Tag Archives: economic development

Corbyn and Sanders

Jeremy Corbyn’s successful election as opposition leader within the UK Labour Party’s shadow government has caused quite a lot of buzz within the broader anglophone political world. In that highly visible position he will be the one to detail Labour’s rhetorical and policy alternatives to the current conservative UK government. As arguably the most liberal person running a plausible campaign for the position, this suggests the possibility of a bold turn left within the Labour Party and arguably many centers of non-right political power in the UK. With Sanders, a registered independent and self-described socialist, running in the Democratic Presidential Primary in the US and similar rumblings within Canadian politics it seems as though further left political figures are coming out of the woodwork around the world, but especially in English-speaking circles.

These changes have not been without their critics of course, as many have decried the these comparatively leftist politicians are “unserious” or “unreasonable” compared to center-left figures they threaten to replace. As Matt Bruenig asked last week, there’s a structural question that raises: what exactly are further left politicians supposed to do? In both the party leadership elections within UK parties and in the presidential primaries and generals in the US, the systems offer only two choices for them: to compete within the center-left in in-party elections or outright against it as a separate party. In either case, they are inevitably challenging the center-left for control of policy, and face criticism for jeopardizing the advancement of a center-left alternative. It’s presented as a kind of making the perfect the enemy of the good by the center left, but as a necessary test of a careful approach’s merits by those to the further left.

Of course, as Bruenig points out, that push-and-pull between gradualism and radicalism within a broader left coalition assumes that the center-left and left share common goals. Ultimately politicians like Sanders and Corbyn want to entirely restructure society in a way that dramatically recontextualizes or even overhauls the procedures under which they compete with more centrist candidates. Is that true of their rivals?

bernie sanders revolutionFrom here.

Beyond these issues of political process, it seems relevant to ask what counts as “reasonable”. The comparatively moderate portions of left wing coalitions treat it as a self evident truth that they’re more electable and realistic. Both the US and UK are facing epidemic levels of disengagement. It’s unsurprising that that’s the case given how parties from center-left on towards the right have largely failed to tackle some of the most systemic difficulties for the average person – global climate change, the economic downturn, and globalization. As some have pointed out, its specifically the poor who are most likely to disengage from electoral politics, and that’s at least in part because there are few to no parties or major figures addressing their concerns with viable solutions.

Arguably the recent political success of comparatively far right politics in both the US and UK (and many other countries) have demonstrated the power that rightwing parties can harness simply by offering a response to those problems, not even necessarily a logical or actionable one. In general, lower income voters still skew towards left-center parties, but that exists within a general vacuum of more leftist alternatives.

An electoral landscape shaken up by higher rates of participation would drive political discussion most likely towards the left, but that would threaten the fragile consensus that has allowed the center-left to become so powerful. Corbyn and Sanders are essentially moderate compared to the politicians who might follow them if they’re able to enact policies that would enable greater political participation. The need to prevent that sort of constituency “escape” to the left is a reason for the center-left to make common cause with the center and right and frame themselves as an end-point of reasonableness even if that reinforces on a rightwing view of the broader political world and discourages leftwing activism. Power is more important than change, for some.

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So long Morsi?

Within hours of Marwan Bishara’s interesting analysis that the Egyptian President Mohammed Morsi was facing a crisis of legitimacy, a coup’s happened. Bishara intriguingly presented the risks the dubiously but more or less democratically elected Morsi was working against as at least dual – with both the threat of military leaders appearing as a third option to the dictatorial Mubarak regime and now inadequately democratic Morsi government but also Morsi’s own Islamist base of support disintegrating. The al-Nour Party, more extremist that the Muslim Brotherhood, was in fact central to the call for early elections (ostensibly to unseat Morsi). Morsi’s opposition to that was actually the military’s basis for placing Morsi under what’s for all intents and purposes arrest.

This seems to be an indication of the multifaceted problems that Morsi’s governance has had to combat and seems to have finally succumbed to. With a economy that’s dependent on imports of even basic commodities like food, Morsi seems to have wanted to appear moderate if not nearly secular to Western audiences, even while belonging to and being seen as legitimate because of his Islamist politics. He’s sought to use free market solutions to gain the funds to implement programs to promote domestic production, which hedges towards breaking Egypt’s bank to build a new one. Of course, there’s also the continued use of and support for the “deep state” or larger security apparatus that police the politics of average Egyptians, even as he presents himself as a revolutionary.

Nearly everyone seems to have accepted that Morsi’s government has been hypocritical on security issues, and Bishara and many others have been unpacking in detail the disintegration of the Muslim Brotherhood as a source for viable political leadership in Egypt. But what of the economics?

(This should be an obvious issue, given how many recent protests in Egypt have essentially involved squatting. It’s clear that many current protesters have been unemployed and don’t anticipate finding a job under the current government. Photo taken by Hassan Ammar, from here.)

There’s indications that the simmering economic populism that was central to many of the Arab Spring revolutions haven’t been adequately resolved or even subsumed into other political questions (such as the Islamist-secularist debate). Libya, right next door, was until recently a model for how intelligent economics could contain dissident politics (both Islamist and secular). Will whatever forces produce a new president or similar national leader create one that can avoid the totalitarianism of Qaddafi but absorb his ability to maintain legitimacy through economic stability and growth?

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An interesting comparison

TW: colonialism, military intervention in Mali

I have to admit, a lot of the time, I have to carefully consider whether I should keep following the Johannesburg Times on twitter, because of how much of what they write about and post there are interesting-but-not-very-important factoids like this. But often, their coverage for all its faults is the most detailed examination of what’s happening in South Africa specifically and the rest of sub-Saharan Africa generally that’s easily accessible and understandable to non-Africans like me. With a good amount of frequency, the Times will share a couple of articles that even if not particularly revolutionary themselves help put together an image of what’s happening in that part of the world.

(On the left, Mali’s interim President Dioncounda Traore while raising funds in Brussels, Belgium, from various EU member states and EU international bodies, from here.)

Sometimes that’s pretty infuriating, however. Take, for instance, this article on South African economic development and this one on aid to the Malian state. In South Africa at the moment, disparate political groups with different perspectives on what state policies should be are in the process of negotiating at length how their society can improve its lot, which is quite the tall order after centuries of colonial occupation. It’s likely that few people in the United States will hear about these debates, and the few like you and me who have are unlikely to have much detail to them – but part of that is because of the internal nature of what South Africans are debating. I don’t know that the country can be declared decolonized (and I do know that I shouldn’t be the one to do that in any case), but it seems that they’re moving in a positive direction in terms of popular negotiation being central to creating economic policies.

The situation in Mali seems to stand in stark contrast to that. In the wake of what could be seen as another chapter in an on-going and multidimensional internal conflict, the power center that appealed to outside assistance is now working to receive aid from individuals and organizations largely affiliated with the military forces that intervened on its behalf. Perhaps France specifically should provide the territories under the governance of the state of Mali with restitution for colonial rule, but it’s important to note that that’s not what’s happening now. What’s happening now, is that the government of Mali has successfully pitched to the EU Humanitarian Aid Commission and other such bodies the idea that the intervention on the basis of security will be for naught without basic economic stability in the region. The colonial framework that the intervention reinforced is being explicitly expanded through this request for aid.

Unlike South Africa, the government of Mali seems to have decided to farm out its economic insecurities, but at the cost of autonomy and arguably its democracy.

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Slate goes supply-side over quinoa

TW: food insecurity, threats to food sovereignty, neocolonialism

If you care to google quinoa or have friends like I do who like to discuss issues of food security, the fact that quinoa prices in Bolivia and many other producing areas have increased dramatically has probably already popped on to your radar. Of course, it’s worth noting that all of this hand-wringing has been coming from US and UK writers, who haven’t exactly mentioned their experiences on the altiplano. In light of that, Slate’s contrarian view might seem like a useful counterargument. That’s the key word though – seem.

