Results for “africa”
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The greatest book(s) on Africa ever written?

Yes, I am talking about the new seven-volume set Architectural Guide to Sub-Saharan Africa.  I am now about halfway through volume II, and will read the rest, albeit slowly.  The books have plenty of text and also a lot of quality photographs.  While they are easy to read, they are not actually fast going.

These books have dozens of authors, so a systematic review misses the point. But just think: do you need to read yet another largely political history of Africa, detailing the conflict in Biafra, the fall of apartheid in South Africa, and the Mugabe dictatorship in Zimbabwe?  At what I hope are your current margins, what exactly are you going to learn?

Should you instead read seven volumes about how Africans (and sometimes non-Africans) have built Africa?  Its homes.  Its businesses.  Its government buildings and non-profit centers.  Its churches and mosques.  What Africa looks like and why.  Every significant discussion is accompanied by a relevant photograph.

Is that not a more important learning?

Where else can you find a sub-chapter “Beyond Design: Finnish Architects in Senegal”?  Which are in fact the most notable vistas in the Nouakchott fish market?  Why does it seem that no building in Mauretania is next to any other building in Mauretania?  (I am reading the West Africa volume, obviously.)

Definitely recommended, a notable achievement.

Is Africa losing its growth window?

The macro side of the story here is underreported, alas:

One of the saddest stories of the year has gone largely unreported: the slowdown of political and economic progress in sub-Saharan Africa. There is no longer a clear path to be seen, or a simple story to be told, about how the world’s poorest continent might claw its way up to middle-income status. Africa has amazing human talent and brilliant cultural heritages, but its major political centers are, to put it bluntly, falling apart.

Three countries are more geopolitically central than the others. Ethiopia, with a population of 118 million, is sub-Saharan Africa’s second-most populous nation and the most significant node in East Africa. Nigeria has the most people (212 million) and the largest GDP on the continent. South Africa, population 60 million, is the region’s wealthiest nation, and it is the central economic and political presence in the southern part of the continent.

Within the last two years, all three of these nations have fallen into very serious trouble.


Based on size and historical and cultural import, Democratic Republic of the Congo ought to be another contender as an influential African nation. But the country has been wracked by conflict for decades. It is not in a position to fill the void created by the failings of Ethiopia, Nigeria and South Africa.

The last few decades have been a relatively propitious time for Africa. There have been a minimum of major wars in the world, and a dearth of major new pandemics (until recently). China was interested in building up African infrastructure, and across the continent countries made great advances in public health.

Could it be that this window has shut, and the time for major gains has passed? And that is not even reckoning with the likelihood of additional damage from Covid on a continent with a very low level of vaccination.

These sub-Saharan political regressions might just be a coincidence in their timing. But another disturbing possibility is that the technologies and ideologies of our time are not favorable for underdeveloped nation-states with weak governments and many inharmonious ethnic groups. In that case, all this bad luck could be a precursor of even worse times ahead.

Here is the link to the full Bloomberg column.

Arguments for Africa

Despite the past centuries’ economic setbacks and challenges, are there reasons for optimism about Africa’s economic prospects? We provide a conceptual framework and empirical evidence that show how the nature of African society has led to three sets of unrecognized “latent assets.” First, success in African society is talent driven and Africa has experienced high levels of perceived and actual social mobility. A society where talented individuals rise to the top and optimism prevails is an excellent basis for entrepreneurship and innovation. Second, Africans, like westerners who built the world’s most successful effective states, are highly skeptical of authority and attuned to the abuse of power. We argue that these attitudes can be a critical basis for building better institutions. Third, Africa is “cosmopolitan.” Africans are the most multilingual people in the world, have high levels of religious tolerance, and are welcoming to strangers. The experience of navigating cultural and linguistic diversity sets Africans up for success in a globalized world.

Here is the NBER paper from Soeren J Henn and James A. Robinson.

Evidence from 27 Thousand Economics Journal Articles on Africa

The first two decades of the 21st century have seen an increasing number of peer-reviewed journal articles on the 54 countries of Africa by both African and non-African economists. I document that the distribution of research across African countries is highly uneven: 45% of all economics journal articles and 65% of articles in the top five economics journals are about five countries accounting for just 16% of the continent’s population. I show that 91% of the variation in the number of articles across countries can be explained by a peacefulness index, the number of international tourist arrivals, having English as an official language, and population. The majority of research is context-specific, so the continued lack of research on many African countries means that the evidence base for local policy-makers is much smaller in these countries.

Here is the article by Obie Porteus, via David Evans.

*Forms of Contention: Influence and the African American Sonnet Tradition*

That is the new, excellent, and timely book by Hollis Robbins, the title is descriptive, here is one excerpt:

“If We Must Die” calls for resistance to violence in an environment of violence. The power of [Claude] McKay’s sonnet—Shakespearean and yet with modern diction—is the tension between the measured lines and rhyme, the poetic phrases and the brutal words, the combination of enjambments and exclamation points in the octave, and the more deliberate and determined pace of the sestet. “If We Must Die” is a defiant call to action. The rage of the poem is made more potent by the tension of the sonnet form straining to contain it.

The book argues for the centrality of sonnet writing to African American poetry, and that the African American tradition was not simply parasitic on European models.  A “sestet,” by the way, is the last six lines of a sonnet, but not a good Scrabble word because you have to waste two “s’s” to play it.

Should South Africa lock down?

The lockdown will lead to 29 times more lives lost than the harm it seeks to prevent from Covid-19 in SA, according to a conservative estimate contained in a new model developed by local actuaries.

The model, which will be made public today for debate, was developed by a consortium calling itself Panda (Pandemic ~ Data Analysis), which includes four actuaries, an economist and a doctor, while the work was checked by lawyers and mathematicians. The process was led by two fellows at the Actuarial Society of SA, Peter Castleden and Nick Hudson.

They have sent a letter, explaining its model, to President Cyril Ramaphosa. In the letter, headed “Lockdown is a humanitarian disaster to dwarf Covid-19”, they call for an end to the lockdown, a focus on isolating the elderly and allowing children to go back to school, while ensuring the economy restarts so that lives can be saved.

The paper also is at the link, and it is perhaps more of a rough and ready calculation than a formal model per se.  Nonetheless South Africa has a relatively young population and the core points are well taken:

In SA, they estimate that 5.4 years of life have been lost per Covid-19 death. They then multiply this by the range of deaths which they predict – 20,000 – as well as the actuarial society’s prediction of 88,000 fatalities. They factor in that the lockdown will have reduced some deaths, but not all. In the end, their model translated into a minimum of 26,800 “years of lives lost” due to Covid-19, and a maximum of 473,500 years. (This, critically, shouldn’t be confused with the actual number of fatalities expected from Covid-19.)

The actuaries then used the figures predicted by the National Treasury to model the impact on poverty. On Friday, the Treasury estimated that between 3-million and 7-million jobs will be lost due to the measures taken to combat the virus. The actuaries then work out that, conservatively, 10% of South Africans will become poorer, and as a result, will lose a few months of their lives.

It is a good question how many of the models used for the West have taken into account the “demonstration effect,” namely that poorer (and much younger) countries will be tempted to follow the same policies.  I’ve yet to see a good discussion of this.

Africa Luxembourg Ethiopia Congo state capacity facts of the day

Government revenues average about 17% of gdp in sub-Saharan Africa, according to the IMF. Nigeria has more than 300 times as many people as Luxembourg, but collects less tax. If Ethiopia shared out its tax revenues equally, each citizen would get around $80 a year. The government of the Democratic Republic of Congo is so penurious that its annual health spending per person could not buy a copy of this newspaper.

That is from The Economist.

Income-sharing in Africa

Several African countries have introduced state loan schemes. But governments have struggled to chase up debts. The private sector is now trying to do a better job. Kepler and Akilah, an all-female college in Kigali, are working with Chancen International, a German foundation, to try out a model of student financing popular among economists—Income Share Agreements. Chancen pays the upfront costs of a select group of students. Once they graduate, alumni pay Chancen a share of their monthly income, up to a maximum of 180% of the original loan. If they do not get a job, they pay nothing.

That is from The Economist, a survey article on higher education in Africa.  Here are related links on the same scheme.

Are all humans South Africans?

Africa was the birth-place of Homo sapiens and has the earliest evidence for symbolic behaviour and complex technologies. The best-attested early flowering of these distinctive features was in a glacial refuge zone on the southern coast 100–70 ka, with fewer indications in eastern Africa until after 70 ka. Yet it was eastern Africa, not the south, that witnessed the first major demographic expansion, ~70–60 ka, which led to the peopling of the rest of the world. One possible explanation is that important cultural traits were transmitted from south to east at this time. Here we identify a mitochondrial signal of such a dispersal soon after ~70 ka – the only time in the last 200,000 years that humid climate conditions encompassed southern and tropical Africa. This dispersal immediately preceded the out-of-Africa expansions, potentially providing the trigger for these expansions by transmitting significant cultural elements from the southern African refuge.

That is from Teresa Rito,, in Nature, vis Charles Klingman.

Has the Tervuren Central African museum been decolonized?

In a word, no.  They shut the place down for five years and spent $84 million, to redesign the displays, and what they reopened still looks and feels incredibly colonial.  That’s not an architectural complaint, only that the museum cannot escape what it has been for well over a century.  Most of the 180,000 art objects there were either stolen or bought under terms of implicit coercion.  There is an Africa Gallery covering the crimes of King Leopold in the Congo, but it is easy enough to be transfixed by the art and not really take it in.  How about a full room near the entrance devoted to the anti-imperialist E.D. Morel?  And while there are now more art works from the post-colonial period, there is no room devoted to the often very impressive art worlds of Central Africa today.  Having more African people talk on screens was nice, but it doesn’t do the trick.  The colonial still seems glorious, and the post-colonial mediocre.

Despite DRC demands, I do understand that the repatriation of the objects themselves would not be wise, given the current state of the DRC.  In 1976-1982, 114 objects were in fact restituted, but most of them ended up stolen (NYT).  For me preserving the art comes first, and furthermore the current DRC government is hardly a legitimate spokesperson for the historic civilizations of the region.  But might the museum at least have presented the issue in some morally conscious manner?

