2012: the raw and promising new year

Best wishes to you and yours as we bring 2011 to a close and ring in the new year. Thanks for reading and sharing, and I look forward to another year with you in 2012.

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An excerpt from my final column of 2011 for The Independent (Rwanda Edition):

Shuffling through memories of the past twelve months, one is reminded of the heaving, tumultuous and heady days that made up the molding of global and local politics, innovation, and society. Almost every year feels exceptional at its end, and this one is no different. Exceptional for the unexpected uprisings, reassuring surprises, and most of all, the untimely, or perhaps just sobering, deaths.

A remarkable feature of the human brain is that emotion triggers extraordinary powers of memory – emotional events, traumatic or ecstatic, are captured in a different way from ordinary occurrences. I have many such memories this year. I can recall vividly the walls and tables of a classroom at the moment I heard that Tunisia’s Ben Ali stepped down, the living room and footage on Al Jazeera of Mubarak’s fall, the computer screen announcing Bin Laden’s death, and the Twitter feed of my phone as I scrolled through news of Gaddafi’s brutal demise early one morning, all in 140 characters or less. I also recall the unusually grey and rainy Palo Alto morning marking the first day in 57 years of a world without Steve Jobs, just a few days after the passing of Wangari Maathai. I see clearly the words of Christopher Hitchen’s last column staring back at me, in stark and final relief.

There are of course many other memories, moments captured with friends and family, as well as moments alone, preserved not as events in their entirety, but as a series of snapshots. At the end of every year, as now, there is more time to sit and shuffle through them. It feels like an exceptional year, and the past ten have felt like an exceptional decade.

The pace of progress, innovation, and change makes each decade, and increasingly, each year, feel remarkably different from the previous. In the first decade of the twenty-first century, we experienced tremendous economic growth worldwide, a sharp break from the previous several decades. By the mid-2000s, nearly every single country in the world experienced positive economic growth. The number of new infections of HIV is falling by the year, and deaths due to HIV peaked in sub-Saharan Africa and worldwide in 2004/5. Around the same time, Google went public, and together with Facebook, is now a household name in the global village. Mobile phone use has increased exponentially worldwide. In 2000, there were 12 mobile phone users for every 100 people. Today, there are around 69 mobile phone subscribers for every 100 individuals around the globe.

Change, therefore, is brazenly constant. Anyone who suggests otherwise is either deluding themselves or not paying attention. This is as true in Africa as in the rest of the world, although many both in and outside of the continent have been slow to recognize that the former has not, in fact, been standing in place while the latter dashes on.

The churning and surging marketplace for ideas is open. The stepping-stones placed by yesterday’s innovators serve as a launching pads for vaulting into the next year and decade. Even in the destruction strewn by mad and ordinary men lie the pieces that will build society anew. One can pick them up, or stargaze at glittering towers and soaring skylines far from home.

Entering the new year, we are without many of those who began 2011 with us just one year ago. The most memorable deaths on the news circuit were violent, painful, or both, untimely or just-in-time. The world is short a few tyrants, but short a good many great and beautiful minds too. Their exit is a reminder of the inexorable march forward that spares no one. There is no standing still, but there are choices, and our own expectations.

Here is to the raw and promising new year.

Analyzing Africa: The Audacity of Despair

A new, defiant image

Published online at The Independent, Rwanda Edition, December 17, 2011

In 2000, the cover of The Economist pictured a boy wielding an AK47 inside the outline of the African continent, surrounded by black. “The hopeless continent,” the cover ominously read. At the time a combination of factors led the magazine and a whole host of bystanders to throw up their hands in despair, and mentally close the door to hope for the future of “Africa.” A decade later, The Economist, whose cover this week reads, “Africa rising” and many others, are waking up, wide-eyed, to realize the tremendous growth and progress that has been taking place on the continent all along. Progress has not been even, or without crushing reversals along the way. But given the history of development across the globe, it is entirely unclear why we should have anticipated linear progress, or lament its absence. Political, social, and economic development will carry on with or without handwringing at one extreme, or ululations at the other.

There have been at least two common mistakes in assessing progress (or the lack thereof) in “Africa,” which together have made for some rather wrongheaded analyses. First, there is a danger in conflating levels of development with development itself. It is obvious to all that levels of per capita income, education, and mortality, for example are lower on average in Africa than anywhere else. The issue of levels, however, is entirely different from change over time. Contrary to popular belief, improvement in both human and economic development was occurring in Africa before the dawn of the new millennium, just not everywhere. This leads me to the second analytic pitfall – the “Africa is a country” problem.

It is obvious to all that Africa is not a country but a continent, but analysis nonetheless often treats Africa as if it were one political, economic, or social unit. It is not. There is tremendous variation across the continent in both levels of development and rates of improvement over time. A failure to acknowledge the divergent paths countries have taken leads to the kind of essentialisation one tends to regret.

It is all too easy to essentialize. The mind recalls the most extreme cases, and remembers those that support prior beliefs. So in 2000, near the height of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, with flooding, drought, the Second Congo War, political crisis in Sierra Leone and a waffling UN Security Council, it was easy to create an image of Africa that was tearing itself to pieces. “Africa was weak before the Europeans touched its coasts. Nature is not kind to it,” wrote The Economist. “This may be the birthplace of mankind, but it is hardly surprising that humans sought other continents to live in.” Ouch.

