Rwanda’s coffee success story

A walking tour through some of the trendiest coffee shops in the NYU vicinity reveals a common element: creatively packaged, expensive Rwandan coffee for sale.

Given our long-standing interest in 1) good coffee and 2) the potential of entrepreneurship for development, this phenomenon clearly merited investigation. The work of Karol Boudreaux, who has been following the Rwandan coffee sector for several years, helps to sketch the outlines of a partially donor-funded development success story now unfolding.

The history of coffee in Rwanda is intertwined with the country’s political fortunes, and stretches back to the 1930s when the Belgian colonial government required Rwandan farmers to plant coffee trees, while setting price restrictions and high export taxes, and controlling which firms could purchase coffee. These policies helped create a “low-quality/low-price trap” that would bedevil the post-colonial governments that continued similarly heavy-handed policies. They also ensured a national distaste for the stuff—reportedly even today many Rwandans prefer tea.

In the late 1980s global coffee prices plummeted, and the economic devastation following Rwanda’s 1994 genocide wiped out what remained of the struggling industry. In 2000, there was no functioning infrastructure to wash and process coffee beans, meaning that what little coffee was produced was of poor quality.

Fast forward ten years to today: Rwanda has a National Coffee Strategy. Rwandan specialty coffee is winning international competitions, commands some of the world’s highest prices, and is sought out by Starbucks, Green Mountain Coffee, Intelligentsia, and Counter Culture Coffee. There is preliminary evidence that the coffee industry is creating jobs, boosting small farmer expenditure and consumption, and possibly even fostering social reconciliation by reducing “ethnic distance” among the Hutus and Tutsis who work together growing and washing coffee.

How did this happen? First, the Rwandan government lowered trade barriers, and lifted restrictions on coffee farmers. Second, Rwanda developed a strategy of targeting production of high-quality coffee, a specialty product whose prices remain stable even when industrial-quality coffee prices fall. Third, international donors provided funding, technical assistance and training, creating programs like the USAID-funded Sustaining Partnerships to Enhance Rural Enterprise and Agribusiness Development (SPREAD). SPREAD's predecessor started the first Rwandan coffee cooperative as an experiment in 2001, and the project continues its work improving each link in newly-identified high-value coffee supply chains.

Some problems and constraints still plague the Rwandan coffee sector. For example, transport costs remain high, and poor management at some coffee cooperatives points to a persistent need for good training and financial management skills.

Still, Rwanda’s revenues from coffee are still growing in the face of global recession, and these revenues bring real benefits to Rwanda’s rural poor.

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The map history of an unhappy place, 1829-present

In the greater Horn of Africa, the talk is of civil war, genocide, tyranny, interstate war, failed states, fragile peace. Where did this all come from? One perspective is given from Europeans' maps of this area. The maps below are cropped so as to cover the exact same area from the Tropic of Cancer to the Equator, from 20 degrees longitude to the tip of the horn (approx. 50 degrees longitude). The maps are from early 1800s (exact data unknown), 1829, 1885, 1906, 1924, and the Present. The place names appear early on: Darfur, Somalia, (or earlier versions of those names, like Nubia for Sudan, Abyssinia for Ethiopia), but the borders are remarkably unstable.

Among the forces at work changing the map are Europeans’ increasing knowledge of the area, the expansion of European colonial control, European border changes, and Ethiopian expansion. Somehow it led to the present mix of tragic mess, cultural richness, and potential for hope.

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Lincoln’s Birthday Valentine’s Day Declaration: I ♥ Democracy

Democracy doesn’t attract as much love as it deserves in aid and development circles. Many wonder if benevolent autocrats might be better for development than messy elections, even though there is no evidence to support benevolent autocracy. There is a strong positive association between democracy and LEVEL of per capita income, which at least some authors argue is causal. (It’s true there is no robust association between democracy and GROWTH of income, but then there is no robust association between GROWTH and ANYTHING.) But even if there had been SOME material payoff to autocracy, why don’t we care more about democracy as a good thing in itself?

Many just can’t get that excited about majority voting. But the MECHANICS of democracy (majority voting among many others) are not the essence of democracy, which is about VALUES. The latter we care a lot more about than the former. The donors who try to promote democracy are unfortunately obsessive about the mechanics and silent on the values.

Lincoln’s Birthday was February 12, so this is a good excuse to use the Emancipator to clear things up:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master. This expresses my idea of democracy. Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

The brilliance of this definition is how it also includes equality. No group is so second-class that we can deprive them of their rights without opening the door to deprivation of our own rights. Slavery is an extreme that can be generalized to all forms of oppression by arbitrary self-appointed authorities, which then leads to guaranteeing all individual rights.

I think I care about slavery -- and my risk of being enslaved -- a lot more than I care about whether elections are winner-take-all or proportional representation.

These soaring ideals had very practical consequences. The brilliant work of economic historian Joel Mokyr links the Industrial Revolution to changes in ideas and ideologies. Putting my own spin on Mokyr, the idea of individual freedom from arbitrary authority transformed many fields besides politics, opening them up to many more independent participants:

Scientific democracy: ANYONE, no matter how junior, can overturn wisdom of anyone, no matter how senior, using scientific method.

Technological democracy: ANYONE, any junior innovator, can overturn incumbent elites with something new that just “works.”

Social democracy: ANYONE can be a social reformer, as long as they persuade their fellow ANYONES of a social evil.

So the freedom of the individual as a VALUE was far more consequential than any specific MECHANICS on how this idea was implemented -- like the endless obsession with electoral rules.

Drawing on Aid Watch’s endless and increasingly farfetched supply of metaphors, here’s another timely example of mechanics vs. values:


The hypothalamus transmits chemicals to the pituitary gland, which releases hormones into the bloodstream, creating a rapid heartbeat and lightness in the head.

value that corresponds to these mechanics:


Perhaps some Valentine’s Day Development Bureaucracy worked on the mechanics, say a Hypothalamus Transmission Stimulation Program, featuring “results indicators” like heartbeat speed. But I think most Valentine’s Day celebrations stressed the value rather than the mechanics.

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If Martin Luther King had been an aid official -- the Powerpoint version of I Have a Dream

If only Martin Luther King Jr. had been an aid agency official, he would have been able to use Powerpoint and aid terminology to get his main points across more effectively. Using advanced econometric methods, we were able to project the Powerpoint (via PDF) slides that would have resulted (open or save here).

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Levi's sees the light on human rights for Native Americans

A previous post suggested that American liberty was still a work in progress. One illustration was a Levi's ad that celebrates the seizing of Native American land for ourselves. To Levi's credit, they responded to an email invitation to respond to our blog.

Now that we have pointed out that the language in their ad seems to, well -- how should I put this diplomatically -- kind of lend support to nearly wiping out the Indians, they responded:

Thanks for checking in with us.

The Levi's(®) "Go Forth" campaign is intended to refresh and reinvent the idea of America's raw pioneering spirit, youthful optimism, and hard work to build a better tomorrow.  We apologize if our efforts did not resonate with you.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.  We'll definitely pass them along to our Marketing colleagues who pay close attention to consumer feedback.

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Levi’s urges youth to conquer Native Americans again

levisgoforth_body_lead_wideLevi’s has a new ad campaign that suggests American liberty is still a work in progress. One of its new videos has a voiceover reciting the Walt Whitman poem “O Pioneers” with youths dancing around a fire wearing Levi’s. [Watch video here: Levi\'s Commercial.] The recitation includes lines like

get your weapons ready;  Have you your pistols? … We, the youthful sinewy races, all the rest on us depend… Fresh and strong the world we seize

Against whom are our weapons supposed to be used? Whose world are we seizing? Any 3rd grader could tell you:  Whitman is referring to the war against Native Americans by westward-bound settlers and the US army.

Does Levi’s want to celebrate that? Well, try to see it from Levi’s point of view: their company wouldn’t even exist if we hadn’t wiped out the Indians.

