benefits from growth? How can growth serve to protect the most vulnerable from the risks of a globalizing domestic economy, from environmental changes, from health concerns? These are all questions of importance to the continent, and yes, to its overseas investors as well. This is the type of debate I would like to see grace center stage at forums like Davos.

‘De-risking’ Africa, Davos-Style

The World Economic Forum hosted a (televised- see video below) debate asking how to ‘de-risk’ Africa. The debate, while interesting, did not at all venture beyond first-order economic improvement and political stability. This could have been an enlightening and dynamic debate on the effects of economic growth and distribution, or lack thereof, on the continent. Instead it was a list of risks which, while accurate, doesn’t venture further down the prescriptive road past “states need to do everything they can to allow the growth to continue.” Whose growth and whose benefit? Mystère et boule de gomme, as they say. This is my attempt to add another dimension to the debate.

Why is this debate one-dimensional?

The prompt for this debate was rightfully put into question by Jacob Zuma, president of South Africa, at the outset. But the subsequent conclusion drawn by the panelists was short-sighted. ‘De-risking’ Africa could imply that Africa is an inherently more risky place (from an economic standpoint- this is the WEF after all) than other continents. Zuma and two other entrepreneurs sitting on the panel with him (a panel which also included Louise Arbor, the president of the International Crisis Group, and Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan) responded that Africa was, far from a continent of risk, one of the most promising future economic opportunities.

But most panelists took this one line about growth and the ‘rise of Africa’ as the entire response to the question. That is to say, 1) the intrinsic answer to economic risks is economic growth. 2) Africa will continue to experience good economic growth, ergo, 3) Africa has a good answer to the question of ‘risk’.

WEF Africa

World Economic Forum

In particular the discussion emphasized the ‘hard infrastructure’ needed to facilitate economic activity and the implantation of foreign companies (roads, electricity, internet). A slight mention of ‘soft infrastructure’ (laws and regulations, governance-related factors) was made by Ms. Arbor. This back and forth, while interesting, misses a more fundamental question/critique of the debate prompt: risk for who?

Risk for who?

The WEF being what it is, this debate saw company owners, investors and politicians talking at length about economic prospects in the continent. But it was significantly less clear from discussion who these prospects were supposed to benefit, and why ordinary Africans should be more interested in the bright prospects of their continent.

The panelists talked about risks to investors- foreign and domestic, emphasizing large companies as vehicles for such investment. They talked about risks to states- in governance, in managing development cooperation on a regional level. They also talked about risk to people- but only to the extent that this meant the risk to physical security: the risk of conflict.

But what about all the other risks? There have been a few other bloggers writing about how the debate was framed, mentioning especially the problem of environmental risks being almost entirely overlooked in the debate. There is also the risk to people’s livelihoods and ability to live decently, caused by the cocktail of unpredictable commodity prices and high dependence on imports for basic goods that you see in so many Africa countries. There is the risk of the rough transition from agricultural production for unready emerging economies: university graduates without jobs, shrinking agricultural sector and rapidly rising urbanization.

These risks have a social dimension that was entirely bypassed during the debate. As the gains from economic development are built upon more and more, the social welfare of Africans will become a vital factor in determining the economic soundness of societies. To reduce this problem to one of the ‘security risk caused by the youth bulge’, or to ignore it entirely in favor of a monochrome view of how foreign companies are settling in African countries to not understand the important roles that Africans are playing and will play in their economies.

Growth or de-risking? Growth is de-risking?

Incidentally it strikes me as interesting that the  almost unanimous answer from the panelists be to ‘help growth’ on the continent in order to reduce risk. This is firstly because there is always an element of risk in economic expansion. But also because certain types of economic activities can signify more risks to vulnerable populations. For example, oil exploitation in Nigeria can certainly be a motor or economic growth, but unless it addresses the severe negative environmental externalities it causes, and unless it finds more successful ways to reinvest profits in the local economy, expansion of this activity could mean expanded risk- not for those making the profits of course, but for those who bear the brunt of the side-effects.

That’s not to say that growth and de-risking are directly opposable concepts. It’s a question of finding out how to help growth serve the people of the country in sustainable ways. It is also a question of further involving the people in economic activity, and make them active participants, or ‘shareholders’ with a more direct interest in the growth their country experiences.

The missing social element

Where was then the discussion on social safety nets and social insurance? Programmes to help solidify the most vulnerable in a country through cash transfer programmes, subsidies, fee waivers and others have seen some rather publicized successes in South America. Social insurance formed one of the cornerstones of South Korea’s social policy during its middle-income period.

Assuring that the basic needs of citizens are met is one of the reasons there is a state to begin with. But social safety nets and social insurance are not simply ‘soft’ humanitarian band-aids to poverty. They can help increase schooling rates, or bolster domestic consumption. Solidified ‘African demand’ can in turn bolster trade among African countries, which in turn could also contribute to the ‘hard’ infrastructure projects the panelists mentioned. It can help create a more dependable workforce, more reliable, more educated and if trained, with more know-how.

Just as African countries cannot rely on aid as the principle mechanism to advance their development, they cannot count on simply continuing growth trends without a long and serious national conversation on how the engines of growth should be shaped to address environmental problems and problems of social welfare. It is a debate that is taking place all over the world- just not as this particular debate in Davos.

‘Resilience’ Worries at Davos World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum

-Robert Scoble

The 2013 Davos World Economic Forum’s vision, articulated by its founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab in a recent Project Syndicate article, leaves me with a couple furrows on my brow. Not that I am unfamiliar with the rather single-minded nature of the Davos discussion agenda, or with the criticisms that are leveled against the Forum. This time though, the issue with the Forum’s large frame/theme is rather subtle.

There are, we are told, two main objectives to this year’s forum:

First, the economic crisis has created a more defensive, more self-centered, and – at the level of states – more protectionist attitude. Grand unifying visions are missing, and the pressure for separation, not union, continues to increase. This has stalled progress on many of the issues – including reducing carbon emissions, establishing global financial regulatory measures, and concluding the Doha Round of global trade talks, to name a few – that require global attention.

The first objective is then to foster further global cooperation, under the idea that combined solutions (a “grand vision”?) to economic and financial problems are needed to bring the world economy into a new growth dynamic. Discursively speaking, nothing new. The second point is as follows:

The Forum has always promoted the notion of corporate social responsibility – or, expressed differently, of business leaders being accountable not only to their employees and shareholders, but also to their communities and society at large. So, my second objective for Davos this year is for all leaders to recognize that along with their economic responsibilities come moral as well as social obligations.

The second objective is slightly newer (but not really) in that it puts forward a social responsibility for the private sector, specifically mentioning (later on in the text) corporate social responsibility. Ultimately the idea is probably to pose the question of the ill-effects of austerity and adjustment policies in countries hit by the global financial and Eurozone crises.

Objectives Properly Addressed?

The talk always sounds great. But there is no indication that any of this is actually going to happen, beyond words, at Davos. When you look at the response of states and companies to the financial crisis in terms of cooperation (here mainly in Europe) it is clear that not only is there much to be desired, that which is being decided comes from a logic of relative economic influence, political clout (and interestingly enough, discursive identity) within the EU’s echelons of power. The WEF will probably not have an impact significant enough to change the way European countries interact in their own playground.

Second point of worry: even a layperson can see that objective number one is going to overpower objective number two without any special consideration for this latter one. How are French companies coming together with the government and labor to solve competitiveness problems and factory closings? Answer: They’re not. The order of the day, much to the chagrin of French minister Arnaud Montebourg (holder of the most unenviable title of ‘Minister of Industrial Renewal’) is for companies to argue that, affected as they are by the crisis, they have no choice but to lay off workers and have the remaining workforce take on longer or more irregular hours for less pay- or else the company closes up shop and moves to Morocco. The French government has an active hand in promoting these sorts of flexibility deals- anything to put a band-aid on the employment situation. The companies may become slightly more protected, but it’s not at all clear that the workers who get laid off or those who slip into poverty gain much in resilience.

