How Not to Spend $1.4 Billion

From a recent article in HealthAffairs:

The President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) has been the largest funder of abstinence and faithfulness programming in sub-Saharan Africa, with a cumulative investment of over US $1.4 billion in the period 2004–13. […]

Using nationally representative surveys from twenty-two sub-Saharan African countries, we compared trends between people living in countries that received PEPFAR abstinence and faithfulness funding and those living in countries that did not in the period 1998–2013. We found no evidence to suggest that PEPFAR funding was associated with population-level reductions in any of the five [tested outcomes indicative of risky sexual behavior].

In other words: For most people, abstinence sucks and telling them that it’s cool doesn’t change their minds, even if you spend $1.4 billion on it. Not very surprising, because as NPR notes:

At the time, there was little evidence to suggest abstinence programs work. Randomized-control trials in the U.S. had shown that abstinence education programs didn’t prevent teenage pregnancies or decrease high-risk sexual behavior.

The results of the study are pretty damming:

PEPFAR funding wasn’t associated with changes in young people’s choices about sex. Bendavid and his team could find no detectable differences in the rates of teenage pregnancies, average number of sexual partners and age at first sexual intercourse in countries that had received PEFPAR money compared with those that hadn’t.

As the NPR story points out, PEPFAR is credited with saving millions of lives by providing HIV drugs and preventing HIV transmissions from mothers to newborns. That work is commendable. But it makes me sad to think about how many more lives could have been saved, if some conservative politicians wouldn’t have insisted on spending a ridiculous amount of money on programs that had little hope of achieving the desired outcomes, simply because they hoped to push their opinion about the right way to have sex on others.

 

Chinese Loans in Africa

If you read anything about Africa you have probably come across the discussion that surrounds China’s economic activities on the continent. It can be a quite divisive topic, though one that isn’t really based on a good empirical insights. There simply isn’t a lot of good data in the public domain on China’s economic impact and decisions in Africa.

The China Africa Research Initiative at John Hopkins University has just made a big step to change this deplorable state of affairs. Long time China in Africa blogger Deborah Brautigam and several of her colleagues took the wraps off a comprehensive database of Chinese loans to development projects in Africa.

There has been a lot of hype around Chinese money flowing into Africa, with some commentators alleging that these kind of loans have been increasing exponentially in recent years. And because loans to infrastructure and resource development projects are the main form of Chinese assistance to African governments, understanding the scale of this phenomenon really matters for understanding China’s Africa politics at large.

If you are at all interested in the issue, be sure to check out the full briefing. If you just want a best of, read on.

First of all, we are talking about much less money than some of the hype would want you to believe. From 2000 to 2014, Chinese banks, contractors and government agencies extended $86.9 billion worth of loans to African governments. The largest share of this, $59.6 billion, was contributed by China Eximbank, which leaves the World Bank as the single largest funder of African development. Simply put, Western angst about being overrun by China in Africa are largely unfounded, especially because the growth of Chinese loans to African recipient is linear, not exponential.

China is also targeting its loans pretty narrowly. More than 50 percent of the total was disbursed to just five countries: Angola, Ethiopia, Sudan, Kenya and the DR Congo, with Angola alone receiving 23 percent. Angola also received five of the 22 lines of financing worth $1 billion or more, though all of these were loans at commercial rates to the state-owned oil company Sonangol. Almost all loans to Angola were designed to be paid back in oil.

Roughly two thirds of loans went to Infrastructure or mining projects, with transport and energy taking the lion’s share at 48 percent.

From these numbers, it is pretty clear to me that China is playing a pretty rational economic game with respect to its interests in Africa. On the one hand it is investing heavily in natural resources, especially oil. That is understandable, given China’s position as the world’s workbench and increasing domestic consumption of energy. Because China is pretty flush with foreign currency reserves, providing lines of credit backed by resources is a smart strategy.

On the other hand, China is using its credit to develop export opportunities. Ethiopia doesn’t have a lot of oil, but it has made a real push in terms of extending basic transport infrastructure and developing its hydro power generation potential over the last two decades. China happens to have a lot of expertise and very competitive companies in these sectors, because it underwent the same transition a few years earlier.

The Chinese government via its banks and Chinese suppliers are basically providing African governments with the cash they need to pay Chinese companies to build these infrastructure projects. I imagine that in many cases, the money doesn’t even leave China but only travels overseas on paper.

I doubt that any Western government would handle things differently under similar circumstances. That doesn’t mean, though, that I think this approach is completely unproblematic.

With Sudan, Angola and Ethiopia in the top spots of Chinese loan recipients, it is clear that China doesn’t care about the impacts its money has on African domestic politics. The Chinese government isn’t specifically seeking out dictatorships to cooperate with (after all, Kenya and Ghana are on top spots as well), it just doesn’t care. At all.

There isn’t much sense in whining about this, especially when Western governments don’t seem to care much as well. A more constructive approach would be to ask how decision making incentives could be shaped differently, to make all governments more interested in the effects of their development assistance/financial assistance on local politics.

A Basic Income for Some Kenyans

Unconditional cash transfers are the New Hot Thing™ in development right now. I’m myself quite a fan of this idea and wish that it would be employed more broadly. Now one of the NGOs at the forefront of this particular movement is taking an even more radical step. In the words of Michael Faye and Paul Niehaus of GiveDirectly in Slate:

We’re planning to provide at least 6,000 Kenyans with a basic income for 10 to 15 years. These recipients are some of the most vulnerable people in the world, living on the U.S. equivalent of less than a dollar. And we’re going to work with leading academic researchers, including Abhijit Banerjee of MIT, to rigorously test the impacts.

An unconditional basic income happens to be another policy that I’m a huge fan of. Based on the limited evidence we have (nobody actually ever tried this on a national level), a basic income can have tremendous impacts on health and education, no matter if in developed or underdeveloped countries.

In the African context, there has been one similar project in Namibia in 2008 which showed promising early results, but which was not accompanied by adequate research and only lasted for a couple of years. Alaska has a very low basic income derived from oil profits and a German initiative doles out one-year basic incomes funded by donations. The idea is picking up steam, though, with Switzerland poised to hold a referendum on a national basic income, which would give all Swiss adults a basic income of about $1,650 per month, no questions asked. If you want a broad overview over the discussion about basic incomes (in industrialized nations), the current episode of popular radio show/podcast Freakonomics has you covered.

I really hope that GiveDirectly’s initiative in Kenya succeeds and produces reliable data on the effect of a guaranteed basic income in the setting of a developing economy (which is a slightly different proposition from a basic income in an industrialized rich country).

What If We Just Gave Poor People a Basic Income for Life? That’s What We’re About to Test. via Ken Opalo

“The roads are wide and well maintained …”

"Well maintained" road in Ouagadougou. My picture.

I was incredibly happy to see that the African Arguments blog of the Royal African Society published an article on Burkina Faso today. Well researched analysis of political affairs here are few and far between and usually, African Arguments is the place to go for this kind of stuff.

The piece titled “Compaoré’s Continuing Will to Power“, by Michael Keating and Coulibaly Nadoun, showed some initial promise, tackling the dark past of President Compaoré’s 25 year reign over Burkina and delving into the question, if he has the will to push this reign over the constitutional term limit of the 2015 election. But then the article unfortunately degrades quite a bit, with little critical analysis regarding Compaoré’s legacy as a leader of the Burkinabé state and his current involvement in regional politics.

Let’s start with his frantic efforts at mediating in every conflict in the wider region, which are internationally “much appreciated” as Keating and Nadoun assure us. Clearly, the region has plenty of those and everybody would be happy to have a skilled and capable mediator bringing the parties to a table and negotiating a peaceful solution. The post-election violence in Côte d’Ivoire and the current rebellion in North Mali come to mind. But while Compaoré has jumped at every opportunity to involve himself with these conflicts, his success must be questioned. With regard to Côte d’Ivoire, he is hardly a neutral power, having organized financial and military support for the northern Rebels, as well as allowing them to recruit fighters in Burkina, basically helping to “resolve” a conflict he helped to create. In Mali, he has been involved in negotiating a settlement for the 2007-09 Tuareg rebellion. This basically followed the pattern of all settlements in this conflict before it: money and army positions for the fighters, hollow promises of political participation and development for the population. Needless to say that the “peace” held only a good two years.

I would argue that President Compaoré follows one objective in these negotiations and one only: To secure a maximum of regional political cloud, so as nobody (western donors included) gets funny ideas like supporting the domestic burkinabé opposition. He has without doubt succeeded in this, though I fail to see how the resulting length of his term – bought through marginalizing all local opposition and keeping outside intervention at bay – “in some sense confers legitimacy” on him, like Keating and Nadoun would have it.

Which brings us to the question of Compaoré’s legacy of bringing development/wealth/health/enter-your-favourite-indicator-here to his people. Keating and Nadoun concede that “the poverty needle for the majority of citizens has not budged” during his 25 years in office, but they argue that the feeling of Ouagadougou (the capital) “is different from neighboring capitals” and that “the streets are wide and well maintained”, building the argument up to the crescendo that Compaoré deserves to be called a “benign” dictator.

Regarding the streets: Wide they are, but you may judge the typical level of maintenance on the picture on the top of this article. I took this ten minutes ago, stepping out of my front door. The house of the local mayor is two houses down on the same street. Every street in Ouagadougou looks more or less similar, safe the main arteries and some streets in the city center (but not even there all are paved). Those which are paved have often been patched over many times, making for a bumpy ride on a Scooter, which becomes downright dangerous due to the many ginourmos potholes.

I honestly fail to see how you would have something positive to say about President Compaoré in the department of development. After 25 years in office, only every fifth Burkinabé is literate. After 25 years in office, almost 40% of all children under the age of five are underweight. In 2015, when his current term ends, Burkina Faso will likely not reach a single Millenium development goal.

Meanwhile, years of subtle but deadly (ask the children of murdered journalist Norbert Zongo) suppression has left Burkina without a political opposition to speak of. The government is filled with relatives and cronies and the army is so undisciplined and incapable, that nobody even mentioned them when it was discussed who should provide the troops for an intervention in Mali (this is probably on purpose, as Compaoré knows the danger of a well organized army, having used one in two coup d’États himself).

The only possible nice thing to say about Blaise Compaoré is that he has kept his country from the all-out civil wars that some neighboring countries descended into. If that is really enough to describe an African statesman as reasonably successful in an article on a respected blog on African affairs, (West) Africa is in a sorry state indeed.

I could go on about how the article left out some important aspects of the coming 2015 power struggle in Burkina, like the role of Blaise Compaoré’s brother as a possible successor. But I have already written enough. If you are interested, I will cover this in a future post. Interested?

Voice of America: Food crisis in the Sahel

Not much happened here on the blog for some days now. That’s mostly because I was busy actually working on stuff, which will be published over the next days/weeks. First up is a short news clip for Voice of America about the Sahel food crisis, for which I researched video and story, while David Axe did production and voice:

ThinkBrigade: Hunger, rebellion, coup: Mali’s crisis has its history

I’m part of the new project ThinkBrigade, which brings together reporters and citizen journalists from around the world to experiment with new forms of collaborative and interactive journalism. This is my first piece for the project, but others will follow:

Mali is a landlocked country in West Africa, about two times the size of France. It is dominated by vast expanses of sparsely inhabited desert and the fertile surroundings of the Niger river. In historical times, the area was home to powerful empires and the ancient city of Timbuktu, with its architectural wonders, still tells of this era.

Mali is again in the news these days, but not favourably. There are no stories about enthusiastic tourists or cultural richness. Instead, Mali currently lives through a triple crisis: After a devastating drought,potentially millions of people face a hunger crisis. At the same time, a rebellion led by Tuareg fighters has engulfed the North of the country. And if this wouldn’t be enough, a coup d’état has brought a military junta into power in the capital and resulted in harsh sanctions by neighboring states. […]

Read the rest on ThinkBrigade!

Artisanal Gold Miners in Burkina Faso [Video]

Last month, I visited a gold mining camp in northern Burkina Faso. Here is a short video from that trip.

Around 30 families live in that location and search for gold. The work is fully manual and unbelievably hard. Temperatures here reach 40°C in the shade easily and there is not much shade to begin with.

If the miners (both men an women ply this trade) are very lucky, they find enough gold to sell for around 2,000 Franc CFA every few days. That equals about three Euros.

