Friday, July 29, 2011

How Illegitimate Is the Informal Economy?

This over at NigeriansTalk and this piece at The Economist's Baobab Africa blog on how expensive Angola is have me thinking about the informal sector in most African countries.

Chad's N'Djamena and Gabon's Libreville are second and third, respectively, on the Expensive African Cities list (you can see the world list here). On Luanda, The Daily Maverick puts quite succinctly why the trouble of expensive African cities is such a problem:

As foreign expatriates and the money which underpins them push prices of top end goods and services, so the local elites – who eat in the same restaurants and compete for the same properties – are forced to spend more and more. And to spend, they must earn. As elite salaries rise, so the inequality gap between the vast majority of the country and the few who have made it to the top gets wider and wider. In Luanda, it’s not unusual to see Porsche’s whiz through sprawling shanty towns, their drivers on their way to a top hotel for a R1,000 meal while onlookers ponder how to feed their families on the R10 they earned that day. Not exactly a recipe for social cohesion, or development.

What is scary about the high cost of living in many an African city is not just the effect it has on Africa's rising middle class, but also the fact that most Africans find employment in the informal sector.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), the informal sector makes up about 80% of employment in Sub-Saharan Africa, and is also the realm in which most women in the developing world find work, whether we're talking prostitution or selling food on the side of the road (This is in the document below). The number isn't at all far-fetched to me - anyone that has ever walked or driven on a road in an African city can tell that there are far more wooden shacks selling cigarettes and sweets and street hawkers selling recharge cards than there are, say, skyscrapers and shopping malls with banks or salons or boutiques.

An interesting observation: the more developed the economy, the lesser the percentage of people who work outside the margins. 33% of South Africans and 44% of Namibians work in the informal economy, for example, compared to 74% of Madagascans and 82% of Malians). This observation, though, makes one wonder to what extent the state is complicit in creating an informal economy. To what extent is the pervasiveness of informal economies and the resigned acceptance thereof an admission of failed economic policies on the part of African governments? This, from the African Association of Planning Schools, frames it interestingly from a planning perspective:

Ananya Roy (2009:10), in an analysis of the Indian context, argues that planning cannot solve the crisis of Indian urbanisation since ‘planning itself is implicated in the very production of this crisis’. She continues,
Informality then is not a set of unregulated activities that lies beyond the reach of planning; rather it is planning that inscribes the informal by designating some activities as authorized and others as unauthorized.
This view is echoed in Oren Yiftachel’s (2009:88) analysis of the political geography of informality.
He posits the notion of ‘gray spaces’ positioned between the ‘whiteness’ of legality/approval/safety, and the ‘blackness’ of eviction/destruction/death. He goes onto argue that planning is always deeply implicated in ‘whitening’ (condoning, approving) and ‘blackening’ (criminalizing, destroying) different types of informality. Yiftachel states bluntly that the ‘informality of the powerful’ is often authorised by the state whilst alternative forms of informality remain indefinitely gray or are officially ‘blackened’.
Urban planning – that is, the combination of relevant spatial policies – is often behind both the existence and criminalization of gray space. Urban plans design the city’s ‘white’ spaces which usually create little or no opening for inclusion/recognition of most informal localities and population, while their discourse continuously condemns them as a chaotic danger to the city (2009:94).
Roy pushes this point further, arguing that ‘informal spaces’ are produced by the state, and that ‘to deal with informality therefore partly means confronting how the apparatus of planning produces the unplanned and unplannable’ (2005:156).
Wilson (1991) echoes these sentiments pointing out that historically, even the most benevolent projects and traditions of state planning have emphasized control and confinement. Although she stops short of advocating the abandonment of planning, she argues,
There is a sense in which all town planning contains both a utopian and a heroic, yet authoritarian, element. Although its purpose may seem purely practical, it does claim to offer, like the utopian work, a permanent solution to the flux and flow of the ever changing city. The plan is always intended to fix the usage of space; the aim the state regulation of urban populations.
This would suggest that informality demands a critical analysis of traditional planning tools and techniques.

I've included the document here. Check it out.

