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?

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

Music Break: Asa

The self-titled debut album of Nigerian singer Asa (pronounced ASH-ah) came out in 2007, but her hit record “Fire on the Mountain”‘s mere 2,800 views on YouTube tells me that, like me until a month ago, you probably haven’t heard of her.

That’s a shame, because Asa’s beautiful melodies and clean, fresh song-writing are some of the best I’ve heard in a while. Her music is R&B meets Hip Hop meets folk, and she sounds like a cross between Bob Marley, Traci Chapman and, at times, Lucinda Williams. Have a listen/watch:

Continue reading

Lagos snapshots

Stuck in traffic in Lagos.

The Lagosian entrepreneurial spirit.

One of the nice things about writing on a blog is that there doesn’t have to be any false coherency to your observations. For example, I don’t have to pretend that two weeks in Lagos gave me some kind of general insight into all of Nigeria.

I saw Lagos. That’s it. I’ve lived in Ghana and traveled to N’Djamena, Chad and parts of northern Cameroun, so it was interesting to see the city that is the talk of West Africa, and the crossroads for much of its wealth. But I have to be careful about how much I can extrapolate about the country from my brief visit. Of course, I now have the street cred — a very misleading assumption about travel, by the way, on which authors like Thomas Friedman have capitalized — to make all sorts of claims, and people would probably believe ’em. I’m trying to resist the urge.

In that spirit, let me offer a few snapshots of experiences and observations about Lagos. Even my choice of what to report shows something about the lens through which I saw the city, but I’ll save lengthy meanderings on the nature of subjectivity for another place. Continue reading

Lagos, the nextdoor neighbor you haven’t met

Shopping malls. Landrovers. Imported wine. Gucci-wearing clubbers. Four-hundred-dollar-a-night hotels. This is Lagos.

Four-hour traffic jams. Guys selling clocks and toilet seats on expressways. Soot-covered beggars, legs ravaged by polio, scooting around on skateboards asking for a few Naira outside an ice cream and coffee joint in one of the poshest neighborhoods. Daylight car-jackings in Lagos Island. Families camped out under bridges, trying to make do with very, very little. This is also Lagos.

Lagos is a place where contradictions abound, and after two weeks in this West African city-state, I’m having a hard time quantifying it.

It’s a crossroads for Nigeria’s hundred of tribes and languages. It’s a business center, a place full of mind-boggling human capital. It’s probably the richest and most developed city in West Africa. It has a terrible — and really, quite exaggerated — reputation as a place full of con-artists and thieves.

Maybe it’s easier to quantify Lagos by saying what it is not. It is not an exotic, far away city (in relation to the United States). Culturally, politically and economically, it is intimately entwined with the daily lives of Americans, whether we realize it or not. It’s our invisible next door neighbor.

The main reason for that is oil, which is by far Nigeria’s biggest revenue generator. In the United States, every time you turn on a car, flip a light switch, get on a train or bus or take part in any of the other oil-driven activities that make up Americans’ daily lives, a large portion of the stuff that allows you to do that comes from Nigeria.

That means that Nigeria’s wealth and its well known problems are a shadow to our lives.

In one sense, that is only confirmation of what we know about the world in general in the age of globalization — that it is getting smaller and that we are all directly connected. I think it especially interesting in the case of Nigeria though, because it seems to most Americans to be so far from home. Being here — and being cognizant of the economics behind so much of what there is to see — I feel anything but far from home. When I go to the four-story Silverbird Galleria mall and watch young, smartly dressed Nigerian professionals mix as Rihanna and Usher thump through the sound system, I feel how closely this country holds itself to the United States, intentionally or not. Everywhere are the traces of a bond. Nigerians I have met look to the United States as a place of remarkable opportunity, much more than in quite a few other countries I have visited.

It’s a connection I want to explore more deeply. The root of the connection must certainly be oil, the lifeblood of the American lifestyle. Its reverberations are complex and, I think, probably affect corners of Nigerian life that would at first glance seem completely unrelated to our lives.

When one considers some of the less “clean” things that happen here, that might not be a very pleasant thought. On the otherhand, anything that makes us acknowledge our interconnectedness is also an opporunity.

I hope to develop the idea further in later posts!

Nigeria is not half bad!

I’m sorely embarrassed to say that I had no idea just how normal of a place Nigeria would be for me. I can’t remember how many people bid me farewell on this trip with the words, “be extra safe,” “don’t get shot” or “don’t die”.

Sure, Nigeria’s a developing country with lots of visible poverty, and I’m sure that a fair amount of dirt goes down here in Lagos on a daily base. But you can go out at night without fear, there are plenty of nice establishments that don’t seem totally fortified and segregated from the general population (notwithstanding the separation between the island and the mainland). It is not worse than a number of other places I have been. Places I have been that felt less secure include Belize, parts of Lebanon and Chad. The traffic is abominable, but not so much worse than Dubai or, I’m sure, plenty of other constantly growing huge cities in poorer countries.

Funny, then, that Nigeria has a reputation as a virtual no-go zone. Apparently, American embassy staff are not even allowed on the mainland of Lagos under normal circumstances, so it’s clear that this perception of the city runs deep.

I guess that all places are usually more mild than their reputations. I’m just amazed by how much my own expectations were off for this city and this country — I thought it would be one big headache.

And with that, I’m off to the beach for a day.