Thursday, December 30, 2010

In the news

-review of Malawian education for 2010

And a cool poster of Malawian cichlids.


Taxes matter.

Taxes are boring right? Well this lecture about them is not. I've recently been interested in understanding how taxes effect economic and political development. This guy speaking at the University of Edinburgh's Centre for African Studies does a great job laying the foundations.


Warp Drive is back online!

Well its been a disgustingly stressful couple weeks but our Malawi adventure is back online. We'll be touching down in Blantyre on the 25th of next month.


Wednesday, December 29, 2010

The farm subsidy plank in our eye.

This is a great new paper about the effect of the Malawian fertilizer subsidy program on food security and the Malawian economy. h/t to Owen's blog.
The opposition to Malawian fertilizer subsidies has always been deeply hypocritical.
I agree that in a perfect world fertilizer subsidies do not make sense. But so long as one country is willing to subsidize its farmers every other country will also do so. Furthermore developed countries that might be able to afford giving less farm subsidies without the immediate specter of famine looming on their doorstep really need to take the lead on this issue if they are going to have any credibility when they ask developing countries to end their own subsidy programs.
The goal of agricultural development projects probably should not be to ensure that smallholders are able to make more money and be more productive. There is no nation on the planet which has a large middle class of smallhold farmers who are able to send their kids to college and retire at 65. Rather the priority should be food security AND economic development projects that get people off their small plots and into more productive work either through education or industry.


Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Joyce Banda demands fair speech, not free.

I wrote earlier about how freedom of speech is regarded differently in Malawi than in the West. Here is a good example what that means in practice.


h/t to Haba na haba for this one. This guy is from Zimbabwe. Great song.


Sunday, December 26, 2010

In the News

This article talks a little bit about the Malawian film industry.


Friday, December 24, 2010

The Onion says...

Watch this. Its funny.

Happy Holidays

I hope everyone is having a great holiday season. I'm currently stuck on my island because of bad weather but hopefully I'll be able to leave tomorrow (Christmas Day) to see my wife. I'll leave you with one of my favorite renditions of "White Christmas" by Nat King Cole.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

2009 Elections in Malawi.

Watch this documentary about the 2009 presidential and parliamentary elections in Malawi in which Bingu Mutharika was re-elected president of Malawi.

Malawi's Parliamentary and Presidential Elections 2009 from Nicolas Köhler on Vimeo.


Wisdom from Professor Chinsinga

Read this interesting article by Blessings Chinsinga who is a professor in the Department of Political and Administrative Studies at the University of Malawi. In it he argues that recent more participatory approaches to implementing development projects are not truly participatory.

US Army Ranger is 3rd best pastry chef in the world.

This is awesome.

The Center for the Development of People

The CEDEP of Malawi has recently won an award from ARASA (AIDS and Rights Alliance for Southern Africa) for its work on promoting the rights of minority groups in Malawi. They have also just published a book entitled "Queer Malawi: Untold Stories" which is a collection of interviews with LGBT Malawians. h/t to Africa is a Country for the heads up.

talking with Chakufwa Chihana

Watch this interview with Chakufwa Chihana. He was a leader of the pro-democracy movement in Malawi that led to Kamuzu Banda's deposition in 1994. He later was instrumental in the formation of the northern region based political party Alliance for Democracy (AFORD).


Malawi Gold

This is an interesting short documentary series by a Kenyan NTV reporter about the marijuana trade in East Africa. "Malawian Gold" is marijuana grown in Malawi and is highly sought after throughout the region.


Monday, December 20, 2010


When I was last in Malawi I bought a DVD with selection of Nollywood movies on it. This is a good article from the Economist about Nollywood and African film in general. Does Malawi have much of a film industry?

Hate Speech

In "A Democracy of Chameleons" Edrienne Kayambazinhtu and Fulata Moyo argue that "the new constitution [of Malawi] does not make sufficient provisions against hate speech and the violence and intolerance that it fosters."

Outside of the U.S. hate speech legislation is not particularly controversial. The U.K. has it, South Africa has it, and so do many (most?) other European nations. I'm not sure of the situation in other parts of Asia but in South Korea suing for defamation is a very common.

Personally I'm strongly with Voltaire on this one. I may disagree with what you say but I am willing to fight to the death for your right to say it.

This position does not resonate very well with most Asians or Africans, however, who tend to have a much more communal understanding of how individuals should regard each other in society. I'm not terribly familiar with how African philosophies have traditionally understood the concept of "free speech" but in Korea it is certainly not regarded as an a priori right but rather, as all things in Korea, a contextually bounded one. I suspect that in most of Africa the situation is quite similar and that the right to speak freely is rarely regarded as a pre-eminent value. Along this line Kayambazinthu and Moyo argue that because hate speech is responsible for inciting physical violence there must be legal ways of curtailing it. In other words, the right to speak freely is not unconstrained and must be balanced against other rights, in this case not to be insulted. Particularly in a culture where it is understood that one's dignity is both very important and vulnerable to insults (hate speech), having a legal means of thwarting such injuries is necessary to curtail uncontrolled physical retaliation.

I don't like this line of thinking, but it is certainly an authentic viewpoint. I would be grateful if my Malawians readers could confirm whether or not it is an accurate summary of at least some Malawian's thinking on the matter.


Quantitative Easing explained

This is funny...and sad.


3G comes to Malawi

Read about it here. India's buyout of Zain has really moved things forward in Malawi in terms of internet and mobile access and affordability.


h/t to Africa is a Country. Cool video. Decent tunes.


The Big Bang Theory

This show is great.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Democracy of Chameleons

This book edited by Harri Englund is a collection of essays written mostly by Malawian scholars about Malawian politics that seeks to answer the question "is there a culture of politics [in Malawi] beyond mere greed?" Definitely recommended reading especially with what is currently going on in Malawi politically.

Courtesy of Malawi's "The Nation."

A few posts earlier I talked about "African English." This front page headline story (which I will not link to) is not really what I was talking about get the idea.


We're a bunch of "non-contributing zeros"

This is funny. h/t Roving Bandit.


The same old story...

While researching coastal management projects in Madagascar I talked to a lot of Malagasy fishermen. One of their goals in regards to donor-funded fisheries or coastal management projects was always to secure funding for bigger boats and bigger outboard engines so that they could fish further offshore. They gave this goal an environmental gloss by stating that if they had the ability to fish further offshore then the inshore fisheries, which are the primary breeding grounds for many fish species, could be left alone.

The fishers in Malawi have been working the same angle. Read this old news article on the "Lake Malawi Artisanal Fisheries Development Project" which operated in the country from 2003-2008. What's sad about this is that way back in the early 90s the feasibility of increased offshore fishing was already investigated and dismissed. There simply aren't any unexploited "deep sea" fish stocks in Lake Malawi. Bigger boats and bigger engines aren't the answer and we've known that for a long time now.

And yet the project still dropped 10 million USD down the rabbit hole.

Even setting this problem aside, these kinds of donor-funded projects all rely on a largely false premise to justify their existence. If only, the logic goes, the fishers had bigger boats, or more refrigeration, or outboard engines, or better access roads, then they could start making real money. However because traditional financiers (banks and entrepreneurs) are being irrationally conservative in not extending them credit, the donors must step in.

I don't buy this and even if you do I think we need a clearer explanation of why traditional financiers are opting out and a plan for how we can change their minds. Everyone agrees that donor financing is not sustainable. Anyone got ideas?

Tabwela by Sonye

This song is from Malawian singer and producer Sonye. Read more about him here.


A (really big) road block.

So only one month away from our move to Malawi one of our financial backers has pulled out on us.
It sucks.
A bunch.
But we might (probably?) will make it happen anyway.

The number of hurdles involved in doing this kind of thing is mind boggling. You hear about the frustrations from other people but (as usual) doing it yourself is a whole different ballgame. If we manage to pull it off, my sympathy for business owners who feel entitled to their profits will have improved markedly. Making a business work ain't no joke, and we haven't even really started yet.

So we may have to ask the current owners of the business to do some kind of financing option. After months of telling them that we have the all money, that will be embarrassing.

Cest' la vie.

If I were writing a donor funded "end of project" report, I'd already have a very long list of "lessons learned."


William Kentridge

William Kentridge is a South African artist. Watch this interesting documentary of his work. h/t to Africa is a Country

Watch the full episode. See more ART:21.


Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Aquaculture in Malawi

Here is a good article from Zodiak News about Malawian Aquaculture. Its been a hot topic in Malawi for the last 10 years. I think it has a lot of promise.

Finding the Science

Read this article (h/t Aguanomics) in the New Yorker about how so many supposedly scientific findings cannot be replicated. Then read anything by Bruno Latour or Steven Shapin to understand why. STS academics have been saying this stuff for a long time now. The Science Wars of the 90s were a stupid diversion. We really need to reach a consensus on a mature understanding of what science is and what it is not, what it can do for us, and what it can not. But we are not going to get there unless we first abandon our faith in the "scientific method."

African English: another elephant in the room.

As with my ongoing series on "African Incompetence," this post is going to try to tackle another somewhat taboo topic, namely African English. I'm a big fan of reading local media. In Malawi there are quite a few newspapers, most of which have a good online presence. Here is a list.

