Image: Colbrain crowdfunding
Following the collapse of the bank he was running until earlier this year, Rodrigo Rato probably thought he would be able to slip into a quiet, if tarnished retirement.
A former managing director of the IMF and minister of the economy during Spain’s boom years, Rato stepped down as executive chairman of Bankia in May after steering the group onto the jagged rocks of a €4.5b government bailout. Rato had bragged about the bank’s huge portfolio of loans and deposits, and it was floated with great fanfare on the stock exchange last summer. Within a year, however, buckling under the weight of a mountain of bad loans, the bank had had to be part-nationalised (for a description of how it happened, see this FT article). As well as institutional investors, hundreds of thousands of unwary Bankia customers and thousands of members of staff persuaded by their trade union that the stock was a safe investment found themselves out of pocket.
A few weeks after Rato’s resignation, his successor revealed that the net profit of €309m in 2011 that the bank had reported was in reality a €3b loss. The stricken entity would need an additional €19b bailout, and become the major trigger for the European Union rescue package announced by an embarrassed Spanish government earlier this month.
This latter revelation sparked the interest of Spain’s “indignados”, the loose association of young protesters who spent much of the middle part of 2011 camped out in the main squares of Spain’s biggest cities. The movement has been fairly quiet of late, but the Bankia debacle has roused it from its slumber. Deciding that Spain’s bankers had been getting away for too long with misleading the government, shareholders, customers and, well, everyone else, they took action.
The target was Rodrigo Rato, the idea to sue him and his colleagues for falsifying the firm’s accounts in the lead-up to the IPO. Having obtained support and crucial information on the board’s activities from a group of ten disgruntled shareholders, the indignados’ umbrella organisation 15-M needed to find €15,000 to meet the costs of filing the suit (the breakdown of those costs is detailed on the group’s website). Many of its members are unemployed, many others are students or low-paid workers. None had the means to take legal action single-handedly. What to do?
Ingeniously, they turned to crowdfunding to raise the money. Like its more famous cousin Kickstarter, the website goteo.org allows those in need to solicit funds from anyone who feels like contributing. In late May, therefore, as El País reports, 15-M began a Twitter campaign to drum up interest, under the hashtag #15MpaRato. At 9am on 5 June, the goteo.org page was launched. Within an hour it had received 11,000 visits. By 2pm it was in danger of crashing because of so many donations, and had to change servers. Within 24 hours, the fundraising target had been surpassed, with a total of €19,413 accumulated in donations of between €1 and €500. ‘Of every 40 attempts,’ reported a 15-M member based in Seville, ‘only one managed to make a successful donation.’
Rato and his colleagues will now have to stand trial, and the success of the fundraising effort has encouraged dozens of other Bankia shareholders to add their weight to the campaign. 15-M are seeking punishments of up to six years for those responsible for the bank’s demise, and preventive custody and an embargo on their assets in the meantime. In the pre-internet days, it would have taken months or years to raise the money to pursue such a case, but as one 15-M member remarked to Spain’s national TV station, with the power of crowdfunding, ‘fear has changed sides in the battle between those at the top and those at the bottom.’
June 26, 2012 at 5:16 pm | More on Economics and development, Europe and Central Asia, Influence and networks | 5 Comments
Charles Taylor, the former Liberian president who was last week sentenced to fifty years imprisonment for crimes committed in Sierra Leone’s civil war, was a man with many enemies. As a warlord, he would have expected nothing less – only the most insane of his ilk expect to be universally popular, and whatever else he may be accused of, Taylor’s sanity has never been called into question.
He dispatched his first important foe, his predecessor as Liberian leader Samuel Doe, within a year of beginning the rebellion that would lead him to the presidency. As his army rampaged towards the capital, they gained notoriety for the brutality of their methods – cutting off limbs, enslaving women and boys, torturing children and eating the flesh of their enemies were all on the menu, all endorsed by Taylor. With Doe out of the way, his swansong a home-video recording featuring Taylor’s men slicing off his ears as he begged for mercy, the young warlord then turned on enemies within his own group, precipitating a further six years of civil war. His efforts led to the deaths of over 200,000 people and the physical and psychological maiming of many more, but he has been tried for none of his actions in his homeland.
Taylor did not delay long in internationalising his list of enemies. Sierra Leone’s government had played host to a West African intervention force that was set up to end the bloodshed in next door Liberia. Taylor retaliated, pledging that the people of Sierra Leone would “taste the bitterness of war”. As his trial found, he lived up to his promise by providing financial and operational support to Sierra Leone’s rebel army as it murdered, raped and pillaged its way around the country, as well as planning the horrific 1999 assault on Freetown that was the war’s nadir. Among the atrocities committed in the latter attack were the mass rape of students at the college of nursing, the torture of patients in their hospital beds, the use as human shields of those the rebels had enslaved in the hinterland, and the throwing of live children into burning houses. Taylor’s conviction was celebrated on the streets of Freetown – the words of Musa, an informal medicine seller, who told me in 2010 that ‘Charles Taylor was a wicked man,’ encapsulating the views of many of his compatriots.
But it has not all been isolation and ostracism for Taylor. Throughout his life, he has been able to count on a significant network of friends. Not all of these are the type of friends you would expect to find in the circles of a warlord.In the early part of his career, for example, he fled to the United States having been fired from the Liberian government for embezzling a million dollars. Arrested on arrival, he soon escaped from prison, and he has alleged that the US government assisted his getaway (the CIA’s recent admission that it used Taylor as an informant lends weight to this claim). Back in Africa, his early supporters included Blaise Compaoré, the president of Burkina Faso who is these days better known as a regional peacemaker than as a supplier of arms to murderous thugs; Nelson Mandela, who invited Taylor to a charity ball at the height of Sierra Leone’s war; the supermodel Naomi Campbell, who after the same ball accepted the gift of a blood diamond from Taylor; and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the current Liberian president and recipient of the 2011 Nobel Peace Prize, who although Taylor’s theft of so much public money might have been a clue that he was not entirely straight, believed nevertheless that he was the best hope for her country.