As noted, it is true that levels of development, that is, income per capita, literacy, infant mortality, and many other measures of development, are comparatively far lower in sub-Saharan Africa, but all of this ignores the changes that have been taking place. In the 1990s, for instance, despite much pessimism, a number of countries held multi-party elections, a wave that started with Benin in 1991. While these countries would not become flourishing liberal democracies overnight, the 1990s would mark the beginning of the end of dictatorship as we know it.

There was also an effort to improve access to education, and the percentage of children completing primary school grew in a number of countries, including Benin, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, The Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Liberia, Mali, Malawi, Togo, and Uganda, albeit occasionally starting at very low levels. Gains in education were not achieved everywhere, and schooling declined in some countries, but this fact only further demonstrates the variation in performance across African countries.

The best news is that although improvement in education varied, improvements in health over the past several decades have been nearly universal. Since 1960, child mortality has fallen in every single African country for which there is data, with the possible exception of Somalia. Even in a country like the Central African Republic (CAR), notorious for its poor governance, under-5 mortality fell by half over the past fifty years, from 300 to just over 150 deaths per 1000 births. In 1960, just over one in three children born in CAR would not live to see their fifth birthday; today six out of seven will survive childhood. Moreover, in spite of the devastating HIV/AIDS pandemic, which has claimed millions of lives, the hardest hit African countries are rebounding, and child and maternal mortality rates are again declining in countries like Botswana, Namibia, South Africa, and Zimbabwe.

Economically, the performance of African countries has been diverse for decades, with some countries consistently growing and others wallowing in economic misery. A number of African countries experienced periods of negative economic growth throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and into the 1990s, which, along with population growth throughout, meant that several had the same or even lower levels of per capita income in the 1990s than they had at independence.

Still, many countries began to see positive economic growth in the 1990s or earlier, including countries as diverse as Angola, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo (Brazzaville), Ethiopia, Ghana, Guinea, Mali, Mozambique, Rwanda, Senegal, Uganda, and Zambia. Some of these economies are reliant on commodities such as oil and minerals, but service and other sectors comprise an increasing share of the economy in many countries, and regional trade has grown as well.

Average levels of development give Africa a bad name, but initial conditions were different from most of the rest of the world, and rates of improvement have often equaled or exceeded those in the developed world. As interest in Africa is piqued by double-digit economic growth figures and opportunities for investment, we will continue to see discussion of a part of the world most people inadvertently essentialize. Fortunately, I think the audacity of despair that has pervaded western thinking on Africa has left little in its wake other than egg on some faces. The audacity of hope has now come to the fore.

books on my reading list

At the beginning of every school year I am invariably overly ambitious about what I can realistically accomplish, including the number of books that can reasonably be read in a day week. Nevertheless, let me begin a list here of the books I hope to tackle (required reading not included) in the next couple of months.

  • The Escape from Hunger and Premature Death, 1700-2100, by Robert Fogel.                                                                                                                       “Technophysio evolution and its implications are the central themes of this volume. The term describes the complex interaction between advances in the technology of production and improvements in human physiology. The interaction is synergistic, which means that the total effect is greater than the sum of its parts. This interaction between technological and physiological improvements has produced a form of evolution that is not only unique to humankind but unique among the 7,000 or so generations of human beings who have inhabited the earth.” This book sounds remarkably like the dissertation I hope to write. Only that I almost surely will never win a Nobel Prize in economics …details, details.
  • African Development: Making Sense of the Issues and Actors, by Todd J. Moss (@moss_dc)                                                                                                  “This book aims for a simple, but hopefully not simplistic, introduction to the main themes, trends, and players in contemporary African development.” This book seems to be doing the rounds in development circles and is probably a good resource for both teachers and students of African politics and development.
  • The Drunkard’s Walk: How Randomness Rules Our Lives, by Leonard Mlodinow                                                                                                               “Offering readers not only a tour of randomness, chance and probability but also a new way of looking at the world, this original, unexpected journey reminds us that much in our lives is about as predictable as the steps of a stumbling man fresh from a night at the bar.” Recommended by a brilliant and enterprising friend whose reading recommendations can only be totally worthwhile. And it has a great title!
  • Decentralization in Uganda: Explaining Successes and Failures in Local Governance, by Gina M.S. Lambright.                                                                  Just discovered this one in a political science “new books” publication.
  • Museveni’s Uganda: Paradoxes of Power in a Hybrid Regime, by Aili Tripp       Also recently discovered this one, has anyone read it?
  • Decision Points, George W. Bush                                                                        Because political autobiographies are fascinating.

More to be added as we go along. What are you reading?

UPDATE:

See, I’m already getting ahead of myself. So far I have read 1.1 of the above books (specifically Fogel, and a bit of Bush and Moss), and I’ve already added more. Recent additions:

I also recently read Rational Ritual: Culture, Coordination and Common Knowledge, by Michael Suk-Young Chwe, which I recommend and hope to write about soon.