Informal Economy Toolkit 1

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Poem for Sunday

Ogaga Ifowodo is criminally slept-on. Something that jumps out at you at every poem of his (my favorite is Homeland) is his use of imagery. He makes you want feel it all, like tiny earthquakes in your head. If you must rhyme a poem, this is how it must be done.

And those final lines "Unmarked days quench their suns, black into nights/ and dreams enact weighted hearts in free flights".... the music of that. Goodness.

This one's a favorite from his wonderfully-titled collection God Punish You, Lord Lugard.

Unmarked Hours Beat their Hands Against the Wall

Unmarked hours beat their hands against the wall

grieve for wings plunged in a waterfall.

Outside the window, a woman's shoulders

quake in tribute to a scene of soldiers:

teeth, fragments of flesh in warm blood painted

the picture she sees of those that fainted.

A single call to prayer, amplified

to all of Sin Town, brings mortified

legions to banal rites of righteousness.

As the minister swears his piousness

birds blessed with greater freedom flee our skies

abandoning us to death and muted cries.

Philosophies of suffering dress the walls

of this cell, make the fate of dead seagulls

happier than of failed hearts that bled and wept:

"If men were God!" that mocked the cliff and leapt,

crying out their grief: "Let Nigeria end now!"

No one will inquire who, why or how,

an old or new decree has sanctified

all wrongs in duty personified.

Unmarked days quench their suns, black into nights

and dreams enact weighted hearts in free flights.

Ogaga Ifowodo

November 1997

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Limits to NGOs' Effectiveness

Over at the Boston Review, Pranab Bardhan is eloquent in making the case against NGOs and their effectiveness and goals. The point that looms in Badhan's argument is that NGOs cannot "dismiss the complexity of issues involved in the problems they hope to remedy or the democratic mechanisms and experiments necessary for finding the best way forward for all parties." When it comes to NGOs working on economic development, though, this gets right to the heart of it for me:
The social activists share with left-wing unions a preoccupation with redistribution, and a lack of concern for generating enough surplus to enable it. There are obvious trade-offs here between incentives for private enterprise and the need for social justice. Faced with these issues, just as the Left might refer to the great things the state can do, social activists refer us to the great things small producers and community-based organizations can do. The small-is-beautiful communitarians often ignore the many cases of local communities tyrannizing minority groups (Forms of lynching reminiscent of the U.S. South continue today in the ethnic villages of Africa and India.) And small local producers often cannot benefit from economies of scale and technological upgrades or invest in high-risk-high-return projects, which require risk pooling with non-local entities. As a result, they remain on the margins, mired in low productivity. While there are scattered examples of dynamic small producers, they don’t represent a viable systemic alternative. When real capacity to create wealth is missing, social activism is often reduced to mere populism, which in the long run can be wasteful and counterproductive.

This takes me back to the early 2000s when coffee farmers and social justice was the sexy issue of the day, and we still see the same thing rearing its head in the push-and-pull between small farms and commercial agriculture. Read the whole thing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Trouble With the Caine Prize

The Caine Prize has a new winner. From the press release at the Caine website.
Zimbabwe’s NoViolet Bulawayo has won the 2011 Caine Prize for African Writing, described as Africa’s leading literary award, for her short story entitled ‘Hitting Budapest’, from The Boston Review, Vol 35, no. 6 - Nov/Dec 2010.

The Chair of Judges, award-winning author Hisham Matar, announced NoViolet Bulawayo as the winner of the £10,000 prize at a dinner held this evening (Monday 11 July) at the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Hisham Matar said: "The language of ‘Hitting Budapest’ crackles. Here we encounter Darling, Bastard, Chipo, Godknows, Stina and Sbho, a gang reminiscent of Clockwork Orange. But these are children, poor and violated and hungry. This is a story with moral power and weight, it has the artistry to refrain from moral commentary. NoViolet Bulawayo is a writer who takes delight in language."

Hisham Mattar, writer of the amazing In the Country of Men that I just finished last week, said that? Well, that's another story. You can read my review of the story here.

One of the most depressing things about being from an African country, and I suspect it is the same for being from any post-colonial society, is the need to seek validation abroad or by Western standards. You can be the best writer ever, but if a bunch of white guys in academies don't see it, you're not. This applies to disciplines outside of literature as well. It's really as simple as that.

That is what is so extraordinary about the Caine Prize. Folks call it the "African Booker Prize", and with the mantle of premier African literary award comes the weight that The Booker, The Pushcart, The Pen or any other literary award doesn't have - the burden of representation, of validation, of choosing by dint of one's position the face of and state of African literary scene.

If you so much as scroll through the blog, you would see my reviews of each of the five stories that made up the shortlist for the prize. I tried not to absolutely skewer things in reviews (unless, of course, it's really that abominably bad), but as a whole I'm agree with Ikhide Ikheloa from 234Next on the quality of this year's shortlist:
The good news is that the Caine Prize is here to stay. The bad news is that someone is going to win the Caine Prize this year. This is a shame; having read the stories on the shortlist, I conclude that a successful African writer must be clinically depressed, chronicling in excruciating detail every open sore of Africa. Apologies to Wole Soyinka. The creation of a prize for “African writing” may have created the unintended effect of breeding writers willing to stereotype Africa for glory.

The mostly lazy, predictable stories that made the 2011 shortlist celebrate orthodoxy and mediocrity. They are a riot of exhausted clich├ęs even as ancient conflicts and anxieties fade into the past tense: huts, moons, rapes, wars, and poverty. The monotony of misery simply overwhelms the reader. Fiammetta Rocco, the Economist’s literary editor who chaired last year’s judges, crows that the stories are “uniquely powerful.” The stories are uniquely wretched. The chair of this year’s judges Hisham Matar declares presumptuously that the stories “represent a portrait of today’s African short story: its wit and intelligence, its concerns and preoccupations.” Really? Is this the sum total of our experience, this humourless, tasteless canvas of shiftless Stepin Fetchit suffering?

I hope to goodness that this applies only to this years, but judging from Olufemi Terry's Stickfighting Days, pathetic stories seem to be their thing. Emmanuel Iduma, publisher of Saraba Magazine, responded to Ikheloa's comments, which seemed to cause quite the firestorm on the internet and, I hear from someone present, was even talked about in the discussion part of a Caine Prize event that happened in London today:

I believe what is more important is the objective of the story. I assume it is unhelpful to draw a line on what a writer’s process/objective is by his story. Granted, critics do this continuously – yet in the final analysis if we can define a “grand” objective of “the story” we can go past these questions of stories that dance to a Western tune. And what is the West, anyway? And what is even human? So our grand objective must transcend western lines, become human, and take a more particularized stance. Can this grand objective be grasped? I propose that memory, fraternity and essence are merged, so that every writer, of whatever African descent, plugs his narrative into this fusion. Hopefully.

Knowing my own writing process and how much is involved, I'm wont to agree with Iduma. I'm not willing to be cynical enough to say that these writers are, as Ikheloa says, "willing to stereotype [Africa] for glory". I have no idea what led NoViolet Bulawayo to write the story she did, chockful of such familiar tropes on woe-is-me African literature (IMF street? Really??) And I should say here that this is what annoys me the most about the counter-argument to this brand of literature. Writing about Africa does not absolve one from writing well, and bringing complex characters to life, and, indeed, having a plot and creating a believable world for a reader from which (s)he can take away something of value. It really does not.

Writers write. Readers have opinions. It's really that simple. One has a right to put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard and churn out just whatever (s)he pleases. I certainly did not like Hitting Budapest, a plotless story that does not seem to have a point beyond "these kids are poor and live squalidly and you should pity them", but I do not really care about Bulawayo; she can write whatever she wants. I'm madder at the Caine Prize for seeming to favor stories of a particular strain, the ones that are less about characters and the network of trip-wires that make up their humanity and more about flattening characters to render them tools to make a political point, and absolving them from the basic responsibilities that come with writing a good story. I'm madder at them for not asking for complexity, and buying into an oversimplified narrative of Africa - poverty, war, disease, starving/fighting children -- just like most Western media does. I'm madder at the Caine for saying that this collection of stories is the best they could get out of Africa. I'm mad because I and so many people out there know that that is not true.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Al-Jazeera Being Awesome

Al-Jazeera's Inside Story has a great piece on famine and conflict in the Horn of Africa. It'll never stop being annoying how you can't embed a video from AJE, but the video is Africa's Drought: Is War or Weather to Blame? and the link is here.

I like the effort they go into to get at the question of why the situation is so intractable. If you have all these reports predicting a riot in the Horn of Africa, then why don't you use your knowledge to get at some more sustainable solution (Ugh, I just used the world "sustainable)? How is the long-term vulnerability of NGOs' funding affecting the situation? What do we do about the overflowing refugee camps? How is this all affecting Kenya? It's a good examination on the issues at hand in a way I don't see in most other media, and acknowledges the complexity of the situation.

I have no answers, but this put voice to a lot of questions that I have/had.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Is the AU too Respectful to Gaddafi?

Can't say I didn't see this coming -- the AU has decided not to honor the ICC arrest warrant, meaning that Gaddafi is still free to travel around Africa as he likes. From News24:

The decision passed late on Friday states that the warrant against Gaddafi "seriously complicates" efforts by the African Union to find a political solution to the crisis in Libya.

AU chairperson Jean Ping told reporters that the ICC is "discriminatory" and only goes after crimes committed in Africa while ignoring those committed by Western powers including in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.

"With this in mind, we recommend that the member states do not co-operate with the execution of this arrest warrant," said the motion which was shown to The Associated Press and whose passage was confirmed by Daniel Adugna, a spokesperson in the AU commissioner's office.

If the AU's 53 member states abide by the decision, it opens the possibility that Gaddafi could avoid prosecution by seeking refuge on the soil of neighbouring nations.

In light of this news, Elizabeth Ohene has a piece at the Royal African Society pointing out the black African leaders' relative distance to what's happening in Libya, and positing that the AU may just be being too respectful in their dealings with the Libyan dictator. Not that they were that far up his ladder of priorities anyway:
The black Africans, the sub-saharan Africans, the Africans treated this stranger with care and respect. They nodded and said yes knowing fully well they had no intention of doing what he was saying. Of course it helped that he had money and could pick up some of the bills for the organization, but nobody felt squeamish about that.

Prestigious world universities were taking his money. Important world figures were all beating a path to his tent or rolling out the red carpet for him in their capitals. Condoleeza Rice, Tony Blair, Nicholas Sarkozy Silvio Berlusconi, to name a few and they don't come any more important and the deals that come out of those meetings would show his generosity in African countries to be peanuts.

Unfortunately the AU has not learnt that “Obunfura” does not work with the western powers. Saying yes because you do not want to offend does not work in the world of realpolitik. Saying yes in the fond hope that when push came to shove there would be no unpleasantness as dictated by “Obunfura” has landed the AU in a mess. They knew that Gaddafi's time ought to be up after forty years in power, but since you have to treat strangers with care and respect, they couldn't bring themselves to tell him as much and once the uprising started and the rebels made Gaddafi's exit from office their main demand, the AU could not be an honest broker.

They voted for and supported Security Council Resolution 1973 in the hope the enforcement of a no-fly zone would bring peace, and they chose to ignore the gathering war clouds. Not surprisingly their current protests have been drowned in the bombs over Tripoli.

This seems a bit incomplete to me, though. I'm not convinced that the AU is averse to unpleasantness in the Gaddafi situation because he's from North Africa. If AU's were just a North Africa problem, Mugabe and Obiang wouldn't be in power, some heavy focus would be on Museveni with his crackdowns on the population, and there would be pressure on Wade to peacefully cede power instead on trying to going for another term. As we saw in Niger and Cote d'Ivoire, there are certainly situations that the AU would speak up forcefully. I just don't think geography has anything to do with it.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Caine Prize for African Literature - Story Blogging Week V

In an initiative hosted by Aaron Bady (ZunguZungu), I am joining a coterie of awesome bloggers in reading and reviewing entrants for the Caine Prize for African Literature this year. You can read along with us -- all the stories are available online in PDFs and linked from the Caine Prize website. The fifth and last story on the shortlist is South African writer David Medalie's "Mistress's Dog". Here is my post on the first, second, third, and fourth stories.

Like In the Spirit of McPhineas Lata, this is another story that ostensibly not about any politics, but about the characters and the relationships between them. Here, though, the real story is about power and resentment.

I very much liked the way the story was told, the pacing of it. We see a lot of Nola's bitterness coming through, but the constant calling of her Nola's husband "the powerful man" is an excellent choice, as it tells us so much about their relationship without going into too much detail. The power imbalance in the relationship is driven home by how we do not even know they are married until about half-way through the story.

The Mistress's Dog
is very much like What Molly Knew in its themes, albeit less dark and less political. I hate to compare both just because their South African and written by white men (and I did compare Keegan's story to J.M. Coetzee's Disgrace in my review), but they bought struck a similar chord in that one moment when the oppressed figure in the story had one chance at making their own decision, and the self-defeated stance each woman took. Molly did not take the letter to the police in the face of evidence that Rollo may have killed her daughter. Nola chose to roll over and accept a situation she did not want, even when she had a choice to say no. This looks to me a definite point of view regarding power relations in the country, but I'm trying not to make too much of it.

Even as Nola obviously derives pleasure from seeing the mistress's efforts at fitting in, from the interior decorator to the dinners and wine, you get the sense that Nola felt a certain kinship to the mistress through what she sees as their mutual oppression. This passage, in particular, illustrates this:

Nola saw in the mistress the hesitation that the hearty laugh could not hide, the timorousness that was silent but present all the time, like a heart murmur. It was evident to her that the mistress had become a snob largely because she dreaded the judgement of snobs.
In everything she did and said, the mistress declared her determination to be free. She was, she believed, making and remaking herself. It was very hard work. It was expensive too. But it would be worth it if, by chipping away at herself, she could set herself free forever: a complete metamorphosis.
Nola knew, however, that the mistress had not even begun to emancipate herself. And she suspected that she never would. For she, Nola, was not free either, except from anxieties about money. She knew what the mistress had not yet discovered, which was that nothing grew in the shadow cast by the powerful man.

And you get confirmation of that notion as the story draws to a close:

We are the survivors, she thought, the two of us. The powerful man had died in a Cape Town hospital after weeks on a ventilator. The mistress had died in the frail-care section of the retirement village in Johannesburg. The mistress’s dog had outlived them both. And so had she."

The mistress, then, is a fellow traveler in a sense. Nola hates the mistress not so much for daring to have an affair with her husband, but for reminding her so much of herself. The dog Nola is now saddled with, then, is a ticking time-bomb that threatens her with the possibility of power, a decision waiting to be made that will lead to her emancipation.

Of all the Caine Prize shortlisted stories, I'd call this the most subtle in the delicate way it handles its themes. I like that delicateness, but I wonder if it does not have too soft a touch. It was not a very vivid story, and the character herself does not really come into her own at all in the story. Perhaps that was on purpose -- a woman who has spent so much time being suppressed could come across as flat -- but I do not think this needs to have been the case. For one thing, this character hides her lack of esteem well behind resentment. I would have liked to see some more of that anger come across, however seething. Her reaction to the lady in the supermarket rang false to me, because Nola is not a woman unaware of her privilege. I expected her to be apologetic but curt, not to hover and make excuses.

At the end of the story, Nola asks questions we wish Molly had asked herself.
Had she chosen him? Or had she ended up with him by default because she had not, during her life, made the wise, the adroit choices? If we are our choices, then what did it say about her that the mistress’s dog was her last companion?

One finds oneself relieved at the soul-searching and hoping she does indeed hold on to the strength to take her life into her own hands.

A big shout-out to ZunguZungu for being so awesome and hosting the awesome reading session. Go to his blog for links to the posts from the other bloggers reviewing this story.