Blog » Africa

19 Sep 2012

Micrologistics and the need for transport in Africa

Filed under: Africa — paulcook @ 9:21 am

‘Micrologistics’ is my name for a new approach to transport of goods in small loads, using mobile phones to provide the trust and tracking required to create an effective transport network out of existing vehicles. Below some thoughts on why I think small-scale logistics is a real problem in Africa, what the underlying challenge is, and a possible solution. I think Africa is ready for a new model of small-scale, bottom-of-the-pyramid logistics – for a ‘micrologistics’ revolution.

11 Sep 2012

“Africa at work” report finally published

Filed under: Africa,Economics,Personal — paulcook @ 4:19 pm

The report I’ve spent quite a few months working on has been published — Africa at work: Job creation and inclusive growth. We look at the state of employment in Africa, and what needs to be done to create more wage-paying jobs. It’s awesome to see it getting lots of media attention, but also just good to get it out — it was a lot of work!

In other news, Claire and I are back in Johannesburg after a great year in London and a month of travel in Europe. I’m on a leave of absence for another month or so, still enjoying a more relaxed life!

25 Mar 2009

Economic imperialism in Lusaka

Filed under: Africa — paulcook @ 10:52 am

We’re in Lusaka at the moment, stayed here overnight. Chris and I flew in yesterday morning, and we had a lot of time to wander around, as the Land Cruiser on the way from Livingstone had a little wheel bearing problem. All sorted out now!

My first impression of Lusaka was that it felt like China — meeting the plane were a row of fully uniformed Chinese policemen/army officers, and it looked like there were Chinese military jets in the airport. Many of those on the plane were Chinese.

My second impression was that it felt like South Africa — most of the billboards and almost all the products in local shops (not to mention that local shops themselves) are South African. Lots of billboards, for example, are for the cellphone company MTN, and they all have the 2010 World Cup logo on them — even though the cup is going to be held just in South Africa.

After some chatting to the locals, we’re gathering that lots of infrastructure construction is being undertaken by the Chinese government — though often using Chinese labour, and sometimes of poor quality. They’re interested in building ties because of the resource wealth of Zambia. South African involvement, on the other hand, seems little driven by government, and much more by export of consumer products and groceries.

Which, on reflection, makes sense: China has a huge domestic market but few resources, so is engaged in government-driven development of resource sources. South Africa has all the resources it needs, but a small domestic market, so South African companies are building markets north of the border. So what might initially have seemed to be a clash of interests might well be more of a complementary involvement.

Of course, the real question is where this leaves the Zambians. I’m still trying to work that one out.

4 Dec 2008

Contradictions in the countryside

Filed under: Africa — paulcook @ 10:56 am

This last weekend I attended the wedding of (as of the weekend) Rebecca and Danson Joseph, at the Cathedral Peak hotel in the Drakensberg. It was a beautiful wedding, and a good party — many of us camped near the hotel, in a big shared campsite. My congratulations and best wishes to Danson and Rebecca!

The last 40km or so of the trip to the hotel passes through a part of what was the “self governing homeland” of Kwazulu, under the Apartheid system. It’s been a long time since I was in this part of the country, and it’s just such a reminder of the bizarre results of Apartheid, and of the difficulty of overcoming its legacy.

25 Sep 2008

A new president and cabinet!

Filed under: Africa,Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 2:36 pm

South Africa has a new (interim) president and cabinet! I’m quite excited, because it looks by-and-large like a good team. But mostly, I’m really excited because the new Minister of Health is my aunt!

I’ve had some people ask me about the situation recently, so here’s a very brief summary (what follows is of course entirely my opinion). The ruling party (the ANC) has been badly divided recently, between supporters of the outgoing national president Thabo Mbeki, and current ANC president and former national vice-president, Jacob Zuma. The issue is a drawn-out corruption trial against Zuma, arising from an arms deal quite a few years ago. Supporters of Zuma have been alleging interference from Mbeki in the various decisions to continue the prosecution, by the National Prosecution Authority. Supporters of Mbeki, and others, have been keen for the case to be heard — especially as at least some evidence seems fairly strong. Regardless, it’s been interesting to see marches and speeches on BOTH sides, all in defence of the independent judiciary and the constitution.

The most recent turn was a reference to possible interference from Mbeki and government, in a recent ruling in one of the High Courts. This, along with rapid collapse of support in the ANC for Mbeki, was enough to persuade the ANC’s National Executive Committee to recall Mbeki from his deployment as national president (as per the appropriate lingo). He duly resigned on Sunday, active today (the transition process has been managed very carefully and smoothly). Since South Africa is a parliamentary system, the new president is elected by parliament from amongst its members, and is Kgalema Motlanthe.

My thoughts are similar to those I’ve read elsewhere (eg. the Sunday Times): Mbeki was not doing a good job, and so it’s good that he has resigned; though the motives of the Zuma supporters are suspect. In my opinion, Mbeki has been a great statesman in many respects, especially in foreign policy. On the other hand, he’s had a few key weaknesses, notably HIV/AIDS and Zimbabwe. More fundamentally, he has been very controlling, even paranoid, and has sometimes appointed key officials more for loyalty then competence or suitability — notably the outgoing health minister. This has led to far too much corruption and mismanagement, and the subversion of many of the ideals of the struggle. It’s good to see the pendulum finally swing against this leadership style, but the lasting damage is there — even those working most vocally against Mbeki have been using some of the same underhanded and paranoid approaches that he has. This is a huge shame, and it’s not at all clear that Zuma will re-introduce the missing moral high-ground.

As interim president (until the elections due in April or May), however, Kgalema Motlanthe sounds great. From all accounts, he more than almost any senior figure caught up in the divisions has kept a sense of the correct way of handling issues. He has a lot of respect from people across the board, and has been willing to call out some of the more … outspoken Zuma supporters when they have been out of line. So I was quite happy with his election.

And then at 5pm today, the new cabinet was announced, and my aunt is the Minister of Health! Health is of course a huge post in any government, but especially in South Africa, due to HIV/AIDS and related tuberculosis outbreaks, and the poor state of nursing in many of the state hospitals (there are parallel public and private health systems, with healthcare available to all through the public system, but often with poor nursing). The outgoing minister of health was really not at all great at the position, and was an endless source of crazy quotations on mostly AIDS issues. Taking the lead from Mbeki, she has not rolled out the AIDS treatment programme nearly as fast as it could have been — which of course has cost many, many lives and additional infections.

My aunt has more of a financial background, but in recent years has been very interested in the HIV/AIDS crisis, and has worked closely with the Treatment Action Campaign (the group that fought so successfully for the introduction of AIDS drugs). Personally, I think she’s awesome, has a great sense for what needs to be done, and works very hard and with great dedication to ensure that it is achieved. So I really hope she’ll have enough time in office to make profound changes to the healthcare system, and really solve the AIDS problem.

I’m also excited about what her appointment suggests about the new government. In Motlanthe’s first speech, he emphasised the continuity of government policy, but with a focus on successful implementation, and a healing of the divisions in the ANC. The fact that my aunt has been appointed suggests he really means it, since she has stayed out of the fight, and certainly is not one to pander to those in power. So yes, it’s not an entrenching of a power base or payback for a political favour, which is very welcome indeed!

So yeah, I certainly think we have a great team in government now! I haven’t heard from my aunt yet, but since she can’t have been approached about this any more than three days ago, I imagine she’s very, VERY busy right now. And probably a little scared too! The only bad news is that she’s been helping my parents oversee some renovations in Cape Town recently. I imagine she won’t be doing that as much now.

20 Sep 2008

Living through interesting times

Filed under: Africa,Economics,Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 5:12 am

What a week! It really has been full of momentous events, in two very different areas.

First, of course, came the complete reworking of the financial industry in the US (and elsewhere, to a lesser extent). Assuming, of course, that the worst is over — here’s hoping. No doubt there will be endless books and such written about this week in years to come. But right now three things come to mind: firstly, I find it interesting how rapidly “conventional wisdom” changes. I remember just months ago that learned figures were saying that the days of multi-functional financial firms were numbered, as their different divisions couldn’t realise benefits from working together — since a broker, for example, cannot preferentially sell his/her own company’s products to a client. Now, just a short time later, everyone is talking about the end of the narrowly-defined investment bank or other focused entity, as a concept, as it’s too hard to guarantee funding in a downturn. Secondly, there’s been the wholesale nationalisation of a large chunk of the financial sector in the US — which, if performed in another country, would probably have been labelled as completely against market principles. It has probably been wise, but still easy to label as hypocritical. Thirdly, it’s still sad to see how excesses amongst a few people drag so many more down with them. Poor regulation and dangerous practices in certain sectors of the US economy have now ruined markets elsewhere in the US, and around the world, despite that fact that many of those countries have very solid credit markets.

The other big news just broke: the National Executive Committee of the ANC (the ruling party in South Africa) has just decided after a marathon meeting to recall the deployment of Thabo Mbeki as president of South Africa. Now starts the constitutional process, but it seems that soon SA will have a new (acting) president. This is but the latest in a long sequence of events. But the hope now is that we can remove the poison of the accusations of political interference in the decision to continue the corruption prosecution of Jacob Zuma. By this stage, regardless of the truth, it seems hard to see how any legal events can be accepted without controversy, especially after the most recent judgment referred explicitly to possible political interference in the National Prosecuting Authority (not, I should stress, in the judicial system). Whether the legal process will continue (that is, whether there will be further appeals in the Jacob Zuma case) remains to be seen. But it at least seems that the ANC is trying to deal with its internal divisions, and are recalling Mbeki in a way that will not lead to unnecessary uncertainty and instability.

Of course, for all of the above, only time will tell. But it’s really interesting, in a morbid way, to be living through events that you know will be seen as momentous in retrospect.

16 Aug 2008

Film festival on the xenophobia riots

Filed under: Africa — paulcook @ 11:18 am

Almost by chance, Rhiannon and I landed up watching one of the events that is part of the Tri Continental Film Festival, at the Cinema Nouveau at Rosebank. It was a screening of a number of short movies, as well as some public service shorts shown on TV, all based around the xenophobia riots that broke out in May around Johannesburg.

The films were really good, and obviously very moving. The first covered the events before and during the riots, from the ground, and I think managed very well to avoid imposing interpretation on the motivations and actions of the people concerned. The other movies focused on the displaced people (foreigners as well as South Africans from smaller language groups) and some of their stories in the refugee camps.

The riots were and remain a huge national shame, I think — that a country like South Africa, with our historical focus on human rights, and huge resources, should need to be pitching UN High Commission of Refugees camps within Johannesburg, reflects a huge failing at all levels of society. This includes the poeple involved in the violence, but also government and society at all levels, for the poor response to the crisis.

But today’s event certainly helped me understand what happened a lot better. The films were followed by a panel discussion, with all the directors, as well as a number of speakers and many of the people shown in the films. It’s quite clear that in the township of Alexandria, for instance, there were and remain major grievances around housing. The government has been building RDP (Reconstruction and Development Programme) houses, which are supposed to be made available free to otherwise-homeless inhabitants of the township. But it seems that many have been given or sold instead to people not from Alexandria, allegedly as a result of bribes. Some of the people who have landed up in the houses are foreigners, which led to some anti-foreigner sentiment in marches that happened before the full riots started. As so often is the case, the defenceless landed up suffering for the failings of others.

Taking a step back, however, it was fascinating how almost every person at the screening had a different interpretation of the underlying problem and solutions for dealing with xenophobia. We had (some very animated) diatribes about how:

  • The government’s capitalistic “neoliberal” economic policies don’t help the poor, and cause widening inequality
  • The real problem is that government leaders didn’t provide leadership at the time
  • Continuing black-white inequality is the real problem
  • It’s important to think about white guilt, and some people perhaps being pleased that black people can also do bad things
  • People have legitimate grievances
  • Grievances are not legitimate if they lead to violence
  • The marches against xenophobia that followed the riots show that lots of people recognise our shared humanity
  • (And back to the start) Marches against xenophobia are only any good if they aren’t led by Trevor Manuel, servant of The Capitalists (Trevor Manuel being the minister of finance

I may be exaggerating a little by the end, but if you take everything that people were saying seriously, then the way to prevent xenophobia is to create a utopia. To summarise: (1) everyone arrived at a different key insight as a result of the riots, and (2) no-one likes Mbeki (the president).

