Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Why Not Africa?

Progress means that countries that produce simple products often move onto more complex products. Low-skilled jobs are transferred to countries down the economic ladder whose labor costs are less, while the original producers find new products requiring more skilled workers. Thus far, the economic phenomenon of comparative advantage hasn’t worked for Africa as it should have. For example, products no longer being made in America still are not being made in African locales.

For example, the United States stopped making Rawlings baseballs – the ones used in the major leagues, college and high school games and sandlot ball – back in 1969. The St. Louis factory’s production was shipped first to Puerto Rico, then to Haiti and now to Costa Rica. Why not Africa?

Remember the toy Etch-A-Sketch? It used to be made in Bryan, Ohio, but since 2000, it has been produced in Shenzhen, China. Similarly, Mattel toys have been made in China since the last California factory shut down in 2002. Those Converse athletic shoes – know as Chuck Taylors for the All-American high school basketball player – are no longer being made in Massachusetts. Since 2001, they have been made in Indonesia. Levi Strauss & Company shut down its U.S. production of jeans in 2003, and production was outsourced to Latin American and Asian locations. Why not Africa?

For some products, Asian and other locations are still more competitive than African locations for a variety of reasons. No televisions have been produced in the U.S. since 2004. Cell phones stopped being made in America in 2007. Just this year alone, Dell computers, canned sardines and even kitchen flatware (forks, spoons and knives) stopped being produced in America. Complex products can be produced easier and cheaper in Asian countries, but there are still opportunities for African manufacture of products no longer economically feasible for the developed world.

Then why isn’t Africa taking advantage of these opportunities and becoming the destination of choice for the manufacture of products no longer made in America or often other developed countries? I could mention the lack of road and rail infrastructure, or the lack of consistent electric power that forces producers to rely too heavily on generators. The small production capacity of so many countries makes them less competitive on a global scale.

The failure of neighboring countries to cooperate in bundling goods at ports and airports, which also suffer from a lack of security and efficiency, make them less attractive sites for shippers. The dearth of shipping alternatives makes prices too high to be competitive on the world stage. All these and other reasons are certainly the cause of African countries as a whole failing to compete more effectively in the global marketplace, but there are African countries that have made the jump into a position of enhanced global competitiveness.

For all developing countries, it is estimated that manufactured goods account for more than 80% of their exports. That’s up from only 25% thirty years ago. What happened was that many of the resource-rich developing countries invested revenue from resources in the enhancement of infrastructure, the development of human capacity and the employment of new technology. At the dawn of the wave of independence for the developing world in the late 1950s and 1960s, several African countries were economically stronger than their Asian counterparts. However, the discovery of oil and the presence of commodities such as diamonds, gold and cobalt in Africa discouraged much lasting investment in manufacturing. Where would Benin, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Nigeria stand among world economies today if they had pursued such policies as the so-called Asian Tigers did back then?

Instead, too many governments relied on a policy known as “import substitution,” under which production was encouraged in domestic goods instead of exports. This can work if you have sufficient infrastructure, internal markets, skills and technology, and oh yes, if you don’t depend on imported goods to make it work. Unfortunately, this policy, which seemed sound at the outset, was not positioned to work effectively.

Yet countries such as Mauritius, South Africa and Botswana have employed far-thinking policies to diversity their economies and compete well with their more resource-blessed neighbors because of it. One hopes that oil won’t spoil Ghana, Sao Tome and Uganda and lead them to get so comfortable with the production of oil that they neglect other sectors of their economies that produce more jobs than does the oil industry.

It is possible that African countries can take their place among countries attracting outsourced sectors from the developed world. None of the obstacles facing Africa today are insurmountable, and with sound policies keyed to tomorrow and not today, African countries can realize their competitive potential.

The 20th century is often referred to as “American century” because the United States used its natural and human resources to become the sole superpower by the turn of the century. China and India are off to a great start at the beginning of the current century. Still, with better planning and collaboration among African governments, the 21st century can become Africa’s century.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

What to Do About African Elections?

In Cote d’Ivoire, the long-awaited presidential election ended with the two top candidates both declaring victory and being sworn in. In Egypt, the main opposition party accused the government of committing widespread fraud and preventing their observers from monitoring the vote in the recent legislative elections. In Guinea, the June elections resulted in a runoff that had to be postponed due in part to the conviction of election commission officials for vote-tampering in that initial election.

