Thursday, July 23, 2009

Afghanistan and Obama

Rory Stewart (he who walked across Afghanistan on foot, wrote a book about it, then became governor of an Iraqi province, then wrote a book about that) has an interesting piece in the London Review of Books arguing that the high flung rhetoric used in discussing Afghanistan by the Obama and Brown administrations presupposes both an over simplistic moral view (and sense of mission) of the place.

He notes that the rhetoric regarding Afghanistan is:

...suggestive enough of crude moral imperatives to attract the Daily Mail; and almost too abstract to be defined or refuted. It papers over the weakness of the international community: our lack of knowledge, power and legitimacy.
Most importantly, Stewart makes light of the problems of the economic development vision of Afghanistan, arguing that is is far more likely to begin to resemble one of its neighbors than to develop into the Western Style democracy the rhetoric of the Western countries currently mired in Afghanistan belies.

To wit:
But Iran, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Pakistan present a bewildering variety of states: an Islamist theocracy, a surreal mock-tribal autocracy, a repressive secular dictatorship, a country trembling on the edge of civil war, a military dictatorship cum democracy. And it will be many years before Afghanistan’s economy or its institutions draw level with those of its neighbours.
I think Stewart makes some excellent points across his essay. The greatest problem with the essay is that it fails to address the issue of poppy production; which when taken with the porousness of the Afghan borders continue to dictate Afghanistan's future as a so-called "narco state". This problem strikes me as being open to attenuation by providing a frame-work through which Afghans can grow poppies (easily their most valuable and most easily produced potential cash crop) legally. This taken with international morphine shortages, should, as The Economist and other publications long noted. should serve as a means for producing both a legal venue for poppy production in Afhganistan, and could see the opening of a technology industry were the morphine manufacturing plants to be built in Afghanistan; and operated by Afghans. This is just a thought, but one that appears to continue to elude international drug policymakers and the Western governments that continue to push empty rhetoric in Afghanistan.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Obama in Ghana

Barrack Obama is currently in Ghana, this New York Times editorial argues that Obama's selection of Ghana was as a result of Ghana's exception status, noting:

"From one end of the continent to the other, the sort of peaceful, transparent election that Ghana held last December is still an exception rather than the norm, analysts said. The same is true for the country’s comparatively well-managed economy."

This strikes me as in some ways being a little Africa-phobic in that it paints a lot of the problems with the Western perception of Africa as a whole. There are plenty of perfectly stable African countries or countries, that like Ghana, have recovered from a history of dictatorship.

Liberia for example, would have made for a more obvious choice by the article author's logic in that it has successfully begun to recover from a horrible civil war, has elected Africa's first woman president in Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf (transcending barriers in a way similar to Obama) and Mrs. Johnson-Sirleaf has thus far done much to begin transforming her country.

It strikes me that Liberia's status for some time as an American pseudo-colony, which in principal would have made Liberia an obvious choice, has, as a result of many Americans not wanting to think about the idea of American colonialism and/or imperialism has in some way mitigated it as a choice. While Kenya, and thus East Africa was never a real option do to Obama’s Kenyan heritage, and thus simultaneously not wanting to demonstrate pro-Kenyan bias to the continent and simultaneously not wanting to snub Kenya by visiting one of its neighbors. Similarly the prosperous South and Northern parts of the continents are too dissimilar to what the Occidental world widely perceives as “Afirca” to be options.

All the same, there remain a huge number of stable, safe countries, including Togo, Burkina Faso and others within the region of West Africa that are comparable to Ghana in development and good governance.

I think Ghana was chosen for the visit because, yes it is stable, but equally importantly it is also Anglophone making it more accessible, semi-developed (though not too developed to be perceived as “un-African”) and has relatively minimal corruption (although as I left Ghana, a scandal appeared to be emerging involving President Atta-Mills, alleging that he may have illegally accepted some $3.5 million from Nigeria during the election campaign last year, channeled through the singular John Jerry Rawlings. These allegations have yet to be proven or disproven.) I think it is also Ghana’s widely being perceived as friendly (which in my experience it clearly is) that helped edge it towards selection.

All the same, pleasant trip to Mr. Obama. Ghana is a lovely country and I think decidedly a good candidate for the president's first Africa visit on its own terms, rather than simply because it has been somehow held up as a paean of virtue in a region seen, I would argue unfairly, as utterly dysfunctional by the American media.

Mumford in Kajeitia part 2

An excellent point was made about the failure to provide context for the Mumford in Kejeitia post. My response to this is as follows:
Mumford's argument as to why Roman and Greek cities became great and survived in the first place is two fold:
(1) because they maintained something of an agricultural base and that some infrastructure existed, these cities were not able to be completely annihilated after being sacked by the Visigoths, etc – indeed at one point Mumford notes that as long as some semblance of infrastructure and urban core persist, cities can never be completely erased,
(2) because Greek and Roman cities got where they were through colonial exploitation of their neighbors and other cultures entirely, they were able to build incredibly vertical monuments and buildings. This vertical expansion is key to Mumford’s argument as he notes that pushing people’s aesthetic frame upwards, it distracted them from the squalor at their feet, hence why the over emphasis in Western culture on so-called classical society. Mumford is repeatedly condemnatory of Athens and Rome as engines of over-expansion, exploitation, vice-based culture, etc.
Many modern African, (and American cities too for that matter), have a similar problem in only that over reliance on affordable hydrocarbons has resulted in a similar over-expansion and over-extension of resources and food systems. African cities, indeed, still practice greater localized food production than many American cities giving them a certain advantage. However, like with the Agora in ancient Athens or Rome, the emphasis on commercialism seemingly at any cost, and the persistence of squalor seems to point to a strong “classical” Mediterranean continuity. Perhaps, with my well-documented discussions of Christianity and Islam in West Africa, it can best and most readily be compared to latter, Christianized, Rome - a period which Mumford argues began show marked societal improvements, while Edward Gibbon argues that it was the beginning of the end of the Roman Empire.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Mumford in Kajeitia

West African cities, especially their slum quarters tend to be grim affairs. Kumasi boasts two areas that seem to especially qualify; Kajeitia and Race Course. Race Course is the traditional African mega slum – mud roads, burning garbage and tin sheds packed tightly together without rhyme or reason. Kajeitia on the other hand is a squalid commercial district – resembling Lewis Mumford’s descriptions of the ancient Greek and Roman agoras. Indeed, Mumford makes some interest points in the city in history. In describing sanitation conditions within Greek cities, Mumford notes:

“The Hippocratic emphasis on air, water, soil, and situation did not gain an easy victory; for an ancient tradition of close building, a tolerance of filth and putrefaction, a greedy desire to use every bit of land available worked to transmit without improvement the medical and hygienic misdemeanors of the early builders of cities.” (Lewis Mumford, The City in History, first edition, pg. 142)

This description feels interchangeable with what is on display in Kejeitia, Race Course, or many other parts of Kumasi; (or Accra for that matter), with the addition of the corpses of old polythene bags that cover almost every inch of exposed ground as well. Automobiles whizzing by also introduce a potential for danger beyond traditional Mediterranean societies. Commercialism takes precedence over hygiene and people compartmentalize. Certain tendencies in urban development seem to be omnipresent, and self-reproducing throughout history. To get an idea of how ancient Greek and Roman cities operated, one need merely look to the West African cities of today.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

Patronizing Glance

As I write this, the “Warrior Wives Prayer Ministry” of greater Kumasi parades past my window in a sea of gospel music. Angry traffic belches abuse at them through overused car horns. Nobody really notices car horns anymore in Ghana, they are so omnipresent that people have learned to simply tune them out. There is a strong warrior tradition in the Ashanti: hence the title. The symbol of the region, and of the old empire, is the porcupine - which grow to large size here; around 200 pounds; and are decidedly aggressive if trifled with. The police arrive and do their best to placate enraged motorists. This parade had been pre-arranged (unlike the weekly tumult of Jehovah’s Witnesses who take the to the streets every Sunday, creating a literal audible “crack” of dawn), not that there is any evidence of this. Perhaps it is the mere presence of police; who generally only appear to extract bribes and then promptly depart, that would indicate that they exist at all. Indeed, the local preference to take justice into their own hands, even if it is at times misdirected, seems to render the professional police force null and void. They exist as an arm of corruption; while God’s law, in its vulgar Old Testament sense, prevails.

Which brings me to the nasty issue of patronage. Not to dwell too heavily in the negative; patronage systems abound in Ghana, as they do in most, if not all West African countries. While the patronage system is less pronounced, more compact, and overall, far less pernicious here in Ghana, than in say, Nigeria, but it remains intractable to every day life. Ghanaian society holds that who you know, what they can do for you, and what you can do for them in return matters a great deal when, at times, realizing the daily necessities of life can be at times difficult. While this can obviously at times, be the case in the West, though we don’t like to think of things that way – and people will always try to advance and/or protect their clan; and awareness of this is a necessity in Ghana.

I got to know this quite well as I began to interact regularly with the police. I needed some traffic statistics for a planning project I was working on*; it was a week of near daily treks to the central police station, in which, I spent a lot of time sitting around waiting, paying bribes, and not receiving information that the extent of the patronage system was really hammered home. Karmically, if I may put it that way, there was no reason to help me because I was a Westerner, an outsider, would likely be leaving the country, and patronage is less about leveraging immediate material advantage (although the police are happy to insist upon bribes – and most speeding tickets are resolved in fiery exchanges between drivers and officers, with threats of immediate prison brandished about, eventually to be resolved in a conciliatory handshake in which bills are almost certainly exchanged); but rather about forging long term patronage relationships.

So there I sat, watching Kumasi’s finest rip people off and get ripped off in equal measure. As the police seem to do very little in the way of actual policing, they tend to be regularly patronized by those that have acquired the instruments of “ancient oriental healing”. Thus, Western medicine and what are often very real scams – my favorite was a static electricity machine, with an electrode for reading “palm phenomena” in which through administering static electricity shocks and taking readings (indicated by a sound chip for a greeting card chirping away, what was quite clearly “Jingle Bell Rock”) everything from colon cancer to high blood pressure are diagnosed. While the readings are cheap, the suggested medications in the form of handily available from the “doctor” of palm phoneme, to avoid the diagnosed illnesses, come at far greater prices. The officers note that the medicine works “if you believe in it”, however I was not reassured when the “physician” pointed excitedly to, what appeared to be his kidneys while discussing colon cancer. Perhaps he was instead pointing to the organ that could potentially fail after protracted usage of many of these Chinese drugs and cures, the usage of which are now being viewed as a massive public health problem in West Africa. Indeed, it is the flooding of Africa with cheap (often fake or faulty) Chinese manufactured drugs and herbal remedies (some of which work, some of which don’t, and some of which cause horrible drug interactions with one another) is a problem my bribe dollars have now gone to promote.

And with this, one can see the true extent of patronage. One of the reasons China is making such in-roads in West Africa is that it is dumping many of these low-cost and “alternate” drugs on the West African market, often throwing in great stocks of them as deal sweeteners in International trade agreements. Price fixing of necessary medications on the part of Western pharmaceutical countries, and the belief in traditional medicines (like the Chinese herbs, sometimes work, sometimes don’t and sometimes cause other problems) are not helping the problem. Again, many people believe that as long as you believe in the medicine, it will work; which ties into an earlier post I write about Asante Occultism and all things seeming to be equally likely. It is funny that even when, a patronage system is delivering something that people know can be harmful to them, there remains the sense that, as long as you believe hard enough in it, it will work. In the end, that remains a funny thing about Ghana. People seem to want some reason to believe; and as long as you are willing to play ball, no matter how crazy what you have on offer, as long as future returns are in any way plausible, acceptance into the patronage system will be granted.

As for me, I eventually got something that vaguely resembles the traffic statistics I wanted by agreeing to try to help track down additional breathalyzer machines (which the police constable was shocked to discover were not simply available at the store in the Untied States) and by, of course, paying another bribe. The inspector assures me we are now good friends and I ever need anything, or for that matter anyone, “taken care of ‘small, small’,” as the expression goes, I know where to turn. Clearly, to master the system, I still have some way to go, but perhaps a palm phenomenon kit could sweeten the deal. This is the advice I bellow to the Warrior Wives as the police finally decide to begin clearing the road.

*Of which I may write something on this blog, as you read this, I will most certainly be back in America; however, I have some half formed ideas and “lost episodes” which I may write up over the summer – some even dating back to my time in Niger and for which I have a wider context to talk about them.