Worthwhile German Initiative

Astounding German charity’s innovation: fighting poverty in an African village by giving its residents money.

The multiple problems of poor African countries are so overwhelming that it’s hard to know where to start.

Or maybe not. Interesting things happened when a coalition of German aid groups tried, as a last resort, giving people in a Namibian village enough money to live on.

Three points:

–the complaints of the area’s white plantation owners are exactly what they would be in one of our “town halls”: the lazy so-and-so’s with a different skin color will just waste the money (but they don’t) or have kids (imagine-how outrageous!); welfare makes crime go up (but it doesn’t); and saying that the wealthy should pay slightly more so that the poor won’t die is “reverse racism.”

–Amartya Sen and others have been saying for decades that famines are caused by lack of income, not lack of food, and that the best remedy for starvation is to send not food but money, in return for work or not. (Food aid, at best, prevents starvation at the cost of sentencing more developing-country farmers to unemployment.) That we don’t do this reflects what people demand in Iowa, not Namibia–and it seems not, to its credit, Thuringia.

–at the end of the article, we find out that extending the basic income program throughout Namibia would cost three percent of the GDP of Namibia. Yes, that’s something that we rich countries could easily pay for. But isn’t it exciting to know that the program might be robust in the face of the fact that we won’t?

Hope in Zimbabwe?

Maybe. But doesn’t the Mugabe story show that the Westphalia doctrine of state sovereignty needs to be replaced?

Maybe. Paying the security forces in real money rather than Mugabe’s toilet paper is an inspired idea as a way to pry them away from loyalty to the ZANU-PF, and I hope that the donor nations will agree to fund the entire civil service that way.

It has always seemed strange to me that the Washington Consensus ignored the importance of securing the services of honest, competent, and diligent public-sector workers, which can’t be done if public-sector pay isn’t enough to live on.

The MDC minister in the story is wondering what to do with the official portrait of Robert Mugabe that hangs on the walll of his office. Perhaps he could put it on the floor at the entrance, so visitors can step on Mugabe’s face on the way in and out.

The notion of a world of equal and independent sovereign states embodied in the Treaty of Westphalia was probably an impovement over the Thirty Years’ War. But that’s about the most that can be said for it. Three and a half centuries later, it needs to be replaced. There needs to be a way to deny a morally and politically bankrupt regime &#8212 Burma, Sudan, Zimbabwe &#8212 of the internationally recognized legal right to ruin its country.

Pirates of the Arabian XI

How the UN can deal with the Somali pirates.

Everybody has sent warships to fight the Somali pirates: the United States, India, Russia, Malaysia and (now under the NATO and/or EU flags – I’m confused) France, Britain, Greece, and Germany, plus Italian planes.

Why has this high-tech armada failed to deal with a handful of low-rent thugs armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs? The problem isn’t firepower: it’s command and control, and rules of engagement. The warships aren’t even allowed to board suspected pirates.

NATO has finally asked the UN Security Council to clarify this. My suggestions:

1. Set up a single ad hoc naval task force with a proper operational HQ in Mombasa. The commander should be American, his deputies European and Indian. Ideally the UN Military Committee should be activated, but this won’t happen, at least before January 20.

2. Create a security zone in which the task force can stop and search any ship whatever. The pirates store their speedboats on innocent-looking mother ships. There’s no legitimate reason for a cargo ship to carry a speedboat, so any ship that does can be seized as a presumptive pirate and impounded. If the pirates stopped using speedboats and reverted to slower vessels, the targets would have time to call for naval helicopters.

3. Impound all shore-based speedboats in the zone for the duration. Water-skiing playboys in Lamu can stuff it.

3. Set up an ad hoc maritime court to adjudge piracy-related civil and criminal claims as a fallback to national courts. The outcry from the owners of impounded ships would speed this up.

The Unbwogable!

A handy half-Luo election cry.

I can’t find “gift of the gab” in Dholuo, but here’s something even better, from Owen Ozier’s webpage on the language of Barack Obama’s paternal ancestors :

Today a popular song is Unbwogable which combines English and the Dholuo word bwogo (“to scare”) so a good translation is [We Are or I Am] Unscareable/Fearless/Unbeatable. It was used in the December, 2002 political campaign as a rallying cry for the National Rainbow Coalition (NARC) candidate Mwai Kibaki who was elected the new President of Kenya.