(A Bolivian woman whose name is not provided carries just harvested quinoa in the fields, from here.)

The real crux of Slate’s point was that the real problem for Bolivians comes about “when media stories discourage people from buying imported quinoa in the name of solidarity with the locals […]  instead of helping, such reports threaten to kick the legs out from under one of the most promising industries in one of the world’s poorest places.” Why yes, that’s an argument that the world’s wealthy create the demand that does and should continue to drive the world’s economy. Slate has officially endorsed supply-side economics.

Unlike the assorted articles you can look up on your own about the increased risk of famine in Bolivia because of growing quinoa prices, Slate’s oddly conservative response at least seeks out some local confirmation, which it claims to find in Emma Banks’ work for the Andean Information Network. Now, I’ve already made clear how I feel about people with a Western background being expected to clarify a “non-Western” situation, but this is indeed a cut above most alternatives. Except for the small problem that they’ve pretty much misrepresented Banks’ discussion. While she’s skeptical that the increased risk of hunger can be laid exclusively at the feet of foreign quinoa consumers, she’s also hesitant to accept the supply-side argument that Slate unabashedly makes. At one point, she outright says that there’s “no supporting analysis” that getting rid of demand for imported quinoa would decimate the Bolivian and other Andean producers. Overall, she seems to view the situation as messy, reflecting changing climates and unstable markets that entered the picture long before quinoa exports did.

Beyond her greater caution to endorse the conclusions Slate leaps to, Banks main point is that the key issue here is perhaps food sovereignty – that Bolivians have the primary voice in their own country’s food production – rather than food insecurity – that Bolivians have adequate food. Slate’s article at least pays lip service to this idea, quoting her work and then admitting, “quinoa eaters that live in urban areas […] must pay higher prices for the grain, but don’t reap the economic benefits.” As is true in almost every country in the world, rural and urban poverty are different if related phenomena.

Still, Slate’s response to that thorny issue is that if the urban poor are suffering, they should just become the rural poor: “rising quinoa prices are drawing many urban refugees back to the countryside, where it’s now possible to make a living from farming.” This is a close cousin to supply-side economics – the Rational Choice theory of Migration (on page 35). Legal, economic, and even physical barriers to migration are swept aside in that framework, which understands migration as a simple choice to move to where opportunities exist. Nevermind whether the urban poor in Bolivia can actually pick their entire lives up and find a plot of land (which even Slate admits is a hot commodity in a quinoa boom), that’s what they should do, and that’s all that evidently matters.

Of course, having that as their response shows their true colors – Banks’ argument about food sovereignty was apparently an easy rhetorical way of showing someone in the field agreed that the arguments being made in other newspapers were flawed, not an actual point they took to heart (or even to mind). That’s pretty clear once you realize that the advocated solution seems to be the economic restructuring of most of Latin America’s highlands around exports to North America and Europe. If there’s a clearer example of eroded sovereignty, it’s hard to think of one.

In this whole discussion I think Emma Banks is by far coming across as having the most complete understanding of the situation which she seems to think is nigh intractable (although she modestly insists that there’s a lot she doesn’t know – I suppose I’ll take her word for it). I’ll leave you with one of her parting points, which Slate seems to have only halfway absorbed:

“Foreign consumers of quinoa can stop buying the grain, but this change would actually intensify existing poverty and malnutrition by taking away Bolivian producers’ steady source of income. True food and economic security must be achieved simultaneously.” (emphasis added)

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Morsi’s presidency is disintegrating

TW: graphic depictions of state killings

Mouin Rabbani has an excellent run-down of the major developments over the course of the past three years of the “Arab Spring” which you can read in full over at Jadaliyya. The key bit, however, is his third point, which I’ll reproduce in full:

“[W]hile the Muslim Brotherhood may yet emerge victorious in Egypt, the increasingly widespread opposition to it signals not so much a disillusionment with Islamism as it does a revulsion for any attempt to establish and practice unfettered power. These uprisings are first and foremost about establishing the rights and rites of citizenship as inalienable and indeed inviolable. Any attempt to once again make citizens servants rather than masters of the state will require massive force and subterfuge to succeed.”

