Category Archives: Africa

The New Science of Feeding the World

More good commentary and resources to read from Bill Gates, who is for sure my favorite philanthropist:

While traveling last week to Antarctica, I had a chance to read a book recommended by our foundation’s agricultural development group, Tomorrow’s Table: Organic Farming, Genetics, and the Future of Food by Pamela Ronald and Raoul Adamchak.

This is an important book for anyone who wants to learn about the science of seeds and the challenges faced by farmers. It’s only 167 pages, and includes personal stories that give you a sense of the authors as people and how strongly they feel about farming, food and the environment. I think anyone who reads this book will be convinced of the authors’ sincerity and intelligence – even if, like me, you never try any of the cool-sounding recipes.

Whenever I read about farming, I’m reminded how tough it is. Between the weather, weeds, viruses, insects and other pests, farming is a constant struggle, always posing new challenges. A city boy like me can think of it as putting a seed in the ground and waiting for nice stuff to grow. Wrong.

(…) I wish Tomorrow’s Table discussed the problem of underinvestment in agricultural research. But the authors’ personal involvement in what they do write about gives the book a note of deep sincerity. That may help get people who are skeptical or confused about new science, including biotechnology, to see that it has an important role to play.

China Hearts Africa: Beijing Does Deals, Not Gifts

Thanks to Paul Kedrosky for this gem:

Good piece in Time (sic.) on China’s expanding love affair with Africa:

The ambition, speed and scale of Chinese involvement in Africa is extraordinary. According to Chris Alden, author of China in Africa, two-way trade stood at $10 billion in 2000. By 2006, it was $55 billion, and in 2009 it hit $90 billion, making China Africa’s single largest trading partner, supplanting the U.S., which did $86 billion in trade with Africa in 2009.

… Beijing doesn’t do gifts; it does deals. In Congo, China’s infrastructure-for-mines deal irked the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The Fund argued that Congo’s guarantee to China that it would recoup at least $3 billion in minerals was an IOU on Congo’s national assets and therefore a new debt. That fell afoul of debt-write-off conditions, which require that the debtor take on no new loans. “If the Congolese take the Chinese deal,” said a Western official familiar with the negotiations in mid-2009, “they will not get any more [Western] support.” A standoff ensued. An earlier deal, in 2007 with Angola, also outraged the IMF. It had been negotiating a new loan with Angola for years, with carefully calibrated conditions to block corruption and alleviate poverty. By paying Luanda $5 billion in return for oil concessions and infrastructure contracts, China effectively made the IMF redundant. [Emphasis mine]

Attention Whole Foods Shoppers

Organic farming is less econ-friendly than you think, and conventional farming is more so.

Robert Paarlberg, author of Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa and The Politics of Precaution, has a “don’t miss” essay Attention Whole Foods Shoppers in the June 2010 Foreign Affairs. The following reviews of Starved for Science give the gist of the FP article (which could be very crudely abbreviated to “Greenpeace succeeds in keeping Africa poor and hungry”):

Condoning the cultivation of genetically modified crops for food is not, Robert Paarlberg concedes, likely to win him friends in academic circles…But in this timely book, Paarlberg, a political scientist, makes a strong argument: Europeans, who have so much food they do not need the help of science to make more, are pushing their prejudices on Africa, which still relies on foreign aid to feed its people. He calls on global policymakers to renew investment in agricultural science and to stop imposing visions of “organic food purity” on a continent that has never had a green revolution. As governments look for ways of tackling what is now commonly called a “global food crisis” with unprecedented price increases in basic foodstuffs, this book offers welcome food for thought.

–Jenny Wiggins (Financial Times 20080627)

Except for South Africa, no African state has legalized the planting of GMOs for production and consumption. While citizens of rich countries have the luxury of deciding what kinds of foods–organic, nonorganic, GMO, non-GMO–to eat, droughts and insect infestations continue to wipe out crops, and rural African children die because they have no choices. Bringing another perspective to the GMO debate [is] Paarlberg’s provocative argument.

–Joshua Lambert (Library Journal 20080501)

[An] illuminating book on the state of science and agriculture in Africa…[It] has much of merit.

–Jules Pretty (Times Higher Education Supplement )

[This] book ends with an alternative perspective on globalization that will inspire open-minded skeptics to rethink the matter…[Paarlberg is] a pragmatic believer in separating babies from bathwater. The fact that current applications of GM technology primarily benefit a handful of corporations does not deter Paarlberg from envisioning a scenario in which nonprofits and private African corporations might employ GM technology to serve the increasingly dire needs of African farmers…An insightful book that deftly balances the benefits and drawbacks of globalization, all within parameters conforming to the real world, the one in which we live…A clarion call for corporations and NGOs alike to revisit issues that have been ideologically polarized rather than rationally examined.