OK, trying to be a little more serious, Levi’s running this ad shows how we still don’t take seriously enough our Euro-American historical crimes. I know many people are tired of this topic. This is also a constant bone of contention between the Left and the Right, with the Right blaming the Left for apologizing too much and overlooking the great accomplishments of Western Civilization, like Individual Rights.

There is a middle ground: those of us of Euro-American heritage would be a lot more convincing on Individual Rights by acknowledging that we have had as much trouble applying them as anybody else. We were pioneers in applying them to our own ethnic group, but we kept handing out free passes to kill other people's rights.

So no more holier-than-thou preaching about individual rights. At least, we have made progress on eroding some Double Standards: Jew and Gentile, White and Black, Man and Woman. Probably the worst Double Standard left is between rich and poor societies – we believe in Democracy in the former but not in the latter.  So let’s acknowledge how hard it has been, but keep striving for Liberty for All.

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Lies My Poets Told Me: The Prehistory of Development Economics

This post is by Adam Martin, a post-doctoral fellow at DRI. A couple months ago, Bill addressed the imperial origins of state-led development, arguing that economic development was a substitute for racism as a rationalization of empire. I think it’s worthwhile to delve a bit further into the intellectual and social context in which these ideas were put forward.

Why bother? Because ideas matter for policy. There are good, hard-nosed reasons for believing that rationales are not mere epiphenomena of political interests. Understanding why and how certain policies are implemented requires some digging into the justifications of policymakers. A bit of intellectual archaeology might also identify some path dependence in economic thinking about development. The point is not to impugn the motives of current policymakers or academic researchers, but to shed light on any hidden intellectual baggage that might be weighing down their efforts. Old dead economists might teach us something valuable after all.

John Ruskin slays a racialized student of the Dismal Science

How do the ideas of economists fit into this historical collision of racism, imperialism, and international politics that gave us the development establishment? Before jumping right into more proximate causes, a bit of pre-history might help set the scene. WWII was not the dismal science's first collision with race and empire. As it turns out, the "dismal" moniker that economists have long enjoyed stems from those very debates.

David Levy and Sandra Peart have extensively chronicled the relationship between classical economics and the racism contemporary to it. The surprise ending? The economists were the good guys. That's right. Vile, contemptible economists--apologists for markets, purveyors of selfishness--were the public defenders of racial equality (along with the "Exeter Hall" evangelical Christians). Then who were the bad guys? The poets: Thomas Carlyle, John Ruskin, and everyone's favorite literary critic of capitalism, Charles Dickens. It was Carlyle who christened economics as the dismal science, in contrast with the "gay science" of poetry. The context is shocking:

Truly, my philanthropic friends, Exeter Hall philanthropy is wonderful; and the social science -- not a "gay science," but a rueful --which finds the secret of this universe in "supply and demand," and reduces the duty of human governors to that of letting men alone, is also wonderful. Not a "gay science," I should say, like some we have heard of; no, a dreary, desolate and, indeed, quite abject and distressing one; what we might call, by way of eminence, the dismal science. These two, Exeter Hall philanthropy and the Dismal Science, led by any sacred cause of black emancipation, or the like, to fall in love and make a wedding of it -- will give birth to progenies and prodigies: dark extensive moon-calves, unnameable abortions, wide-coiled monstrosities, such as the world has not seen hitherto!

Carlyle is arguing here for the reintroduction of slavery in the West Indian colonies. John Stuart Mill responded, in line with classical economists' assumption of a deep human homogeneity. Differences between societies are the result of the incentives individuals face, meaning that history and institutions are the root cause of different levels of development. By contrast, the Romantic poets argued that inherent differences between individuals justified hierarchical relationships--for the good of the lesser races, of course. They longed for bygone feudalism when better men cared for their inferiors, while the economists argued that equals should come together in mutually beneficial market exchange.

BrightEconomists played this part again in the debate over Irish home rule, arguing that Ireland's economic backwardness was due to bad institutional arrangements, themselves the result of centuries of British invasions. For their part, the economists' opponents depicted them--personified as John Bright--as peddling snake oil to the subhuman Irish.

In both these cases, economists' underlying egalitarianism clashed with paternalism of an ugly sort. The "dismal" label should be worn as a badge of honor for precisely this reason. But why did later dismal scientists sign on so readily to the paternalist project of development? Why were voices like Bauer and Frankel so rare? I don't think the abandonment of racist language is a sufficient cause. Other tectonic shifts in economic thought took place in the intervening decades. Which were decisive? This is an open question worth pursuing further.

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History Matters: If you paid a $4 poll tax in 1910, your great-grandchild gets a polio vaccine today

Nigeria_710_250 In colonial Nigeria in the last years of the 19th century, a strange quirk of history led the British rulers to draw an arbitrary boundary line along the 7˚10' N line of latitude, separating the population into two separate administrative districts.

Below the line, the colonial government raised money by levying taxes on imported alcohol and other goods that came through Southern Protectorate’s sea ports. Above the line, the administrators of the landlocked Northern Protectorate had no sea ports, and instead raised money through direct taxes. In the areas near the border, this took the form of a simple poll tax, where tax officials collected from each citizen the equivalent of between $4 and $20 in today’s dollars.

Could this seemingly minor difference—created over a century ago by a long-defunct colonial administration, and long ago erased by subsequent administrative divisions—possibly still matter today?

Yes, it could, according to Daniel Berger, a PhD student in politics at NYU. Berger’s paper, Taxes, Institutions and Local Governance: Evidence from a Natural Experiment in Colonial Nigeria, finds that the “simple act of having to collect taxes caused governments to be forced to build the capacity which can now provide basic government services.” As a result, governance today is “significantly better” in areas just above the line than in those just below it.

After looking at historical evidence and running statistical tests, Berger finds that there is no evidence of pre-existing differences among the people living very close to the arbitrary boundary on either side, and so is able to rule out the possibility that some third factor could account for the differences in governance that remain today.

The results are threefold. Berger uses Afrobarometer public opinion data to show that residents just above the line are happier with their local governments, and his use of demographic survey data shows that local governments just below the line spend 10 percent more of their budget on salaries ("an indicator of less competent government.") Zeroing in on the propensity of mothers to vaccinate their child as a way to get at a precise measure of the quality of public service delivery, Berger finds that “living just below the line leads to a 10.7 percentage point reduction in the probability that her child will be vaccinated for polio.”

The conditions created by the administrative division led to two different equilibria, which help explain how the differences above and below the line were able to persist over time:

In the first, the local government does little except extract what few bribes it can….There is no incentive for hard work, as bureaucrats will neither be able to extract appreciably more rents (due to the limited amount of money available in the local economy) nor will they be able to improve government functioning on their own (since efficient functioning requires the entire bureaucracy working together). This also leads to a knock on effect on the human capital available to the local governments as the families which control the local government have no reason to steer their smartest children into local government service.

The second equilibrium is one in which significant services are actually delivered. Here, the local government is capable of delivering local basic public services with a reasonable level of efficiency and honesty. This grants sufficient legitimacy to the local government that they are able to collect local taxes, which never go to the center. They can then pay themselves regularly despite the fact that they are not regularly receiving the transfers they are due from the center. Here hard work does make a difference.

Berger’s conclusions also speak to the strength of norms and informal institutions. While the formal institutions—the idiosyncratic colonial structure of taxation—that created the original difference in bureaucratic capacity were long ago swept away, it is the informal norms, transmitted across generations, that persist and lead to the different outcomes we see today.

You may wonder what whim caused the British create this artificial boundary in the first place. The literature tells us that the British were worried that a colonial official senior enough to administer the whole undivided territory of Nigeria would be too old and too weak to survive the malarial climate. By cutting the province in two, the British could send two younger and heartier (but less-experienced) governors instead.

So, to simplify: measurable differences in the perception and quality of local government provision service persist between otherwise identical populations just north and south of Nigeria’s the 7˚10' N latitude line…all for fear of a malarial mosquito.

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The Imperial Origins of State-Led Development

Lenin said “Imperialism is the Last Stage of Capitalism.” Globalization protesters routinely link American imperialism to promotion of capitalism overseas. For example, Naomi Klein’s 2008 book The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism draws a vivid connection between American interventions overseas (like the CIA overthrowing Allende in Chile, or today’s Iraq) and the promotion of free markets (“neoliberal economics”). It’s plausible that there are sometimes connections between military interventions and the economic interests of the intervener. Yet it is not so obvious that imperialism promotes free markets. Historically, the most egregious imperialism, such as the British Empire, actually promoted state-led development rather than free markets.

This is yet another insight of Suke Wolton’s book on the colonial invention of “development” that I discussed yesterday. Propagandists like Lord Hailey offered the necessity of state-led efforts to promote development as yet another justification for the continuation of British colonial rule during and after World War II. This is not so surprising – when the “state” is the colonial ruler, and you want to convince people that poor societies need the colonial ruler, then you want to emphasize the paramount role of the “state” in development. According to Hailey, the state’s “primary function” was the “improvement of the standards of living … in the Dependencies.” The government was the “most active agency for promoting social welfare and improving the general standard of living.” Private enterprise is never mentioned in the British colonial propaganda covered by Wolton.

So it was not such a surprise that the early development theories in the 40s and 50s, in the political environment created by colonial pro-state propaganda, said that countries could not break out of their “poverty trap” without a coordinated state effort at a “Big Push.”

What about imperialism and attitudes toward development today? One intriguing thing I wonder in the light of both today’s post, and yesterday’s post on colonial racism and paternalism, is the affection of today’s British public and academics for paternalistic and state-led theories of development somehow related to the British colonial past? As compared to the lack of sympathy for such theories among the American public and academics, when America lacks much of a colonial past and traditionally criticized colonialism?

Of course, the US has been no slouch as an imperialist lately. Yet today’s US imperialism does not obviously promote free markets. The US quickly abandoned a brief experiment with trying to create the perfect free market in Iraq (correctly derided by Naomi Klein) after the insurgency arose. Now in both Iraq and Afghanistan, there is heavy reliance on the aid-military-state complex to promote development. It is true that American companies have benefited from both interventions, but NOT from free market opportunities in either country. No, they grow fat on aid-government contracts.

So imperialism is not so clearly linked to capitalism and free markets after all; historically there has been a closer link between colonialism/imperialism and state-led approaches to development. People who like Imperialism are fond of a big military state presence, so it’s not so surprising that they are also fond of a big economic state presence.

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How the British Invented “Development” to Keep the Empire and Substitute for Racism

During the early years of World War II, Japan won major victories (such as the capture of Singapore) against the British and threatened India. Japanese propaganda pointed to British racism and offered themselves as the defenders of non-white peoples. The British feared that non-white people in the colonies might side with the Japanese rather than their colonial masters. The British had to come up with a new justification for colonial rule to replace the unpopular and increasingly implausible idea that they were a superior race destined to rule inferior races. In response, they invented the concept of economic development.

This story is told in an undeservedly obscure book by Suke Wolton, 2000, Lord Hailey, the Colonial Office, and the Politics of Race and Empire in the Second World War, (I have this thing for obscure development history books; this one is ranked #4,399,430 on Amazon)

The Japanese charge of British racism was certainly correct. They were so racist they thought even nonwhites acknowledged their own inferiority, like when Julian Huxley referred to the natives’ “childlike belief in the white as an inherently superior being.” After World War I, the Americans and British shot down a League of Nations resolution for Racial Equality proposed by the Japanese. The Colonial Office said in 1939 “most Africans are still savages.”

But during the dark days when the British were losing World War II, the racism was no longer allowed to be so explicit. The Labor Minister in 1941 banned the N word for Africans and “coolies” for Indians. The Colonial Office further told the BBC that the N-word should be “discouraged” on the radio. A further breakthrough caused the BBC to drop the word “native.”

But something more positive was needed to put the Empire in a good light. A long-time colonial official, Lord Hailey came up with the idea in 1941 of redefining the Empire’s mission as “promotion of native welfare.” (I guess he didn’t get the BBC memo about “native.”) And he argued the colonies could only develop with Britain’s help (sound familiar?) In short, Hailey said:

A new conception of our relationship…may emerge as part of the movement for the betterment of the backward peoples of the world, which stands in the forefront of every enlightened programme for …postwar conditions.

To repress independence movements, however, Hailey made a distinction between political development and economic development: “Political liberties are meaningless unless they can be built on a better foundation of social and economic progress.” (A line that autocrats have been using ever since.) The Colonial Office thought many colonies “little removed from their primitive state,” so “they will probably not be fit for complete independence for centuries.”

Of course, changing the language from racist to economic development did not mean racism suddenly disappeared. As Wolton shows, “the white Western elites still believed in their fundamental superiority.” In the end, Wolton says, “The major powers would continue to be able to determine the future of the colonial territories – only this time the source of their legitimacy was based less on racial difference and more on their new role as protector and developmental economist.” After the war, even more officials went out to the Empire in what became known as the “second colonial occupation.”

Why does this history matter today? After all, the Empire fell apart much sooner than expected, and racism did diminish a lot over time. And I do NOT mean to imply guilt by association for development as imperialist and racist; there are many theories of development and many who work on development (including many from developing countries themselves) that have nothing to do with imperialism and racism.

But I think the origin of development as cover for imperialism and racism did have toxic legacies for some. First, it meant that the concept of development was determined to fit a propaganda imperative; it was NOT a breakthrough in thought by economists. Second, it followed that development from the beginning would stress the central role of Western aid to help the helpless natives (which shows up in the early development theories like the “poverty trap” and the “Big Push,” and the lack of interest in local entrepreneurs and market incentives). Third, the paternalism was so extreme at the beginning that it would last for a long time – I still think it is widespread today, especially after today’s comeback of the early development ideas in some parts of the aid system. And this history also seems strangely relevant with today’s “humanitarian” nouveau-imperialism to invade and fix “failed states” like Iraq and Afghanistan.

Membership in the development elites is far more diverse than in Lord Hailey’s time, but I fear that, to use Wolton’s words, “in the end, the elites still believe in their fundamental superiority.”

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Guess the source of this British aid document on Country Ownership

However able their government...many countries cannot finance out of their own resources the research and survey work, the schemes of major capital enterprise… which are necessary for their development.

Assistance from United Kingdom funds should be related to what countries can do for themselves…There is a need for machinery to provide complete coordination between the efforts of these separate departmental staffs so as to ensure that development proceeds on a balanced and comprehensive plan…With the requisite financial assistance once assured…Governments {would} prepare development programmes for a period of years ahead.

The whole effort will be one of collaboration...There must be ready recognition that conditions vary greatly from country to country, and that country governments, who best know the needs of their own countries, should enjoy a wide latitude in the initiation and execution of policies.

The answer is after the jump.

Here's a hint: I have omitted words as shown by ellipses but not changed any except one – I used the word “country” where the original document used the word “Colony”.

This document is The Statement of Policy on Colonial Development and Welfare, presented by the Secretary of State for the Colonies to Parliament by Command of His Majesty, February 1940.

Coat of arms of the British South Africa Company, circa 1940. Taken from halfpenny stamp, Southern Rhodesia 1940.

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Didn't we try that in 1938? Why technical poverty fixes fall short

Is African poverty caused by lack of the necessary technical knowledge applied to disease, nutrition, clean water, and agriculture? Reading many discussions, like that of the recent food security initiative, or the UN Millennium Project (UNMP) on how to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, would make you think so. Would it change your mind if that technical knowledge already existed and there were attempts to apply it as long ago as 1938? The following table compares the technical recommendations from a prominent and exhaustive survey of African problems headed by Lord Hailey in 1938 to those of the UNMP in 2005.

African Problem to be Addressed African Research Survey, 1938 UN Millennium Project, 2005
Malaria “mosquito bed-nets …malaria control by the spraying of native huts with a preparation of pyrethrum” “insecticide-treated nets…. insecticides for indoor residual spraying …{with} pyrethroids”
Nutrition “…the African suffers from deficiency of Vitamin A” “Malnutrition {is also} caused by inadequate intake of … vitamin A”
Soil fertility “methods of improving soil fertility {such as} green manuring” “using green manure to improve soil fertility”
Soil erosion “increasing absorption and reducing runoff on cultivated land {through} the use of terraces” “Contour terraces, necessary on sloping lands… when furnished with grasses and trees…{to avoid} soil erosion”
Land tenure “… legal security against attack or disturbance can most effectively be guaranteed by registration” “security in private property and tenure rights … registration of property”
Clean drinking water sinking boreholes “Increase the share of boreholes”

(A longer version of this table and the citations for the quotes appear in my recent article “Can the West Save Africa?” in the Journal of Economic Literature.)

Enthusiasts for technology fixes for poverty concentrate almost exclusively on the science and the technical design -- this is a characteristic fault of poverty solvers from Silicon Valley, the Gates Foundation, doctors, and natural scientists.

All of the above seem to forget that technology does not implement itself. Technical knowledge needs people to implement it – people who have the right incentives to solve all of the glitches and unexpected problems that happen when you apply a new technology, people who make sure that all the right inputs get to the right places at the right time, and local people who are motivated to use the new technology. The field that addresses all these incentives is called economics.

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Fourth of July Edition


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

What a turning point in history this statement was on the first Fourth of July 233 years ago. Yet this bold ideal was proclaimed long in advance of any practical chance of fulfillment. The author of these words was an owner of African slaves. Nobody at the time worried whether “men” was a generic term that also included “women.” Nor did anyone give any thought to whether it applied to people known at the time by words like “barbarians” and “savages.” Yet it worked pragmatically in the long run as an ideal that reformers could appeal to again and again.

So 87 years later, another eloquent writer and speaker could appeal to these words to fight for the end of slavery in the United States:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.

And slavery did indeed end, yet legal equality for African-Americans did not arrive. So 100 years later, another great American would say:

I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal."

And thanks to the efforts of the civil rights movement he led, African-Americans achieved legal equality.

“Created equal” is a principle yet to be accepted in most of the world, which perhaps has a lot to do with why most of the world is still not developed. Inequality of rights between elites and majorities, between ethnic and religious groups, between men and women is pervasive. But perhaps we can hope that this ideal still serves as a beacon that crusaders continue to cite in their ongoing struggle for the dignity and rights of every man and woman.

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Is There Such a Thing as a Good Colonialist?

An ongoing exhibition at NYU’s Casa Italiana introduces American audiences to a new Romantic hero, the Italian explorer and conquerer Pietro di Brazza. In three small but fascinating rooms of photographs, maps and drawings, the exhibit lays out the argument that Africa would have been better off with more of the kinder, gentler colonialism of Pietro di Brazza, and less of the harsh colonialism of Henry Stanley, the Anglo-American explorer in the service of the notorious most ruthless imperialist ever, King Leopold of Belgium. Brazza-by-Nadar.jpg

Pietro Savorgnan di Brazza, photographed by Felix Nadar in Paris, around 1882

Born in Rome and educated in France, Pietro di Brazza joined the French Navy at the age of 18. His early expeditions, up the Ogoué river (now in Gabon) and across the Batéké plain (now part of Congo-Brazzaville), laid the groundwork for the French colonial empire in Equatorial Africa.

On his expeditions, he carried with him French flags and bestowed them on tribal leaders as symbols of protection against other predatory colonial powers. He signed a treaty of friendship with the leader of the powerful Batéké tribe, Makoko Iloo I, which would eventually cede much of what is now Congo-Brazzaville to French control. As a reward for his successful explorations, France made Brazza the Commissioner General of French West Africa, where he governed for 15 years.

Examining the allegiances, writings and portraits of the two explorers, the exhibit draws a studied contrast between the humanist ideals of Brazza, who opposed slavery and fought to prevent France from granting concessions to commercial merchants in Africa, and the mercenary tactics of Henry Stanley, whose exploration of Lake Victoria and the Congo River led the way for King Leopold to establish an empire of unprecedented brutality and exploitation in what is now the DRC.

Brazza was a man ahead of his time, the curators contend, who understood the need for sustainable development, and treated the natives with tolerance and respect. “I believe that the future of Western Africa and the Congo basin depends on the rich indigenous culture and trade—not on colonization through European immigration,” he said in a speech to his admirers in Paris.

Still, the exhibit left us wondering: Do we really need a colonialist hero? Is the world short on idealized portraits of rugged white men in native gear, posing against romantic backdrops of sand and mountains? For all Brazza’s noble ideals, should we pass lightly over the fact that he was in fact the colonial governor of French Congo and Gabon? That his “gift” of Congo and Gabon to the Republic of France opened the door to decades of war and commercial exploitation? That his presence in the Congo robbed its inhabitants of their right to self-rule?

After all, Brazza could not control the massive tide of history that his explorations and his friendship treaty with the Batéké leader set in motion. He himself fell out of favor with the French government, was dismissed from his post, and died in Algiers a disillusioned man. His last report, decrying the abuses of power in the French West Africa that followed from evidence of Leopold’s enormous profits in the rubber trade, was suppressed and has still never been released.

Brazza may have truly believed that the French flags he gave to the tribal chiefs were peaceful offerings of protection, symbols of liberté, egalité, and fraternité. But from our vantage point today it’s hard to see them other than as the symbols of colonial domination that, in very real, enduring terms, they were.

True, some colonial empires were better than others. Some colonial rulers were more benevolent than others. But colonialism, stripped of all its “White Man’s Burden” justifications, is at its core a kind of violence. And any historian who ignores this is engaged in hagiography, not history.

You can still catch “Brazza in Congo: A Life and Legacy” which runs through April 17 at NYU’s Casa Italiana. You can also see a mural created by the Brazzaville artists from the Poto-Poto School of Painting to commemorate the meeting between Brazza and Makoko Iloo I, at the National Arts Club.

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The UN’s 66-Year-Old Virgin

The UN has just announced a big new idea in the war on global poverty, in its just-released Industrial Development Report 2009. In the words of the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) Director General, Dr Kandeh Yumkella, “Our Report represents a major conceptual breakthrough on how to tackle global poverty through sustainable industrial development.” What was the breakthrough idea? Take government action to reap increasing returns to scale to industrial production, to get out of the free market’s “poverty trap” of low-scale industrial production.

The only problem with this major conceptual breakthrough is that it is 66 years old. It was presented in almost the same words in one of the first and most famous articles of development economics, by Paul Rosenstein-Rodan in 1943:

Paul Rosenstein-Rodan 1943 UNIDO report 2009
“It is generally agreed that industrialisation of "international depressed areas " …is the way of achieving a more equal distribution of income between different areas of the world by raising incomes in depressed areas ….” “Industrialization is integral to economic development… [For] the bottom billion, manufactured exports are likely to offer more scope for long term productivity growth than either agriculture or natural resources.”
“If we create a sufficiently large investment unit by including all the new industries of the region, external economies will become internal profits out of which dividends may be paid easily.” “Because they still do not have industrial agglomerations, they are unable to be competitive against countries that have…there is a threshold of competitiveness to be surmounted. Once that threshold is crossed, growth is explosive.”
“If the industrialization of international depressed areas were to rely entirely on the normal incentive of private entrepreneurs, the process would … be very much slower.” “There is an important role for

public action, as purely market-driven processes will yield prolonged stagnation.”

Professor Rosenstein-Rodan in 1943 can be saluted for thinking of a creative new theory. Today’s authors (such as lead author Paul Collier) seem a bit less creative for recycling the exact same theory, especially after 66 years of experience that contradicted every prediction of this theory. Initially very poor countries like South Korea and more recently China and India had no trouble with industrial growth through market forces, and virtually every attempt at state-forced industrialization has failed. UNIDO endorsed many of these state industrialization attempts in the countries that, as a result of many such failures, Collier now calls the Bottom Billion.

Recyling old failed ideas after 66 years might be another small hint that UN accountability is a wee bit deficient.

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