Thursday, January 31, 2008

Mobile access to the Internet

With an explosion in cellphone subscribers in Africa and a much slower growth in PC based Internet access, it does not surprise that mobile phones will increasingly play the role of linking an information hunger continent to the web.

South Africa is leading the way according to this article on bizcommunity.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Electricity crises and the CDM

South Africa's power crises might stimulate CDM in South Africa, according to a piece on Point Carbon. This is a possibility, but do not count on the CDM to come to the immediate rescue.

According to South Africa's Designated National Authority latest project portfolio (dated 10 Dec 2007), there were 63 CDM projects submitted of which 10 have been approved at the CDM executive board so far. Almost half (46%) of the projects are in energy efficiency (EE), renewable energy (RE) and fuel switching. Of the approved project design documents (PDDs) energy efficiency, renewable energy and fuel switching projects are only responsible for 31% of the potential annual emission reductions. When projects approved and in those in the pipeline are added 77% of all potential emissions reductions are in fuel switching, with a further 9% in RE and EE.

Based on existing developments therefore, investments in especially fuel switching projects may stimulate CDM, if these are approved by the CDM Executive board. These large fuel switching projects are still in the Project Idea Note (PIN) phase and it will take time before developed into a PDD and approved by the CDM Executive Board.

The CDM infrastructure is also geared towards other regions. According to the UNFCCC, Africa still accounts for only 2.64% of all CDM projects worldwide. Measured on the amount of certified emissions credits issued, China dominates, followed by India and South Korea.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

All you know and want to know about Kenya

Do you want to know what is going on in Kenya? Are you experiencing what is happening in Kenya?

If thsi is the case, go to Ushahidi. Ushahidi means witness. It has documented change in Kenya for a few weeks now and discussed on other blogs such as mikestopforth and boingboing.

This is a great site about a deep crisis.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Inequality and race

That South Africa counts among the most inequal societies in the world is well-known. To single out race 14 years after democracy as a factor that continues to define inequality is more contentious (see this article in It may have an impact, but there are certainly much larger forces at work that make the rich richer and the poor poorer.

Rising inequality is a worldwide phenomena.
Inequality is also rising in affluent countries such as the United States and in rapidly developing nations such as China.

For an excellent visual treatment of World development data see GapMinder. Here are some highlights on one of the presentations on World Income Distribution:

  • The richest 20% have 74% of income

  • The poorest 20% have 2% of income

  • In 2000, 1.2 billion people or 19% of world population lived on less then $1 per day

  • In 1970, 1.4 billion or 38% of world population lived on less then $1 per day.

  • In Africa, in 2000, 66% lived on less the $1 per day. This compares to 11% in 1970.
Inequality is persistent and entrenched in the way the world works at this stage. This does not exclude a focus on specific local issues, but does place it in larger context.

The blame for load shedding

An excellent piece from The article beautifully covers why we are where we are.

Taken a few steps further, it is the same old story: policy fails, markets do not have the space to respond to correct signals on resource scarcity, prices do not have the time to adjust gradually, this is followed by an abrupt shock to supply, expensive knee-jerk reactions follow, some heads roll (sometimes), and new sources of supply are bulldozed through any regulatory system there may be to mitigate the impacts. Next step: blame the EIA for delaying the roll-out of new power stations (sorry that has already happened). Next step: adjust environmental policies - preserving the environment is bad for growth. Stop environmental issues while we are back to basics. Just repeat the electricity-development link a few times. Show pictures of people reading at candle light.
Who can blame them?

Coal fired utilities delayed in US

53 coal-fired plants were canceled or delayed in 2007, according to Global Energy Decisions, a private consulting firm that tracks power plants for the Department of Energy, this according to an article by ENN.

Uncertainties relate to the cost of climate change, construction costs and transportation problems.

