28 February 2008

Kenya back from the brink?

I'm listening to the BBC World Service as details of a political settlement in Kenya are emerging. If it's true, it sounds like a momentous agreement:
- An executive prime minister, appointed by parliament not the president
- A 50-50 split of cabinet ministers between Kibaki and Odinga supporters
- Best of all, an end to violence, if each side calls off their respective armed thugs

Having taken a Harvard course in 'Negotiations', I'm fascinated by the brinkmanship that led to this agreement, but I shudder at its human cost. If such an agreement had been made last month, over a thousand lives could have been saved. But then again, if the opposition had just let Kibaki get away with rigging the election, they wouldn't have got the agreement in the first place. Is this deal the beginning of a better Kenya? Or is this a flawed agreement, an old-fashioned division of spoils, power-sharing just a cover for business as usual?

For insight, I turn to two deeply committed, thoughtful friends. Wangari Kebuchi is a fellow student, a Kenyan in the USA. Jon Yates is a former colleague, a Brit working in Kenya for the Acumen Fund. Their witty comments are spiked with anger, but also optimism. Let's hope the putative agreement and its implementation justify it.

21 February 2008

Bush and Butt Naked

President Bush spent a few hours in the Lone Star State this morning - Liberia, that is, not Texas. Strictly speaking, the founding of Texas in 1842 predates Liberia by six years, but as we say in economics, that's not a statistically significant difference.

As usual with world leaders on tour, President Bush had an entourage of hacks a little less hard-bitten from the usual khaki-clad Africa reporter. Kevin Corke from NBC News was especially shocked at the state of the infrastructure. Fortunately, my friend Conor Hartman (a Scott fellow, working for the Liberian government) was on hand to give him some perspective! After all, the World Bank did just spend $27m fixing that same road.

The New York Times has a long and thoughtful article on Bush's trip; it perceives the 'strong but largely one-way emotional bound' that links the USA and Liberia. I wonder, however, why it is still necessary to prefix all such articles with references to General Butt Naked, President Charles Taylor or child rape. I don't mean to downplay the horror of the Liberian civil war, or the challenges of recovery, but I long for the day when the good news goes in the first paragraph and the challenges in the second.

Having said that, when Bush visited Rwanda earlier this week, every report described it as 'genocide-scarred' or 'post-genocidal', which suggests the Liberians have at least another decade to wait before General Butt Naked is out of the news!

20 February 2008

New Rice for Africa

Last week, I presented some of my work on agriculture in Liberia to classmates in the MPAID program. It's always nice to have a sympathetic audience, but there was some friendly criticism as well - not least, of my main suggestion that the fastest way to grow more rice is to provide traditional shifting cultivators with better seeds, rather than invest in rice swamps, irrigation and fertiliser. I cited Guinea as a country that has done so with some success, provoking some bewildered looks from my friends, since Guinea is still one of the world's poorest countries.

Imagine my surprise, then, to find that today's New York Times has a photo series celebrating rice cultivation in Guinea! Cultivating the 'New Rice for Africa' has, it seems, enabled villagers to grow 50% more rice without fertiliser and up to twice as much with it. Yet sadly, these wonder seeds (which are off-patent and non-hybrid, meaning farmers can keep some of their harvest for planting) are only being planted by 200,000 farmers in West Africa. This article tells you why. No surprises: it's roads, input supply chains and output marketing . . . again.

09 February 2008

Back in Liberia: roads revisited

I've just got back from another trip to Liberia, this time to do some research on the Poverty Reduction Strategy and the government's policy for agriculture. It was great fun catching up with friends and seeing the progress that is being made - as well as enjoy the hot, sunny weather, which we didn't see much of last summer!

The international airport is still a little ramshackle (though it's also the friendliest airport I know!), but the visitor experience has improved a lot, thanks to a new hotel in Mamba Point and the resurfacing of Tubman Boulevard in Monrovia. The Chinese-Liberian crews were working hard to finish this when I visited, in order to impress visiting dignitaries like World Bank President Robert Zoellick, who spent two days there last week. The road will speed up the journey into town for the thousands of commuters who pile into little share-taxis that crawl gingerly around potholes while the UN classes LandCruise past them.

But with a bill of $27m for just ten miles of road, is this really the best use of money? Of course, it's donors' money, but instead of fancy machines like the one on the left, I wish I had seen more gangs digging ditches, grading dirt roads and relaying bridges in the rural areas. The paved roads from Monrovia to Buchanan and Ganta are clearly improving, but there's a big difference between cutting an hour off the 6-hour taxi ride to Ganta and actually connecting places like River Cess and Grand Kru counties to the capital. The fascinating Liberia Market Review (2007) suggests that only half the communities in the country have road access at all, and even fewer in the rainy season.

This matters for agricultural development, because research in Asia shows that villages with roads produce one-third more crops per head than villages without. It matters for public services, because education and health workers find it hard to visit these villages, let alone set up schools or dispensaries. (That you can find teachers and health posts in some of them anyway testifies to the ingenuity and dedication of entrepreneurs and NGOs). Rural development comes from turning little tracks into all-season roads with drainage ditches. $27m would dig a lot of ditches.

The people of Liberia know this better than any economist. When the government consulted the counties recently on its Poverty Reduction Strategy, people in every one of the 15 counties cited roads as their top priority. If you really want to pave roads, a few extra miles here or there would make a big difference - say, on the border between Liberia and Guinea, shown below. The paved road ends just 3 miles before the border. Now, if only the Guineans paved the road on their side too . . .