Africa Update for April 2020

Here’s the latest edition of Africa Update.  I’m going to guarantee you a nearly coronavirus-free edition, because I collect links for the newsletter over the course of roughly a month and can’t put it out fast enough to keep up with the pandemic news.  So here are some other notable things that have been happening recently, plus a few coronavirus links covering underdiscussed aspects of the crisis.

Nairobi’s new skyline is taking shape, via Sam Muchai

West Africa: Cameroon has introduced new ID requirements for making mobile money payments after the services were used to pay ransoms.  Here’s how colonial understandings of the gender binary erased Igbo traditions with a very different relationship to gender.  Meet the Nigerian judge who’s liberating people in jail who have spent more time waiting for a trial than they would have served if convicted.  In Ghana, the question of whether people who are dual citizens with neighboring Togo can vote is hotly contested.  Ghana has legalized marijuana for health and industrial purposes.

Central Africa: Religious conservative organizations from the US have begun setting up “crisis pregnancy centers” which discourage contraception in Uganda.  In the DRC and Uganda, colonial-era understandings of the role of local chiefs are skewing policy interventions.  The DRC is about to pass its first law protecting the rights of people with disabilities.

East Africa: Meet the young Somalis who are changing the fact of the country with online shopping and ambulance services.  Kenya’s flower industry had a bad track record on workers’ rights even before the pandemic basically ended exports. Also in Kenya, a 2015 program to import medical equipment has been criticized after over 1/3 of the equipment ended up in hospitals without staff trained to use it.  East Africa is bracing for another locust invasion in May, even worse than the one in January.

Here’s where the locusts are coming from, via the Mail & Guardian

Southern Africa: In South Africa, the Gautrain project which serves the middle class receives state subsidies, but the minibuses which mostly serve poorer people don’t receive any.  Some women in Zimbabwe are finding new opportunities as bus drivers, while others are moving back to rural areas in order to escape the country’s long-lasting economic crisis.  Why is the insurgency in northern Mozambique getting worse?

Economics: By joining the proposed new eco zone, West African countries might give up control over their currencies in ways that are bad for growth.  Dollar Street is a fascinating new project which shows how families all around the world, including many in Africa, live on different levels of income.  In Uganda, big infrastructure projects have benefited foreign investors while sometimes literally walling off local communities from accessing them.

Interesting map of the oldest companies across the continent, via Ken Opalo

Climate + agriculture: Here’s how women in Kenya are re-introducing traditional crops to promote food security.  How are drought in Australia and floods in Kenya connected?  An American tractor company is working on a plan hailed as “Uber for tractors” in Kenya.  If plans to drill for oil in central DRC go forward, the destruction of the peat bog on top of the oil could release as much carbon as Japan produces in a year.

Research + education: Ugandan kids could learn to read more quickly if they were taught using local plants and animals for phonics lessons, rather than “A is for apple.”  Here’s how to use Shaka Zulu to decolonize the teaching of math in South Africa.  Check out this list of free online academic journals about African issues.

Young women leading the way in Namibia, via Sarah Anyang Agbor

Art + culture: I’m excited to read about all the inspiring women on OkayAfrica’s 100 Women 2020 list.  Did you know that the Senegalese national archives are an unusually good resource for historical research?  Somaliland’s informal national archives started with a crumpled napkin.  Once we can all leave our houses again, do check out the new Yemisi Shyllon Museum for African art just outside Lagos.

Coronavirus: Meet the leader of the Nigeria Centre for Disease Control, who’s dramatically scaled up public health capacity across the country after just two years in office.  One important lesson from the Ebola epidemic in Liberia is that door-to-door canvassing makes people more likely to comply with public health rules.  Research in Sierra Leone during the Ebola epidemic shows that governments are likely to see much lower tax revenues as economic activity drops.  In East Africa, coronavirus has driven gambling revenues down by 99% as people save their money for immediate needs.  Here’s a great list of articles on the pandemic from African authors.

Interesting academic articles for November 2019

Here’s what I’ve been looking forward to reading lately.

Sam Hickey, Tom Lavers, Jeremy Seekings, and Miguel Niño-Zarazúa, eds.  2019. The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa.  UNU-WIDER.