In South Africa there is also a new newspaper in town called, appropriately, The New Age.
Reading local newspapers is worthwhile for a lot of reasons and I'm a big supporter of them. But by and large the quality of writing in these newspapers, from a Western point of view, is pretty dismal.
There are a lot of good reasons for this. English is usually not the author's native language. Different dialects of English are legitimate and "African English" could arguably be one of them. African newspapers have little incentive to write to Western standards because their readership is not Western. And in any case certainly an article's message is more important than its grammar.
All of this is true and makes my critique look very petty and tactless. And so it may be. But it is undeniably a common perception amongst Westerners who read a lot of African media. Hiding that perception, even if one is ashamed of it (like I am) won't make it go away. For the same reason that I have been discussing "African Incompetence," I also think talking about African English is important. "Elephants in the room" should be acknowledged and dealt with.

I confess, however, that I don't have a clue how to deal with this one. Maybe you do?


Medical Brain Drain in Malawi?

Watch this short news piece on Malawi's healthcare system. Many (most?) Malawian doctors leave Malawi to work in developed countries where salaries and facilities are better. The reporter is obviously sympathetic to the idea that this brain drain is bad for Malawi and that ways of stemming that outflow should be put in place. I'm not so sure. Recently some have been arguing that allowing capable people from developing countries to work in developed countries also has benefits. See here and here. Watch it and decide for yourself.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Lake Malawi Biodiversity Conservation Project

The Lake Malawi Biodiversity Conservation Project was approved in 1995 and operational until 2000. Funded primarily by the the Global Environmental Fund (GEF) the goal of the project was to "assist Malawi, Tanzania, and Mozambique in creating the scientific, educational, and policy basis required to ensure conservation of the biological diversity and unique ecosystem of Lake Malawi and producing a Biodiversity Map and Management Plan for the lake." The World Bank's 2001 review of the project rated it as follows

I will write I series of posts that examines the history of the project and try to understand why it received such poor scores, and if that matters.


More Environmental History from Wapu Mulwafu

I posted earlier about Dr. Mulwafu's podcast interview over at Africa Past and Present. Here he is in Edinburgh speaking about soil conservation efforts in colonial Malawi.

The Lakes Handbook Volume 1

I'm reading up on limnology so that I can put together a better water quality monitoring program for Lake Malawi. I've found this book. Anyone know any other good sources?

Infertility in Malawi: a cause of polygamy?

So I just found this series of webcasts from the Centre of African Studies at the University of Edinburgh. Here is one talk on the surprisingly prevalent problem of infertility in Malawi and its social and psychological consequences.


African Incompetence: Part 2

In part 1. I discussed why it was a bad idea to approach the discourse of African incompetence either by dismissing it as merely racist or by affirming it as self-evidently true. Here I will list series of other positions that one could conceivably hold that I think are not too extreme in either direction, though I don't necessarily endorse them myself. I'll go from positions that are most sympathetic to the discourse to those that are most hostile to it.

-African incompetence is real and pervasive although it has nothing to do with any inherent or unchangeable characteristic of Africans themselves. Drastic attitudinal change, however, is required of Africans if they want to escape their incompetence.

-African incompetence is real but not particularly pervasive and is due primarily to a lack of economic and educational opportunities rather than the pervasive existence of "backward" attitudes amongst African.

-African incompetence is more apparent than real. The discourse is a popular one only because those who espouse it are incapable of recognizing the difference between incompetence and preference. Africans often have alternative ways of accomplishing goals, or simply alternative goals, that outsiders are not sufficiently aware of.

-African incompetence is a myth without any empirical foundation. Any unbiased review of services, whether performed by governments or private entities, in African nations would show that they are provided with equal competence to those provided in Western and Asian nations.

These four positions are not necessarily mutually exclusive but do exist on a sort of continuum. I suspect that most people could place themselves somewhere on it without too much problem. If you think there is another position that I have not covered, leave it in the comments.


Sunday, December 12, 2010

Africa's biggest development hurdle: Taxes

So I've been watching the West Wing for the past couple months. Its a good show. In one episode during a presidential debate between the Republican and Democratic candidates the Republican said that the largest barrier to economic development in Africa was the high taxes rates that African governments levy on local businesses. You'd probably expect this from a Republican, but at least it was an answer that you don't hear talked a lot about in the Aid community. I'm certainly not enough of an expert to know about the continent as a whole but in Malawi our diving business will be taxed 30%. This certainly isn't an unusually high rate for a developed nation but I wonder how it compares to how businesses in China or other "factory" nations are taxed. Awhile ago there was some discussion over at Aidwatch about how clothing factories in Madagascar were shutting down because the U.S. government decided that the recent coup in that country was a good excuse to reimpose some pretty stiff import tariffs. Now tariffs and domestic taxes certainly aren't the same thing but it does seem to show that if governments are willing to refrain from taking too much of the profits, Africa does not have any other unique barriers to the development of a flourishing manufacturing industry based on cheap labour such as that which is currently thriving in China.
Sure "sweat shops" are not exactly ideal, but if you ask those working in them, they certainly believe them to be better than nothing.
If anyone has more experience with this issue and can confirm or deny how much taxes rates are a barrier to opening more factories in Africa, let me know.