Since the wave of elections that brought multi-party democracy to Africa in the 1990s, there have been significant advances made in consolidating democracy and the resulting good governance in African countries. However, there continue to be forces that try their best to frustrate the political will of the African people, and the international community seems to lack understanding or will to make the long-term investment to help prevent abuses that frustrate a broader advance of democratic elections in Africa.

After working on African elections for nearly 20 years – observing them, analyzing them and training people to prevent fraud in them – it is clear to me that whatever the intentions of the past three U.S. presidents and the current one, too many bureaucrats within the American government don’t fully understand the complexity of the electoral process. I always thought that officials in the U.S. Agency for International Development in the early 1990s associated the political process with former U.S. President Richard Nixon, whom they hated. So despite what I and others working to help elevate political process in Africa told them, they didn’t enable us to do what was necessary from the start to make elections acceptable because they saw the political process as inevitably flawed.

What former U.S. President George W. Bush called “the bigotry of low expectations” also comes into play. There just doesn’t seem to be the ability by too many American or other international officials to accept that Africans are capable of world-class elections. So the mood of “it’s good enough for Africa” seems to permeate the reaction to African elections. Whenever an African election is troubled, the first reaction is to call for a Government of National Unity. Somehow, these international leaders think, by putting opponents together in one government, trouble can be put behind them since all the African politicians want is a share of power.

Arranged Governments of National Unity are not really the way things work in the developed world. If the voters choose divided government, so be it, but who puts a viper in his or her own nest? In America, Democrat and Republican presidents usually appoint a member of the other party to their cabinet as a sign of cooperation. But when has the losing presidential candidate ever been given a major role in the winner’s government, especially if that losing candidate is a viable future candidate for president.? Under what circumstances would President Barack Obama ever have given Senator John McCain a major role in his government? It was a surprise when Obama appointed his primary opponent – Senator Hillary Clinton – as Secretary of State.

American and other international officials must understand that elections are often won or lost long before the first ballot is cast. For example, the Kenyan African National Union created a majority of small constituencies for itself and larger, fewer constituencies for the political opposition and used this tactic to hold onto power in the transition to multiparty democracy in the 1990s. In Cote d’Ivoire in the 1990s, one of the current presidents, Alassane Ouattara, was declared ineligible to run on the bogus charge that he wasn’t a citizen. In the historic 1992elections in Angola, entire segments of the population were not registered to vote. Tactics called “wholesale fraud” are used to prevent parties, candidates and voters from participating in elections. Election day can be scrupulously clean if the election has been won in advance. Unless those trying to guarantee free and fair elections pay attention to this phase, nothing done on election day will matter.

Then there is the voting process. African governments to often wait until late in the day to train election officials and find qualified election workers. Polling places are often poorly chosen. For example, I saw polling places in Equatorial Guinea in Mongomo a few years ago that had no security of the ballot as there was access to voters while they cast their ballots out of the sight of election officials. You don’t usually see ballot boxes being stolen and ballots being stuffed nowadays. What you do see (if you pay attention) is manipulation of vote counting as was the case in Ethiopia in 2005 and Kenya in 2007.

Rather than trying to find an expedient solution to an electoral crisis as was the case with the international community in both cases, why not make a more concerted effort to prevent the crisis before it develops?

Since the wave of African democratic elections crested in the 1990s, the International Foundation for Electoral Systems, the International Republican Institute and the National Democratic Institute have worked on all phases of African elections. Unfortunately, their efforts have been hampered by U.S. government officials who delayed funding until almost too late, required equal treatment for all political parties even when they were parties on paper only and asked for favorable public assessments in the face of blatant election manipulation.

Permanent, professional electoral commissions with input from political parties, political parties prepared to effectively contest elections on behalf of their supporters, timely funding of election mechanisms and the application of new technology, such as biometric voter identification systems, must be applied to African elections to put governments, political parties and voters on a more secure road to lasting democracy.

There are important elections coming up in 2011, including in Sudan, Nigeria, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Cameroon. For some of these process, particularly Sudan, it is too late to make the investment in setting the stage for free, fair and transparent elections. We can only hope that what interventions are made at this late date can be helpful.