–James E. McWilliams (Texas Observer )

From the FP essay:

(…) In Europe and the United States, a new line of thinking has emerged in elite circles that opposes bringing improved seeds and fertilizers to traditional farmers and opposes linking those farmers more closely to international markets. Influential food writers, advocates, and celebrity restaurant owners are repeating the mantra that “sustainable food” in the future must be organic, local, and slow. But guess what: Rural Africa already has such a system, and it doesn’t work. Few smallholder farmers in Africa use any synthetic chemicals, so their food is de facto organic. High transportation costs force them to purchase and sell almost all of their food locally. And food preparation is painfully slow. The result is nothing to celebrate: average income levels of only $1 a day and a one-in-three chance of being malnourished.

If we are going to get serious about solving global hunger, we need to de-romanticize our view of preindustrial food and farming. And that means learning to appreciate the modern, science-intensive, and highly capitalized agricultural system we’ve developed in the West. Without it, our food would be more expensive and less safe. In other words, a lot like the hunger-plagued rest of the world.

Deborah Brautigam on Sino-African Development Partnerships

If you have been wondering about China’s expanding role in Africa, read this:

In Africa’s Eastern Promise, a recent article in Foreign Affairs, Deborah Brautigam writes of the two-part development strategy that China pursues with a select number of partner countries in Africa. The strategy consists of loans backed by natural resources and special economic zones—ideas that come directly from China’s development experience at home.

China Eximbank issues market-rate loans that finance infrastructure projects such as roads, railways, hydropower, schools, water systems, and hospitals in Africa. Borrowers repay the loans with natural resources—oil in countries like Angola, Nigeria, and the Republic of the Congo, cocoa beans in Ghana, and copper in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. More often than not, Chinese firms receive the infrastructure contracts, but the agreements typically contain provisions that specify a competitive bid process and a degree of subcontracting to local firms.

China also partnered with Nigeria, Mauritius, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Egypt to build special economic zones (SEZs) oriented toward the type of light-manufacturing that drove Chinese growth in the recent past. In most cases, the Chinese agencies with experience building China’s own SEZs advise the development of the new zones in Africa. The zones will allow African “countries to improve poor infrastructure, inadequate services, and weak institutions by focusing efforts on a limited geographical area.” With the new zones, China appears have learned some lessons from its past development failures in Africa:

“For decades, Chinese teams in Africa constructed agricultural projects or built factories only to turn them over to inexperienced and sometimes uninterested host governments. Once the Chinese left, the benefits of the projects declined, prompting the host governments to ask the Chinese to return. Now, Chinese companies are taking responsibility for both designing and building the zones and then managing them as businesses.”

Though the prospect of China partnering with authoritarian regimes in Africa may seem disconcerting at first, Brautigam calls on Westerners to be open-minded about China’s initiatives in Africa. Indeed, rich Western countries might do well to follow China’s lead. Where traditional aid programs have failed, forging partnerships with African leaders and establishing special zones could be a more effective way for the West to promote development and respect for human rights.

Brautigam’s latest book, The Dragon’s Gift: The Real Story of China in Africa, treats the development relationship between China and Africa in greater detail.

[From Deborah Brautigam on Sino-African Development Partnerships]

Rwanda the global top reformer

This is very good news for Rwanda

Rwanda tops the World Bank’s list of reformers in their annual “Doing Business Report”, which measures the ease of opening and closing businesses, enforcing contracts, trading across borders and other key benckmarks used by investors to evaluate location choices. The sub-Saharan country vaulted to the 67th from the 143rd rank in the report, ahead of India, Italy and Turkey. The index ranks 183 participants.

Rwanda improved regulations that eased access to credit, simplified business formation, strengthened minority-shareholder protections and sped up trade and property registration, according the report.

This is good news for President Kagame before speaking at the U.S. Africa Business Summit early next month to attract further investment. Good news also for the country’s effort to shift from a high-dependency on foreign aid to job creation and economic development fuelled by private international capital. This effort has faced serious challenges over the past months with multimillion dollar tourism projects of Dubai World scaled down. This rolling back of private investment in the wake of the global recession hit several African economies hard, the New York Times reported last month.

Armed with the World Bank’s ‘Best Reformer” label and aided by signs of global recovery, President Kagame is likely to return from the U.S. with more ambitious investment projects for the growing East African country.