It was certainly very entertaining, with lots of underhand comments and funny asides. But now I am quite exhausted, and also have had a major kick in the social conscience. Maybe I’ll go start a school or something.

25 Jul 2007

Ethical democracy: An exercise for the reader

Filed under: Africa,Noteworthy news,Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 3:05 pm

With a title like the above, there are so many things this post could be about — the last few days and weeks have been excellent for providing examples of less-than-ethical democracy. But this post is in fact about none of them — it’s about a tricky personal conundrum I faced today, in exercising ethical democracy.

The thing is, I’m not a US voter, or citizen. But I am a US taxpayer and legal resident at the moment. Tomorrow the US Congress will be voting on a bill (of which more later) on an issue very dear to my heart — because it represents probably the largest ongoing damage that the US does, every day, to the poorest of the poor in the developing world and especially Africa (of which I am a citizen). So the question for the reader is: should I phone my representative in Congress and ask them to vote the way I’d like on the bill?

The bill in question is the huge farm bill, and more especially the Fairness Amendment component thereof. US (and to be fair, European) farm subsidies are a mess: they cost the taxpayer huge sums, benefit predominantly the largest agribusiness concerns instead of small farmers, offer only marginal assistance to hungry people within the US and EU, and make it impossible for developing world (especially African) farmers to compete on the global market. For instance, farming cotton in Texas costs about three times the raw price it does in Mali, on the southern edge of the Sahara. But after subsidies Malian farmers can’t compete — and so huge areas of Africa aren’t even being farmed. Cotton is Mali’s main commercial export, despite this huge disadvantage — so one can only imagine the huge difference even a small tweak to the subsidies would make to the 10 million inhabitants of this desperately poor country. And as in cotton, so too elsewhere — US and EU farm subsidies are together larger than the total GDP of sub-Saharan Africa. But enough rant — contact me if you’d like more!

Anyway, the Fairness Amendment is a step in the right direction. The vote is tomorrow. In the end I went ahead and phoned my Congressional rep — using this really convenient and easy service.

Now the more suspicious amongst you might think that what this post is really about is getting those of you who can phone US representatives without suffering any complicated ethical choices, to indeed go ahead and phone. In fact, you might even be right. But I am also interested in what people think about whether it’s ethical for me to make such a phone call.

And yes, it’s been a while since my last blog post. I have a few stacked up awaiting typing, but this one came first thanks to the obvious deadline. Thanks for your patience!

28 Dec 2005

Same-sex marriage in South Africa

Filed under: Africa,Noteworthy news — paulcook @ 11:57 am

As you may have heard in the news, on 1 December the South African Constitutional ruled that the wording of South Africa’s Marriage Act discriminates in an unconstitutional way against the rights of homosexual couples. The government now has to rewrite the legislation to allow same-sex marriage. The judgment is of course exciting and a triumph of South Africa’s ambitious constitution. But the text of the judgment raises some interesting questions relating to whether individual marriage officers with contrary religious beliefs should be required to marry same-sex couples.

16 Oct 2005

Faltering steps to a better world

Filed under: Africa,Politics and philosophy — paulcook @ 5:22 pm

I’ve just watched the ending of “The Interpreter“, a political drama which starts when an African-born interpreter at the UN overhears an assasination plot against the controversial leader of a (fictional) African country, who is going to be addressing the UN. It’s a reasonable movie, but what really moved me was a line at the end (which hopefully won’t give away too much): the Security Council unanimously decides to refer the controversial president to the International Criminal Court, to be tried for crimes against humanity.

It’s an implausible result. But not, any more, impossible. And that got me thinking about how, in a world with so many injustices, still there are signs and symbols of our progress toward a better future: