Economics and similar, for the sleep-deprived

A subtle change has been made to the comments links, so they no longer pop up. Does this in any way help with the problem about comments not appearing on permalinked posts, readers?

Update: seemingly not

Update: Oh yeah!

Friday, May 30, 2008

Refugee Camp All-Stars

A commenter on CT rightly upbraided me for neglecting the old blog and in particular, not having got round to the current Scouse wedding that is South African race relations. Once more, Thabo Mbeki demonstrates that there is a special place in the hall of political ignominy for those who do important jobs badly. I'm gonna top and tail this one with a pair of JK Galbraith quotes:

All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: it was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership

Obviously, Mbeki does not score well on this one; he's a world-class ignorer and equivocator. But on the other hand, I do think that a lot of people underestimate the unconscionable shittiness of the hand he's been dealt.

I have been on this one for quite a while, usually in the context of Mbeki's otherwise astonishing stasis in respect of Mugabe. The issue here is that South Africa is developing, along with a growing contingent of actual Zimbabwean refugees, a massive great class of bayaye - a piece of Ugandan slang made famous by Ryszard Kapuscinski, referring to an urban caste of full-time unemployed, living off their wits and small casual jobs, but mostly hanging around and being the source of nearly all the big political trouble in pre-Amin Uganda. The distinction between bayaye and the ordinary unemployed is one of accommodation to the status; the absence or disappearance of any link to the formal economy and civil state (to return to a theme of the last few weeks, it is not exactly difficult to think of your favourite local chickentown where the distinction between "long term unemployed" and bayaye is currently getting blurred. Quite an achievement for one of the world's most natural resources-intensive economies to deliver this during a commodities boom, by the way.

And refugees and IDPs are like the ultimate extension of bayaye. As well as having loads of spare time and no stake in society, they tend to have a frighteningly high frequency of mental health problems, a background of conflict and a daily lifestyle that more or less requires one to behave in an antisocial and violent manner in order to survive. Just as a scholar is a library's way of making more libraries, refugee camps are a crucial reproductive stage in the life cycle of atrocities. My guess is that Mbeki's inertia is the paralysis of fear - he's on a path on which all forks seem to be heading toward a very material risk of civil war in Zimbabwe, and the nature of things is that when it breaks out, a lot of the consequences are going to end up on his front porch.

Politics is not the art of the possible. Frequently it is the art of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable
5 comments this item posted by the management 5/30/2008 05:49:00 AM

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Sidebar update

Daniel G Davies, who made a brief appearance in my link list under the legend "A guy who's overcome schizophrenia to get a good job at Toxteth TV
", appears to have moved on, got another equally good looking job and a website about, among other things, his collection of old cameras made under Communist regimes. This post is just to note it's the same guy and I've updated the link, while keeping the old link hanging round because I found it rather uplifting. If anyone is aware of any other people with the same name as me please pass on the links, as I am hoping to dominate this space, then presumably monetise it somehow. I'm particularly interested in wingnuts called Daniel Davies to fill out what is currently a rather thin section of the link list.
21 comments this item posted by the management 5/13/2008 02:29:00 PM
That's a lot of copper and cobalt

Check it out, China making the big deals. I have no real analysis for this and so will substitute flippant remarks:

1. The fact that they're calling it a "Marshall Plan" is unlikely to be unintentional; political influence is being bought here along with the copper.

2. Is China in danger of buying at a high point in the copper price? Maybe, but as I kept on telling people who were making confident assertions about their willingness to acquire dollar assets, communist economies don't use mark-to-market accounting. If they've acquired reliable supplies of commodity inputs to secure their production plan, they're happy.

3. I wonder whether the world community is about to discover that the DR Congo is an appalling regime which ought not to be allowed control over its natural resources?

4. Maybe if we all whine really hard about the Olympics the deal will be called off.
12 comments this item posted by the management 5/13/2008 10:48:00 AM

Monday, May 12, 2008

Let's take this insurgency on the road!

It's a bit of a cliché, but sometimes, as when a Darfurian rebel group estimated at less than 3,000 fighters decides to take the battle to the enemy by driving 250 miles outside Darfur in a small convoy of technicals to fight a battle for Khartoum "what the fuck" is pretty much the only thing you can say. Thoughts:

1. No idea why everyone's taking at face value al-Bashir's unsupported assertion that Chad is behind this. Seems massively more likely to me that he isn't; he has nothing to gain from it. Note plenty of Afrobollocks suggesting a connection via Déby's Zarghawa ethnicity, the same as Khalil Ibrahim. I am pretty sure this isn't relevant - for one thing, tribal identity in Darfur and Chad is both very complicated (the different tribes have lots of clans which don't necessarily get on, plus intermarriage with Arab-speaking nomads adds another layer of complexity) and not very important (I wrote here that Déby was Fur, which is apparently wrong, but I presume I did so on the basis of some other report which didn't bother to get it right because it's not important, or which got it confused because it's not straightforward). And for another, Déby doesn't have much commitment to ethnic politics - he packed the senior ranks of the military with family and friends but that's about it - and given that he's a French-speaking Sufi head of a secular state, an alliance with post-Islamist Sunni headbangers would be an odd place to start. Historically, JEM have done a big deal about being non-ethnic (they regularly used to claim that SLA/Minnawi was a Zarghawa ethnic militia) too so I doubt they'd be playing the blood brothers card now.

2. My guess is that JEM's objective is to try and kick-start that disinvestment campaign. Khartoum, notoriously, isn't exactly feeling the suffering of war at present - it's a boom town. Although Ibrahim clearly had no hope of holding it, he doesn't appear to have lost much strength in harassing the Khartoumis, and by threatening to do it again, has probably substantially raised the risk premium on Sudanese investment. Note to self, insert bit of fourth generation war blah here when can be bothered[1]. And obviously to set themselves up as the face of Darfur for the next set of negotiations. I rather think this objective might have backfired, going by the commentary from international organisations; does anyone really fancy the job of telling the government of Sudan that they have a moral obligation to sit down in Abuja or wherever for talks on Darfur with a gang who keep firing mortars at the Presidential palace? Not sure about the timing on the part of the JEM too - doing something big like this at a time when the entire kilobyte/s of Anglosphere mental bandwidth which is allocated to Africa is being tied up by the Zimbabwe story.

3. I know this isn't exactly earth-breaking news, but my word, they aren't half irresponsible, these post-Islamist nutters, aren't they? I've blogged in the past about the fact that JEM seems to be very heavy with "political advisors" who live a long way away from Sudan, and that this might be part of the reason for their tendency to lack any concept of risk aversion. Jan Pronk spotted this tendency in JEM a couple of years ago - because of their position as one of the smallest Darfurian militias, and the fact that they're an ideological rather than Darfurian nationalist organisation, they tend to believe that they gain from maximising the amount of chaos. They even tried to get a civil war going in East Sudan (which would have also had an economic element to it as this is where the oil pipelines go).

4. Because of the history of JEM mentioned above, I am not wholly convinced that this development marks another stage in the "Angolan metastisation" of Darfur (the point where an African civil war turns really awful, as the militias lose all touch with their original purpose and become indistinguishable from criminal gangs[2]). The Khartoum adventure was spectacularly mad-headed and almost certainly counterproductive, but it can more or less be explained as fitting into a strategy and it didn't involve looting. The general increase in chaos in Sudan, however, is likely to accelerate the metastasis of the conflict, as it makes it much more likely that all sorts of SLA/M offshoots will simply forget about the struggle and pick off what they can get.

And the proximate effect is that Hasan al-Turabi's been chucked in jail and Khalil Ibrahim has discounted him, his son, and his political party as "a nuisance" who are irrelevant to the JEM. I know thee not, old man ...

[1] Second use of this joke in as many weeks. Probably getting irritating for the readers.
[2] Europeans needn't feel smug about this, by the way - the Free Companies went in for this sort of thing in the fourteenth century and made lots of Italy a purely horrible place to live in. It's the business model of piracy, except on land.
7 comments this item posted by the management 5/12/2008 10:33:00 AM

Friday, May 09, 2008

Of Leaders and Parking Meters

Finishing up on this, the other thing that the chiefs story raised in my mind, apart from the whole land question which I clearly need to read up on, is that we arguably need something like that over here. There is a whole lot of toing and froing between the traditional leaders and the government over land, but the Zambian central government really relies on the chiefs to a significant extent to be the government in some of the rural areas; the traditional governments have a whole lot of family law delegated to them (bad news for women, often), the chiefs are expected to have a development strategy, they are roped into HIV strategy et cetera.