Sahel food crisis: The situation in Burkina Faso

Recipients of an Oxfam Cash-for-Work program in North Burkina Faso wait for their payment. Peter Dörrie photo.

This is part of a series of posts, looking at the state of the Sahel food crisis. You can also find a regional overview and a report on the situation in Chad on this blog so far.

On Tuesday, I was invited by Oxfam to look at one of their projects addressing the current food crisis in the wider region. A car took us from Ouagadougou, the capital, north to Kaya and from there to several surrounding villages.

The dry season has the country in its hot and dusty grip now. Temperatures are above 40°C every day and it hasn’t rained for weeks. The ground is barren and doesn’t look like it could feed anybody, not to speak of the thousands of people who live here dispersed over several villages and small towns.

And indeed, the last agricultural season brought serious shortfalls: officially, the national harvest has been 5% below consumption, but nobody knows if this figure is correct and shortfalls here in the North were greater anyway. One of the beneficiaries of the Oxfam project tells me later, that she only harvested three sacks of millet instead of the normal eight to nine, which she needs to feed her household of nine persons. One sack comes at five kg.

Oxfam reacted early and with money from ECHO started a Cash-for-Work program in the region: The villagers were shown how to enhance their fields with a simple trick; Many small holes dug into the earth would catch and hold more water once the rain comes, increasing the next harvest. Everybody applied the technique on his own field and was now paid for this work.

This creates a theoretical win-win situation. The villagers will have some money to buy food on the market until the next harvest arrives, which will be larger due to the increased productivity of the fields.

To maximise the effect, Oxfam wants the villagers to buy subsidized millet, which the government currently sells as part of its food crisis emergency program. This program has received lots of acclaim by the UN and other donors. Subsidized millet costs 11,000 Franc CFA (ca. 16.5 €)per sack, which is less than half the usual 25,000 FCFA price tag.

Anticipating this price, Oxfam paid the villagers 25,000 FCFA each, enough for two sacks of subsidized millet and some necessary condiments like cooking oil and sugar. Therefore, the consternation was great when the villagers told us that they wouldn’t buy subsidized millet and instead buy the normal stuff at the considerable higher price.

Recipients leave their fingerprints as proof that they received the money. Peter Dörrie photo.

The reason for this is of course not that the Burkinabè hate a bargain or are not aware that one sack of millet won’t bring them over the lean period. But during the last delivery, the government provided only seven sacks of subsidized millet for the village in question, which has over 4,000 inhabitants. Nobody knows when the next delivery will happen, but it is already clear that there won’t be nearly enough for everybody. And the people need the additional food now, so they have little choice.

Once the food runs out again, they will take out a loan to buy more. This way, between NGO relief programs, the government emergency aid and going into dept, there will probably be enough food for everybody to survive the hunger crisis in Burkina this year. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t have very negative effects on many people.

The debt will have to be paid back after the next harvest. If this again fails or only stays average, many people won’t be able to fully pay off their loans and keep enough food to not hunger again next year. To safe money, kids will be taken out of school to work on the gold fields of the region instead. And not dying of hunger of course doesn’t mean that one can’t get ill or malnourished, which has a range of disastrous consequences of its own.

In conclusion, Burkina will be one of the least impacted countries of this year’s hunger crisis. This is due to its geographical advantages, but also the early and relatively comprehensive reaction by the government and NGOs. Still, many people will be off worse after the crisis than they were before. Lets hope that they won’t be forgotten as soon as the crisis is declared over.

Sahel food crisis: The situation in Chad

A mother feeds her severely malnourished son at the Action Against Hunger/UNICEF-run nutrition feeding centre at Mao district hospital in Kanem, western Chad. IRIN photo.

I’m currently writing a series of posts looking at the state of the Sahel food crisis. The first part, a regional overview, was published here. Over the coming days I will look at the other countries that are impacted by the food crisis, so come back if you like to know more!

I’m beginning my country-by-country analysis of the Sahel food crisis with Chad, as it is this country that will probably bear the brunt of what is coming has already arrived.

First the facts: parts of Chad have already descended into full-blown emergency, with thousands of children being admitted to nutrition treatment centers. Action Contre la Faim (ACF) also reports on numerous deaths due to late admission of children to the centers. The district of Kanem seems to be the most heavily impacted at the moment.

In a normal year, the lean period would only be about to begin, but this year, several developments converge to deliver a situation which will only get worse over the next months:

First is of course the erratic and low rainfall over the last year. According to the FAO, agricultural production was 50% lower in 2011 than it was the year before.

But the effect of this is worsened by several man-made factors. Firstly, Chad is situated between several active conflict zones: Libya, northern Nigeria and Darfur. Libya was traditionally an important source of remittances from Chadian guest workers. These had to flee during the Libyan civil war, as black Africans increasingly became targets of revenge killings by the Libyan rebels.

The ongoing attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria in turn prompted the government there to close all borders to its northern neighbors. This has hit many people in Kanem hard, as they used to sell cattle to Nigeria for income generation.

Additionally, these conflicts have led to a “pipeline constraints”: food aid is usually delivered by ship and road. Chad is landlocked and especially Nigeria would normally be a natural transit route for food aid delivery.

Adding to this are several internal issues. The health system of Chad is in its best times described as “dysfunctional”, being underfinanced and having not nearly enough staff to cope with the demand.

The government of Chad was also very late to admit the need for help. This has further slowed down the delivery of food aid, as international organizations and NGOs have to get government approval to start their activities. It may also have contributed to the relatively low amount of financing currently available for Chad; While financing requests for Niger have been met to almost 40%, requests for Chad have been financed only by 25% so far, according to OCHA.

Taking action in Chad has become a matter of urgency. Both local and international governments should increase their activities and financial contribution to keep the situation from spinning out of control.

Sahel food crisis: a roundup

Farmer in Burkina Faso. Oxfam photo.

This will be the first of a series of posts, looking at the current state of the food crisis in the Sahel. In this post, I will provide a short history of the current crisis and a general overview of the situation in the region. In future posts, I will analyze the state of various countries and their reaction to the upcoming famine.

Forecasting a food crisis is no rocket science or guessing game anymore. All areas considered to be at risk of facing periodic food shortages are constantly monitored by regional and local early warning systems like the US based Famine Early Warning System Network (FEWSNet).

These systems have become fairly reliable over the last years. The recent famine in Somalia was forecasted months before the first refugees started arriving in Kenya and southern Ethiopia. And that the Sahel region would face severe food shortages this year was clear around the end of 2011 already.

Currently, NGOs like Oxfam estimate that about 12.000.000 people in Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Mauritania and Niger face severe food shortages. Food security is already stressed in some parts of the Sahel and the situation will deteriorate fast from now on, as the first harvests will only come in July, assuming that sufficient rain will fall this year.

The point of early warning systems is of course to give governments and organizations sufficient time to head of a crisis, before it can result in death and suffering. Food aid usually needs months to arrive where it is needed most and the logistical networks needed to distribute are also not springing up overnight. With the famine in Somalia last year, this chance was obviously missed, which can probably be contributed largely to the ongoing civil war in the impacted areas.

In the Sahel region, the situation looks a bit different. As early as February, international donors began committing money for the preparation of relief operations in the region. More than $150 Million were pledged by mid-February, while the financial tracking system of relief-coordinating organization OCHA currently lists about $200 Million pledged for Chad and Niger alone.

This early level of support is certainly positive, but considering that estimates of the total costs of relief operations are as high as $654 Million, donor countries still have to step up their commitment. NGOs are also lamenting that the focus of donors is again mostly on short-term disaster relief, while the underlying reasons of the recurring crisis are not adequately addressed.

At least as important as financing is the support of local governments for relief operations. In the past, famines were often denied by African governments, as they feared outside meddling in internal affairs or were even themselves partly responsible for the outbreak of a food crisis.

Luckily, this seems to have changed in at least some countries. The government of Niger was quick to demand help from the international community and Burkina Faso is currently implementing a dry-season agricultural campaign, for example.

In general, I think that we can be cautiously optimistic that a great catastrophe like last year in the Horn of Africa can be circumvented. But there are still many hazards, like how the ongoing conflict in Mali and insecurity in Nigeria and Libya will impact the situation. This will be analyzed in more detail in upcoming posts, looking at the state of the food crisis in the various countries of the region.