The Politics of Social Protection in Eastern and Southern Africa challenges the common conception that [social protection] has been entirely driven by international development agencies, instead focusing on the critical role of political dynamics within specific African countries. It details how the power and politics at multiple levels of governance shapes the extent to which political elites are committed to social protection, the form that this commitment takes, and the implications that this has for future welfare regimes and state-citizen relations in Africa. It reveals how international pressures only take hold when they become aligned with the incentives and ideas of ruling elites in particular contexts. It shows how elections, the politics of clientelism, political ideologies, and elite perceptions all play powerful roles in shaping when countries adopt social protection and at what levels, which groups receive benefits, and how programmes are delivered.

Rumman Khan, Oliver Morrissey, and Paul Mosley.  2019.  “Two Africas? Why Africa’s ‘growth miracle’ has barely reduced poverty.”  RePEc discussions papers 2019 – 08.

Growth improved substantially in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) since 1990, but poverty in SSA as a whole has fallen by about a third, compared to by half or more in other developing regions. While some countries have had little or no success in reducing poverty, many have had significant achievements. The paper argues that inter-country differences, traceable to colonial experience, are crucial to understanding this varied SSA performance. This is based on a distinction between relatively labour-intensive ‘smallholder’ colonial economies and capital-intensive ‘extractive economies’ exporting minerals and plantation crops. Because of the more equitable income distribution and African political inclusion generated in smallholder economies, at independence they were in a better position than extractive economies to translate growth into poverty reduction. Since the 1990s (when poverty data are available) the distinction in terms of poverty reduction can be observed. The empirical analysis estimates the growth elasticity of poverty using various specifications, some including inequality. There are two key robust findings: i) smallholder economies significantly outperform extractive economies in poverty reduction; and ii) growth rates do not differ on average between the two groups, but the growth elasticity of poverty is higher in smallholder economies.

Michael Clemens, Helen Dempster, and Kate Gough.  2019.  “Promoting New Kinds of Legal Labour Migration Pathways Between Europe and Africa.”  Center for Global Development.

As Europe’s working-age population continues to decline, sub-Saharan Africa’s is rapidly increasing. Many of these new labour market entrants will seek opportunities in Europe, plugging skill gaps and contributing to economies in their countries of destination. To make the most of these movements, the new European Commission should create and promote new kinds of legal labour migration pathways with more tangible benefits to countries of origin and destination; pilot and scale Global Skill Partnership projects between Europe and sub-Saharan Africa and within Africa; and be a positive voice for migration within Europe, promoting the benefits from migration and ensuring they are understood.

Sohela Nazneen.  2019.  “How Do Leaders Collectively Influence Institutions?”  Developmental Leadership Program.  

How do leaders collectively influence institutions? This question lies at the heart of understanding how actors influence positive change. Social scientists have attempted to answer it from different perspectives. Broadly, these either emphasise the role of actors (both the individual leader and collective bodies) and how they act and what strategies they use, or focus more on how structures and institutions (i.e. rules of the game) define contextual boundaries and create specific opportunities and incentives for actors to behave in specific ways. These two perspectives reveal important aspects of how and why actors engage in collective processes of change. However … unpacking how leaders and coalitions engage in collective processes of change requires a deeper and nuanced understanding of what factors and conditions influence the decisions taken and strategies used by leaders and coalitions at different stages along the lifecycle of reform. Collective processes of change have three interlinked stages: 1) collective formation—when leaders focus on forming collectives and maintaining group cohesion; 2) legitimation—when leaders and coalitions are concerned with framing and justifying their demands and strengthening their position to make claims; and 3) securing institutional change—when the focus is on using different strategies to negotiate an outcome for the constituencies they claim to represent.

Rajeev Dehejia, Cristian Pop-Eleches, and Cyrus Samii.  2019.  “From Local to Global: External Validity in a Fertility Natural Experiment.”  NBER working paper 21459.

We study issues related to external validity for treatment effects using over 100 replications of the Angrist and Evans (1998) natural experiment on the effects of sibling sex composition on fertility and labor supply. The replications are based on census data from around the world going back to 1960. We decompose sources of error in predicting treatment effects in external contexts in terms of macro and micro sources of variation. In our empirical setting, we find that macro covariates dominate over micro covariates for reducing errors in predicting treatments, an issue that past studies of external validity have been unable to evaluate. We develop methods for two applications to evidence-based decision-making, including determining where to locate an experiment and whether policy-makers should commission new experiments or rely on an existing evidence base for making a policy decision.

Caitlin Tulloch.  2019.  “Taking intervention costs seriously: a new, old toolbox for inference about costs.”  Journal of Development Effectiveness.