Do you not get the feeling that New Labour would just fucking love this? About a hundred times a week, we are told that the government's working with communities, listening to communities, reaching out to communities etc etc etc. It never seems to work. The big problem is always that "the local community" doesn't have a phone number; you can say that you're engaging with the community, but nine times out of ten what you're actually doing is working through the same local government officers you had already. As far as I can see, the whole communitarian strand of NuLab politics would work a lot better if we had chiefs in this country, it would give a concrete meaning to all this nebulous talk about communities. I think we can all 100% agree that it would be a big step forward for Hazel Blears if she could issue joint pronouncements with the traditional leader of Salford (presumably called the "Top Lad" or some such).

The confirmation that I am right on this can be seen in the special case of big city ethnic politics, where the tendency of the government to seek out "community leaders" on a scale that runs from "dodgy" to "frightening" is well documented. On the basis that anything that Harry's Place see as the epitome of evil has to be worth a try, I think Gordon needs to extend this approach to the rest of us.

I'd also take the opportunity to democratise the process somewhat, as we do know that at present the ethnic "community leader" scene is rather dominated by political hacks and Inayat Bungwalas rather than the fat old blokes with impressive beards who really deserve the title. Britain is disadvantaged compared to Zambia in this regard as we don't have any historic or hereditary means of selecting our traditional leaders. But traditional leaders we do have - the Kray brothers, Curtis Warren, Cass Pennant, the bookshops are full of them. So I propose a radical constitutional reform with a fairly simple electoral mechanism.

Basically, if you can get 10,000 unique signatures saying you're a chief, you're a chief. Then we have an election among the 4000-odd chiefs for 100 seats in the newly created House of Chiefs, which would replace the House of Lords, on the same "most ticks" basis used for selecting the hereditaries. Every UK citizen gets to endorse one person as their chief. No geographical or other restrictions on where you have to get the signatures from because Britain isn't a traditional or village-based society and I don't see any particular reason why we shouldn't have a Chief Of The BirdWatchers (or indeed of the bloggers) if enough people see that as their primary identity.

The chiefs don't have any constitutional role but a register is kept of them and they can be made the subject of future Acts of Parliament - we can copy most of the verbiage regarding the legal personality of chiefdoms from the Zambian constitution, though omitting the heredity bit. Electors would be able to change their signature by a simple act of will at any time, and chiefs would lose their chiefly status when the size of their "tribe" dropped below 10K.

I'd envisage a world in which chiefs played a role in maintaining the social structures and doing the informal bits and pieces which the government wants "communities" to spontaneously organise, with responsibility for their nominating community, with the support of not much government money. Some of them would be corrupt, but that's local government for you. Some of them would be ethnic separatists and loonies, but again, that's local government for you. I very much doubt that too many of them would be too bad, though, because I've set the minimum size quite high; it's difficult for a group of 10,000 people to prosper by predating off their neighbours. You don't get any special status by having a larger tribe either, so there's no incentive for any chiefs to pile up votes beyond a margin of safety over the 10,000, which ought to reduce the incentives toward populist politics.

I suspect that the roundheads and anti-contrarians will not like this one …
9 comments this item posted by the management 5/09/2008 03:37:00 AM
Get Orff my Land

And a bit more on traditional leaders. The basic problem with land reform is that you start out thinking "it's no problem, we'll just divide the number of acres by the number of people and give everyone a little plot". This is the first step on a timeline of pain. Five minutes later you are realising that not all land is of equal quality and coming up with all sorts of complicated weighting schemes to try and maintain your original egalitarian plan, ten minutes after that you are realising that plots of land have to be in specific geographical locations and are poring over maps trying to create jigsaw-puzzle allocations that will preserve existing communities, and then fifteen minutes after that your office is full of quarrelsome peasants who believe themselves to have been ripped off, and this stage lasts for two hundred years. If you are the kind of person who can only go to sleep happy if you know that you've achieved something that day, land reform is not the career for you.

