Links I liked

The photo shows a bar of chocolate with Ghanaian adinkra symbols printed on itEdible art from 57 Chocolate in Ghana

The image shows a tweet reading, "my dream is to send a rural African village girl to Mars in a spaceship designed, built, and launched in Africa" - Elsie Kanza, WEFDreaming big (source)

  • Song of the week: Run, don’t walk, to listen to “Republique Amazone,” the debut album from new West African supergroup Les Amazones d’Afrique.  Angélique Kidjo, Kandia Kouyaté, Mamani Keita, Mariam Doumbia, Mariam Koné, Massan Coulibaly, Mouneissa Tandina, Nneka, Pamela Badjogo and Rokia Koné all in one place!

Links I liked

The image shows colorful wax print fabric from Burkina FasoA favorite shot from fabric shopping in Ouaga last weekend

  • Video of the week: this is a beautiful homage to Dakar from Senegalese-French rapper Booba.

The politics of urban renewal in Kampala

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Main taxi park, Kampala.  (All photos in this post by me)

Tom Goodfellow recently shared a link to one of the best pieces I’ve seen in a long time about the politics of urban change in Africa.   It appears that the entire article might not be available to readers who aren’t on Twitter, so I’ve excerpted some key parts here.  Do read the whole thing if you can.

The article begins with a deep dive into the workings of the Kampala Capital City Authority (KCCA), a recently created governing body which has raised tax revenues by 89% over five years and begun cleaning up the city — but at the cost of increased tax burdens for small businesses and ordinary citizens.

“It’s a significant achievement,” says Roland White, global lead for city management, governance and financing at the World Bank. “I’m just not aware of any other big African city which has done what Kampala has done in proportional terms.”

… Last year Global Credit Ratings, a South African agency, gave Kampala an “A” rating for its long-term debt, which could pave the way for a municipal bond issue. There is some way to go yet, but if a bond materializes it would be a first for Uganda, and a rare sight in Africa more generally: a symbol that Kampala has got its finances in order and is open for investment.

But for all the plaudits, much of that extra revenue has been squeezed from … taxi drivers and small businesses, who are struggling to get by. Many Kampalans feel disempowered by reform. The KCCA’s powerful executive director is appointed directly by the president, and overseen by a Minister for Kampala in cabinet. While the authority’s technocratic vim excites international experts, it alienates the locals. “The KCCA doesn’t listen,” says Naswif Kiggundu, a trader. “They do each and every thing from the top.”

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Old meets new at Tropical Bank on Kampala Road

The local politics of tax reform are connected to national debates as well.  The current mayor has become known not just for his opposition to KCCA’s new taxes but for his broader stance against Yoweri Museveni’s 30-year rule as well.

The avatar of this bubbling discontent is Erias Lukwago, a populist lawyer who was elected as Lord Mayor in 2011. He demanded a tax refund for traders, refused to approve the taxi fee and was arrested while protesting the eviction of vendors from one of the taxi parks. His posturing predictably irked the KCCA’s executive director, Jennifer Musisi, a hard-nosed technocrat dubbed the “iron lady’” by local press. …

“He’s our mayor, not their mayor,” says one driver, who didn’t want to be named. In part, Lukwago owes his popularity to national politics: He has promised to “dismantle the dictatorship” of Uganda’s long-time president, Yoweri Museveni, who is widely loathed in Kampala. But he also articulates a radical notion of accountability, which directly challenges the KCCA’s appointed officials. …
Opposition protests are quenched with tear gas. Plans to redevelop markets, ban street vendors and register boda bodas (motorbike taxis) have all met resistance. When it comes to revenue collection, the KCCA’s approach to enforcement is seen as arbitrary and unforgiving — a “witch hunt,” in the words of Kennedy Okello, a newly elected councilor.

KCCA officials deny any unfairness. “I don’t see why someone who is upright fears the regulations,” says Sam Sserunkuuma, director of revenue collection. The traders and taxi drivers do not own the city, he adds, listing the services from street cleaning to hospitals that their fees help to fund.

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Downtown viewed from Kifumbira

A more straightforward revenue solution would be to tax property or land, but existing regulations and infrequent property valuations make this difficult.

For Kampala, an effective property tax is the Holy Grail. “It should be the main revenue source,” says Sam Sserunkuuma, KCCA director of revenue collection: He reckons the city could triple the amount it currently collects.

But tax officials are groping in the dark. The last property valuation was done in 2005, and revised in 2009. Though rental values have tripled in a decade, none of the gains have reached city coffers. New buildings like Acacia Mall do not officially exist.

World Bank support is helping the KCCA to compile a database of buildings, using geographic information system (GIS) technology. When the mapping is complete, tax officials plan to apply a rough valuation of each property based on its location — a cheaper alternative to individual assessments.

There is one snag. Owner-occupied houses are exempt from property tax, following a cynical promise by the President during the 2006 elections. They make up 53 percent of all eligible properties, so the resulting losses are huge. Sserunkuuma describes the law as a “headache”: His officials have to traipse around town, verifying how buildings are being used. It also creates loopholes for tax evaders to exploit.

