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.

Advertisements

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.

livingthemiddleincomedream

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.

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.

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.

Why is Mali Different?

French troops landing in Bamako- Jerome Delay

French troops landing in Bamako- Jerome Delay

2013 should have heralded a long respite from armed international interventions. On one hand a United States eager to avoid a second Libya and in the middle of distracting fiscal battle. On the other hand a cash-strapped Europe reducing its footprint, even in  international aid. France itself snubbed the Central African Republic’s call for French help in staving off the advance of an armed group on its capital just two weeks ago. Armed military intervention should not have been anywhere near the top of the agenda.

This makes the French decision to intervene militarily in Mali last Friday, bombing key cities and lines to stop the advance of the Islamic militants all the more incomprehensible. The rest of the international community, though not absolutely enthusiastic, has pledged different amounts of military and intelligence support to the French’s Operation Serval, including troops from Nigeria and other African countries.

But why now, and why Mali? The following points are the main reasons that have been given by the media, politicians and experts over the last week to justify the sudden military intervention. Some, you’ll see, make (only slightly) more sense than others.

  1.  “We cannot allow the terrorists to gain a foothold!”

Map of the Malian conflict -The Atlantic

Map of the Malian conflict- The Atlantic

This is by far the most popular line of reasoning to come out on the news platforms and in the interviews.

The idea is that the principal threat posed by the armed extremist groups (al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb or AQIM, Ansar Edine and MUJAO) comes by virtue of their animosity towards the United States and Europe. Allowing the terrorists to ‘gain a foothold’ in the country is an enormous security risk for western countries. Says U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta: “We have a responsibility to make sure that al-Qaida does not establish a base of operations.”

Two things are worrisome about this reasoning.

The first is that political discourse on intervention in the Mali affair constructs a dichotomy in African conflicts. On one hand there are the ‘conflicts as usual’, which are supposedly homegrown rebellions stemming from either ethnic, religious or resource allocation disputes. Senegal, Guinea, Central African Republic and Côte d’Ivoire are a few examples. On the other hand, we are told, there are ‘new’ conflicts more worthy of interest on the part of western states because they are linked to terrorism and are fundamentally transnational in origin. The Malian conflict is not about Mali; it is about the ‘transnational terrorist threat.’

Violent religious extremism is significant, but it is not the entire story behind the conflict. There is the Touareg independence agenda, power struggles among the different armed factions in the north, the March 2012 coup d’état to consider. There is the economic aspect: several leaders of Ansar Dine and MUJAO are also heavily involved in the illegal gun, drug and cigarette trade routes passing through the country (the man behind the recent hostage crisis in Algeria, Mohktar Bel-Mohktar, is also known as ‘Mr. Malboro’ for his involvement in Sahel cigarette smuggling). There are political aspects: negotiations with the Malian government aiming at forming the ever popular gouvernement d’union nationale– otherwise known as the divvying-up of ministry positions and national wealth. This is not an entirely terrorist conflict, and treating it as such is a dangerous idea.

The second reason to worry about the ‘standard’ and ‘new’ African conflict dichotomy is that, even admitting that the conflict is primarily one of combating terrorism, it is unclear to what extent military intervention will contribute to solving matters. Paul Pillar wrote a very interesting piece to this effect recently, essentially saying that combating terrorism in geographical terms is a misunderstanding of how terrorism works.

We […] apply [flawed] thinking to terrorism, which is a tactic and not an empire, partly because of a general tendency to think in spatial terms. Habitual and loose use of the label “al-Qaeda” also reifies a single global terrorist organization that does not really exist, as distinct from collections of groups that have adopted the al-Qaeda name or pieces of its ideology. – Paul Pillar

To this argument one can add the so-called spillover effect. The transnational nature of the terrorist threat in Africa, we are told, means that the Malian conflict can spill over to neighboring countries as well, fomenting unrest across borders in a 21st Century twist on domino theory.

To this, we can answer that the spillover has already happened, and that a while ago. There is also the recent Algerian hostage incident. What’s more, sudden intervention on the part of France means that there is no time to make sure that the armed groups’ strategic retreat will not precipitate a spillover of some sort in Niger, Algeria or Mauritania. In trying to stem the spread of conflict, this French action may end up aiding it.

2.       “Mali is strategically located!”

The United States hiking up its military presence in Africa speaks to the growing (worrying) interest in the ‘strategically located’ African continent. This discourse is directly linked to the previous reasoning. ‘Terrorism cannot be allowed to wield influence on the continent’- and more precisely in the Horn of Africa and in West Africa.

The problem is ultimately that ‘strategically located’ is a judgment that comes from the country doing the intervening. What what is reflected in this word ‘strategic’ is nothing more than a country’s interests. As it happens the fight against terrorism has been labeled as in the interests of all countries. Soit. But the diagnosis of threat and the resulting action is still always at the discretion of the influential international players.

3.       “Mali was an exemplary democracy that needs to be saved!”

Having gone through a couple of relatively problem-free elections and having built up a peaceful and functioning political system, Mali was for a time heralded as one of the stable  and promising democracies of the region.

But the coup that ousted President Amadou Toumani Touré in March 2012 happened…..in March 2012- almost a year ago. Consolidating democratic rule in Mali since then has been very troublesome, not in the least because the northern territories are occupied by armed groups. Still, the type of rapid intervention we have seen in the past week may eventually restore government control over the physical territory, but it cannot guarantee the advancement of democracy. That role goes to the Malian people.

March 2012 Malian coup leader captain Sanogo

March 2012 Malian coup leader captain Sanogo- The Hindu

Incidentally the idea of saving Bamako from being taken by Islamic extremist groups, while a noble one, highlights the absolute arbitrary nature of interventions (in general but in this case) on the African continent. Just a couple of weeks ago the Central African Republic’s President François Bozizé launched a distress call to the international community, faced with a rapidly advancing front of armed rebellion. Sound familiar? (To be fair, the comparisons end about there, and experts I have talked to agree that there was practically no way that the unsavory Bozizé would have seen his capital collapse, protected as he was by an regional contingent of troops and his Chadian benefactors). The point remains that once you agree with interventions, you need to provide a logical answer to the question ‘in what case?’ This has yet to be done.

4.       “We need to stop the spread of Sharia law and human rights abuses!”

In my mind this point should be the most heard and the biggest source of attention. From the wanton destruction of religious building and cultural patrimony to the indiscriminate meting out of punishment for smoking or listening to music the Islamic extremists in the north of Mali have, for the time they have occupied the territory, tried to institute Islamic Sharia law on the populations under their control. The logic for intervention in this discourse comes from a ‘right to protect’ reasoning, saying that the Malian state and armed forces are not in any shape to handle the threat to the people (side note: did you know that the Malian army of only 7,000 troops counts 59 generals?), and therefore military intervention is necessary for their protection.

So yes to the goal, but still no to the rapid, precipitated military response from the French. There were plans for

Islamic fundamentalists destroying a tomb in Timbuktu

Islamic fundamentalists destroying a tomb in Timbuktu- National Post

intervention at the regional level, and while they adopted a rather slow calendar, it was going to be a concerted effort lead by neighboring countries. Rapid intervention, no matter how welcomed by the Malian government or people it is, creates the potential to increase insecurity in the country.

In short, Mali’s is not a different crisis, one that would justify the nature of the international intervention we have seen so far. In that it is a textbook case of many root problems of politics and conflict on the continent, Mali is not different.

Yes, interventions can be necessary. But I would like to see fewer interventions and more engagement. Mali is in a very complex situation, and heavy armed intervention can do more harm than good. Scrambling the fighter jets in time of crisis is a short-sighted solution to a problem that demands time, that demands advising, cooperation, consolidation of state capacities, security sector reform, reform in the aid regime and a host of other slow but sure(r) paths to peace. Engagement starts long before the guns are drawn, and I think that is the biggest failure of this whole affair.

Chris Blattman

International development, economics, politics, and policy

The GOVERNANCE blog

Governance: An international journal of policy, administration and institutions

Unused Entity

เซื่อในสิ่งที่เฮ็ด เฮ็ดในสิ่งที่เซื่อ

The Charnel-House

From Bauhaus to Beinhaus

Konakry Express

L'Histoire est patiente, la Vérité têtue!

AfricLaw

Advancing the rule and role of law in Africa

Thirdeyemom

A Travel Blog - Traveling the World and Doing Good

AID LEAP

A motley group of international aid bloggers, practitioners, and critics. Interested in impact, poverty, evidence, and throwing things off planes.

choforche

A site on limited government, development and free markets

The5thWorld

Exploring Unbeaten Paths of Culture

Joe Studwell's blog

On the theme of development in East Asia, Britain, Italy, and the United States

The More Things Change

Translating French foreign policy ... and other musings

Monitoring & Evaluation & Learning

Weitzenegger's Knowledge Network

Sustainability in Crisis

Faith in sustainability

Bedside Readings

Humorous, thought provoking, brain teasing, factual and developmental

Lesley on Africa

African politics, security, and occasional travel tales

Africa is a Country

a site of media criticism, analysis and new writing

Bridges from Bamako

life in a budding West African metropolis