And so we get into the realm of Sir Humphrey's Solution (the one which exists for every problem, which is simple, obvious and wrong). Cian rather trailed this in comments to the place below; land reform is so bloody difficult that the temptation of any passing economist is just to adopt a Gordian approach and declare the land to be the personal property of the chiefs. This is the Highland Clearances solution. Another possibility is to appropriate land which was held on a traditional-communal basis to the central state, which then comes up with a plan for distributing the property rights either by auction or by some other means. Broadly, since the state generally has strong incentives not to simply underwrite the pre-existing traditional pattern of land use, this is the Trail of Tears solution.

You can proliferate these solutions, and you don't usually have to look around too far for a manmade disaster or democide to name each one after. As I've written on the blog before, every slum clearance has a whiff of the Cultural Revolution to it, but if you don't have slum clearances you are stuck with slums. There's an interesting question in moral philosophy here - what do you do about things like slum clearances and land property rights reforms in which it might be the case that the only way to achieve a state of affairs consistent with long term development is to trample the rights and in many cases the simple humanity of millions of people for several generations?

My answer, of course, as a good business school guy, is that in general when faced with a question like this, you wait and think, potentially for a very long time indeed. People like Stalin or Mao or MacLeod of MacLeod are always much too quick to assume that their great big plan for the improvement of mankind is the only option. But of course, waiting is not a great answer either in such a case, because rural Zambia is not in a state where it's acceptable to delay development, and the population is growing while the amount of land isn't. The current Zambian strategy (which is in the process of revision) has state land with private property tenure through long leases in the copper and farming areas, and traditional land with allocation by traditional leaders in the other 90% of the country; it doesn't work particularly well from a development perspective as 75% of Zambia's population are still on less than $1/day, but at least it doesn't appear to be on the path to civil war, which probably puts it in the top quartile of African land tenure systems.

[NOTE TO SELF: insert clear and sensible proposal for land tenure reform in here when written]
8 comments this item posted by the management 5/09/2008 01:30:00 AM

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Chiefs and Africans

From the Times of Zambia, something that looks like a light-hearted local colour story of the sort that occasionally livens up the "Dog Drinks Beer" column of the Financial Times. It's got everything that the neoliberal journalist about town likes about a local press piece - plenty of "chiefs", a gob of accusations of corruption and a scatter of slightly archaic Precious Ramotswe language like "wrangling". Print one of these every month and you can reassure your readers that Africa is a continent full of people sitting around in circles round their chief out in the bush, with the tedium only enlivened by the occasional visit from a corrupt politician. And thus that they need never take any interest in it and can go back to wondering why the price of copper is through the roof these days.

But the closer you look at it, the more interesting it is. For example, what's this business about "THE Government has warned that it will de-register traditional leaders involved in succession wrangles"? Does Zambia keep a register of traditional leaders? Do chiefs in Zambia hold their position by governmental fiat, and if so how does this affect their legitimacy in the traditional culture? How has the position of chiefs "become lucrative"? What's going on here? It was surprisingly difficult to find out, and involved quite a tour into the Zambian constitution.

Zambia is one of not very many African countries which does have a role in its constitution for traditional leaders; they are represented in the House of Chiefs, which has a constitutional status more or less equivalent to the House of Lords (unsurprisingly), and which is made up of 27 elected representatives (three from each province of Zambia), elected by the recognised chiefs from among their number (a model which was later copied by the House of Lords in selecting the hereditary peers who would keep their seats post-reform, although without the geographic constituencies).

But this doesn't really advance the ball much, as the Constitution is vague about the recognition mechanism for chiefs (saying only that it shall be "according to an Act of Parliament") and the existence of the House of Chiefs doesn't really explain why the position of a chief might be lucrative (by the way, I do not necessarily take it as a given that this is even true, see here and here). So we go further into the Zambian legal system.

