On Planet Money’s “just give the oil money away” report

Photo by Jonathan Wheeler. Used with a Creative Commons license.

My favorite podcast, Planet Money, had a great report last week on a novel idea for avoiding the resource curse: just give the revenues away to a country’s citizens. The report was prompted by the announcement of huge deposits of precious minerals in Afghanistan and the discovery of oil in the last couple of years in Ghana — a country that desperately wants to avoid having its economy or government end up anything like Nigeria‘s, where there’s been a decades-long oil bonanza.

It’s easy to see the potential benefits of giving money away to poor people, if you’re at all sympathetic to the idea that welfare systems work to stimulate economies. Giving disposable income to people with pressing needs is great for boosting a country’s economic growth — a poor person who gets $100 will immediately inject it back into the economy by spending it on pressing needs, whereas a rich person might stick it in a savings account. Also, individuals may be better suited to decide what their needs are — and use money for innovative ventures — than bureaucracies, NGOs and government contractors (who might very well have corrupt relationships with those handing out the contracts).

But as you’ll see when you listen to the podcast, the idea is incomplete. Probably the biggest flaw is the fact that there are many collective ventures — schools, roads, hospitals — that individuals are in no position to take on, no matter how much extra income they have. (The advocates of the system would tax the transfers to pay for this, but it doesn’t seem like enough.)

Still, it’s funny to hear a Nigerian oil official in the podcast claim that individuals would do a bad job of allocating their payouts — it’s hard to imagine the situation getting much worse than it is when it comes to squandering the Delta’s riches.

It seems to me there’s a strong argument for having a big portion of oil revenues — but not all — earmarked for cash transfers. Whatever the solution to ending the resource curse and improving revenue transparency in extractive industries around the world, one important element is going to be getting more good journalism like Planet Money’s — but even more from local media — on the topic. Once again, I will shamelessly plug the report I wrote with several classmates on this subject: There Will Be Ink. Great title, huh?

K’naan stole the show

Here I am rambling on about war, politics and depressing things — and one of the most awesome televised concerts I’ve ever seen just aired. Makes American Super Bowl halftimes look like a joke, and I think it rivaled Obama’s inauguration. K’naan stole the show (look, I know I can’t be considered unbiased about the guy by now, but this was great):

Also loved Desmond Tutu, Vusi Mahlasela, Tinariwen and Vieux Farka Touré. (Sorry, you’re going to have to Google those.)

Fighting child sex trafficking in Tanzania

Note: I just saw that this article I wrote, reported from Dar es Salaam in January, had been published here on Global Post this last weekend.

DAR ES SALAAM, Tanzania — Say “child trafficking,” and you’re likely to conjure up images of organized crime and international smuggling rings.

But sexual exploitation of children is often the result of more ordinary pressures: poverty, disease and social disintegration.

In Tanzania, where trafficking of poor girls from rural to urban areas is a serious problem, these are the complex social issues that anti-child trafficking workers are trying to disentangle.

Desperation and families broken by AIDS are often more dangerous enemies than gangsters, says one of the most prominent groups trying to end child exploitation in the country, the Kiota Women Health and Development Organization (Kiwohede).

“The rings of the pimps are not coordinated in this country,” said Justa Mwaituka, Kiwohede’s executive director. That means individual trafficking rackets are relatively easy to break up. The underlying causes, however, appear harder to root out.

Consider Fatuma’s story. A slight Tanzanian girl who looks much younger than her 16 years, Fatuma sat on a battered wooden chair wearing a T-shirt and skirt in a Kiwohede office in Dar es Salaam this January. Through an interpreter, she told her tale. Continue reading

Alsarah: music for the Sudanese elections

I just got tipped off to this rock-the-vote song and video by New York-based Sudanese artist Alsarah. The Sudanese elections are definitely a complicated issue. But whether, like Mia Farrow, you think that the elections are bad for the Sudanese people, or on the other hand if you think they are an important opportunity for Sudan to change from within, the excitement about the possibilities of the democratic process are palpable in this great clip featuring Oddisee.