Wednesday, December 8, 2010

The Google Ebook store

So once again Google improves our lives. This time it's the ebook store. Now anyone with internet access has a personal library of 3 million books that they can download for free and millions more that they can easily buy. Gutenburg and Amazon have been around for a long time but the ebook store puts the two of them together in a typically easy-to-use google interface. For people and institutions in developing countries this is huge.
With that said the store is far from a finished product. A search for "chemisty," for example, brings up hundreds a U.S. government reports likely have the word chemistry in them but which are of little interest to 99% of searchers.
Still the wealth of information available is fantastic and knowing google will only get better with time.


Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Wrestling with African Feminism

I fell upon this article by Pascal Newbourne Mwale who is a lecturer of philosophy at the University of Malawi and current fellow at Witts University in Joburg. He has a serious case of verbal diarrhea but the zest with which he grapples with the issue of African Feminism is laudatory.


Post-structuralism, word.

This is hilarious, though maybe not for the young'uns. h/t to Sean at Africa is a Country.

ART THOUGHTZ: Post-Structuralism from Hennessy Youngman on Vimeo.


Monday, December 6, 2010

African Incompetence

One of the most frequent and inflammatory remarks made about Africa is the general incompetence of its people. Usually this charge is made by white, Asian, and non-Africans. Black Africans generally refrain though there are some exceptions. Responses to this charge, by Africans and non-Africans alike, are quite varied from vehement denial to racist agreement.

The most extreme deniers dismiss the charge of incompetence as baseless and purely racially motivated. Labeling white, Asian, and non-Africans as racists neatly ends the conversation and for the few black Africans who also make the charge, deniers have invented the label of "coconut."

On the extreme other end are those who agree with, and indeed make, the charge without nuance. For them African incompetence is self-evident, genetic, and irreversible.
We are right to call such people racists and to denounce them strongly.

What is interesting about these two extremes, however, is how they both rely on a fiction to support their position, namely the fiction of race itself. Deniers sidestep the actual charge of incompetence and simply undermine its accuser's legitimacy. Racists, on the other hand, support it by appealing to psuedo-scientific 19th century social darwinism. But both side are equally obsessed with race and incapable of, or unwilling to, view the issue outside of that paradigm.

In between these two extremes there is much room for an interesting discussion about why the charge of African incompetence is so prevalent amongst non-Africans, white and Asian Africans, and a minority of black Africans. But it requires that participants in that discussion agree to leave behind the above two extremes. With such an emotionally charged issue this is easier said than done. But I want to try. In a following post I will outline some of the reasons why I think African incompetence is such a prevalent discourse. While remembering the rules of the discussion (i.e. "race" is out of bounds), I invite you in the comments to provide your own suggestions.



These two Malawian artists,Eva Chikabadwa and William Mwale, produce some good work. And you can hire them here.

Good Stuff

-The African Books Collective


Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Italians in Malawi

If you have access to Jstor this is an interesting article about the first Italian immigrants in Malawi. When I was last in Malawi I spoke to one of their descendants. He was a very interesting fellow.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Vaughn's "The Story of an African Famine"

Megan Vaughn's "The Story of an African Famine: Gender and Famine in Twentieth-Century Malawi," first published in 1987 and then republished in 2007 is a classic in the field of Malawian history. It might be better titled, however, the "stories" of an African famine because much of the book in concerned with delineating the various conceptual paradigms through which different people during and after the famine of 1949 in southern Malawi understood its causes. What impresses me about the book is how careful Vaughn is in her analysis and how admirably humble she is in making conclusions. While far from being confused the story presented is very complex and how one arranges all the pieces of the puzzle is often left to the reader's discretion. This is not a bad thing.
One of the many lessons that one can pull from the book is that distant attempts to engineer economies are rarely successful at achieving what they set out to do. This is not to say that they are always ineffective or impotent. But rather that the effects they do have are rarely foreseen clearly by their implementors. Agricultural economic policy seems particularly tricky to get right and although certainly not the only factor in the 1949 famine, its mismanagement was a contributor.

Are we doing any better today?