Malaria: Root Causes of African Underdevelopment

Here is another case of confirmation bias — at least it confirms my bias on malaria and economic development. Sambit Bhattacharyya at The Australian National University has a new paper forthcoming in the Journal of African Economies [PDF]. From the Abstract:

What are the root causes of Africa’s current state of under-development? Is it the long history of slave trade, or the legacy of extractive colonial institutions, or the fallout of malaria? We investigate the relative contributions of these factors using Atlantic distance, Indian Ocean distance, Saharan distance, Red Sea distance, log settler mortality, and malaria ecology as instruments. The results show that malaria matters the most and all other factors are statistically insignificant. Malaria also negatively affects savings. The results are robust even when the malaria ecology instrument is replaced by frost, humidity, and rainfall and when the latter are used as additional control variables. We find that frost alone is enough to knock off the effects of slave trade and institutions on long term development in Africa.

From the Introduction:

It is well known that Africa is falling behind the rest of the world in terms of economic wellbeing. Even though global poverty is on the decline due to rapid economic growth in India, China, and other parts of the world, Africa’s contribution to this decline is disappointing. Absolute poverty in many of the African nations is in fact rising (Sachs, 2005). What is the fundamental cause behind this decline? This has been a topic of research for a few decades now. Even though it is extremely difficult to summarize this voluminous literature, it is perhaps fair to say that three strands of thoughts stand out. The first is the disease view. According to this view, malaria and other infectious diseases have fatal as well as debilitating effects on the human population in Africa. It negatively influences productivity, savings, and investments in physical and human capital and directly affects economic performance of the continent (Gallup and Sachs 2001; Bloom and Sachs 1998). According to Bloom and Sachs (1998), the high incidence of malaria in sub-Saharan Africa reduces the annual growth rate of the continent by 1.3 percentage points a year and eradication of malaria in the 1950s would have resulted into a doubling of per capita income.

Advice for the Generous

Really excellent advice:

A reader asks for recommendations about worthy charities:

Dear Dr. Mankiw,

As I draft my extensive Christmas list of unneeded items, my conscience calls me to add a favorite charity or two, which my family members could consider gifting in my name.

Still, I know that not all charities are as efficient (or proficient) at their giving. For example, I remember reading (in Easterly’s White Man’s Burden, I think) that there have been many less-than-perfect results in distributing free bed-nets, arguing that they are optimally delivered subsidized rather than free. While I think bed-nets are a great avenue to donate to the world’s poor, there are many different organizations where someone can purchase them, and I, for one, have no idea who is the best at it.

Do you know any for market-friendly charitable-giving groups, who give bed-nets or anything else? If so, could you please post on your blog? (I think many students and other young people are interested in giving to national and international organizations but know little about how the money flows to the people.)

I hope my request isn’t too vague. Happy Holidays!


I doubted that I knew enough about the topic to offer a good answer, so I passed the question on to my Harvard colleague, development economist Michael Kremer. Here is his reply:

Dear Greg,

Sure, I would be happy to make some recommendations.

If readers want to donate for nets, one good organization I have supported in the past is here. TamTam provides nets free at clinics. Personally I think this approach makes sense because charging dramatically reduces use, free distribution can help encourage mothers to come to antenatal clinics, and, like vaccines, insecticide treated nets can help interfere with disease transmission creating positive externalities. For some evidence on the first issue, see this paper.

One of the best buys out there is treating kids for worms. Two billion people have intestinal worms worldwide, including 400 million school-children. The medicine costs pennies per dose. Because the medicine is cheap and safe, but diagnosis is expensive, the World Health Organization recommends mass treatment in schools in areas of high prevalence, which can keep total costs per treated child to $0.25.

Treatment not only has medical benefits but helps kids stay in school longer. Ted Miguel and I estimate benefit/cost ratios of more than twenty to one in Kenya. Hoyt Bleakley estimates that the Rockefeller Foundation’s deworming campaign in the US South in the early twentieth century added two years to average education in affected areas and that worms accounted for 20% of the income gap between the US North and South at the time.

Based on the evidence, several economists, including Esther Duflo, Kristin Forbes,and me, are involved in, and have donated to, a new group called Deworm the World. Information is available here. There is a donate button which explains how people can give.

Deworm the World will soon be a tax exempt 501(c)3 organization, but not before either the holidays or the end of the tax year. If readers are from the US and want a tax deduction, they can support Save the Children’s school health efforts by clicking on the link above and going to the donate box, or if they want to more directly help Deworm the World, they can donate to Innovations for Poverty Action by going to this link and noting that the donation is for Deworm the World in the comment box.

Thanks for writing,


Thanks to Chris for asking the question and to Michael for answering it. I hope this information helps direct some charitable giving in the right direction.

Power to the People or Power from the People?

This short piece is highly recommended:

In early 2008, announced its initiatives to the world and made clear how the company would leverage its people, money, and creativity to address some of the world’s most pressing and difficult problems. Among them were climate change/renewable energy, global poverty, and emerging threats.

In Africa, one of our initiatives is focused on leveraging the power of information (or the right to know) to increase transparency, accountability, and ultimately the delivery and quality of public services. “You can’t change what you can’t see” is one of our mantras, and our job is to shine light in dark places and help people decipher the black box of public service delivery. What is working? What is not? What options are available to people to plug holes in a leaky pipeline of service delivery?

Much of the initiative is about unlocking quasi-public information. One of my colleagues calls it DBHD (database hugging disorder). Why is so much “public” information not accessible (ie government budgets, service level indicators, population data) and sitting on servers in London, New York, and Geneva but not accessible to citizens, media, and even planners in Africa countries? This clearly needs to change.

What is less intuitive, however, is that there is so much information, knowledge, and wisdom within Africa that is not making its way to politicians, planners, and policy makers who make decisions about Africa. We often hear that teachers, nurses, and civil servants do not show-up for work across the continent and this is a primary contributor to the poor quality of public services. Do we bother asking why absenteeism is such a problem? Ask teachers, nurses, or administrators and they will tell you. For example, since Universal Primary Education (UPE) was adopted in many African countries more than a decade ago, classroom sizes have doubled if not tripled while teacher salaries, instructional materials, and training have hardly changed at all. Government dispensaries are rarely stocked with medications that people come to purchase so why bother staffing clinics?


Is It Africa's Turn?

…Yet a look at the raw data on foreign aid across regions and time suggests that aid has probably played a rather small role in Africa’s recent economic success.

The first instructive comparison is Africa versus the world’s two other poor giants, China and India, both of which were at African per capita income levels in the 1970s. It is striking how high foreign aid to Africa currently is in per capita terms: overseas development assistance is a full order of magnitude higher in Africa than in China or India, as it was during the critical 1980-2000 period when those Asian countries moved forward economically and Africa declined. There is no doubt that foreign aid is not necessary for economic development. — Edward Miguel

Boston Review has published a resource-rich forum on progress in Africa. The forum was organized and led by UC Berkeley economist Edward Miguel.

“When I visited last June, the city was experiencing an economic renaissance. Busia’s first supermarkets, ATMs, Internet cafés and car rental businesses were all open, and residential suburbs had formed on the edge of town. . . Yet, barely a decade ago, poverty and desperation were pervasive there, as in all of western Kenya.”

Following Miguel’s essay are responses by Robert Bates, Ken Banks, Olu Ajakaiye , Rosamond Naylor, David N. Weil, Jeremy M. Weinstein, Smita Singh, Paul Collier, and Rachel Glennerster — and a final response by Miguel. Of the group, I’m most familiar with reliable source Paul Collier, Oxford University author of “The Bottom Billion”. You can find Paul’s essay here.

“There is a process at work that does not depend on democracy and is so simple that analysts generally miss it: learning from mistakes.”

Highly recommended.

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Starved for Science: How Biotechnology Is Being Kept Out of Africa

Heading upcountry in Africa to visit small farms is absolutely exhilarating given the dramatic beauty of big skies, red soil, and arid vistas, but eventually the two-lane tarmac narrows to rutted dirt, and the journey must continue on foot. The farmers you eventually meet are mostly women, hardworking but visibly poor. They have no improved seeds, no chemical fertilizers, no irrigation, and with their meager crops they earn less than a dollar a day. Many are malnourished.

Nearly two-thirds of Africans are employed in agriculture, yet on a per-capita basis they produce roughly 20 percent less than they did in 1970. Although modern agricultural science was the key to reducing rural poverty in Asia, modern farm science—including biotechnology—has recently been kept out of Africa.

In Starved for Science Robert Paarlberg explains why poor African farmers are denied access to productive technologies, particularly genetically engineered seeds with improved resistance to insects and drought. He traces this obstacle to the current opposition to farm science in prosperous countries. Having embraced agricultural science to become well-fed themselves, those in wealthy countries are now instructing Africans—on the most dubious grounds—not to do the same.

In a book sure to generate intense debate, Paarlberg details how this cultural turn against agricultural science among affluent societies is now being exported, inappropriately, to Africa. Those who are opposed to the use of agricultural technologies are telling African farmers that, in effect, it would be just as well for them to remain poor.

Thanks to Tyler Cowen for the recommendation.