This paper examines a new set of average cost data from a large international NGO, finding that costs for the same intervention can vary as much as twenty times when scale or context is changed. Despite this challenge to the generalisability of cost estimates, a high proportion of the variation can be explained by observable program and contextual characteristics. Binary questions about whether cost estimates are externally valid do not provide a useful framework for wider inference; instead, researchers can gain analytical traction if they study what factors cause the costs of specific interventions to change, and by how much.

Cartographic literacy and the rise of Uber in Africa

uber

Yinka Adegoke set off an interesting thread on Twitter yesterday with the above observation about Uber.  People chimed in to agree that this was common in Nairobi, Abuja, Bangalore and Beijing as well, and seemed connected to poor local mapping (see the whole thread on Storify).  I’ve had plenty of similar conversations with Uber drivers in central Accra, where Google Maps is actually quite accurate, as well.

This reminded me of a point I’ve been making in conversation for years now: cartographic literacy is a historically recent skill.  For most of human history, the average person never would have seen a map, let alone needed one to navigate a well-known environment.  Mentally translating a eye-level view of (say) an urban street into a bird’s-eye view on a map and using this to navigate is a rather unusual task, and an understandable challenge if one hasn’t had to do it very often.

A bit of a detour through European and African cartographic history here.  People have been making maps for a very long time, but up until roughly the Enlightenment, it would have been difficult to use them for overland navigation in the way that we assume maps are to be used today.  In part this was due to limitations of cartographic knowledge and the difficulty of accurately depicting the spherical Earth on a two-dimensional map. However, many maps were also intended to depict connections between places of political or religious significance rather than a literal representation of the terrain between them.  Here are two European maps from the 1480s that capture this variation in intent.

The Martellus world map was made in Italy around 1489.  There’s a clear attempt at cartographic accuracy here, and the coastlines of Europe and northern and western Africa are presented in great detail.  Knowledge of coasts and maritime routes was quite important at the time because the vast majority of long-distance trade went by sea (as in fact it still does today).  The interiors of most countries are largely unlabelled, however, even for European states which were presumably better documented at the time.

The image shows a map of the world from 1489Source: Wikipedia

Compare that map to this Mappa Mundi produced in Germany around 1480.  This is an example of a politico-religious map which places Jerusalem in the center of the world.  It lists a number of contemporary Christian European cities and states, such as Rome and England, but makes no attempt to accurately depict the terrain between them.

The image shows a map of the world from 1480Source: The Morgan Library

In States and Power in Africa, Jeff Herbst argues that many early maps drawn by African cartographers adopt the same politico-religious schema.  He gives the example of a map drawn by Caliph Muhammad Bello of Sokoto for a British explorer in 1824. There’s a brief acknowledgement of some natural features, like major rivers, but this is primarily a map of political relationships between the Sokoto Caliphate (shown many times its actual size) and the smaller cities which were vassals or rivals.  Check out the tiny, misplaced Timbuktu (“Tonbaktoo”) at upper left and Kano (“Kanoo”) at lower right.

denham12Source: Princeton Library

For comparison, here’s an 1844 map of the same area from a British cartographer. It’s a bit hard to read, so I’ve labelled the relevant cities.  Putting aside the “uncharted” areas of the interior, this looks like a recognizably accurate map of the region.

The image shows a map of West Africa from 1844Source: David Rumsey Map Collection

One of the key points here is that these maps are serving different purposes.  For west African merchants, or aspirants to the Caliphate, the roads between these major cities were probably well known, but a map of contemporary political alliances would be quite useful.  For foreigners coming in to conquer, a detailed road map was important to make up for their lack of local knowledge.

All of this brings me back to Uber.  If you’ve lived in a city for most of your life, why would you need to read a map rather than navigating by well-known landmarks?  It’s like being asked to calculate distance in inches when you’re used to kilometers — an inefficient means of producing the same result.  And the mental math of doing a 3D rotation of a familiar street and projecting it onto a horizontal map is rather challenging — perhaps especially for places you know well.

I’ve got my own story about this from the time I was living in Tamale in 2010.  Google Maps hadn’t really made it to Africa yet, my guidebook had only a very small map of the city center, and I wasn’t able to find a paper map of the area.  I bought a bicycle and ended up getting to know the city quite well without ever glancing at a map.  I’ve been back four times since then, now in possession of Google Maps, and to this day I can’t look at a map of the city and make it match up to the streets I know so well.  I have to find the same landmarks that I used at the time and use them to orient myself before the map makes sense.  And I say this as someone with a BA in geography — I am not unaccustomed to maps as a rule!  But it’s given me sympathy for Uber drivers who might be facing the same challenge.