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!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia

Just in passing, this sort of thing is the reason why I downscaled Project Africa to Project Zambia. It is very clear that Ethiopia is on the brink of a very nasty famine, but understanding anything beyond this would take a vast amount of work and the consumption and digestion of bushels of not very nutritious Afrobollocks[1]. A few things that strike the attention:

First, the combination of green fields and famine is not "ironic" or "strange" - it's pretty much fundamental to the whole question. It means that any explanation of the famine based on the failure of the spring rains has to be wrong. If grass is growing, then grain is growing, or at least, if grain isn't growing then there's some other reason why than drought. So the Ethiopian government are, as far as I can see, at the very least not being totally straight here.

It looks to me like a classic Sen famine, with the root cause in (among other things) the fact that wine is more profitable than wheat[2], being dressed up as an ecological rather than economic crisis in order to save everyone's blushes. I don't doubt that the Meles government have screwed things up much more badly than they needed to, and suspect that their recent Somalian adventure might have caused them to take their eye off the ball. But it seems as if the famine is being used by the global punditosphere to twist their arm a little bit further up their back in the direction of neoliberal reform. Viz, from the article:

Farmer Mohammed Kedir, 23, dreams of the day when he can own his own plot of land. If he owned the land, Kedir said, he might experiment with more-profitable crops, and he said he'd take better care of the soil.

"But if the government can take my land at any time," he said, "what's the point of trying so hard?"

"Guess I'll just sit here 'n' starve to death", he presumably then added. I mean, I'm sure he does dream of a sensible land reform in Ethiopia, but doesn't this obvious propaganda stick in the craw a bit? Mohammed Kedir presumably doesn't dream of the day that he gets murdered in a horrible civil war over land disputes, but I guess the guy from the Chicago Tribune never asked him that one.

Bonus points for the mention of "the Chinese model" in a country that's so utterly a US catspaw in the region, by the way - the nefarious representative of the PRC is fast becoming a stock Afrobollocks character, along with the poor little starving person, the Nigerian fraudster, the Harvard-educated hope of his country, the "tribal chief" and the James Bond villainesque President for Life (with proverbial "Swiss bank account", natcherally; the Caymans, Channel Isles etc apparently have zero market share with African dicators according to Western hack journalists), the bright-eyed and impractical aid worker and the rascally international banker.

It's not so much that deregulation and land reform are bad ideas - quite the opposite. I'm more worried here that the incessant habit of the neoliberal world to hang them on any passing news story is more or less bound to diminish their own credibility. This is a classic example of a long term solution to a short term problem, coupled with a domestic solution to a fundamentally global problem. We all knew back in March that the sharp increase in soft commodities prices was going to cause famines - now here we are in August and it is causing famines. This isn't new information.

As I've argued before (but never in these precise words), the big underlying trouble with Globollocks in general and Afrobollocks in particular is that neoliberal commentators have a completely, utterly 180 degrees wrong assessment of their own credibility with the people that they're talking too. Someone like Tom Friedman clearly believes that he can lecture the Third World to his heart's content, and they will lap it up. He even seems to reckon that he can glide over a few difficult proofs and stick in a couple of non sequiturs, and his basic message (which I reiterate, is not even necessarily a bad one) will get across - the Africans will treat him as having super-credibility because he plays for Team USA, the winningest team in town.

Actually, of course, in a lot of cases people from a background in the developed world start from the position of a very severe handicap in the credibility stakes; they get negative benefit of doubt. Making the case for market reform has to be done carefully and slowly, with no short cuts, no promises of miracle solutions and overall respect for local politics - the general project of trying to make developing world farmers take on structural reforms that you could never get through the House of Representatives has been the own goal of the century for the neolib project. (There is, by the way, no book token prize for the first person to claim that neoliberals don't underestimate the difficulty of transition, or that they don't oversell their case - look at the italicised quote above). The one thing that one surely can't afford to do in a communicative situation like this, is to lie.

[1] For example, this article by Rosemary Righter actually has quite a lot of useful factual information in it. But in order to get the ounce of facts, you have to swallow a ton of Afrobollocks. In no particular order, having covered the 1984 famine does not make you an expert on agriculture now, trends in "food produced per head since 1984" is clearly not a useful metric in a country going through a population explosion (children don't produce food, but nor do they consume anything like as much as a working adult), food produced per head is not the be-all and end-all anyway (for example, the flower and coffee plantations that generate so much of Ethiopia's hard currency exports don't produce food), and it really doesn't make sense to both praise Meles as a Western-oriented reformer and castigate him as an old-line Marxist; the reason he hasn't changed the Ethiopian system of land tenure is perhaps less to do with him being "purblind" than that land reform is difficult. I don't want to sound too critical because the Righter article is actually not bad as a statement of the Malthusian position (which is the underlying long term issue here and the one that I don't know enough about Ethiopia to have a view on), but a lot of it really could have been cut out without loss.

[2] And thus, it makes economic sense for Australian wheat farmers to sell their water rights to vineyards and not grow a crop this year, which is what they've done in large numbers. This isn't the only supply shock that's hit the wheat market this year, but it's the one I'm using as a colourful anecdote in this blog post.
14 comments this item posted by the management 8/20/2008 07:04:00 AM

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