Would be very interesting to see what will start taking the blame if electricity prices start to rise substantially or load-shedding starts happening in the US.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Icelands rags to riches inspiration for Africa

A positive contribution from VoxEU on Africa's development prospects.

SA Inventions

South Africa keeps inventing. From Muti.

Cities, Complexity and Natural Resource Management

I am in Paris, attending a colloquium on Sustainable Urban Planning, hosted by the CNRS (Centre de la Recherche Scientifique). Our contribution, from Prof Mark Swilling and myself, focused on the use of mediated systems dynamics modeling to better understand the interrelationships and dynamics of natural resources, service delivery, municipal finances and ultimately key interventions with Cape Town’s development path. The argument is as follows: when systems become more complex, uncertainty becomes more acute and any attempt at top down planning and control more and more frustrating. When cities are viewed as complex systems, (and here) it does not matter so much what sustainable development means, but it does matter more and more what difference local interventions can make, while keeping an eye on the results of an emerging city system. This presupposes that individuals or well-organised local groups are empowered to anticipate and adapt to changing situations, that pragmatic choices must be possible, and that actors are free to adapt to a rapidly changing city. Such empowered individuals and groups can play an active role in changing the City towards a more sustainable use of natural resources as demonstrated by several experimental projects.

The City of Cape Town is increasingly faced with ecological thresholds and technological abilities to keep circumventing these thresholds. At the same time a policy of expanding free services to everyone are placing enormous strain on the municipal finances of the city and has led to cross-subsidies between services and increasing backlogs on capital infrastructure and maintenance of existing service infrastructure. The trouble is that due to a history marked by apartheid and associated spatial disconnect, existing services were mainly concentrated in relatively affluent areas. Things have changed a lot though in the last 10 years after democracy, but the reality of a crisis in the continued sustainable provision of services has started to bite. It is time to use the opportunity in the crisis.

Then we hit the other side of the coin. After all, we are attending a colloquium on urban planning. The word itself suggests that cities can be moulded and shaped according to a preconceived idea/science/approach of how cities should look like. The argument goes like this: We have this and that problem. What can be done about it? What can we do about it? (of course…given all our expertise on the situation). Crises situations are used to motivate for tighter control and prescriptive top-down planning. This argument is then used to call for a stronger state and top down planning functions, for property to be detached from private ownership (so that this can be reconverted to some kind of public good), for less participation (because experts know and do not need to be informed by local choice), and for a focus on power relationships rather then millions and millions of economic transactions based on individual choice.

In a country like South Africa one can understand this reaction. Economic growth does not deliver jobs fast enough. Inequality is rising. Poverty remains persistent. Environmental degradation is continuing. Biodiversity hotspots are threatened. CO2 emissions are notoriously high. We need strong intervention to steer the economy, to plan cities…

The kind of intervention is what matters. We need intervention that steers towards better decisions. All Cape Towns’ 3.2 million residents should be empowered to help the City achieve a more sustainable future in an ever changing and increasingly connected world.

A singular focus on top-down planning will not prepare us well for an increasingly globalised and connected world. Key decisions on Cape Town’s future are taken in The White House, Teheran, and in the meeting rooms of European agricultural negotiators.

Where does that leave issues of city leadership and good governance under such emerging uncertainties? Leadership means to empower people to respond to their immediate situation. It is first of all a modest acknowledgment that the world is complex and many issues are just uncontrollable. City dwellers should be partners rather then subjects. This can be achieved through building local resilience; the ability to adapt. The old Greek philosophical idea that cities are the beacon of stability in a threatening world is dead. Cities are getting connected, they participate in world economies, they compete for investments, while they are threatened by climate change, pollution and a lack of affordable natural resources. The City doors cannot be closed anymore, even if we wanted to. City managers cannot comprehend or second guess what will happen in future, but they can build scenarios, simulate possible futures and be adaptable when needed.

This does not relieve them of their responsibility to govern though. They have to be smart by not creating structures that will break in the face of change, by providing safety nets for excluded third parties (a harsh reality of this world) and by providing inspiring leadership that embraces novelty in a changing world. With a changing world the key words are moving from ‘high-level’, ‘prediction’, ‘technocratic planning’, ‘knowability’ and ‘control’ to ‘local level’, ‘adaptation’, ‘participative planning’, ‘unknowns’ and ‘empowerment’.

Wisdom is to find an appropriate balance within the context of each and every situation. It is for sure that the Sustainable Urban Planning community is actively debating the strength and weaknesses of their approaches in a changing world.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

New casualities of the electricity crises

South Africa's electricity supply crises starts affecting its electricity dependent neighbours. Does not really bode well for plans on regional integration.

Read story in thetimes.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Reducing GHG at a net benefit?

Intially referred to on Common Tragedies blog; according to a study done by McKinsey 'Reducing Greenhouse Gas Emissions: How Much and at What Cost?' there are several opportunities in the US to reduce greenhouse gases at a negative cost.

Here is the abatement cost curve:

Interesting that many options are available at a negative cost.

The study admits that it did not account for consumer lifestyle changes, transaction costs and high discount rates. Key issues.

Behaviour should be taken seriously. I think that is something social scientists have argued for a few decades.

WANTED: US leadership on climate change

At a round table on climate change in Kirstenbosch, Cape Town, Minister van Schalkwyk, South African minister of Department Environmental Affairs and Tourism, called for the US to move beyond a mere commitment to join negotiations to one of providing leadership.

Mail and Guardian online reports.

Friday, January 18, 2008

Cellphone revolution in Africa

Cellphones have very rapidly become the mode of connectivity in Africa.
The amount of impressions rivals that of Western Europe.

Read the full story on bizcommunity.

Local Electricity Development

Generate your own electricity and sell to Eskom. Less grid, more independence.
Will it come with more reliability? At what price?

Read this contribution from Muti.

Coal reserves less then thought

It is commonly argued that coal reserves are sufficient for another 200-250 years.

A new study argues that, like oil, coal production will peak around 2025. This has important implications for planning of a renewable energy society, and of course, important implications for coal producers investing in long-term projects.

Read the full story on Scitizen.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Cellphones save $300/hectare in irrigation costs

Connectivity saves money for sugar cane small-scale irrigation farmers in South Africa. Cellphones keep farmers up to date on when to irrigate their crops.

Initially posted on the African Agriculture blog.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Does rising inequality lead to higher demand for redistribution?

No, well at least not in the UK. This is the finding of a new study on inequality and redistribution. For a full report see this piece on VoxEU.

This is contra the expectation of the standard median-voter theory that rising inequality should produce more redistribution.

This article touches on the all-important question on how belief systems change over time. The study concludes: One way to summarise this conclusion is that what people believe is as important as the objective economic circumstances in explaining people’s attitudes to political issues like redistribution. And these beliefs can change fast. Such a conclusion is perhaps only a potential surprise to economists as it simply says that politics is a battle for ‘hearts and minds’.

The study does identify the question where those beliefs come from for further research.

Just a thought. In an increasingly postmodern and interconnected world belief systems tend to become more individualistic, flexible and forever changing. Established traditional relationships continue to break down in a world where beliefs are constantly challenged and changed through the free flow of information.

Another thought. In a discussion on the median voter model in the Encyclopedia of Public Choice the following was concluded: general, the median voter model appears to be quite robust as a model of public policy formation in areas where the median voter can credibly be thought to understand and care about public policy.

Maybe voters (in the UK) just do not understand or care about redistribution anymore.

Cellphones improve lives in Senegal

Another story on how cellphones change lives in Africa, from an article on the Popular Science blog.

Google Earth and Environmental Communication

Popular Science has just released an overlay on Google Earth and their special issue on the Future of the Environment. It covers topics such as irrigation water withdrawal, glacial retreat, coral reef damages etc.

Well worth a visit.

Collective wisdom

Since James Surowiecki published his book The Wisdom of Crowds activities and sites focussed on the idea of collective wisdom have mushroomed.

Here a few links on pratical sites on collective wisdom:

There are times when crowds can get it all wrong; key criteria that separate wise crowds from irrational ones are:
  • Diversity of opinion. Each person should have private information even if it's just an eccentric interpretation of the known facts.

  • Independence. People's opinions aren't determined by the opinions of those around them.

  • Decentralization. People are able to specialize and draw on local knowledge.

  • Aggregation. Some mechanism exists for turning private judgments into a collective decision.

Certainly an idea to let Africans speak on their own development needs. With mobile phones and the Internet, diversity, independence and decentralised inputs should not be so much of a (conceptual) problem.

It seems as if the trick will be to find a reasonable way of aggregation.

Global Economic Prospects 2008

The Global Economic Prospects 2008 report was released. It raises important issues on technological advancement and diffusion, highlighting the fact that developing countries remain very dependent on technology from high income countries although there are some indications that the gap is closing somewhat. Specific government interventions on R&D, science and innovation in developing nations remain important policy options.

The report highlights some policy directions:

1. Open trade and investment policies helps with exposure to technologies but does not automatically facilitate absorption. A focus on the development of human capital and an appropriate regulatory environment remains key.

2. Many older types of technology are complementary to infrastructure. Goverments remain responsible that publicly supplied technologies are widely available, are reliable and economically.

3. The dissemination of technology throughout a country deserves attention. Technology tends to remain in major centres and top-performing firms.

4. Direct intervention in diffusion of technology and innovation, but following East Asian success stories, only under strong performance and monitoring rules.

General highlights of the report:

- Global economic growth is expected to moderate to 3.3%.

- There is a serious downside risk that external demand for developing country products and commodity prices could decline if the US moves into a recession

- There is also a risk that monetar authorities overreact by stimulating the economy, resulting in overinvestment in mainly rapidly growing developing economies.

- A weaker dollar would hurt those with dollar-based assets and exporters

- Developing countries with large current account deficits, pegged exchange rates and rising inflation are particularly vulnerable to sudden adjustments in financial markets.

Highlights on the special topic of the report - technology and its diffusion:

- Most developing countries lack the ability to generate innovations at the technological frontier.

- Developing country innovators work in high-income countries. Forexample, 2.5 million of the
21.6 million scientists and engineers working in the United States were born in developing countries.

- Technological achievement is converging rapidly, but the gap remains large. This has been achieved on a sustained policy of increased openness to foreign trade and foreign direct investment (FDI), plus increased investments in human capital, have contributed to substantial improvements in technological achievement in developing countries over the past 15 years

- Macroeconomic stability and educational policies improved absorption of technologies.

- Progress in improving the business climate and governance indicators has been much more mixed. As a result, technological absorptive capacity has advanced much less quickly than technological achievement.

Jabenzi: Bring back the joy of work (in Africa)

Jabenzi, a new start-up company in Africa has its own website.

According to one of the directors, Prof James Blignaut, Jabenzi is derived from two Zulu words namely Jabula (meaning joy) and Umsebenzi (meaning work). [T]he purpose of Jabenzi is to bring back the joy of work and the joy of being able to have work.

The objectives of Jabenzi are to:
Make a contribution towards the restoration of the natural capital base of the focus area through the improvement and expansion of the environmental and conservation initiatives;
Make a contribution towards ensuring food, water, and energy security;
Make a contribution towards the improvement and expansion of the infrastructure network (roads, telecommunication, energy and water and sanitation) across the focus area;
Make a contribution towards the development of the respective countries in the focus area by supporting their prevailing development initiatives;
Make a contribution towards poverty eradication in the area through its various projects and programmes; and
Make a contribution towards restoring the social fibre among the communities in which it operates by partnering with various community and conscious-based organisations in its various projects and programmes.