In those African elections where timely interventions may help guarantee the accurate expression of the will of African voters, efforts must be made now to ensure that the goal of a fully functional democracy is served. Trying to clean up a preventable mess must no longer be the option when it comes to African elections.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Dimensions of the African Diaspora

A little while back, I wrote as blog post about Africa reaching out to its Diaspora. Although this outreach could be more robust, it does exist. But what about the Diaspora’s outreach to its own disparate parts? We generally know very little about who the other members of the African Diaspora are or where they live today.

As African Americans, we consider ourselves the preeminent sector of the African Diaspora. However, in terms of size, we are only number two. Brazil has nearly 86 million people of African descent who comprise 45% of that country’s population. African descendants comprise about 13% of the American population and about 38 million people. Of course, the African liberation and civil rights movements in America have enabled Diasporans living here to flex their political muscles and impact the continent far more than black Brazilians have been able to do.

In Brazil, people we would consider to be Diasporans are divided into pretos (blacks) and pardos (mixed race or brown). Centuries of racial mixtures means that many Brazilians have African ancestry that is not easily recognizable, thus the invention of the term moreno (tanned or of olive complexion). The result of Brazil’s ethnic history is that many Brazilians don’t really consider themselves to be African descendants; they are as likely to describe themselves as Brazilian descendants.

This was only the case with a smaller portion of American Diasporans – those who were quadroon (one-quarter black) and octoroon (one-eighth black) back in the 1800s when those were distinct racial categories. When those classifications were nullified by U.S. law that declared anyone with one drop of black blood to be black, many of the lighter ones passed as whites to avoid the bitter discrimination faced by those more easily identified as black. Over time, they intermarried with whites and are the ones surprised to find they have African heritage when they take the DNA tests.

We know about the Diasporans who live in the Caribbean. Countries such as Haiti (8.7 million), the Dominican Republic (nearly 8 million) and Jamaica (2.7 million) have large Diasporan populations who we see in America. They are very obviously black, and we associate those countries with being largely black. Yet there are other countries in this hemisphere with significant black populations: Columbia (11.7 million). Venezuela (2.6 million) and Ecuador (680 thousand). Most of the islands of the Caribbean are, of course, majority black countries: Saint Kitts and Nevis (98%), Antigua and Barbuda (95%) and Grenada (91%).

But did you know that the Cayman Islands, the noted destination for offshore funds, is 60% black? French Guiana is 66% black, and Suriname is 47% black. Have you ever met a black person from one of these countries? Perhaps you did, but didn’t know where they were from, or you thought they were a small minority in their country of origin.

Europe is only 1.2% black, but France has 3 million Diasporans, and the United Kingdom has 2 million. The Netherlands has 507 thousand Diasporans, and Germany has 500 thousand. People from Africa and the Caribbean are playing increasingly visible and important roles in these countries. Famous black people from Europe include NBA player Tony Parker, who was born in Belgium, and former heavyweight boxing champion Lennox Lewis, who was born in the United Kingdom. They are but two of the many Diasporans born and raised in Europe.

We may know about the 200 thousand Diasporans (mostly from Ethiopia) who live in Israel because of the famous airlift of Jewish Africans, but what about the other black populations in the Middle East? Egypt and the rest of North Africa, which are considered part of the Middle East, is African, of course, but there are significant, identifiable black populations in Saudi Arabia, Yemen and Oman.

I used the term identifiable because while they may look black, many Afro-Arabs do not identify themselves as African descendants. Being African is akin to being identified as slaves. That remains a persistent issue in countries such as Sudan today. Nevertheless, Semitic languages such as Arabic and Hebrew are believed to have their origin in Ethiopia, which at one time in history controlled territory on both sides of the Red Sea. Swahili, the widely popular east African language, contains much Arabic and was once the language used by traders in the region.

Although many scholars doubt the claims of African ancestry among people in the Pacific, it is quite clear that Melanesians and many other Pacific Islanders have strong African features. There are the Australian aboriginal people, the Semang people of the Malay peninsula, the Aeta people of Luzon and the Ati of Panay. Again, these people have little connection to Africa today and likely do not identify themselves as members of the African Diaspora.

The dimensions of the African Diaspora are broad, but the linkages in practice are tenuous. We may look alike, but we don’t all identify ourselves as having the same ethnic origin. So while some members of the African Diaspora are reaching back to a connection with Africa, many others don’t for many reasons. Still, they are our brothers and sisters whether they know it or accept it or not. What becomes of that truth remains to be seen.