Rabbani was careful to hedge his assessment in the prediction of extensive resources being required to prop up the existing government, without noting that the government is nothing if not cash-strapped, among other issues. Likewise, he has done an excellent job of pointing out why Mohamed Morsi’s presidency is unlikely to last, but has failed to specify which arenas he was thinking of when he spoke of “unfettered power”. Still, the current example of the Sinai Peninsula makes starkly clear the economic, political, social, and regional dimensions of inequality in Egypt to this day, particularly in the light of how support for Morsi’s presidency is likely receding.

To provide some background, the Sinai Peninsula was by no means against Morsi’s victory in the relatively narrow final round of the presidential elections in June. North Sinai, which contains the vast majority of the peninsula’s population handily provided Morsi a 22 point lead. While the far less populous South Sinai, in contrast, broke for his opponent, it provided Ahmed Shafik with his smallest advantage of governorates he won, with his lead being fewer than two hundred votes. While it’s a statistical stretch to credit Sinai with Morsi’s election, it’s clear that he enjoyed a healthy degree of support, at least among those who participated in that final round of elections.

But as recent, excellent, and gruesome reporting by Al Jazeera shows, Sinai’s economic and political status within Egypt seems to be defined by exploitation or exclusion. The more pronounced social conservatism of its primarily Bedouin population and the consequent security-influenced response of the Egyptian state to nearly every major event  in the region reveals additional social and regional dimensions to Sinai alienation from the existing state. Surely, the environmental, economic, and political struggles faced by many in Sinai are common to many in Egypt, but the additional complicating elements seem to be accelerating distaste for Morsi’s presidency to profound levels across the peninsula.

(The view of Egyptian-occupied Sinai from Israel-occupied Palestine, from here.)

Morsi’s presidency seems destined by its failure to clearly end the failings of the Mubarak regime to be radically reformed, quickly ended, or beleaguered into irrelevancy. Sinai is merely the canary in the coalmine with the highest number of potential grievances to raise against Morsi’s rule. If Morsi doesn’t dramatically shift his political focuses, he should expect these problems to only grow and spread.

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“Western” media won’t give you everything

TW: islamophobia

If you read only the typical reports and opinion pieces published by major US-based media, you would think that every facet of Egyptian politics revolved around religious social issues. Fox News would tell you that almost every part of Egyptian daily life eventually led back to the word jihad, and ABC News would tell you that the political debates in the country are between democratic Islamists and authoritarian Islamists. Every part of that particular country’s politics apparently has to do with how very Muslim they are (except when they’re non-Muslim in which case it’s how very surrounded by Muslims they are).

The more unusual but still mainstream US-based media, which is to say NBC, and most other “Western” countries’ major media have at least depicting some of the basic political discussion going on in Egypt, but there’s still clear limitations. Both MSNBC and France 24 covered recently elected President Mohamed (sometimes spelled Mursi) Morsi’s speech on Saturday, in which Morsi tried to make the case that he’s fulfilled the campaign promises that he could in his first hundred days in office and is working on the rest. Before we give those media outlets a gold star though, it’s worth noting that neither of their articles actually dive into the details of what the gap between his promises and his effect actually is. MSNBC’s coverage focuses on the seemingly random detail of his failure to cost-effectively subsidize butane cylinders, which much like his speech isn’t adequately contextualized. France 24 doesn’t even touch on any concrete issue, instead focusing on our old friend – the ever nebulous corruption.

This categorical failure to report on at least some of the deeper issues in Egyptian politics is of course nothing new. If you read one of Israel’s leading newspapers, Haaretz, or perhaps listen to one of the best news source in the US about foreign politics, NPR, it would be understandable for you to gain a completely lopsided perspective on Egyptian economics. Haaretz unabashedly reported that the political revolution threatened to “cause a profound economic crisis” in Egypt and potentially in neighboring countries as well (hint, hint). NPR’s report, while copping that not everything was rosy under ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, likewise presented the revolution as having untethered a now free-falling economy. Lost in all this reporting, naturally, were the clear arguments put forth by economists and political scientists, that “Egypt’s 2011 protests articulated a variety of  political and economic grievances that are deeply interlinked” (on page 5). And that the collapsing stock market (and to a lesser extent other poor economic indicators) was hardly a sudden economic crisis for protesters at least in part motivated by a litany of earlier reversals of fortune under Mubarak:

“[In Egypt] both absolute and relative poverty rates seem to have increased in the past decade. The proportion of the population living below the national poverty line – a measure of relative poverty – rose from 16.7% in 2000 to 22% in 2008, according to the latest available data from the World Bank, over a period when many other emerging  markets reduced poverty […] the proportion of people living on less than US$1 per day rose slightly from 1.8% in 2000 to 2% in 2005 (having previously declined from 4.6% of the population in 1991). Child malnutrition, measured by the proportion of underweight children, also increased slightly between 2005 and 2008, partly reversing improvements made in the 1990s.” (from page 4)

As in many parts of this world this downward slide into poverty has coincided with disintegrating infrastructure and a degraded environment. As Al-Jazeera reported recently, the flawed transportation policy which originated under Mubarak has continued under Morsi, with the government failed to either enforce traffic laws or invest in properly planned roads. The inadequate and poorly-run transportation system is so bad, it’s caused preventable deaths among Egypt’s own security forces. Likewise, the dysfunctional current government has compounded years of ill-advised environmental policies, leading to many residential areas only having access to drinking water that’s industrially polluted, biologically unsanitary, or both.

Injured Egyptian Security Force member being wheeled into the hospitalEgyptian man holding up dull beige water his family and neighbors have taken ill from drinking
(Left, one of the Egyptian Security Force members being wheeled to the hospital following the accident this weekend, originally from here. Right, an Egyptian man holds up the brown water his town had access to in the wake of an epidemic in August, originally from here.)

In a broader context, it’s easier to see how the crisis over butane supplies resonates with the Egyptian public – as it calls into question average Egyptians ability to safely and securely use their own natural resources. Likewise, corruption is not some vague social ill affecting intangible economic values, from investment to zoning, but a daily risk in a country with extremely selectively enforced traffic laws and environmental regulations. “Western” media won’t contextualize this for you. The only way to actually understand the politics of Egypt is through neighboring or local media that are familiar with daily life in the country. To understand some one, you have to listen to them, or at least listen to some one who listened to them.

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Does corruption actually mean anything anymore?

If you’re even somewhat familiar with development studies or issues of international poverty, you’ve likely heard quite a bit about corruption in the past few years. From academic research which argues that corruption “dissipates essential resources and produces poverty” to Forbes articles that state that corruption “delays, distorts and diverts economic growth”, everyone seems to agree that corruption is slowing international development if not directly causing poverty.

I’ll be the first to admit that I think there is an actual argument to be made that corruption, while a broad category of crimes, is a negative force in many societies. Generally, it’s the illicit and unreasonable transfer of public resources into private hands or the garnishing of individuals’ resources which threatens to shut down what economists have called the virtuous circle. That said, with a recent Foreign Policy magazine piece, however, I think corruption-focused explanations of slow or otherwise lacking development have jumped the shark, linking diverse social forces and unpopular policies together as “corruption”.

To its credit, the article does point to a few scandals that are actually cases of corruption. After a lengthy description of the higher growth rates and economic successes in the first few years under the current Indian government, the article notes that now, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh “sits atop a mountain of dirt” and has elicited massive protests against corruption during his term. It then goes on to cite the Business Standard, which has reported that local records-keeping in the new rural jobs program (NREGA) has been fraudulent. Local officials have over-reported the days of labor provided, and pocketed the additional days’ pay. Foreign Policy then notes that the corruption surrounding the program has led to a ballooning of costs, causing the federal government’s deficit to markedly increase.