As far as I can see, it turns out to be the case that the whole system is a bit of a mess. I very much might have got this wrong, because I'm going on the basis of a few very sketchy web news references here in the ToZ and here in the People's Daily(?) and a few more substantial but rather tangential references here and here, but as far as I can tell, the basis for the registration of traditional leaders and therefore for the Zambian state's role in their selection is the Village Registration and Development Act 1971 (also referred to as the "Village Registration Act" to make things more difficult for internet searchers). This act is a total anachronism, belonging to the Kenneth Kaunda one-party-state era. As far as I can tell, it is real 1970s development stuff, dealing with local planning committees, village production councils and all sorts, but it's still the basis for the registration of traditional leaders in Zambia. The Mwanawasa government was planning to reform it in 2006, but as far as I can tell, nothing's happened yet (reform of hereditary constitutional bodies is difficult folks, ask your local duke). I am still not sure how credible Ms Masebo's threat is to de-register traditional chiefships which persistently bring their succession disputes into the courts; as I read the Zambian constitution, if the chiefship has popular support in its local area, the government has to recognise it. But I am hardly an expert here and it certainly would make sense to have the whole thing on more sensible legal ground.

And as far as I can see, the reason why reform of the registration is difficult is that it's tied up with the question of land tenure reform. Traditional leaders have a big role in land tenure in Zambia for large parts of the country, where they are given stewardship of their tribal land. It is very unclear (and seemingly not just to me) what the chiefs are able to do with the land under their supervision - they can grant 99 year leases with government permission, but they don't control hunting rights and it isn't clear to me what rights they have over minerals concessions or planning permission. Successive Land Reform Acts don't seem to have cleared it up much, as is to be expected; the reconciliation of traditional forms of communal land tenure with the objective of attracting domestic and foreign investors (who want something much closer to European-style ownership rights) is, once more difficult - the link there is to a blog covering a variety of these issues, from an advocate of a trust-based solution. A lot of potential land reform solutions might involve taking a maximal view of the chiefs' personal rights over traditional lands; even more restricted "communal property" settlements like those which govern traditional land in the USA have the potential to turn some chiefs into very important individuals indeed. Which would explain why the current succession is so important (although as far as I can tell, governmental complaining about traditional leaders dragging them into local battles goes back to at least the 1980s); particularly if someone decides that a "shock treatment" propertisation of communal lands is the way forward, the current generation of chiefs might be the ones sitting at the table during a very fundamental paradigm shift indeed.

More to come on this - note that once more it's all about land.

BLOGOLOGICAL NOTE: I note there has been a bit of a controversy elsewhere in the world of blogs, to do with attribution when writing about "people of colour" on subjects which "people of colour" have themselves written about. Something similar is a very great risk in my "project Africa". In general, if you're typically a developed markets kind of guy, there is a real temptation when you're writing about an LDC topic to do a lot more "lifting" than you might otherwise do; I know because I've felt the temptation, regularly. It's partly a subconscious perception that local bloggers are just sitting around like a natural resource to be scooped up and partly a canny feeling that there's much less risk of a) them noticing you've done it, b) them making a fuss c) anyone caring. It's not OK and I'm really trying to be on guard. Anyone reading this will have noticed that I've got material from the New Zambia blog (which is actually written by a Zambian expat living in London I think) in quantities which rather exceeds that which might rate a "hat tip" or a "via". The convention that I've used is that stuff I found on my own while trying to understand this story, I've linked to directly, while stuff that I found on Cho's blog, I linked to the relevant New Zambia post; I ought to add that I also found the Zambia Landsafe blog via New Zambia.

I reiterate my recommendation of New Zambia, by the way, as I say, it is much better than 99% of OECD economics blogs. Very very obviously, all failures, mistakes and ignorant remarks are entirely my fault.
3 comments this item posted by the management 5/07/2008 10:11:00 AM

Friday, May 02, 2008

Blog of the week!

Hopefully a bigger post to come later today, but in the meantime, check this out, a really excellent blog about Zambian economic news. I am pretty sure that there is no blog dealing with UK economics news as clearly or comprehensively; Mark Thoma's blog is probably at about this standard for US economics news but in general, New Zambia is right up there with the best economics blogs on the Web. Also check out the comments section.

Update: Obviously I spotted it a few days ago and now all the posts I liked have been shoved off the front page by headline stuff that's probably less interesting to non-Zambian readers. Dig around though ...
6 comments this item posted by the management 5/02/2008 01:18:00 AM

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