Also, check out that link to Alsarah’s MySpace page — she’s an up-and-coming singer with a great sound whom I would be highlighting here even if she wasn’t a friend of a friend. She combines old Sudanese melodies with a contemporary, often Hip Hop feel in a way that’s part Fairouz, part Hashim Mirghani and part K’naan. Have a listen.

Hat Tip ST.

7 great quotes from Mandela’s Long Walk to Freedom


Bust of Mandela. Photo by RMLondon. http://www.flickr.com/photos/richardmckeever/ / CC BY 2.0

Everyone should read Nelson Mandela’s autobiography! In fact, you probably already have. But I’m a little late to the game and just did it, finally. Long Walk to Freedom is deeply inspiring. It’s the story of an unbelievably strong man who remained a freedom fighter in every aspect of his life, whether he was free or jailed, whether he was trying to dismantle apartheid or simply trying to get Robben Island’s prisoners access to reading materials. More than that, though, the book is a wonderful model for anyone fighting for a just cause against overwhelming odds. Mandela is a master at balancing long- and short-term goals, making smart compromises, and not letting emotion supersede tactics. Perhaps the most moving part of the whole book is Mandela’s willingness, in the end, to partner — in the service of the greater good — with the same people who stole almost everything of personal meaning from his life.

For these reasons, Mandela’s book has lessons far beyond the anti-apartheid movement. I can think of applications from the United States to the Middle East to China and Tibet. Luckily for us, he offers up many quotable passages that provide food for thought. Here are my seven favorite, with a note or two on how I think they have broader applications. Continue reading

Inspiration for K’naan’s “Fire in Freetown”

Someone just passed me this YouTube clip of what, according to the video notes and the unmistakable melody, is the inspiration for K’naan’s “Fire in Freetown,” one of my favorite songs on the Troubadour album. The original is very beautiful (is that an oud, walla shu?). According to an extremely cursory Google search, Fatima Abdillahi Mandeeq (various spellings) is a Somali folk singer. I am working my Somali contacts for a translation.

Update: Hat-tip SG in Nairobi

Land and conflict in Africa

It is rare that I read an article about Africa that successfully intertwines a rich understanding of history with current events, politics and human lives. Jina Moore‘s article about African land disputes this week in the Christian Science Monitor does it. The article is especially impressive because, although scholars of Africa know that conflicts over land are a fundamental element of wars, upheaval and disagreements from Darfur to Tanzania to Nigeria, it’s not usually a subject that makes for great headlines. It’s also a difficult topic to bring to American audiences that are used to being fed the facile story of “ancient hatreds” — tribe, ethnicity and race — as explanations for African conflict (and behavior in general). Visit Moore’s story through the Scarlett Lion, where Glenna Gordon has posted more relevant links and the photography she did for the piece.

7 songs that rocked Kenya and Tanzania last year

I was sharing links to music that was popular in East Africa last year with my brother (find his alter ego here), and he asked me to put them in a list for him. That’s a good idea for my blog, I said. Only trouble is, having recently been endorsed as a blog that will make you “a better person” by the Scarlett Lion, the bar for new posts is now a bit high. A simple countdown of my faves will not suffice. Luckily, I have deep experience describing pop musical phenomena in a way that makes them seem like they have social significance (see, for example, my interview of K’naan).

So here’s a list of seven songs that I liked that got a good amount of play in East Africa in 2009, along with some context that explains why each shows something “deeper” about society. Enjoy. Continue reading

My profile of Kwani? for the Christian Science Monitor

Alas, everything’s getting published on the day I leave East Africa.

It might be just another club night in party-hearty Nairobi. In a little, second-floor downtown bar bathed in red lights and decorated with funky paintings, crunk music thumps from a high-quality sound system. Couples at tables sip drinks.

But then, after a few measures, the music stops, and a poet takes the stage. Wearing dreadlocks and an orange scarf tied around his head, Kennet B begins a spoken-word tirade against environmental degradation and corruption.

“Something revolutionary is going to happen tonight,” he announces. The crowd shouts its approval. Read more.