I wish this noble endeavour all the best. I must admit that I am not entirely neutral on this as Jabenzi has strong connections to ASSET Research Pty Ltd, and NGO I am also involved in, and Prof James Blignaut has been a close friend and mentor for many years.

A suggestion from us in the blogosphere; can an RSS feed be added on the website?

Will commodities go bust in 2008?

A US slowdown might just be the trigger that burst the commodity bubble according to an article Commodities Ready to Crack in Forbes.

Tipping Points in Socio-Ecological Systems

The idea of a tipping point was popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his book The Tipping Point. How Little Things can make a Big Difference.

Such tipping points also occur in socio-ecological systems. Such an Eco Tipping Point is a lever that reverses environmental decline, setting in motion restoration and sustainability.

The Resilience Alliance reports on its Eco Tipping Points study in its latest newsletter:

"Eco Tipping Points" have been coined by researchers and writers with The EcoTipping Points Project to describe regime shifts in social-ecological systems from trending toward decline to sustainability. The EcoTipping Points website features approximately 100 environmental success stories from around the world. In each of these examples a community-based catalyst is shown to trigger a shift from degradation or decline to restoration and sustainability. The Eco Tipping Points Project has a strong outreach component with several recent articles available from their website, as well as educational tools and links to background resources (including Resilience Thinking by Walker and Salt 2007) and sustainability organizations. Research on the project is now focused on working with scientists and community groups to create EcoTipping Points for their own situations.

Eco Tipping Points share many features in common with thresholds in social-ecological systems including an underlying premise that humans and the environment are coupled systems that behave in complex and dynamic ways. Improving our understanding of how tipping points or thresholds work and harnessing this knowledge to change toward more sustainable trajectories is an active and complementary area of research for The EcoTipping Points Project and the RA.

The eco tipping point website also features a list of six projects in Africa, half of them in South Africa.

Jared Diamond on consumption

Can't resist posting this link to an oldish piece (still in 2008 though) from Jared Diamond in the New York Times on the differences in consumption levels in the rich and poor worlds.

Tuesday, January 1, 2008

Three months of blogging

It is time to take stock. What has 3 months of blogging achieved? Has this experiment worked? Is it worthwhile to continue? If it is, how should this be done in future?

These questions can only be answered with the objective with which the blog was started in mind. The first and foremost objective was to input into a larger research programme on Africa’s development challenge. The structured and public nature of (almost) daily blogging was anticipated to keep searching for relevant issues pertinent to the problem. Admittedly, the chosen field is broad and interdisciplinary. There are no silver bullets, development remains a nebulous concept. The daily interaction with the topic, in its many facets, however did focus the mind. Research is mostly about asking the right questions. One need to keep nurturing this baby, otherwise one could easily miss her crying.

Are we any closer to asking the right questions? Did the blog contribute to this process? The contributions on the blog were from two angles: Africa’s destruction, exploitation, poverty and misery as well as Africa’s growth, creativity and innovation. These are forces of disorder and chaos and forces of organization and complexity, also sometimes referred to as the two arrows of time. The First Arrow of Time refers to the tendency towards disorder, also summarized in the second law of thermodynamics or the bathtub theorem. The Second Arrow of Time reflects the tendency towards greater organization and complexity. Human ingenuity is needed to carve a relatively comfortable living into a world that is running down.

In Africa the interplay of these two opposing forces is particularly striking. Despite several years of economic growth, poverty remains a persistent character of African societies. Although the measurement of poverty is continued to be debated and it is not clear whether absolute poverty is in fact increasing or decreasing in certain countries, poverty, in all its dimensions, remains a persistent problem rooted in African soil. The same applies for issues related to human health, such as HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and less well-known health problems such as blindness. Poor and sick people cannot really develop, as is the case with poor and sick countries.