Third point: while corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a nifty model which can and has demonstrated that win-wins are possible, most interestingly in developing economies, the question is less if CSR should be promoted, and more how to ensure CSR design that contributes to sustainable development. How to ensure that CSR is carried out in coherence with existing development agenda? Will proper attention be given to the failures and the lessons of profitable but not social viable CSR projects at the forum? This is one point I continue to watch with interest.

It is right to bring resilience to the table- it is yet another way that the traditionally very… economic WEF can inject a little social in its veins.

But in rushing to pose the question of resilience, Davos may have forgotten to ask ‘whose resilience?’

Emerging Africa: More Questions

View from the Heritage Hotel, Dar es Salaam- Seyemon

View from the Heritage Hotel, Dar es Salaam- Seyemon

The tone was slightly reminiscent of an afro-pessimism/afro-optimism debate, but the January 11 rebuttal article of Rick Rowden’s Foreign Policy piece certainly makes some good points.

The interesting framing of the problem, (à savoir, ‘going the way it is going and pursuing the path it is on, will many countries on the African continent achieve more economic development?’) is in terms of what African countries do with the resources they have.

The authors of the book The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa’s Economic Revolution make five big arguments for progress on the continent:

  1. Social and economic policies in many African countries are seeing a shift akin to that which took place in East Asian countries before their ‘takeoff’
  2. African countries are doing (and will keep doing) better at reinvesting the gains from agriculture and primary goods exports into infrastructure, services and other higher value-added production which will drive production in the future
  3. Rising wages in China and other Southeast Asian countries can cause a renewed interest in African countries for labor-intensive production
  4. Education levels are also rising on the continent, which will spur on the advent of industrialization and manufacturing
  5. Ease of doing business indicators have been getting better, corruption as well, and this is creating a more favorable environment for growth

After reading this I simply must get my hands on this book, The Fastest Billion. There are simply too many questions that I could not find answers for in the short Foreign Policy article. The book, I think, should be great for providing paths to the following questions:

–          Is agriculture really doing all right? Are the African countries in the so-called middle income stage of growth being supported by the agricultural sector? The authors mentioned the importance of agriculture as a basis for industrialization in Korea; is this the same case in African countries? Niger and Gabon are two countries with interesting plans to reduce reliance on food imports- is this type of state-led program the way to go?

–          Is it really easier to do business on the continent? There might be some improvement over the last 5 years in African countries’ scores on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, but are these the result of steady improvement in policies? Here I surmise the answer will vary vastly among countries. Rwanda’s indicators for this year are leaps and bounds better than just four years ago, and are driven by a government dedicated to change. But so many countries are not showing much steady progress, while they also face trouble in corruption indicators.

–          Are resources being properly reinvested in value-added industries? There is much talk as to the extent to which these resources need to all be funneled into new industries- they are not the end-all be all of economic development, and first ensuring a population’s basic needs are addressed makes more sense on so many levels. But where are the oil dollars and copper and bauxite dollars going? I don’t have nearly as good an idea of this as I would like.

–          Are African countries really on track to absorb higher value added production, successfully move up global commodity chains and mobilize their population’s rapidly growing education? My most vivid memory over the last year were the protests in several countries by what were essentially overeducated youth, who invested precious years in study only to find that there were few, if any jobs available for them in their countries. Successes in primary education in Africa are becoming more and more known, and many have pointed to tertiary education as a sort of new education frontier for many countries. But how well is this skilled labor being absorbed by these economies? I really want to know.

For now there are only questions.

But the beginning of an answer will probably come more from looking at individual countries, as opposed to trying to rationalize trends across the great diversity that is the Continent.

Chris Blattman

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