Links I liked

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“The International Community” (via Ken Opalo)

  • World Politics Review has a series of ten articles covering the rise of protest movements across Africa.  Another important source of information about political activism in Africa is the Afrobarometer, which currently faces cuts to its funding.  If you’ve used Afrobarometer data in your research, please fill out this survey to demonstrate its importance.

china-in-africaSource: African Visual Data

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The Indian construction companies rebuilding post-conflict states

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Indian businesspeople waiting for a flight in South Sudan, via Caravan

Caravan magazine recently published a fascinating article about the Indian-owned construction firms which are waiting out the war in South Sudan.  Many of them have previous experience in other African countries experiencing or emerging from conflict, including the DRC, Kenya, Somalia and Uganda.

Kuber D, an Indian who runs a restaurant on the outskirts of Juba, had earlier set up a business in Goma, in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). He told me that during the Second Congo War, in 1998, he was held hostage in his home as rebel forces looted his stock. Other Indians I met last year during a visit to South Sudan narrated similar experiences. A commodity trader I met in a hotel told me how he was once assaulted while taking photographs in a market in Mogadishu, in Somalia; another businessman recounted how he had driven lorries through the rebel-held jungles in the DRC. Most of the people I spoke to seemed to find these risks exciting, and part of the challenge of making it in a new country. “We chase the money. We don’t care if we die,” one commodity trader said, “We’ll be born again anyway, right?”

Extremely low levels of development and industrialization in post-2005 Juba offered excellent opportunities for Indian businesspeople elsewhere in east Africa who were willing to relocate.

But compared to much of central and east Africa, South Sudan was magnitudes less developed and had been a battlefield for the better part of the previous century. Even with their experience, for these Indians, moving their jobs and businesses to Juba was a leap of faith.

At the time they moved there, Kuber told me, the city contained only a few brick structures. The rest was largely tukuls—thatched huts. The infrastructure that now stands—roads, markets, even government offices and courthouses—was scant. Many of the people I spoke to said there no power or water. “We were spending $100 a night to sleep in tents, but we didn’t mind,” Kuber told me.

Part of the allure of Juba was the presence of various non-governmental organisations from the United States or Northern Europe, which had large budgets and could contract businesses in the city. It was “a new market,” said Reddy, an Indian water driller who had previously worked in Tanzania. Sandal Raj, who also works in the drilling business, said he brought his business to Juba because he “saw the opportunity there was with aid groups.” “Even during the oil crash, we were fine,” he told me. “There were still good dollars coming in.”

The current conflict in South Sudan hasn’t completely displaced the Indian business community, but the longer it drags on, the more difficult it has become for many businesses to break even.

With the South Sudanese Pound losing several points to the US dollar almost daily, the situation has become untenable. Sanjay Patel, the director of Jit Mart, the largest supermarket in Juba, bemoaned the circumstances. Patel had been working with Jit Mart in Tanzania, and brought the franchise with him to Juba when he came, in 2006. “By the time it goes from the shelf to sale, I’m losing money on everything. The floating currency is worse than the war,” he said. Even so, he sent off his friends at the airport last week, electing instead to stay back.

Which African news stories are undercovered?

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Early 20th century masthead of the Central African Times, now the Daily Times, one of the longest running newspapers in Malawi

Daniel Kopf of Priceonomics put an interesting question to me recently: which stories about African economies don’t get the news coverage they should?  I thought of a number, and also Storified some great responses I got on Twitter.  What would you add to this list?

  • The Continental Free Trade Area has the potential to be the biggest trade deal that no one’s heard about.  I read African news constantly and I hadn’t heard of it before last week.  Where did this come from, and what are its prospects?
  • I’m quite interested in the expansion of both rail infrastructure and air travel.  Rail transport is much cheaper than road, particularly for the bulky commodities that get traded regionally or exported, but it seems like governments are more inclined to invest in roads, and it’s not clear why.  Light rail also has promise for urban areas but is being stymied by weak urban planning & the influx of motorcycles.  Similarly, air travel has huge potential but there’s all manner of politics around deregulation.
  • The insurance market is another place that looks like it should be taking off but has been slower than expected to do so.  For example, researchers were very excited about cheap rainfall insurance for subsistence farmers a few years ago, but takeup has been very low.  Personally I think there’s a rational distrust of institutions at play here — many people are accustomed to government officials extorting their money, or banks failing, and probably have good reasons not to hand over money now and expect a payout later.  (There’s also some interesting discussion of a move from humanitarian aid to catastrophe insurance for individuals, but presumably it would face the same challenges.)
  • The huge focus on China’s investments obscures the fact that many other middle- and low-income countries are building relationships in Africa.  Some of it is fairly benign, like India and Turkey‘s investment plans; but Israel is looking for countries to house deported African immigrants and North Korea is exporting weapons.
  • One thing that strikes me about African tech start-ups is that they’re consistently solving different problems than American start-ups do.  For example, they’re substituting for effective fire departments and national blood donation agencies in places where these institutions are weak.

Workfare and the politics of dignity

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MGNREGA backgrounder, via I See India

The Effective States and Inclusive Development program has just published an interesting interview with Indrajit Roy, whose research focuses on the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.  Key quote:

In rural India, my research found that despite having other alternatives, such as working for local farms and employers, when given a choice people would always choose to work on MGNREGA. I wondered why. At first glance it seemed this was because MGNREGA paid better –  but there were delays and corruption to payment, whereas local employers always paid on time, often in kind, which for rural poor people is more important than higher pay. So why do people want to work on MGNREGA?

What I found is that MGNREGA gives people dignity. People spoke of MGNREGA as providing dignified work, working for the government, whereas farmers and local employers often discriminated on the basis of caste. The rural poor tend to be from lower castes or untouchables, while farmers are from middle castes, so agricultural work entails all kinds of discriminatory attitudes towards workers. MGNREGA is not bound up in discriminatory relationships. For the rural poor the MGNREGA programme is a very practical manifestation of their rights, which demonstrates that the state of India cares for them.

What seems to matter most is that MGNREGA is a programme that allows people to live in dignity in their villages without having to leave to find work in towns. MGNREGA has not stopped migration from the villages, but it has allowed people to choose where and when they go, to space out their movements more than was previously possible. They are no longer desperate to leave their villages to find work.

There is a great deal of discord around MGNREGA. Farmers don’t like the programme because it  offers their labourers alternative opportunities, so it does not always promote a sense of community. But promoting egalitarian social relations and social justice often requires long-established community relations to be broken. Poor rural areas have seen popular movements for decades, but MGNREGA has weighed in on the side of the poor in their daily struggles. It has promoted a sense among the poor that the government cares for them and that they have more autonomy.

Highlights from APSA

I had a fantastic time at APSA last week.  Early-stage PhD students, it’s definitely worth attending even if you’re not presenting.  Here are some of the papers that really stood out to me: