Archive for the ‘Africa’ Category

How did homophobia become the most important development issue of the day?

Oh Museveni what have you done? Of all the problems that Uganda faces, is the ‘wrong’ kind of sex really the most pressing? (More pressing, say, than having a minister who thinks there is a ‘right’ kind of rape?!?) You state you are concerned that “many of those recruited were doing so for mercenary reasons – to get money – in effect homosexual prostitutes”. So now you are legislating to shut off some people’s route out of poverty? Much better to focus on your implied root cause – poverty – which everyone agrees in a widespread ill in Uganda than to veer off on this sideshow.

But let’s not kid ourselves too much. With his regional (East African Community) leadership ambitions thwarted, M7 wants to be re-elected as Ugandan president for another term (or at least ensure his placeman gets the job). As I understand it (sorry cannot locate link), M7 was under pressure that if he didn’t sign the law then he wouldn’t get the political support he needs, and his veto might have been over-ridden any way, undermining his authority.

The fact that Western leaders then resorted to megaphone diplomacy really didn’t help, instead making M7 out to be ‘a son of the soil’ hero to millions of Africans across the continent. Yes many Africans are also anguishing over the hate-filled bill, but they are the liberal intelligentsia, a tiny minority. Blame it on Western missionaries and evangelicals if you will (I do), but the reality is that most Africans are pretty homophobic. So whilst they may feel free to ignore my advice on such matters, surely Western leaders should listen to those many African voices urging caution (e.g. this).

That all said, however, Museveni and his fellow homophobes’ own standard of debate leaves much to be desired, especially in the framing of the debate in anti-neo-colonialist terms.

“We Africans always keep our opinions to ourselves and never seek to impose our point of view on the others. If only they could let us alone.” [Museveni again]

Leaving aside the ridiculous hypocrisy of this claim (made in the moment that they impose their intolerance on gay people throughout Uganda), I reject the notion that the West is imposing its values on Uganda. Receiving aid is a privilege, not a right. Every day providers of charity across the world choose who should receive their largesse based on a range of issues, many of them ethical. There is a reason why the government of North Korea receives no Western aid (other than emergency food relief in times of famine).

Nonetheless, I am worried by the closing of Western ranks, even in apparently neutral bodies. For instance the reasons given by the World Bank for publicly postponing a $90m loan intended to boost Uganda’s health services do not ring true, but instead strike me as Western liberals seeking inappropriate economic arguments for a fundamentally moral question. Why should Ugandan mothers-to-be and new born babies suffer for their political leader’s ignorance and intolerance?

Uganda has enacted a truly odious bill, but the debate around it on all sides is muddled and dominated by domestic political concerns that do the noble cause of international development a serious injustice.

Has OLPC’s moment arrived?

A major criticism of the One Laptop Per Child project is that it was a solution in search of a problem. Not that lack of computer literacy in developing countries is not a problem, but it is far from the most pressing problem in the poorest places. However, I think I spy a new opening for OLPC. Apparently a big reason why the shiny new vote tallying system in Kenya failed is that most of the voting stations (often primary schools) lacked electric sockets with which to power the laptops which were intended to record and then remit to the central system all the votes cast.

Step forward OLPC’s wind up laptop:


(Image from:

Hat tip: Peter B

Knowing what’s good for you

“Paying tax is a patriotic duty!”

So say some adverts around here. Alas avoiding paying tax is something of a national pastime. And not just taxes, but utility bills etc too. (Especially if you are, ahem, part of the government!) This obviously can make life quite difficult for the utility companies. In theory that would mean the rest of us having to pay more for our electricity and water etc, but such prices are highly political and thus tightly controlled by the government. Result: highly dysfunctional services that greatly undermine the economy.

What is interesting, is that in such a context, business opinion appears to divide. Some business people understand the fundamentals and would prefer to pay substantially more to get a reliable supply/service. However, others take the typically short-termist view that higher prices means higher costs, and higher costs are always bad.

Thus we see another result, across a wide range of economic issues, government fixed prices and royalty rates stay exactly that – fixed – for relatively long periods of time under lobbying from special interests. Then, inevitably, the earthquake happens, and the price shifts dramatically, doubling or more overnight in the case of some royalties. Unsurprisingly businesses then complain that it is impossible to plan sensibly against such huge political uncertainties. So I’m waiting for the day when enough of these businessmen and women grow up, drop the whole ducking and diving mentality, and accept that a far better solution is for such prices to increment annually based on inflation or some other appropriate measure.

One of the trite aphorisms of the aid industry concerns the benefits of teaching someone to fish over just giving them a fish today. Many business people here, however, appear to prefer the solidity of the fish today over hypothetical fish tomorrow.

Great African Leaders

220px-Nelson_Mandela-2008_(edit) Kofi_Annan_red

The two most respected statesmen in the world alive today? (Photos from Wikipedia.)

Tom Murphy recently posted some stats suggesting that many African leaders are impressively popular at home. (Or impressively worried about internal security agents to give less than 100% honest answers to opinion pollsters.) Meanwhile, over in the Guardian, Elsie Kanza was lauding African leadership and, importantly, African ownership of new agricultural development initiatives (though see here for a possible disconnect involving one of her cited examples). Such African boosterism may be justified amongst the prevailing negativity about the quality of leadership provided by many of the continent’s politicians. (As my parentheses imply, not always unjustified negativity; I’m more of a call-a-spade-a-spade kind a guy.)

But, whilst perusing the latest report on the Syrian crisis, it struck me as nonetheless a considerable feather in Africa’s cap that it is an African to whom the world has turned to try to mediate a solution to the brewing civil war. (Significantly in this case, a crisis outside Africa.)

Finally are there two more respected statesmen in the world today than Nelson Mandela and Kofi Annan? Talk of an African renaissance (or even an African century) must be balanced with the thought that few African leaders alive today are conspicuously following their example. Nonetheless 100 years ago, Europe was preparing to launch itself into a catastrophic, wealth-destroying war. Sometimes the bar is not all that high, and a visionary leader at the right time, bequeathed with favourable economic conditions, can catalyse great change.

Poverty and assessments of risk

Around here one of the most dangerous things you can do is to get on a bus. They are poorly maintained, go way too fast and drivers have poor understandings of the risks of the road. A significant part of the blame must go to the bus owners and drivers (and the policeman who daily accept bribes to look the other way), but passengers are not compelled to board; they could easily vote with their feet and demand a better service. Whereas instead actually something of the opposite happens; the market demands the cheapest prices (hence poor maintenance of vehicles) and people want to get to where they are going as fast as possible.

That bus passengers exercise this preference is partly because they also do not understand well the risks of driving too fast etc. However, it is also often said that poor people assess risk differently to us: what to us is an unacceptable risk is for them just a regular feature of their environment. There are parallels in the way that few expats take anti-malarial prophylaxis. There may well be something in this – indeed in the past I have been known to utter just such sentiments – but it occurs to me there may be another aspect to the poverty dimension that we (or at least I) have hitherto been missing.

Recently when up in town my car ran out of diesel just as I was on my way to a meeting. My stupid fault, although the blame is shared with the previous driver who had not taken the trouble to fill it up when the tank was dangerously close to empty. Thankfully for me a neighbour gave me a lift to the nearest filling station where we half filled a flimsy old 5l water bottle with diesel and drove it back to my car, with an open top, wedged between my legs for stability, and thus solved the immediate problem.

Clearly this was not the safest solution, and it may actually have been illegal. If we had suffered an accident and I had gone up like a human torch, other people (like me!) would presumably have remarked upon the idiocy of what we were doing. In my defence I would point out that while petrol is highly volatile, diesel is not. It was also a very short journey on quiet, tarmac roads, so the risks were actually pretty small. Furthermore, I was following the local societal norm; certainly my neighbour did not seem too concerned to be driving around with an open bottle of diesel.

Finally, and this is my main point, I did not want to be any later for my meeting than I had to be, and this was just a one off. Indeed we all take bigger risks for special events or in order to minimise the hassle in overcoming unforeseen hiccoughs such as suddenly running out of diesel. Similarly bus journeys are not regular occurrences for the poorest people; going to the big city may be something they only do a few times in their life. There will often be a special reason to undertake a long distance bus journey; a wedding or a funeral. Even an annual trip home to visit one’s parents in your home village hardly counts as a regular thing. The risks may be high, but so in each case are the (social or emotional) rewards.

Thus we reach that old truism of statistics: that while specific rare events are … well … rare, it is rare for no rare event to happen, or, to put it another way, rare events are happening all the time. A specific bus crashing is rare, but collectively they are all too common. Moreover, it is rare for an individual poor person to travel on a long distance bus, but poor people are numerous around here, and collectively they drive the market preferences. And, as I saw in my own experience, it can be hard to go against the local norm for what, for oneself, is a comparatively rare event.

Poor people may evaluate risks and rewards differently to us, but they also, individually, may undertake apparently risky activities quite rarely. Not so different after all.

It’s Our Money

How much should donors get to have a say in how their money is spent?

African activists fighting for the rights of homosexuals have issued a strong statement opposing David Cameron’s threat to cut aids to countries that mistreat homosexuals that I blogged about yesterday. A common theme that cuts through both the initial Ugandan journalists’ response that triggered my post, my own thoughts, and the activists’ statement is the question of what say do donors have in such matters. I want to talk about some generalities first, and then get back to specifics on this issue.

Firstly, international aid is a voluntary act by donors. Depending upon your point of view, it may or may not be entirely altruistic, but it is not an obligation under international law or any such like. (Conceivably this could change under a climate change agreement, with rich countries compensating poor countries for all the CO2 they’ve already omitted, but expect the rich countries to fight this one tooth and nail.)

This voluntary nature means that the donors really do get to decide how and where they want to spend it. That is how the world works. Sensible donors will give due attention to how they can be of most assistance, and try to structure their aid accordingly. Those donors that do not may be stupid and/or complete hypocrites, e.g. Bush’s restrictions on PEPFAR money usage, but it is their mistake to make.

Advocates of good aid (including me!) understandably get frustrated when they see donors trying to get too demanding about exactly how their money should be spent, especially if it is spent badly. However, one thing that I’ve picked up repeatedly from non aid cogniscenti, is that developing countries (and their advocates in donor countries) ought to show a little bit of gratitude from time to time for receiving some of the donor country’s taxpayers’ money. We too can easily slip into a position where it sounds like we have presumed that developing countries are entitled to aid (as opposed to simply deserving), and, by implication that we, their advocates, are entitled to help spend some of that money. (I suspect I have been guilty of such multiple times on this blog.)

Thus, even if they are counterproductive, some donor conditions are to be expected. For bilateral government donors these are likely to be substantially determined by the views of their own electorate. They are often intolerant of corruption, and so anti-corruption measures are often a strong part of aid conditionality (for all the good that they do). Human rights are another classic example of the intrusion of developed country politics into the international aid business.

And if you do not like the conditions then just turn down the money! In cases of bad aid conditionality it is often not only the donors who are at fault, but supine recipient country governments who have become substantially dependent upon aid. (Even where it makes up only a small proportion of the budget, aid often pays for a big proportion of training workshops, junkets and other in-kind benefits off which local civil servants feed voraciously.)

Back on to David Cameron’s threat:

  • The BBC news piece says that this came out of a review of the “future relevance of the Commonwealth”, which suggests that at least some level of consultation went into this.
  • The threat certainly reflects the views of a large chunk of the British electorate. Ignoring this issue may have ultimately generated an even bigger backlash against all aid.
  • Donor clarity on the nature of conditions attached to aid is a good thing. (See here and here for my previous musings on this.) Viewed from this light, Cameron’s threat could be criticised for still giving too much wriggle room.

On the debit side:

  • At least some activists clearly do not want this threat, and consider it counter-productive. They make some pretty compelling points. If I were Cameron I would give a lot of weight to this consideration.
  • Forces a culture clash when maybe one could have been avoided: on average as countries get richer homophobia seems to wane.
  • Homosexual people may suffer more from having aid withdrawn than from abuse by their government.

These are some serious potential downsides that I had not considered fully before I read the activists’ response. But if you ask me would I like my tax money to go to a government that locks up people just for being gay I would say no. No matter how you might try to qualify the original question by adding riders about pragmatic solutions and appropriate cultural relativism, it’s hard to avoid the simple moral clarity of the original question.

This leads me to a clarification. I don’t claim to know the finer points of the UK government position, but I do not believe this should be about foisting our views on other people. I do not believe we should be asking people in developing countries to like gays just because we’re giving them some aid money. Neither do I think we should be asking such countries to pass equal rights regulation similar to what we have in the UK; without broad civil-society support this would be empty legislation, unenforced and probably unenforceable. But I do not think it is unreasonable – unwise maybe, but not unreasonable – to ask such countries not to actively persecute homosexuals.

Thus, I return to my original stance, with a slight adjustment. All in all I think this is probably a fight that was best not picked. Now that it has been picked, however, I find it hard to disagree with. That said, if I were Cameron, I would make strenuous efforts to take on board the views of local activists (maybe some support the threat?), and at the minimum seek to ensure this threat did not set back their own position and efforts any further. Maybe, for once, a bit of diplomatic obfuscation around the exact nature of the conditionality might not be such a bad thing.

Homosexuality and development aid

A cynic might suggest that this threat by David Cameron is a ploy to wriggle out of the 0.7% GDP promise on the UK’s aid budget. (See here and here for my thoughts on this commitment.)

However, I was intrigued by this quote from Uganda Radio Network journalist, Charles Odongpho:

“I welcome any move to pressure our government to be respectful of democratic values and human rights but speaking as a Ugandan I think we have much more important issues to deal with than the rights of homosexuals.”

One could equally retort that given all the challenges facing developing countries such as Uganda, legislating to ban relations between members of the same sex should be the least of their worries.

Having foisted homophobia on Africa 150 years ago through the work of our missionaries it is perhaps appropriate that Britain plays an active role in trying to roll it back. As Odongpho goes on to say:

“This is your money and you know where you want to put it”

On the other hand, attitudes to homosexuality, highlight the clash of cultures challenge that we face in trying to actively develop poorer countries. Homophobia does genuinely appear to be an attitude commanding substantial popular support in many developing countries. Unlike the gender issue there is not even much of an economic argument to be had in favour of gay rights.*

Nonetheless, locking people up for engaging in consensual sex with other adults offends many Britons, and it is indeed our government’s money to dispense with as it sees fit. Like the fox-hunting debate of a few years ago in the UK, I think there might be more important issues on which to engage, but by my liberal values, both issues are simple moral questions, and on both counts the reactionaries are just wrong. If I were the UK prime minister I do not think I would have picked this fight, but now that Cameron has picked it, I find myself unable to disagree with him.

UPDATE: See the strong response from local activists here and then my refined thoughts here.

* On the basis that as a hidden characteristic sexual orientation does not greatly determine career prospects.

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