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.

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