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Technicolor Congo: Rivers

I had plans for this to be a substantive post – a review of Kinshasa: Tales from the Invisible City, in fact.  My aspirations got as far as looking around Google Images for photographer Marie-Francoise Plissart’s photos (which accompany Kinshasa) before they ran smack into my post-finals exhaustion.  However, I did enjoy the reminder that there are some truly beautiful photos of the DRC out there, and wished to share some of the most visually interesting that I found.  Today: rivers.

Michael K. Nichols (source)

Yasuyoshi Chiba (source)

Unknown photographer (source)

A different look at global income inequality

Something that has long struck me about modern discourses on international development is the idea that poverty is somehow shocking, an aberrance in our age of wealth.  It’s not!  Plenty of people in the world live in the way that humans have lived for most of history.  If anything, it is the wealth of the developed West that is profoundly and ahistorically abnormal.

Worldmapper has some good maps of population and wealth through history that offer a bit of perspective on this topic.  Data for year 1 CE was taken from Angus Maddison’s historical estimates of the world economy.  Check out these maps of estimated population and wealth at this time:

Population, 1 CE (source)

Wealth, 1 CE (source)

You’ll note that the maps are virtually identical, reflecting the facts that per capita GDP (imputed to modern territories, as these states obviously didn’t exist in 1 CE) varied extremely little around the world.  Maddison has estimated it at an average of $445 annually per person.

Now check out population and wealth in 2000:

Population, 2000 CE (source)

Wealth, 2002 CE (source)

Hello disparities!  Latin America is the only region where wealth appears to have grown roughly commensurately with population.  The US, Europe and Japan, of course, are looking a bit bloated, whilst most of sub-Saharan Africa appears to be doing worse (relative to the rest of the world) than it was 2000 years ago.  Average global per capita GDP in 2000 was about $5200, meaning that even the massive population growth of the last two millennia has not prevented the world’s citizens from growing (on average) more than ten times as rich as they were in 1 CE.

It should go without saying that the conclusions one can actually draw from a set of maps drawn with imputed data is limited.  However, I still find it useful to have a reminder that we shouldn’t assume the normalcy or inevitability of the world as we see it today.

Severine Autesserre on the failure of peacekeeping in the DRC

Severine Autesserre recently joined Francis Fukuyama at SAIS to discuss state-building in the DRC.  (My hat is definitely off to African Studies at SAIS, who have pulled together some fabulous events this term despite being a relatively small department.)  Autesserre’s talk largely drew from her recent book on the failure of international peacekeeping in the Congo, and made clear the insight she’s gained from the more than ten years she’s spent living on and off in the DRC.

As scholars like Laura Seay have noted, the continuing conflict in eastern Congo is fundamentally predicated on local factors, like land rights and citizenship, and Autesserre makes a similar argument about the failure of peacekeeping to reconstruct eastern Congo.  Whilst a common criticism of forces such as MONUC is that they enforce a hegemonic Western “liberal peace” agenda of free markets, free elections, and human rights, which may not be appropriate for the reconstruction of countries like the DRC, Autesserre points out that most peacekeepers are not in fact neutral enforcers of Western liberalism.  Instead, they often act in manners influenced by their own (frequently non-Western) beliefs & backgrounds, and within the constraints of a state that remains durably more interested in extorting its citizens than protecting them.  Even if the liberal peace agenda were sufficient to reconstruct the DRC, it has proven quite difficult to carry out on the ground.

Whilst the salience of promoting democracy and human rights may go unquestioned among the top echelons of the UN, Autesserre observes that peacekeepers usually have substantial operational autonomy on the ground.  This may lead to correspondingly idiosyncratic interpretations of their mandate.  For instance, peacekeepers whom Autesserre interviewed during fieldwork in North Kivu often preferred technical missions such as military training to more open-ended missions to reduce human rights abuses by the FARDC.  Some of this hesitance surely has to do with the sheer challenge of promoting better human rights records among the FARDC, but Autesserre also recounted an instance where reports of the recruitment of child soldiers were written off by South Asian peacekeepers, one of whom observed to her that he’d known children who had found discipline and purpose after they were recruited into his own nation’s military.

Many peacekeepers also doubted the overall value of their mandate to support the FARDC, an understandable concern given that civilians often suffer more from its predations than from those of rebel groups.  (C.f. this 2009 HRW report on sexual violence in the DRC.)  Autesserre notes that “the Congolese state is still a predatory structure,” and shares the worries of some peacekeepers that reconstructing the state may simply amount to a reconstruction of the state’s ability to harass its citizens.  Unsurprisingly, many Congolese civil society groups have felt that MONUC was misguided or even malicious in attempting to work with local government bodies to build their capacity.  With this in mind, Autesserre closed in calling for fundamental revisions to the normative ideas of state-building that MONUC (and now MONUSCO) have been called to carry out.  She shared Fukuyama’s insistence that it’s dangerous to consolidate state power before establishing the rule of law, and proposed sequencing judicial sector and security sector reform before attempts at rebuilding the capacity of the Congolese state.

Development aid in context

I’ve just started More Than Good Intentions, the new book on impact assessment in international development by Dean Karlan* & Jacob Appel, and was struck by a figure given in their introduction: US$2.3 trillion has been spent on development aid over the past 50 years.  (They don’t specify how this figure was constructed, or whether it’s in nominal or constant dollars.  However, Easterly cites the same figure elsewhere, so I’m going to run with it for the moment.)  K&A mention this in the context of arguments about development effectiveness, with the usual gloss – the question of how that much money could have failed to spark development.  Reading this now, however, I’d sooner ask the opposite question of why anyone might assume that such a trivial sum could suffice to materially transform large swathes of the world.

Think about it: US GDP in 2009 was $14 trillion in nominal terms.  In a single year, the wealthiest country in the world produces up to 6 times the value of all the money spent on aid over the last 50 years.  To put it in per capita terms, US per capita GDP in the same year was $45,989 in nominal dollars.  Let’s assume that the $2.3 trillion in aid was spent equally over those 50 years, for approximately $46 billion in aid per year.  Let’s assume as well that this aid went exclusively to the bottom billion during each of those years.  That leaves us with about $46 per person per year over 50 years – about a month and a half of subsistence at an average of $1 a day.**

This is a highly stylized and inevitably inaccurate description of how aid funding is spent, but I found it useful to put these numbers into context.  Why should we expect that a sum like $46 per person per year, no matter how effectively spent, might successfully pull nations out of poverty?  Why should we expect this paltry ammunition to succeed against the array of historically and politically contingent reasons why countries find themselves unable to grow or to equitably distribute the benefits of growth?

Of course, this isn’t actually an argument against aid, or improving aid effectiveness.  The fact that it isn’t sufficient to raise all impoverished people out of poverty doesn’t mean that the limited but real benefits that it can provide – like improving access to healthcare or education – are suddenly worthless.  And certainly almost everyone in the development community sees aid as necessary yet insufficient for development.  However, to echo Fukuyama’s critique of the lack of historical context in recent political science work (which you can read in my notes [PDF] from his recent talk at SAIS), I find it a bit troubling that we as development practitioners are still quite so focused on the causal link between aid and development, sometimes at the expense of broader thought about how countries develop and why.  As a commentator at the Fukuyama talk said, much development work feels like it’s “trying to do history in a hurry” – and with insufficient tools at that.  Alongside rigorous evaluation of the type K&A advocate, I’d love to see a stronger understanding of historical contingency & context in discourse on development.

* I worked on one of Dean’s projects with IPA, and he generously sent me a galley of the book for free.

** For the sticklers on research methods, yes, I know that nominal & real dollar amounts aren’t directly comparable; that aid hasn’t gone to a tidy billion people per year for exactly 50 years; that $1/day is actually a complex estimate of poverty [PDF]; and that living on $1/day doesn’t actually mean you get a dollar per day.  It’s a thought experiment, yo.

Nigeria & the Anglican schism

Whilst looking around on Worldmapper for my recent post on liberation theology in Africa, I found this map of the global distribution of Anglicans, which makes clear why the Church of Nigeria has played such a pivotal role in the potential schism in the Anglican Communion:

If you haven’t been following this debate, there’s a brief overview here.  To generalize a bit, there’s a conservative-progressive split in the communion that roughly corresponds with Southern and Northern churches, and it intensified over the Episcopal Church in the USA’s ordination of an openly gay man as the Bishop of New Hampshire in 2003.  I certainly think the ECUSA is on the right side of history on this point, but, as this thoughtful article from Killing the Buddha relates, African resistance to Northern theological hegemony is also tied in to historical legacies of colonialism and contemporary local-level struggles to expand the reach of the Anglican church.  Just like everything else, there aren’t any easy answers.