Before you walk into the museum proper, there is a room devoted to all the sculptures and displays now considered too colonial or too racist for the current museum.  Of course this draws more attention to them, and furthermore the dividing lines are by no means always clear.  That said, there is a double irony, namely that some of the items in this room are sufficiently obnoxious that their display represents a better apology than any part of what is intended as apology.

This is still all much better than the past, when at one time a human zoo of 267 enslaved Congolese was put on display here, in fact that was the inaugural exhibit in 1897.  At least there is now a memorial to those of the enslaved who died of influenza.  And the plaque “Belgium Brings Civilization to the Congo” has been taken down.  Yet this:

The rapacious monarch’s monogram dots the walls of the palatial museum on the former royal estate, which he used to drum up investment for his colonial ventures at the 1897 World Exhibition.

Oh, and there are colonial statues built into the walls:

One was of black children clinging to a white missionary. Another was of a topless African woman dancing.

They cannot be removed because of cultural heritage laws in Belgium.

The animal displays also no longer seem of our time, more about size and stuffing and the conquest of nature rather than with much of a notion of environmental or biodiversity or animal welfare awareness.

It is nonetheless a spectacular museum, the best chronicle anywhere for the Central African artistic achievement by an order of magnitude, and one of the best and most interesting places in Europe right now.  It is worth the rather convoluted one hour trip you must take from Brussels, or if you are visiting Waterloo it isn’t far away at all.  For all its flaws (or in part because of them?), go if you can.

The art aside, the other lesson is imperialism and colonialism cast a longer shadow than you might at first think.  The realities of cultural constipation remain underrated.

A Behavioral Interpretation of the Origins of African American Family Structure

That is a new paper by Gerald D. Jaynes, Department of Economics, Yale University.  The abstract is difficult to read, so here is an excerpt from the paper:

The hypothesis underlying my reinterpretation of the origins of contemporary black family structure is, through the late 20th Century, throughout American history, structural differences in the race relations and economic discrimination confronting blacks in rural versus urban locations produced distinct childhood socialization experiences. These distinct socialization experiences exposed urbanized black children (north and south) to large numbers of recusant adults — men and women socially alienated by urban job ceilings and truculently refusing to acquiesce to race relations based in white supremacy. Observation of and interaction with recusant adults and discriminatory economic institutions put urbanized black children at great risk of early projection of a failure to achieve self-verification of an acceptable social identity. The developmental outcome was early adoption of recusant identities and oppositional agencies leading to a polarized choice: either seek self-verification elsewhere by avoiding institutions such as schools, labor markets, and marriage (causing high rates of single parent families), or (attempting to alter one’s reception in such institutions) intensely engage them leading to civil rights activism and a rising black middle class. In contrast, rural black children were more likely exposed to adults seeking self-verification by striving to climb the agricultural tenure ladder a life goal requiring conforming to behavioral norms based in the era’s white supremacist race relations. Failure to self-verify a positive self-image by achieving land ownership or rental tenancy occurred later in life when the adoption of oppositional agencies was greatly mitigated.

Speculative and uneven, but nonetheless of interest.

The difficulties of African supply chains

Supply chain problems in Africa are quite complex, with most of them stemming from the sheer size of the continent. Africa’s land mass is greater than the USA, Europe, and China combined. Within this huge space there are 54 unique markets, few of which provide scale or adequate distribution infrastructure. Further complicating matters, there are over 2,000 languages spoken and very diverse cultural dynamics from one market to the next.

That is from an article by Chuma Asuzu, the piece is interesting throughout, most of all for infrastructure supply chain nerds.  I so, so wish there were more articles like this.

For the pointer I thank Omar Mohamed.  Omar also recommends this site on manufacturing.

*The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay*, by Christopher Clapham

A splendid book, why can’t the rest of you ****ers write books this good?  Here is one bit:

…the dynamics of clan works in a significantly different way in Somaliland from the way it does in south-central Somalia.  A single clan-family, the Isaaq, occupy the central areas of the territory, and account for by far the greater part of its population.  Though the Isaaq clans, inevitably, are divided both between and within themselves, they provide a reasonably solid ethnic core, that contrasts with the far more mixed and complex composition of southern Somalia, with its two major clan-families, Darood and Hawiye, and the further problems created by the presence of the Digil-Mirifle and other minority groups.  Somaliland is by no means entirely Isaaq…but its demographic structure means that other clans must either accept Isaaq hegemony and work within it, or else reject the Somaliland state altogether.  They cannot expect to control it.  At the same time, the fact that the Isaaq clans — characteristically of Somali clan politics — do not form a single united bloc provides other clans with the opportunity to build alliances with one or another group of the Isaaq.

Have you ever wanted to read about how ethnic groups in Ethiopia, Eritrea, and Djibouti fit into this same broad picture?  Just exactly how Somalian and Ethiopian history intersect, from the 1970s onwards?  This here is your book.  I’m running to Amazon right now to buy more from this wonderful author.  You can buy it here.