Does development aid lead to overpopulation?

The GiveWell team has apparently been asked this question with such frequency that they commissioned David Roodman to do a study on it for them.  Specifically, the question is whether lowering death rates in low-income countries by providing better access to insecticide-treated bednets for malaria prevention could lead to a boom in population growth.  The existence of the demographic transition is accepted by everyone here, so the research focused on how people’s fertility choices respond in the short term to having a lower lifetime risk of death for their children.  Key point from the GiveWell team’s description of Roodman’s work:

Overall, it appears that life-saving interventions unaccompanied by other improvements, where access to contraception is weak, are likely to lead to some acceleration of population growth. With that said, we wish to note the following:

  • No intervention takes place in isolation, and we expect population growth to slow in the future in most low-income areas as poverty falls.
  • Acceleration of population growth should not necessarily be associated with overpopulation and its connotations of a net decline in standards of living.

Frankly, I was surprised that someone would ask this question in the first place, since the clear implication is that letting people die of malaria might be a better policy option than facing overpopulation.  I’m trying and failing to think of a way that someone might ask this that isn’t undergirded by the belief that the lives of the poor (who face the risk of malaria) are inherently worth less than those of the rich (who don’t).  Aside from the morally problematic nature of this statement, it also fails to account for the fact that most low-income countries have a very long way to go before they have consumption rates anything like those of high-income countries.  The average American uses 100 times more electricity each year than the average Nigerian.  If you as an aid donor are concerned about pressure on global resources from overpopulation, the question you ought to be asking is about your own behavior, not about whether the poor ought to have access to bednets.

Who is supporting Boko Haram?

I’m fascinated by the investigative work that goes into uncovering the funding sources of rebel groups.  The M23 graph I wrote about last month shows the complex web of connections between the group and its funders.   Shelby Grossman recently blogged about a similar chart for Boko Haram, which focuses on the types of support that the group has received from different sources.

bokoharamThe chart comes from a June 2012 World Policy piece by Carlo Davis.  It would be fascinating to see an update to account for changes in financing sources over the last two years, especially from established political parties.

Update, 23 April: Zainab Usman and Archit Tiwari have pointed out that some of the sources cited in thie chart, especially 247ureports.com, are not considered reliable.  I’ll post additional updates here if it becomes clear that any of the information in the chart is obviously inaccurate.

 

Peacekeeping by proxy in Uganda

The ever-insightful Ken Opalo had a great post last week about why the US has been putting so much military aid towards the hunt for Joseph Kony in Uganda, even as it’s tried to avoid getting involved in the much more pressing humanitarian emergency in the CAR.  Key point:

The US recently announced new military aid to Uganda, including four CV-22 Ospreys and an additional 150 Special Operation troops (to join the 100 deployed in 2011) in an effort to step up the hunt for Joseph Kony, leader of the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Kony is suspected to be in hiding in the border regions CAR, the DRC, Sudan and South Sudan. Of course this rather bizarre decision (is Kony really that much of a priority right now in the Great Lakes Region?) is motivated by the need to keep the Ugandan military in top shape and ready to fight in places the US doesn’t want to set foot.

I tend to assume that US aid to other countries’ militaries is always driven by foreign policy concerns.  In this light, assisting in the hunt for Kony doesn’t make much sense.  But it’s quite interesting to consider that the Defense Department might be concerned about stability in Africa more broadly, beyond the immediate threat they see (xenophobically) from Muslim armed groups.

(Thank you to Scott for pointing out that I forgot to link to Ken’s post!)

 

The political evolution of Congolese currency

The last time I was in Kinshasa, I bought a handful of old bills from a street vendor.  Evolving currency design turns out to be a pretty good indicator of the country’s political fortunes.  Start with these notes from the Belgian Congo in 1947:

Congo '47

It’s not exactly clear what’s going on in this image – I think the child is reaching down to a beehive – but of course both the figures appear to be white Europeans.

The bills from 1960 are notable for their lovely graphic design.  These are the only bills in my collection until the late 1990s that don’t feature a politician, depicting a young woman instead.

Congo '60

Congo '60

In 1967, the currency switched from the franc to the zaire, which was subdivided into makuta instead of centimes.  By the early 1970s, Patrice Lumumba graced the makuta note, while Mobutu showed up on the zaires.  I didn’t recognize him at first without his later-habitual leopard print hat and abacost.  (Thanks to commenter Eloko ya Masaki for identifying him!)

Congo '70Congo '71

By the mid-1970s, Lumumba’s portrait had been replaced by that of Mobutu.  The Marshal stayed front and center on the currency for the next 20 years.  These 1977 zaires are hopeful about hydroelectricity.

Congo '77

Congo '77

By 1991, high inflation rates had pushed the largest banknote up to 50,000 zaires (which were followed by the 5,000,000 zaire note the next year).  Perhaps no longer feeling so enthusiastic about industrialization, these notes focused on wildlife.

Congo '91

Congo '91

In 1993, the central bank redenominated the currency in a (doomed) attempt to rein in inflation.  The back of the note features the Palais de la Nation, where the president’s office is located today.  (Thanks again to Eloko ya Makasi for this information!)

Congo '93

Congo '93

After Mobutu’s fall, the currency switched back to the franc.  This 500 franc note from 2002 was worth about US$1 when I got it.   In a reflection of the country’s deindustrialization, it features artisanal miners panning for diamonds in a river.  The contrast between the promise of mineral wealth and the obvious poverty of the miners says a great deal about where the DRC is today.

Congo '02

Property and political order in Africa

I recently finished Cathy Boone’s excellent new book, Property and Political Order in Africa: Land Rights and the Structure of Politics. She’s motivated by the observation that, while disagremeents over access to land are endemic in Africa, some areas see the issue become highly politicized or spill over into violent conflict, while others end up with low-level disagreements that never escalate.  In seeking to answer this, she looks at the way that different types of land tenure systems created by the colonial and post-colonial state tend to “bottle up” land conflict at the local level, or encourage it to escalate to the national political realm.

A very brief rendering of her argument is that land tenure systems in which chiefs or lineage heads are given the right to allocate land (often along ethnic lines) tend to keep conflict local, because no one above this level of regional governance has the right to challenge the chief’s allocation of land.  Thus, people who are unhappy with their access to land can’t make claims about it within the national political system.  Examples of this type of system include western and central Ghana, northern Cameroon, and western Kenya.

A chiefly or lineage-based land tenure regime contrasts with statist systems of land allocation, where the government directly assigns land to farmers, often for the purpose of raising cash crops (and frequently involving the importation of labor from elsewhere in the country).  Because access to land isn’t mediated by any type of local government, people with complaints about their allocation take the issue directly to the national government.  Examples of this type of system include southwestern Côte d’Ivoire, Kenya’s Rift Valley, eastern DRC, and southeastern Rwanda.

I found this analysis very useful in understanding some of the persistent conflict dynamics of the Great Lakes.  In both the DRC and Rwanda, government policies led directly to the displacement of thousands of people from the colonial period onwards.  This seems to have created lasting grievances in both countries that have played off each other in very harmful ways, from cycles of ethnic violence in Rwanda to the way that persistent insecurity of land tenure in eastern Congo has led to the creation of an endless array of militias.  In Ghana, by comparison, chiefly land tenure systems prevailed, relatively few people were forced off their land, and land allocation does not seem to be a highly salient national political issue today.  To be clear, Boone is not claiming that land tenure regimes are the only or even the primary explanatory variable for violent conflict, but her analysis of the ways that land tenure arrangements can mute or amplify tensions within a political system is insightful in ways that simple claims about ethnic rivalries are not.

What’s the right analogy for Rwanda?

As the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide approaches on April 7, people who don’t usually pay much attention to African politics will be seeing two main types of commemorative stories about the country.  The first will focus on the incredible progress that Rwanda has made in areas like fighting corruption, promoting economic growth, and rolling out universal health insurance.  The second will acknowledge these domestic policy achievements, but note that Kagame’s government has also been repressing political expression, physically attacking its opponents, and fostering rebellions in the neighboring DR Congo.   Underlying some of these concerns about domestic repression is the fear that ethnic grievances from the genocide era have only been partially addressed, and that these could spill over into renewed conflict in the future.

These two sets of stories present such diametrically opposed visions of the country that I think many people will feel that they can’t both be equally true.   One must trump the other in the final analysis, right?  Either the big development goals are being met, at the short term cost of lesser goals like freedom of speech, or these gains are secondary to the threat posed by the RPF’s willingness to use violence to achieve its ends.  I too find myself struggling with this tendency to weigh the two narratives against each other.  I am generally concerned about the patterns of repression that can be seen today, but I’m also aware that this leads me to discount some amazing development achievements that I’m sure I would be endlessly commending if they had took place in, say, Ghana.  It feels uncharitable at best and dishonest at worse to look past these accomplishments.

Since it’s hard to weigh the situation in Rwanda on its own merits, it’s common to try to explain it through analogy.  Kagame himself is fond of saying that he’d like Rwanda to be the Singapore of Africa – a tiny country that punches far above its economic weight.  Singapore, of course, has achieved its own growth through a similar combination of good governance and repression of dissent.  However, when most foreigners think of Singapore today, I suspect they’re contemplating its role as an international financial hub, its insanely expensive rents, and its great culinary diversity rather than its freedom of the press.  The obvious conclusion here, if you believe that Rwanda really is on a path to emulate Singapore, is that in 50 years no one will care about a spot of repression today, because it won’t have any negative long term effects.

On the other hand, there are analogies which express more concern over the RPF’s authoritarianism.  Laura Seay tweeted last month that “Rwanda today is terrifyingly like Rwanda circa 1992.  Power held by a tiny minority, no real freedom.  Development is better, but fragile.”  The point here is not that Kagame’s government is using its power to start planning a genocide, as the Habyarimana government was doing in 1992 – whatever its faults, the RPF is definitely not out to kill every citizen it perceives as a threat to its power.  Rather, the point is that extreme concentration of power can be politically destabilizing, and potentially lead to renewed conflict.  In 1992, Rwanda was in the middle of a civil war between the Hutu-led Habyarimana government and Kagame’s RPF, at that point a rebel group based in Uganda.  Kagame and many of his companions were the children of Tutsis who had been driven out of Rwanda when a Hutu government came to power at independence in 1962. Lacking any impartial or democratic means to redress these ethnic grievances, they formed an armed group instead, and invaded in 1990 after a series of economic crises had weakened Habyarimana’s authoritarian control.

There are several implications of this analogy.  Most obviously, it suggests that there’s a problem with the RPF’s ban on discussions of ethnic identity, which means that ethnicized grievances among both Hutu and Tutsi can’t be openly resolved.  At this point both sides have complaints about everything from the RPF’s behavior during and after the genocide to contemporary land policy.  It’s by no means guaranteed that these issues will spill over into violent rebellion, of course – they might simply simmer at a local level, or even fade away as shared economic growth and the passage of time reduce some of the sting of current grievances. However, the other lesson of this analogy is that conflict doesn’t always happen immediately.  After 1962, exiled Tutsis made a handful of attempts to invade Rwanda, but it was nearly 30 years before the RPF succeeded.  Authoritarian stability today doesn’t necessarily predict stability in the future.

So which is the “right” analogy?  I still don’t really know.  For a number of reasons, I think it’s harder to finance a violent rebellion in most African countries today than it was in the mid-1990s.  The RPF’s control of the countryside is strong, as is the Rwandan military.  It’s hard to imagine how they could become sufficiently disorganized that other armed groups could form within the country, or even pose a real threat across its borders.  Of course, if a severe schism formed within the party (as happened with the SPLM in South Sudan recently), this could change the balance of power.  Ultimately, the analogy you prefer may come down to your tolerance for risk.  Mitigating the chance of a worse-case outcome under the “Rwanda in 1992″ analogy may seem like a better policy choice for some people than trying to maximize the chance of high economic growth under the Singapore scenario.

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The team at the Development and Aid World News Service (DAWNS) recently asked me to review their email digest and write a blog post with my comments.  The daily email features a selection of development-related news stories from around the world, as well as a round-up of blog posts, opinion pieces, and recent academic research on development.  Proceeds from the $2 monthly subscription go to fund a grant program for journalists with humanitarian stories to tell.  So far journalists from the Philippines, Yemen, India and Cameroon have won grants of $500 – $1000 each.

I’m a regular reader of English-language development blogs and African newspapers, so I was initially skeptical about whether the digest would provide me with much new information.  Happily, it defied my expectations.  Each digest features detailed summaries of two top news stories (generally focused on humanitarian emergencies), and 1 – 5 headlines from a variety of regions around the world.  I was pleased to see that the regional focus was pretty specific, including East & Central, West, and Southern Africa; the Middle East & North Africa; Central & South Asia; East Asia; the Americas; and other global news.  The blog posts and research reports cover an equally broad range of countries.  Many of the Africa stories weren’t entirely new to me, but I found it very useful to see consistent coverage of development stories from other regions, since I don’t otherwise tend to seek this information out.

Most of the news pieces came from major American or British newspapers (NY Times, Associated Press, Guardian) or humanitarian news sources such as IRIN, although most regional coverage included at least one headline from local newspapers as well.   One of the only things that I would have liked to see done differently would be the inclusion of more articles from local newspapers.  If possible, it would also be nice to have more articles in languages other than English, or (keeping with the Anglophone audience) English translations of pieces in other languages, like the Wilson Center’s Africa Program does.  However, the global scope of the digest does mean that the number of languages to choose from could be rather overwhelming, so I acknowledge that this might be difficult to do equitably.

In general, though, DAWNS has been great.  After my free one-month trial was over (which everyone, not just reviewers, is eligible for), I signed up to continue the service.  I’d definitely recommend it to anyone working in development.