But immediately after this clear example of a corruptly run program that has been transformed from a huge assistance to rural workers into an unproductive cost for the whole of India, Foreign Policy continues, “Singh’s jobs program is not the only indication that India is resurrecting its statist past.” Apparently, readers are intended to see NREGA as either innately corrupt as it’s a government program or the description of corruption that was the backbone of the previous paragraph as merely incidental to the sinister statism of NREGA. One of the first examples provided of the returning statism, however, is the scandal surrounding Indian-made Aakash tablets – which the Fast Company article cited by Foreign Policy unambiguously depicts as the Indian government being fleeced by fraudulent private contractors. How this pertains to a state-focused developmental strategy (when the state subcontracted much of the process) or corruption (when the state is presented as having selected a particular company purely based on price) is left unclear.

Instead, the readers are whisked away to a litany of environmentally-themed complaints – namely that Vedanta-owned mines have been shut down. Of course, the government isn’t presented as siding with the mass protests against those mining operations, but merely being vaguely “statist” and perhaps by implication “corrupt”. The actions of the Indian government are honestly to be expected, given the lengthy history of calamities for public health and safety (Warning: discussion of Union Carbide leak at Bhopal) as the result of lax environmental policies at foreign-managed factories, mines, or other industrial centers. That’s to say nothing of the clear push from the public for domestic and democratic control of India’s natural resources.

From that discussion, the article shifts away to former Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, who opposed giving Walmart a partial share in domestic clothing stores. That naturally leads the article back to its original point on corruption – namely with Mukherjee’s role in legislating a retroactive tax on British-owned Vodafone in direct opposition to an Indian Supreme Court ruling. The article at least briefly acknowledges that what Vodafone is being pursued for is in effect international tax evasion on a massive scale even if it failed to acknowledge the Indian Supreme Court’s history of bias towards the wealthy. Still, the article fails to overtly recognize that this incident is hardly corruption, even if a worrisome challenge to the rule of law and certain democratic norms. Corruption is a specific problem, independent from upsets in governmental chains of authority or legitimacy.

But that’s ultimately the effect of this article – a confusion of what corruption even necessarily means. The final paragraph that describes the endemic corruption in India contains confusing passages, such as:

“As for corruption, though Singh’s personal decency remains largely above reproach, nobody can say the same for his government. On Singh’s watch a new ‘resource raj‘ has risen from the ashes of the license-permit raj, in which the government, not private business, decided everything from the location of a factory to how many widgets it could produce.”

How the state-centered development through a “resource raj” is innately corrupt is left unsaid. Woven into the description of corruption in India is a criticism of numerous political practices (most clearly regulatory state programs and the challenges to the Supreme Court’s legitimacy) that aren’t necessarily corruption, per se. Confusingly, many protests against the Supreme Court have been founded on seeing it as abetting corruption, yet this article implies that legislative efforts on those issues are in fact examples of corruption themselves. The only two examples of actual corruption in the article – the scandals surrounding NREGA and the “2G scandal” – concern the inexcusable failures of the few federal programs aimed at helping rural and poor Indians. The article then lists other efforts that are “corrupt” – subsidies to domestic industries to make former luxuries accessible to the average Indian, attempts to empower local communities with occasional control over mineral and other public resources, and efforts to address tax evasion by wealthy companies with monopolistic power over the Indian market.

Corruption seems to have become an elastic term that can be used to justify classist attacks on policy, while occasionally noting actual cases of bribery of or fraud by public officials. Even that Foreign Policy article itself begins to admit this in its conclusion, disparaging that Prime Minister Singh’s policies have secretly always been “solidly redistributionist” as if redistribution of wealth would be a terrible proposal in a country with a huge and growing gap between economic classes. The article likewise argues that these “statist” and “redistributionist” notions are the result of the Congress Party which (as the article laments) remains convinced “that India needs welfare programs more than it needs jobs”. In ignoring that the leading corruption scandal was a program designed to create temporary employment, what will the writers for Foreign Policy call Prime Minister Singh next? The food stamp Prime Minister?

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