Here’s part of the song. The Irish guy has the edge IMHO:

Unbwogable – Gidi Gidi-Maji Maji

Mugabe: up the long ladder and down the short rope

Why should the rules of the Tyrants’ Guild — aka “international law” — allow mass murderers in office to travel freely? Give the son-of-a-bitch a fair trial and hang him.

Yes, I know it would be a violation of international law if Robert Mugabe’s colleagues in the African Union had him taken out of the meeting in Cairo and shot, or at least shipped to the Hague to stand trial. But the custom that mass murderers in office travel freely without fear of arrest is what Shakespeare called “a custom more honored in the breach than in the observance” (by which he meant, not the current usage of “a rule acknowledged but usually not followed” but “a rule that it would be more honorable to break than to keep;” the reference is to the Danish custom of firing a cannon every time the king takes a drink, which Hamlet thinks advertises the Danes as a nation of drunkards).

Too much of international law is just the guild rules of the tyrants’ guild, and ought to be gotten rid of.

Honor Malaria Day–Buy a $7 bednet to protect sleeping kids

Honor malaria day. Buy an African kid a cheap bednet.

This is a joint posting. I hope you will forgive me given the cause.

One of the few brights spots these days is that millions of Americans finally realize the importance of global health. Today is world Malaria Day. I was hoping to party with Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt to note the occasion. That probably won’t happen since my daughter has soccer. Instead I thought I would make the following offer to all scribners on the RBC. If you buy a mosquito bednet for a kid in sub-Saharan Africa, I will buy a copy of your book. I promise to pay full retail to honor the occasion and to email the receipt so you know I didn’t sleaze over to the remainder rack.

The charity link is


This is one of my favorite charities. A bednet costs less than $10 and is among the most cost-effective things one can do to save lives.

Is Barack Obama black?

Obama is not an African-American, but an African American: what this means.

Would Barack Obama be the first black American president? Yes and no. He is not an African-American, but an African American.

It is a painful curiosity that racial stereotyping is always dominated by the non-Caucasian parentage, so Obama is identified racially by his dark skin. Where does this come from? His mother, Ann Dunham, was a white mid-westerner. His father, Barack Obama Sr., was a Luo from Kenya.

The Kenyan Luo are a Nilotic people who migrated southwards from southern Sudan, 2000 miles from the Atlantic. No paternal ancestor of Obama’s (and probably no maternal one either) grew yams in a forest clearing in West Africa, spoke a Niger-Congo language, was enslaved, shipped in chains across the Middle Passage, sold on a block in Savannah or New Orleans, tended cotton, sugar or tobacco under an overseer’s whip, sharecropped in poverty after Emancipation, faced the brutality of the Jim Crow South, rode the tracks north to the ghettoes of northern cities like Chicago, and finally achieved real freedom through the civil rights movement of Martin Luther King. The epic story of African-Americans is not his by birth.

Continue reading “Is Barack Obama black?”

Beauty contest

A Norwegian beauty contest for “Miss Land Mine”.

A Norwegian artist, Morten Traavik, is organising an online beauty contest with a difference: the candidates are Angolan women injured by landmines.

Some aid agencies have called the project a “freakshow”.

I think I approve but am not sure. As an attention-getting stunt the contest is certainly effective, and it has a serious development aim. Does it exploit and demean women and the disabled? No more than any beauty contest, and probably less – it’s especially valuable to these particular women to feel glamorous and desirable. The women are volunteers affirming themselves in an odd way, not passive objects of Western benevolence like Princess Di’s. Beauty contests are popular in Angola anyway, so Traavik’s scheme is not of itself cultural colonialism.

What I don’t like is that only the winner gets a free high-tech prosthesis fitted in Norway, a very rich country. I dare say this will change as the final nears.

If you do vote, I suggest sending guilt money to a landmine charity such as Adopt a Minefield (US) or Landmine Action (UK). More addresses here.

As with all foreign aid, there’s a risk of diversion of funds via fungibility: aid for schools etc. allows the government to spend more on palaces and guns. The Angolan government is notoriously bad: the country ranks 147 out of 179 in Transparency International’s “corruption perceptions” world rankings; the Mo Ibrahim Foundation ranks Angola 42 out of 47 African countries on governance. Angola’s huge oil revenue is secret and a lot of it is shunted directly into offshore bank accounts. You could argue that Angola’s kleptocracy is so extreme that aid diversion becomes difficult. Anyway, aid diversion is an argument for supporting schemes like Traavik’s that work on attitudes – for states of mind can’t be stolen.