But only central government has the power to scrap the exemption. The KCCA’s best efforts have so far failed to coax a law change from Uganda’s self-interested politicians, who recently passed a bill to exempt themselves from income tax.

kampala hillsPosh green yards sit next to informal housing near Kololo

The steps that Kampala has taken towards urban renewal are part of a broader trend across the continent.  But across the board, political challenges remain.

All over Africa, cities puzzle over the same conundrums. Rwanda has a new electronic land register, which could help with taxation. Several Tanzanian cities have plumped up their revenues through canny administrative reforms. Lagos, in Nigeria, has patiently cultivated a tax-paying culture, with impressive results.

The lingering question, in Kampala and elsewhere, is who will bear the biggest burden. So far, at least, the wealthy properties on the city’s breezy hilltops have been relatively untouched by reform. “It’s much easier to go after the small guy,” says Nansozi Muwanga of Makerere University. “It’s much easier to after the taxi driver, the lady who brings her green peppers on the sidewalk, the person who’s selling Chinese clogs.”

Dinner with John Githongo

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John Githongo (source)

I’m quite behind the times on this, but in April, I had the chance to attend a dinner at Stanford for visiting scholar John Githongo.  It was a fascinating chance to hear from a noted anti-corruption campaigner and insightful political analyst.  His wife Mshai Mwangola also attended, and spoke about her activism with Ni Sisi! and work with the Africa Peacebuilding Network. Here are some of the main points I took away from the conversation with both of them.

On the future of the EAC:

  • Githongo originally held strongly pan-African aspirations, and was hopeful about ECOMOG’s intervention intervention in Liberia.  However, achieving the requisite level of coordination between states to make regional governance work is quite difficult
  • The EAC is different to other regional organizations in that it’s the only one with a Parliament that can pass laws
  • He’s optimistic that further economic integration between EAC countries will strengthen the alliance.  However, coordination problems remain a challenge.  At the time of his visit, the EAC wasn’t able to agree on a response to Nkurunziza’s attempts to seek a third term

On China in Africa:

  • Chinese roads are bad in Angola but good in Ethiopia.  The effects of Chinese investment depend on the relationship with the state and control of corruption
  • The US has soft (cultural) power in Africa which China can’t match at present, although they are beginning to import new TV shows and music
  • Most middle class families in Nairobi have at one member who’s spent some time in China
  • There’s speculation that the Chinese peacekeeping troops in South Sudan are really there to protect their oil investments

On corruption (of course):

  • Corruption can be a security threat — “why not steal from the road sector instead of law enforcement?”
  • The idea of embezzling millions is too abstract to provoke popular discontent, but conspicuous consumption is looked down upon
  • In Tanzania, Nyerere set an influential example of avoiding corruption
  • However, there are limits to importing anti-corruption techniques from other countries.  “If you put Kagame in the Kenyan context, it wouldn’t work — Kenyans are used to their freedoms”

On citizen activism:

  • Mwangola runs a course on citizen activism, I believe through Ni Sisi.  She pointed out that there are three main paths to change: reform (slow and incremental), transform (getting the middle class involved), or revolt (which rarely works)
  • One important function of the course has been giving people a space to vent and organize
  • As the media opens up, stand-up comedy is booming across Africa in response to continued political and economic crises

Do politicians substitute cash transfers for other public goods?

The results from Twaweza’s latest Sauti za Wananchi poll in Tanzania are out, and they include some interesting questions about public support for cash transfers.  There’s a good write-up at the CGD blog.  In short, people were less supportive of cash transfers than one might have expected – and the more they learned about the transfers, the more likely they were to say that they would prefer the government to spend money on other public goods.  This is all the more surprising given that the transfers provided through the Tanzania Social Action Fund have been found to have a wide range of positive social impacts.

I came across similar types of skepticism when I was speaking with people in Ghana about the LEAP program this summer.  These were informal conversations with friends and casual acquaintances, so obviously not representative of Ghanaian public opinion generally, but they still had an interesting range of variation.  A number of people voiced the standard objection that cash transfers would make recipients lazy and entitled.  When I pointed out that research in other low income countries has shown that this isn’t generally the case, they often suggested that Ghana might be the exception.  (Regardless of one’s priors on this matter, though, I’m fairly sure that receiving US$10 – 20 a month isn’t encouraging many people to drop out of the labor market.)

One reaction that I hadn’t expected was what I’ve come to think of as the public goods critique, similar to the Twaweza results.  Several people agreed that cash transfers might be useful, but suggested that this could lead to lower investment in other types of public goods.  Tony Hall at LSE has argued this explicitly in the case of Brazil.  The underlying concern here seemed to be that the current donor enthusiasm for cash transfers would give governments a way of ducking their responsibilities to provide public goods – giving poor citizens small amounts of money before sending them off to fend for themselves.  It’s certainly true that cash transfers are administratively much simpler than maintaining functioning public education or healthcare systems.  A promising area for future research, I think.