Another worldwide problem that is emerging in an increasingly globalised world is inequality. Many African countries are very unequal in terms of income, but inequality is also rising rapidly in other developing nations such as China and even in developed nations such as the US. This raises questions on the distribution of the gains from several years of economic growth and globalised trade. It may be a bit of a broad assumption, but it seems as if most gains were created from improvements in productivity. Where are these gains flowing? Are these gains captured mostly by the owners of capital? The commodity boom brought sustained economic growth to many African countries, but once again raises a question on the speed of diversification of these economies. Purchasing power in African countries that export oil and other commodities to other energy and resource hungry nations have increased substantially in recent years. The same holds for inequality. The concentration of surplus in a few institutions in the energy and resource sectors does not facilitate a broad-based and inclusive development path. Resource curse, again? Will it be any different this time with China as partner?

One can eat and still be very unequally endowed. It is well documented that people are highly sensitive to what others posses. Developing countries will continue to face the perils of relative deprivation. How will African countries be able to withstand the growing gap between the relatively richer and poorer?

Africa’s natural environment is also under pressure from a changing climate. Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the most vulnerable regions in the world, while contributing the least to harmful greenhouse gases. South Africa, with its coal-fired power stations is the notable exception, although South Africa’s share of total current worldwide greenhouse gas emissions is only between 1% and 2%. Future growth in greenhouse emissions will happen in other large developing nations such as China and India. Africans have little choice but to adapt. It is a key question how resilient African societies, especially subsistence and dryland farmers, are and will be to climatic changes. Not only agricultural systems, but also natural systems, supporting Africa’s highly prized nature-based tourism, are vulnerable. It is expected that freshwater resources will become even scarcer. It is also a key question whether such climate changes will be gradual, leaving more time to adapt, or more catastrophic, with little time to adapt.

How do African decision makers respond to these system-wide risks such as poverty, inequality, a resource curse and climate change? These are hardly new questions, but it is less common to analyse and respond to these threats in a coherent response. The reinforcing feedback loops of these forces of destruction might trigger the collapse of certain systems in certain places. Africans that are poor will remain vulnerable to any system shock, whether disease, crop failure, the collapse of nature-based tourism and climatic change. A focus on strengthening the socio-economic resilience of African societies and communities is a fundamental response to these risks. It is not a case of attempting to predict the worst impacts and have custom-made responses. The key question is how resilient societies can develop that are able to deal with these and other shocks.

The blog also departed on the thesis that Africa’s challenges create a context for creativity and innovation. This is more then just an automatic by-product of resource-based growth. One of the recent success stories is the dizzying speed at which mobile phones are rolled-out in Africa. Africa is getting connected – bankers and savers, farmers and consumers, farmers and meteorologists, sick people and doctors, exporters and importers. This addresses one of the reasons why markets generally fail, namely the lack of information. With a far slower penetration rate of PCs and internet access, mobile phone innovation calls. Africa needs cheap, robust, and easily understandable mobile phones that can perform the functions of a small PC.

What are the benefits of Africa’s connectivity? Can it be further enhanced to act as a force for inclusiveness and resilience?

Another important question is how the process of innovation in Africa is working and how this can be further supported. People forced with the harsh world of survival often come up with very ingenious ideas. African innovators. Where are they? What do they do? What can we learn from them?

One concluding thought. Africa is well-known for its concept of African time. Tomorrow is another day. This frustrates those living on deadlines, alarm clocks and synchronised business deals. There is another side though. Lived time is different from clock time James Gleick wrote in his book Faster.

The human body needs rest. Real rest. Not the hurry-up-and-wait package-tour-tourism-style-rest. Maybe Africa can offer something to a faster, wealthier, but less happy and more stressed-out world: Some insight into lived time. African well-being - anyone?

On this note, I will continue to keep a weblog, but first need some rest. Hope to be posting again 15 January.

I wish you all a wonderful 2008.