Many of these friends have now dropped him, of course. The embarrassed Sirleaf has distanced herself, suppressing the recommendation of Liberia’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission that she be banned from politics for funding his campaign. Naomi Campbell has ungratefully accused Taylor of doing ‘some terrible things’ – subpoenaed to testify at his war crimes trial, she described him as ‘someone I read on the internet that killed several hundreds of people, supposedly.’ The CIA, too, has turned its back – Taylor has argued that he never stood a chance at his trial because the Americans were intent on seeing him locked up.
But not everybody has deserted the Liberian in his hour of need. Many of his countrymen were outraged by the trial verdict (although contrary to some analyses this is no stronger an argument for his innocence than were the support of Serbians for Milosevic, Bosnian Serbs for Karadzic or, going back further, Germans for Hitler). And despite the mountain of evidence against him, some Western commentators remain loyal, too. Take Edinburgh University’s Centre for African Studies, reading whose blog you are likely to come away with the impression that Taylor, far from being a brutal dictator responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths and maimings, is in fact a tragically wronged hero.
Now you would expect the Centre for African Studies (CAS) to be sympathetic to Africans; it would be a strange individual who joined such an establishment without having some understanding of the historical currents which made the emergence of a Charles Taylor possible. Indeed, just as history contributed to the rise of the Nazis in Germany and the Serbian nationalists in Bosnia, so did it create the conditions in which civil wars in both Sierra Leone and Liberia became more likely.
But there is a difference between an empathiser and an apologist. The history of other West African countries bears similarities to that of Liberia, but not all have imploded into brutal conflict. For the latter to happen, it needs someone to light the touchpaper, and Taylor, fully aware both of the carnage he would cause and of the potential risks and rewards of his actions, enthusiastically adopted this role. As he planned his campaign of terror, fifty years in a British jail is probably at the lower end of the discomfort he might have budgeted for in the event of failure.
The Centre for African Studies, however, is unhappy with the way Taylor has been treated. Describing the court as ‘fundamentally flawed,’ the article on its blog claims that, ‘from the very beginning, it was clear that Taylor could not expect any leniency.’ The author cites ‘Taylor himself’ in support of this contention, the Liberian having stated that ‘he never stood a chance.’
The article’s second quibble is with the defence, which apparently did ‘such a good job’ in defending Taylor that it ‘could be seen to legitimize’ the trial. The defence counsel Courtenay Griffiths, of course, is on a hiding to nothing here, since if he had performed badly he would doubtless have been criticized for letting his client down. But never mind.
The CAS’s third gripe is with the judge. The article berates Justice Lussick’s recourse to witness statements in reaching his verdict – it is not clear on what alternative source of evidence a judge in a less ‘fundamentally flawed’ court would be expected to rely:
The presiding judge, Justice Lussick from Samoa, drew heavily on the lore of horror stories from the civil war in Sierra Leone. By way of introduction he told the story of a witness who had carried a bag with chopped off heads from which the blood was dripping only to realize that she had carried the heads of her children. He did not omit to invoke amputees, raped girls, ‘children raped of childhood’ and a traumatized society in order to justify the lengthy prison sentence.
Next, the CAS article turns its sceptical eye on Taylor’s upcoming appeal. The Liberian’s new defence counsel has predicted that the judgement will be overturned. The CAS is less sanguine. ‘Looking at the record of the Special Court’s Appeals Chamber,’ it grumbles, ‘it is difficult to share his optimism.’ Having studied the record of that chamber myself, I am not sure why the writer is so pessimistic. The chamber has in the past rejected appeals by both prosecution and defence lawyers, as well as overturning on appeal a number of guilty verdicts against former militia leaders Allieu Kondewa and Moinina Fofana, for crimes including murder and the enlistment of children into an armed force. The CAS, in other words, need not worry – there is little in the chamber’s past record to suspect that Taylor’s appeal will not be dealt with fairly.
Towards the end of its lament, the CAS predicts glibly that most of those who face trial before international criminal tribunals will be African. Leaving aside the fact that the Special Court for Sierra Leone, by which Taylor was tried, was due to the location of the war that was its raison d’être unlikely to have had to deal with many non-Africans, this prediction does not withstand much scrutiny. Slobodan Milosevic was not African, and nor are Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic. And while it is true that all fifteen of the International Criminal Court’s current cases deal with defendants from African countries, it is also true that it is statistically likely that more cases will involve Africans – not only because there are more countries, and therefore more leaders, in Africa than in any other world region, but because more of those countries suffer from bad governance, rebellions and war (fourteen of the bottom twenty countries on Foreign Policy’s Failed States Index, for example, are African, while the continent is by far the worst performer on the World Bank’s Worldwide Governance Indicators for rule of law, control of corruption, and political instability and violence). Of the seven preliminary investigations currently being conducted by the International Criminal Court prosecutor, moreover, five are in non-African countries.
At times, the CAS article descends into the ridiculous. It describes Taylor’s fifty-year sentence for planning and assisting tens of thousands of murders as “draconian,” and is breathless in its admiration for the Liberian’s response to the decision: ‘When the length of the sentence was announced, Taylor did not show any emotion, playing the role of the statesman until the end.’ If Taylor is a statesman, one wonders what it would take for the CAS to criticize an African leader, but this apology for his horrific crimes raises wider issues. Africa is in some ways doing well – there are signs of economic advance in parts of the continent, while worse leaders than Taylor have until recently got away with their crimes. But although the effort to paint a more positive picture of Africa is a welcome corrective to the predominantly negative image traditionally portrayed by the media, this effort becomes vapid if it airbrushes individuals and events that threaten to undermine it.
There is a parallel between the CAS’s extolling of Charles Taylor and the hysterical reaction of many academics, aid workers and self-styled “old Africa hands” to the recent Kony 2012 campaign. Many commentators seemed outraged that Joseph Kony, mass-murderer and abducter of thousands of Ugandan children, had once again been given airtime. His continuing campaign of terror is an embarrassment to the image of the New Africa, and the latter’s proponents are therefore uncomfortable that it should receive attention.
But overlooking Africa’s problems helps nobody. First of all, it is patronising to Africans, most of whom are fully aware of the venality of their leaders and would treat the description of Taylor as a statesman with the derision it deserves. And second, allowing leaders like Taylor to get away with their crimes (‘What is the point of punishing Taylor?’ the CAS articles asks) both makes them more likely to recur and insults their victims. Courts by themselves will not rid the continent of bad leadership, of course, but as part of a package they may act as a deterrent, and their provision of justice to victims should not be overlooked. It is all very well attempting to portray a positive picture of Africa (and however well Africa is doing, there is no sign yet of aid workers deserting en masse), but an honest picture, praising the good without ignoring the bad, is far more likely to take hold among its intended audiences than one which paints even the worst of its people as saints.
June 5, 2012 at 11:16 am | More on Africa, Conflict and security | 1 Comment
By way of catching up on my popular social science, I have been reading Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow and Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee’s Poor Economics. Among the most arresting revelations in the latter is the following:
There is a strong association between poverty and the level of cortisol produced by the body, an indicator of stress. Conversely, cortisol levels go down when households receive help. The children of the beneficiaries of PROGRESA, the Mexican cash transfer program [later renamed Oportunidades], have, for example, been found to have significantly lower levels of cortisol than comparable children whose mothers did not benefit from the program.
One of the problems with producing excess cortisol is that the hormone impedes the functioning of important parts of the brain. The prefrontal cortex, for example, which is vital for suppressing impulsive responses, is rendered less effective by high cortisol levels, making us more likely to take hasty, ill-considered decisions. ‘When experimental subjects are artificially put under stressful conditions,’ Duflo and Banerjee note, ‘they are less likely to make the economically rational decision when faced with choosing among different alternatives.’
When I was in Guinea-Bissau a couple of years back, I remember being horrified that an impoverished local housewife who complained that she could not afford her daughter’s $10-a-month school fees was nevertheless able to buy regular top-up cards for her expensive mobile phone. At the time I blamed consumerism and the foreign aid workers who paraded their own phones so brashly, but it may be that biology played a part too, and that high cortisol levels were impeding the woman’s judgement and encouraging her to make impulsive and seemingly irrational investments. Indeed, Duflo and Banerjee report that women who had access to a microcredit program in India drastically reduced their purchases of impulse products such as tea and snacks; the two economists postulate that this occurred both because the women’s cortisol levels declined in line with the reduction in stress and because their increased confidence that plans would come to fruition gave them a stronger incentive to restrain themselves.
But it is not just short-term decision-making that is affected by cortisol – people who are unable to control their impulses as children are at a serious disadvantage later in life. In Thinking Fast and Slow, his wonder-strewn study of the brain’s reasoning powers, Daniel Kahneman describes a famous psychological experiment wherein a group of four-year-old children were given a choice between eating one biscuit now or two if they could wait for fifteen minutes. Each child was left alone in a room, with just the single biscuit and a bell for company. If the child could not resist the temptation, she was to ring the bell and the experimenter would come in and give her the biscuit.
Only half the children managed to endure for the full fifteen minutes and receive the larger prize, mainly, as Kahneman notes, ‘by keeping their attention away from the tempting reward.’ But although succumbing to the lure of the biscuit might seem a trivial matter, in the long-term stark differences emerged between those children who held out and those who didn’t. Ten or fifteen years after the experiment, Kahneman reports, ‘the resisters had higher measures of executive control in cognitive tasks, and especially the ability to reallocate their attention effectively. As young adults, they were less likely to take drugs. A significant difference in intellectual aptitude emerged: the children who had shown more self-control as four-year-olds had substantially higher scores on tests of intelligence.’
The possession of self-control, then, affects our life chances. And the high levels of cortisol associated with poverty are a contributor to diminished self-control. It may not be far-fetched to predict, therefore, that unless their stress levels can somehow be reduced, those unfortunate children whose mothers were not part of Mexico’s PROGRESA program are condemned over the coming years to make decisions that dim forever their prospects of advancement. As well as all the other disadvantages poor people face in terms of reduced access to schooling, healthcare and so on, they are stuck in a biological poverty trap.
So how to get cortisol levels down, and free people from this trap? Duflo and Banerjee suggest that microcredit programs, insurance against health and weather disasters, and social safety nets in the form of a minimum level of income support can give the poor the serenity they need to set themselves on the right path. In a 2008 paper I wrote with LSE’s Tony Barnett on how people are more likely to protect themselves against HIV infection if they have hope for the future (or at least if despair is absent), we argued that a focus on individual behaviour change – the traditional approach to HIV prevention – may be less useful than considering the wider environment within which decisions that affect HIV transmission are made (‘where people have little hope and little aspiration,’ we wrote, ‘they discount the longer-term future and take risks’). We recommended cash transfers as a means of reducing despair and, by adding value to the future, extending decision horizons.
There are no doubt other means of lowering stress levels (might cortisol-reducing medication, for example, give adults the composure needed to make more rational decisions? Or could the negative effects of stress be overcome by building self-control training into school curricula?). Asking poor people themselves what is needed to reduce the stress in their lives is another, radical option, and one that is likely to throw up unforeseen answers. Poor Economics is in large part a call for a deeper understanding of how poor people take decisions. To the outside observer these decisions sometimes appear irrational, and more likely to do harm than good, but looking to biology provides a more nuanced perspective, and thereby increases the chance that policy responses will be appropriate.
May 4, 2012 at 10:19 am | More on Economics and development | 2 Comments
Last Friday, just as West Africa watchers were recovering from the excitement of the coup d’état in Mali a couple of weeks back, little Guinea-Bissau piped up with a putsch of its own. A group of soldiers attacked the residence of the prime minister and presidential candidate, Carlos Gomes Jr, and arrested him and the country’s interim president, Raimundo Pereira. They subsequently declared that they were forced to take action after discovering a secret document signed by Gomes Jr that gave a detachment of Angolan soldiers permission to “annihilate” Guinea-Bissau’s army. Said soldiers had been in the country, at Gomes Jr’s request, for a few weeks, ostensibly to restructure and reform the bloated military.
The secret document is quite likely to be a fabrication, but it seems probable that the coup happened because the army had had enough of Gomes Jr’s meddling and wanted to re-establish its authority. Indeed, the Transitional Council it has set up to run the country while the putschists decide its long-term future includes 22 opposition parties but has explicitly excluded Gomes Jr’s ruling party, the PAIGC.
The invitation to the Angolans was a provocative move. Downsizing the military would reduce its access to the lucrative drug trade which for the past few years, as Guinea-Bissau has become a staging post on the cocaine route from South America to Europe, has filled the coffers of the country’s top army, navy and air force officials. It is not known whether Gomes Jr was himself involved in the trade and wanted to weaken the competition (his late predecessor Nino Vieira almost certainly enriched himself with a spot of narcotrafficking on the side), but his removal from power – and he was very likely to win the presidency in the second round of voting later this month – leaves the way clear for the army to continue to profit from the cocaine boom.
Who is behind the coup is not clear. My immediate thought was that army chief-of-staff Antonio Indjai, a shrewd operator who has sidelined rivals such as former navy boss Bubo Na Tchuto and who a couple of years back briefly arrested Gomes Jr and labelled him a criminal, was masterminding things, and it seems Indjai attended the first two post-coup meetings between the junta and opposition leaders. Guinea-Bissau’s leading blogger, Antonio Aly Silva, was of the same opinion, and was arrested shortly after posting that the army chief was in control (he was later released after receiving a beating and having many of his valuables stolen).
But reports have recently emerged that Indjai himself has been arrested, and that his number two Mamadu Ture Kuruma is in control. This made me wonder if Bubo Na Tchuto, a popular and influential figure who has attempted at least two coups in the recent past, was taking his revenge on his former ally, and at the same time eliminating another rival in Gomes Jr. Investigating, I found a single article from the Spanish news agency EFE claiming that Bubo, who has been described as a drug kingpin by the US, had indeed been released from prison over the weekend, that “military sources” said he had been collected from his cell by a group of uniformed men. This, I thought, confirmed my suspicions, but just as I was congratulating myself for my detective work I was shocked to read the last few words of the article, which stated that ’according to unconfirmed rumours, Bubo was executed in the early hours of the morning.’
So we still do not know who is really in charge. Guinea-Bissau’s foreign minister is convinced that Indjai holds the reins and has dismissed rumours of his arrest as ridiculous. Bubo may or may not be alive, and may or may not be the coup mastermind. Indjai’s number two is also on the list of suspects, as is opposition presidential candidate Kumba Yala, who looks like benefiting from the political agreement (although at least one source says he too has been arrested).
But although speculating is interesting, to a large extent it does not matter who planned the coup. The real power in the country is held by the drug barons from South America, and this coup, like several before it and no doubt many more in the coming years, is really a squabble over who gets access to their gifts.
Update: Kumba Yala has denounced the coup and refused to join the “Transitional Council“, which coup leaders say will run the country for the next 1-2 years.
Update #2: This report (in Portuguese) suggests that Antonio Indjai had threatened to attack Angolan troops on 5 April, at a meeting of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in Abidjan. Indjai complained that the Angolans had heavy armaments, including fourteen tanks, and warned ECOWAS that its emergency forces would soon have to go into Guinea-Bissau as well as Mali.
April 16, 2012 at 1:14 pm | More on Africa, Conflict and security | Comments Off
Earlier this week I argued on here for men to be brought into discussions and policy-making on gender and development. I did not expect to be arguing just two days later that women should not be neglected in such debates. But an article on the Guardian’s Poverty Matters blog this morning (h/t Claire Melamed for the link) has forced me temporarily to switch sides – my brothers will have to survive without me for a while.
The article is titled, ‘Will the ‘girl effect’ really help to combat poverty?’ The sub-heading reads: ‘Many development organisations see empowering girls – and enabling them to delay childbearing – as a powerful means to tackle poverty, but the evidence so far doesn’t bear this out.’
In this ADD world, where many people have time only for headlines, I wonder how many readers (or how many of the thousands who read a short link to the piece on Twitter) will see this and move on, sighing about another massive waste of money and time and wondering when the world will finally realise that aid doesn’t work.
Those who take the time to read the full article are less likely to go away with such thoughts. For it’s not really about empowering girls at all, but about one relatively minor aspect of empowering girls – delaying pregnancy. ‘Time will tell,’ the author, Ofra Koffman, writes with foreboding, ‘whether the “girl effect” will become one of those promising interventions that turn out to be more of a myth than a panacea.’ But her argument addresses only part of this question, and even this is based on flimsy evidence. For example, Ms Koffman uses the fact that adolescent fertility is not much higher in Rwanda than in the United States to show that the links between teenage pregnancy and economic development are weak. The obvious flaw in this case is that adolescent fertility in the US today tells us nothing about its effect on development because the US is a developed country. A comparison with youth fertility when the US was developing would have been more pertinent, but even then there may have been confounding factors two or three centuries ago that muddied the picture.
That disadvantaged women in the UK who delay pregnancy are no better off than their peers is a slightly stronger argument against policies to reduce adolescent fertility (although again the relevance of the UK to, say, Burkina Faso is debatable), but what the article entirely omits to mention is that such policies are very far from the central plank of efforts to empower women and girls. Sanitation, healthcare, microfinance and, most importantly, education have received at least as much attention and resources, but all these are absent from the Guardian piece.
Their omission is not surprising, for including them would fatally undermine the argument that women’s empowerment is a waste of time. Girls’ education, for example, has multiple positive impacts on their and their families’ lives, from health improvements for women and their children (see here, here and here for evidence from developing countries), to improvements in their own and their countries’ economic circumstances (see here and here). Girl Effect, the Nike-sponsored program that this article references, acknowledges that there are many ways to achieve its goal of strengthening women’s status. The writer implies that adolescent fertility is all such programs focus on, but the Girl Effect website highlights the importance of education, healthcare, and HIV prevention, and DFID (also referenced), the World Bank and other development agencies, as well as many of the developing-country governments that bear the ultimate responsibility for educating their people, are fully aware that the benefits of girls’ schooling go far beyond delayed pregnancy.
Now I may be overly harsh in criticising the author of this piece, who might not have written the title and the sub-head herself. But between them, she and the Guardian have done women and girls a disservice. Efforts to improve women’s lives have transformed developed societies – it would be a shame if such ill thought-through articles denied developing countries the same opportunity.
February 10, 2012 at 11:46 am | More on Africa, Economics and development | 2 Comments
Last week I was asked to review a new book on gender and development. Since these things are usually turgid affairs, full of abstruse jargon (“registers of governmentality”, “idioms of sexualness” and “body reflexive practices” are just a few of the assaults on English perpetrated in this one) and nostalgia for the marxist utopias of yore, I was apprehensive. I envisaged long days of ploughing laboriously through paragraphs, trying heroically to decipher “essentially hetero-normative constructions”, “emergent rubrics”, and “positionalities”, and then having to pretend in my review that I’d both mastered this tangled tongue and maintained sufficient will to live to pass constructive comment on it.
But once you have hacked your way through the impenetrable forest of the introduction (which counts “decentring the traditionally unmarked male” and “normatively naturalizing potencies” among its most egregious language crimes), you emerge into a glade of sunny clarity. For Men and Development: Politicizing Masculinities is no ordinary gender book – reading it will give you a new perspective on the social problems of the developing world.
The idea that gender equality is important to development is not new – efforts to educate women and girls are among foreign aid’s few relatively uncontested success stories, and microfinance programs, the development fad du jour, also mostly target women. Men, however, have largely been overlooked by practitioners and policy-makers; reading Men and Development, you begin to see what catastrophic effects this has had.
The problem lies in the expectations society has of men. In West Africa, for example, men are expected to set up a home, marry at least one wife, and accumulate and provide for children and other dependents. Those who fail to perform these duties forfeit the respect of their elders, women and their peers; they cannot become “real men”.
When the breadwinner role becomes impossible to fulfil – as it did for millions of men across Africa during the economic crises of the 1980s and 1990s – men have other facets of masculinity on which to draw in order to recover their self-esteem. Some of these alternative masculinities are positive – think of the black South Africans who responded to economic emasculation by adopting the role of fighter against oppression and joining the liberation struggle.
But many traditional expressions of manliness are socially destructive. Physical violence is the most obvious of these. Economic insecurity, as one of the Men and Development authors Gary Barker notes in an earlier paper, can prompt men to turn to violence to reaffirm their power – many South African men have joined criminal gangs, for example, while domestic violence becomes more common as unemployment rises.
Alcohol and sex are other appurtenances of maleness whose allure increases when men are faced with threats to their masculinity. Sex is unproblematic by itself, but if manhood must be proven by sexual voracity or by demonstrating dominance through sexual violence, the effects on both men’s and women’s health can be severe. Linked to this is the man-as-risk-taker paradigm. Chimaraoke Izugbara and Jerry Okal’s chapter on Malawi shows how fear-mongering HIV prevention campaigns urging abstention from sex have often led to an increase in risky sexual behaviour (such as sex with multiple partners and without condoms), as men react to the challenge to their sexual potency – a marker of manliness in Malawi as elsewhere – by demonstrating their fearlessness (another important marker).
There is a danger when given a new hammer, of course, of treating everything you see as a nail – at the cinema last weekend I couldn’t help viewing The Artist as an extended meditation on masculinity, for instance – but Men and Development makes a convincing case for viewing social phenomena through a gender-tinted lens. In Africa alone, the spread of HIV, the Rwandan genocide, Sierra Leone’s seemingly pointless civil war, the rise of Boko Haram in Nigeria, and no doubt many other events and trends can at least in part be attributed to threatened masculinities; as men are disempowered economically, politically or socially, they resort to harmful expressions of maleness to restore their pride and reassert their power.
Masculinities are constructed and sustained at all levels of society, from the family to the state. To date, most work to engage men in confronting harmful gender norms has focused on individuals and communities on the ground. Workshops held by groups such as Promundo in Brazil and Sonke Gender Justice in South Africa, for example, have helped reduce domestic violence, dissuade boys and men from engaging in risky sexual practices, and encourage men to question the patriarchal assumptions in which their attitudes to women are rooted. These programs endeavour to provide participants with positive alternative masculinities – to value their role as carers for family members, or as active community members, or as advocates for social justice (including gender equality) – so that when they feel that one aspect of their manhood is menaced, they have constructive outlets to turn to in order to restore their equilibrium.
But the state has a responsibility, too. Legal and institutional changes can embed or trigger cultural shifts, but in many cases the latter exacerbate gender inequality by entrenching harmful masculinity norms. As Andrea Cornwall notes in Men and Development, for example, laws that oblige divorced men to pay alimony without also obliging them to provide child care cement the notion that men should be breadwinners above all else, and that women should take responsibility for caring. Microfinance programs’ targeting of women reinforces the idea of the reckless, irresponsible man who cannot be trusted to invest in his family. And the criminalisation of sex workers’ clients, itself based on a misleading perception that all such men are perverted or violent, perpetuates the stereotype of men as aggressors and women as helpless victims.
The UK’s recent threat to withhold aid from Ghana if the latter continues to trample on the rights of gay men stands out as a rare example of a government challenging a gender norm (accepting homosexuality requires an admission that not all men conform to the heterosexual stereotype). In the book’s closing chapter, Alan Greig argues that such measures must become widespread, and that institutions at national and international levels should be consistently held to account for how their actions legitimise male dominance and sustain gender inequality. As Men and Development eloquently shows, however, it is not just all levels of society that must be engaged, but all genders. Half of the developing world’s population has been neglected in gender policy; this book is a timely call for a rethink.
February 8, 2012 at 1:58 pm | More on Africa, Economics and development, Influence and networks | 3 Comments
Northern Nigeria is in turmoil. Last week’s attacks in the main northern city of Kano, which left at least 180 dead, are the latest in a series of bombings and shootings by the Islamist terror group Boko Haram, which demands the imposition of sharia law across the country.
There is a risk that the violence will spread southwards. A Boko Haram assault on the United Nations building in Abuja killed 21. Southern Christians have avenged their northern counterparts by burning mosques and Islamic schools. A Yoruba militia group last month marched through Lagos threatening to fight back if the south is targeted. The writer Wole Soyinka has said the nation is heading for civil war.
Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan has responded to the escalation in violence by declaring a state of emergency in the north and announcing a massive increase in the security budget. So far this has proved fruitless, for it is not just policing that the north needs – mistrust of the security forces is so entrenched, indeed, that a response based on strengthening their power is likely to aggravate discontent.
Young northerners’ anger, whose most extreme manifestations have fuelled the unrest, is rooted less in religious sentiment than lack of opportunity. A polytechnic student I talked to in Kano in 2009 said that ‘the violence in the north is not because of religion but frustration about poverty and corruption.’ A Kano University professor agreed. ‘If we have a crisis or violence that they call religious,’ he said, ‘it’s really about poverty. It’s the poor who are easily recruited.’
Northern Nigeria lags behind the south. All ten of the country’s poorest states are in the north. The north has the lowest school attendance, lowest vaccination rates, highest infant and child mortality, and highest maternal mortality. In some instances the differences are stark. Under-5 mortality in the North West region is double that in the South East. Vaccination rates in the South East are seven times higher than in the North East. And while 90 percent of births in the South East are attended by skilled personnel, only 12 percent of northern mothers receive such care. These disparities, as the recent violence has proved, are unsustainable. In the face of glaring regional inequality, a burgeoning northern youth population will not remain placid; even if Boko Haram is defeated, others will come forward to take its place.
To neutralise the threat and dilute the appeal of extremism, Nigeria’s government needs a program for northern development – only by closing the north-south divide will deep-seated resentments be quelled. Enhanced policing in the short-term must be combined with sustained commitment to social and economic reforms. A long view is important – decades of underdevelopment will not be reversed overnight – but quick wins are also needed, to show that the government means what it says and that new promises, unlike old ones, have substance. An Agenda for the North should be based on five principles:
- An honest assessment of the problem: Goodluck Jonathan must publicly admit that the north has been left behind. He must be candid about the gaps in wealth, education and access to services, and accept that his government and its predecessors have done too little for the region. Northerners, of course, know all this already, but their cynicism will only be blunted if past errors are acknowledged.
- A grand plan for change: To begin to regain ground in the propaganda war with Boko Haram, big and well publicised commitments are needed. Raising school attendance to southern levels, matching southern infrastructure, and equalising employment rates and incomes nationwide are daunting challenges, but nothing less will be acceptable to young northerners. The north needs its own Development Goals, with ambitious deadlines, milestones and concrete investment plans.
- Youth involvement: Development Goals in obvious improvement areas like transport and power can be announced immediately, but other objectives should be developed in consultation with northern youth. The latter too want electricity and roads, but what are their other priorities? Research among young people for the British Council and Harvard’s Next Generation Nigeria project threw up widely varying demands, from agricultural extension programmes to support for small businesses to teacher training and school toilets. But unless the government engages systematically with young northerners it will not know what the region needs. Nigerian politicians have cut themselves off from the wider society – giving angry young people an outlet other than violence will help diffuse tensions and make reforms relevant.
- Small wins: Northerners, understandably wearied by years of broken promises, will have no faith in grand Development Goals unless they quickly see their fruits. While the federal government announces overarching objectives, state governments must spell out which roads will be built and when, how many teachers will be trained, how they will engage with young people, and so on. Then they must take prompt action – begin work on that road, equip a hundred schools with fans, achieve small, quick wins to show that a start has been made.
- Accountability: When they make targets, federal and state governments must stick to them. Those who fail to deliver must be held to account, making it clear that business as usual will not be tolerated. Next Generation Nigeria argued for the creation of a national youth forum that would hold regular discussions with policy makers. A Northern Forum could be charged with monitoring compliance with the Agenda for the North, and given free rein to demand action when progress slows.
Goodluck Jonathan is floundering – yesterday he feebly pleaded with Boko Haram to identify themselves and spell out their demands. He has run out of ideas. An Agenda for the North, desirable and necessary even without the emergence of the terror group to give it urgency, has the potential to break the impasse. It might be Mr Jonathan’s best hope of proving the doomsayers wrong.
January 27, 2012 at 11:07 am | More on Africa, Conflict and security | 1 Comment
Guinea-Bissau is one of the world’s unluckiest countries. Ravaged by the slave trade, stifled by Portuguese colonisers (when the latter were forced out, only one in 50 Guineans could read), and then saddled with a series of inept, corrupt post-independence leaders, the decision of South American drug traffickers to use its offshore Bijagos islands as a staging post on the cocaine route to Europe was a devastating blow (for analysis of the latter, see here). The advent of the drug gangs brought chaos, as politicians, police and the military jostled for a share of the spoils. The assassination of Nino Vieira, who had ruled the country for much of the last thirty years, was the most visible of its impacts, but the repercussions show no signs of abating.
Last week saw the foiling of an alleged coup attempt by navy chief, Bubo Na Tchuto (for more on his colourful past, see here). Taking advantage of the president, Malam Bacai Sanha, being out of the country for medical treatment, Bubo had apparently resolved to take charge of the country – and by extension the cocaine trade – before army boss and former friend Antonio Indjai could lay his hands on it.
Some observers believe the arrest of Admiral Bubo was a positive development, as he has for long been suspected of being in cahoots with the South Americans (this analysis ignores the possibility that Indjai himself, who two years ago released Bubo from United Nations custody, is similarly implicated). But the death in hospital of Malam Bacai Sanha today has shaken things up yet again. Instead of settling down, there is now likely to be a new tussle for power. Indjai is likely to be either king or kingmaker, the prime minister Carlos Gomes, whom Indjai described two years ago as a “criminal” but who is now seemingly an ally (alliances in the cocaine era are extremely fluid), will want a slice of the pie, and former president, the disastrous Kumba Yala, may make another bid for the top job. The stakes are high, the power struggle unlikely to result in anything resembling stability as long as the traffickers remain in the country. The death of the president could barely have come at a worse time. Once again, fortune has frowned on Guinea-Bissau.
January 9, 2012 at 5:26 pm | More on Africa, Conflict and security | 1 Comment
To find out how world peace was coming along I rose early this morning (not easy after a New Year’s Eve engaged in one of the marathon rakı and cards sessions of which middle-aged Turks are so fond) to attend mass at the local Armenian church.
That it is possible to write such a sentence is a small miracle. A century ago, the port town of Iskenderun in southern Turkey had a thriving population of Armenians. Today there are just one hundred left – ten of them joined me, bleary-eyed, at mass. Their church, founded in the late nineteenth century, reopened in 2011 having been closed for decades due to the absence of a priest. It owes its resurrection to an earnest young member of the community who, fearful that without a focal point the old traditions would die out, decided to fill the gap, and went to Lebanon and Jerusalem to be trained as a priest. He now ministers to the small church of Iskenderun and the even smaller chapel of a nearby village, the last Armenian settlement in Turkey.
During a break in the three hour-long service, the elderly man sitting next to me introduces himself and asks my business. Within a minute or two, unprompted, he remarks that ‘this country has done terrible things to Christians.’ In 1916, he tells me, his parents had been forced to flee to Iskenderun from the interior. Turkish soldiers were killing Armenians in the surrounding region, and in anticipation of the troops’ arrival the people of his village had begun to join in. This was the beginning of a series of events described by Armenians and most of the world as genocide and by Turks, unconvincingly, as war. At least a million people are thought to have died in the ensuing months. Iskenderun itself was not immune to the killings, the old man says, but because it was a French protectorate at the time it provided a safer haven than much of the rest of the country.
Today the town continues to be a welcoming home to its small Armenian population. The priest tells me that he and his congregants have no problems with their fellow townspeople, nearly all of whom are Turks, and that Iskenderun is a fine place for Armenians to live. In recent months the oafish political posturing of Sarkozy has dominated the Armenia-Turkey debate, but as we enter what is likely to be a turbulent new year the resilience and endurance of Iskenderun’s Armenian community tells a more positive, constructive story. A Happy New Year to all.
January 1, 2012 at 5:55 pm | More on Conflict and security, Middle East and North Africa | Comments Off
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December 19, 2011 at 11:04 am | More on East Asia and Pacific | 2 Comments
Doug Saunders of Canada’s Globe and Mail has an interesting post on whether the economic boom that lasted from the early 1990s to the late 2000s was worth it. He concludes, on the basis of incomes, home ownership rates and household debt in the US, Canada and Europe, that ‘in the countries that kept a lid on consumer and mortgage lending, the economic boom was worth all the hype. Everywhere else, it was like a bad dream.’ By this analysis, only France, Canada and Germany have reaped sustainable rewards.
But what if we take a wider view? In a globalised world, it is not only recessions and financial crises that cross borders, but also goods, money, people and knowledge. As global trade, aid and migration have increased in the past two decades, at least some of the economic benefits of the boom are likely to have had impacts beyond the borders of North America and Europe.
So how are things looking on a global scale? Was the boom worth it for the world as a whole? Well, so far, emphatically yes. Take poverty for example. As David showed on here a few weeks ago, world poverty has plummeted - from over 40% of the population in 1990 to just over 20% today. Or look at life expectancy – another key aspect of quality of life and one which you would expect to improve as economic growth helps people and countries pay for health care and better diets. That too has improved, by a massive five years worldwide since 1990. And in education, increases in which will help countries to maintain in the long-term their advances in other areas, the number of children who are out of school worldwide has shrunk by a third in the past two decades.
Of course, it’s much too early to predict whether all or any of these improvements will survive the current crash (let alone the environmental damage that has gone hand in hand with growth), and it’s difficult to disentangle the effects of the boom from the effects of, say, better governance in poor countries. But it’s also too early to say the boom wasn’t worth it. The world is a much wealthier, healthier and more knowledgeable place today than it was before the boom started, and even if stagnation takes hold and there are no further improvements in the imminent future, many people will still be in a better place than they were 20 years ago. It seems unfashionable to be pleased about anything in today’s gloomy atmosphere, but taking a global perspective is a cause at least for temporary cheer.
November 30, 2011 at 3:57 pm | More on Economics and development | 1 Comment
Yesterday’s El País carried what to me was an extraordinary story about repossessions of Spanish homes. The recession has seen the number of repossessions in Spain rising to 100,000 per year, but far from suffering for making dumb loans, the country’s mortgage laws allow banks to profit from their clients’ failure to pay.
Repossession policy dictates that if a propert has to be handed over to a bank because its owner cannot keep up with mortgage payments, the bank must endeavour to sell it at auction, and use the proceeds to reduce the amount owed. In the current, stagnant environment, however, nobody is buying, even at repossession auctions, and much of what is on offer goes unsold. Such an eventuality does not perturb the banks, however – indeed, they are probably delighted not to sell – for in the event that a property fails to attract a buyer at auction, the bank gets to keep it for 50% of what it is adjudged to be worth.
Let us say, therefore, that someone has taken out a €100,000 mortgage on a house which at the time the bank judged to be worth €100,000 (many banks, of course, made 100% loans during the boom), and that after paying, say, €10,000 plus interest of that loan the debtor loses his job – not uncommon in a country with 23% unemployment – and can no longer make his monthly payments. The debtor now owes €90,000. The bank tries to sell the house at auction, with a reserve of €75,000 (the Bank of Spain says official house prices have fallen 17%, and the bank knocks off a bit extra to make it look like it is keen to sell). Nobody is interested. The house goes unsold. The bank acquires the house for €41,500 (50% of the official value of €83,000), and the debtor, who is now homeless and jobless, still owes it €48,500, plus interest.
It won’t have escaped your notice that this is a remarkably good deal for the bank. First, it received €10,000 plus plenty of interest – let’s estimate a further €10,000 – from the hapless debtor before he lost his job. Second, it is still owed nearly €50,000 plus interest. And third, it has acquired a house worth perhaps €60,000 (if we ignore the overoptimistic official figures) for just over $40,000. Even if the debtor now does the sensible thing and tells the bank where it can put the rest of the debt, therefore, the bank will have lost just 20% of the loan. Most debtors, however, will not be so bold, and will attempt to pay back the rest of the loan for fear of losing their hard-won creditworthiness. In the latter cases, the bank will have made a profit on the original €100,000 loan of €20,000 plus several additional tens of thousands in interest, so unless significantly more than half of debtors tell the bank where to go it cannot lose on these deals.
Of course, the above example is theoretical and the actual figures are likely to vary somewhat – the bank might sell the house for €70,000, adding another ten grand to its haul, and there are costs of selling to account for too. But unless I have miscalculated it does not seem too far-fetched. Under the current policy, banks benefit by making bad loans. Since most people will try to pay back the loan even though they no longer own their property, banks can easily withstand a few bad debtors, and it is not surprising in an industry where profit rules that their vetting policy is less than rigorous. A couple of commentators in the El País article recommend raising the 50% of the value at which the bank acquires the property to 70% – this would seem a bare minimum to avoid the moral hazard created by the current law. The protesters in the 15-M movement rightly blame the banks for causing the housing crisis, but where policy puts them in a no-lose situation it is inevitable that many will take advantage.
June 27, 2011 at 11:52 am | More on Economics and development, Europe and Central Asia | 3 Comments
A trial that has just got under way in New York looks likely to provide some interesting insights into how South American drug traffickers are going about their business in West Africa, which for several years now (as detailed here and here) has been used as a transit point on the cocaine route to Europe and the US.
A prosecution witness in the trial has claimed that Fumbah Sirleaf, son of Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former director of Liberia’s National Security Agency, agreed to pose as a corrupt official (not too difficult a disguise for most West African politicians) to help the US Drug Enforcement Agency in a sting operation.
As the Canadian Press reports, Sirleaf and a colleague allegedly met a pair of Colombians representing a South American drug trafficking organisation, and extracted from them a promise to give them $1m and 50 kilos of cocaine in return for letting them use Liberia as a hub. ‘What these defendants did not know,’ said the witness, a DEA agent, ‘was that Liberian officials had not put their country up for sale. The Liberians had been pretending to be corrupt.’ Sirleaf recorded the conversations with the Colombians, and handed the tapes to the DEA. Defence lawyers say their clients were entrapped. Watch this space for updates.
April 11, 2011 at 11:47 am | More on Africa, Conflict and security | Comments Off
This piece from yesterday’s Africa Review contains much that is spurious. That coalition forces are ‘taking their lead from the US,’ that Libya will become ‘a basket country’ after Gaddafi goes, that African leaders see Gaddafi as a ‘benevolent godfather,’ and that in the Ivory Coast there is ‘little difference’ between Gbagbo and Ouattara are all at the very least arguable.
But these claims pale into insignificance compared with the article’s overarching point, which is that the West wants to remove Gaddafi because he is a ‘dangerous African likely to cause a united front against neo-colonialism in Africa.’ According to the Africa Review, the kindly dictator ‘identified himself with sub-Saharan Africa, championing a united Africa and showing the continent how if they formulated a collective vision, they would be able to stand on their own feet.’
The basis for this claim is unclear, for when one thinks of Gaddafi and sub-Saharan Africa, unity and self-reliance are very far from the first things that spring to mind. Was Gaddafi championing a united Africa when he armed Charles Taylor in Liberia and Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone, enabling them to kill tens of thousands of sub-Saharan Africans and maim, rape and torture many more (even Taylor’s defence lawyer at the Hague has asked why Gaddafi is not in the dock)? Was he formulating a collective vision when he sent Libyan troops to help the mad cannibal Idi Amin crush a popular uprising, or when he gave Amin arms to massacre sub-Saharan Africans in northern Uganda? Was he helping Africans stand on their own feet when he sent weapons to a rebel leader in the Democratic Republic of Congo who is now on trial for war crimes? The list goes on and on; with friends like these, as sub-Saharan Africans reading the Africa Review must surely be asking themselves as they splutter over this morning’s cornflakes, who needs enemies?
April 5, 2011 at 9:57 am | More on Africa, Conflict and security | 1 Comment
Last week, a pro-Gaddafi protest in predominantly-Muslim Guinea was banned. This week, a similar event in Niger has been outlawed, with the head of the apparently moderate Islamic Association of Niger describing the attacks as a ‘crusade against the Islamic world.’
Al Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb – the terrorist organisation’s West African branch – is already gaining strength thanks to ransom payments it has received in return for releasing Western hostages. There must be a risk that what is happening in Libya will push new recruits into its arms.
April 1, 2011 at 4:40 pm | More on Africa, Conflict and security | Comments Off