Africa Update for March 2019

Here’s the latest edition of my Africa Update newsletter.  We’ve got the professional mourners of the DRC, Somalia’s unique mobile money ecosystem, the Lagos art scene, Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon, and more.

A Ghanaian man and his young daughter, with text superimposed next to the reading "justice is what love looks like in public" - Cornel West

Thought for the day, via Òman Baako

West Africa: This was a difficult but important read about rape culture in Ghana.  In Nigeria, “men are always having transactional sex, and they are fine with it as long as they are the ones setting the terms of the transaction.” Technology is making it more difficult to rig elections by stuffing ballot boxes in Nigeria.  Sierra Leone has declared a national emergency over high rates of sexual assault of teenage girls. Survivors of the West African Ebola epidemic are complaining after it emerged that their blood samples have been shipped worldwide for research without their consent.

Central Africa: Uganda is running sting operations to catch healthcare providers who ask for bribes.  If your career is lagging in eastern Congo, you might consider becoming a professional mourner.  This is a remarkable story about how one Congolese doctor worked closely with armed groups to vaccinate people in a remote town against Ebola.  Rwanda has launched a new University of Global Health Equity to train future doctors.  Read this moving piece on Burundi’s tiny lesbian community.

Two young boys sit at wooden desks inside an ornate, palatial room

Apparently the Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko’s former palace in Lisala was turned into a school at one point (via Nicolas-Patience Basabose)

East Africa: Here’s some background on the case currently being heard in Kenyan courts that could decriminalize homosexuality.  Kenya’s new educational policy will give students several more years of instruction in their local languages before switching to English, which should boost their overall literacy.  Read about the rise of rollerblading culture in Nairobi. Two Eritrean brothers are bringing solar panels to markets which big Western solar firms won’t touch. Tanzania has begun offering land titles to people in poor neighborhoods, rather than driving them away for lacking titles.  Here are the historical precedents of the current uprising in Sudan.  This is a great profile of the unique mobile money ecosystem in Somalia, where as much as 98% of all paper currency in circulation may be counterfeit.

Southern Africa: More than 900 people, most of them children, have died in a measles outbreak in Madagascar.  A hospital in Malawi has carried out its first-ever brain surgery.  Malawi’s healthcare system calls for women to get regular medical care for themselves and their children, but some are questioning whether this disconnects men from care.  South Africa has passed a law which would require disclosure of political parties’ funding sources for the first time.  Zambia just made a rare move to revert from a value-added tax (VAT) back to a sales tax, which will probably increase tax evasion.

An overhead view of a pick-up truck painted with camouflage, with several Sudanese men sitting in the back, and a very large Sudanese flag waving overhead

An artistic interpretation of Sudan’s current protests by Jaili Hajo, via Shado Magazine

Conflict: Read this critique of the NYT’s reporting on armed groups and US counterinsurgency operations in Burkina Faso.  France is carrying out airstrikes in Chad against “terrorist” groups which some say are just the government’s political opponents.  Years of attacks by armed groups have shaped Kenya’s public architecture with a focus on (often ineffective) security features.  This is a remarkable story about the Kenyan citizens who went to Somalia to fight with al-Shabaab.  Here are the roadblocks to integrating rebels into the army in South Sudan. In the Central African Republic, a high profile panel of religious leaders calls for peace but faces obstacles in convincing the public that they’re credible.

Politics + economics: African governments are increasingly likely to tax mobile money transactions, but even small taxes may drive so many users back to cash that the revenue effects are null.  Here’s a good summary of the expansion of welfare programs across Africa.  The children of immigrants in Africa face the risk of being stateless, as neither their host country nor their parents’ country of origin may recognize their citizenship.  Read about the political business cycles which make elections expensive undertakings in many African countries.

An Ethiopian woman with the bottom half of her face painted blue, wearing a red cape, in front of a blue background

Check out all of the wonderful female photographers highlighted by Sarah Waiswa on Twitter.  This photo is from Ethiopia’s Aïda Muluneh.

Women’s empowerment: Check out these books by Nigerian authors on the longlist of the 2019 Women’s Prize for Fiction.  Maria Obonyo of Uganda gave new meaning to “life-long learning” when she enrolled in primary school at the age of 80 to learn how to write.   OkayAfrica has released their list of 100 influential African women for 2019.  A protest at a Nigerian market has encouraged male vendors to stop catcalling women in order to get them to buy their products.  Meet Claire Karekezi, who is Rwanda’s first female neurosurgeon.

Arts + culture: This library inside a converted mosque in Niger is beautiful.   Nigeria’s burgeoning art scene looks amazing.  This is a wonderful piece about the place of kitenge fabric in a contemporary pan-African aesthetic.  I can’t wait to see Blitz the Ambassador’s magical realist film “The Burial of Kojo” about one family’s life in Ghana.  Bakwa Magazine is seeking submissions by March 15 for an issue about the experience of traveling while African.

An infographic about scientific research output in Africa

Facts about African research output via the Mawazo Institute

AcademiaThe 2nd African Evidence to Action Conference is being held in Accra from July 11 – 12.  Submit a manuscript to the Working Group in African Political Economy by March 27 for a meeting held in Cape Town, also on July 10 – 12.  African scholars are encouraged to apply to the Africa Research Development Group at the American Political Science Association annual meeting (due March 10; meeting from August 28 – September 1).  If you’re looking for research collaborators, check out the newly launched Network of Impact Evaluation Researchers in Africa.

“Kinshasa is only slightly better connected to the global economy than the North Pole”

This striking quote is from a recent profile of the city in CapX.  Over at The Pudding, that observation sparked some interesting work visualizing the number of flights leaving from cities around the world each day.

Matt Daniels notes that Kinshasa, with its 13 million residents, has about 13 outbound flights each day.  That’s just slightly more than Barrow, Alaska, which has 10 daily flights for its population of 5000 people.  Conversely, over 900 flights depart from Paris each day (pop. 13 million as well).

A map of the world on a black background. It shows the routes of the 900 flights that leave Paris daily, bound for destinations all over the world. Conversely,

As shown in the graph below, Lagos also has substantially fewer flights than one might expect given its size.  In general, you’re better off predicting the number of flights from a city by looking at its economy, rather than its overall population.  New York seems to be an outlier here because it’s a primary transit point between two wealthy regions (Europe and North America).

Two bar graphs. The one on the right shows the population of various global cities, ranging from Tokyo's 35 million to Bangkok's roughly 12 million. The graph on the left shows the number of flights each day leaving those cities. In general, larger cities have more flights, but this doesn't hold true for very poor cities like Lahore or Lagos

 

More books on development for the interested generalist

I’ve read quite a few fine books on on international development since I last wrote about books on development for the interested generalist.  I still stand by books 1 -4 and 6 on that list.  I suspect that 5, 7 and 8 may now be outdated.  Here’s what I would add to the list.  Please send your suggestions in as well!

  1. Violence and Social Orders: A Conceptual Framework for Interpreting Recorded Human History, by Douglass North, Jim Wallis and Barry Weingast.  A succinct and compelling discussion of why some states become rich and stay rich over the long run, while most remain relatively poor.  Does a great job getting past arguments focused on geography or technology to look at the politics of economic growth.
  2. Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means so Much, by Sendhil Mullainathan.  A fascinating look at the cognitive effects of poverty, which are considerable.  The brief version of the argument is that people who face constant stress about whether they can afford to meet their basic needs often find it difficult to focus on making longer-term investments, such as making sure their children attend school regularly.  Could be read along with James Scott’s Weapons of the Weak as a short course on why behaviors that might look confusing to outside observers are often quite rational.
  3. Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Condition have Failed, by James Scott.  Essentially a treatise on standardization (of names, languages, railway gauges, what have you) and the role that this has played in many ambitiously large but ultimately unsuccessful development schemes.  Scott is a wonderful writer, and he has a gift for taking topics that might be dull in the hands of a lesser writer (like the standardization of basket sizes for paying grain taxes in medieval Europe) and finding the human drama within them.
  4. More than Good Intentions: Improving the Ways the World’s Poor Borrow, Save, Farm and Stay Healthy, by Dean Karlan & Jacob Appel, and Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, by Esther Duflo & Abhijit Banerjee.  Both books offer a great introduction to a new type of research in economics aimed at finding effective policies to reduce poverty.  What I appreciate about this type of research is that it represents to me a type of hopeful pragmatism.  It isn’t geared toward identifying the type of big push policies that might lift a whole country out of poverty in a generation (which few states besides China have the capacity to carry out anyway), but it takes an experimental, iterative approach to finding new products and services that are useful to ordinary people in low income countries.
  5. Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error, by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie.  A truly remarkable book about daily life in a small town in the mountains of southern France in the early 14th century.  Many people in the town held Albigensian beliefs, and were subject to an inquisition by the Catholic Church, which produced exhaustive records of their interactions with their neighbors and with visiting Albigensian holy men.  Le Roy Ladurie used these records to reconstruct a richly detailed portrait of personal, political and economic life in rural France nearly 700 years ago.  It’s a poignant reminder that even today’s high income countries were once basically just as poor as anywhere else – but also that poverty doesn’t inherently have to mean isolation, deprivation, or constant unhappiness.
  6. The Zenith, by Duong Thu Huong.  A fantastic recent novel by one of Vietnam’s leading authors.  It’s an imaginative retelling of the end of Ho Chi Minh’s life in an isolated mountain villa, and how it comes to intersect with the daily lives of the people living in the small towns nearby.  Rather like Montaillou, this is a complex, interesting, and deeply felt portrayal of rural life in a low income country.