If any event could illustrate the fragility of the BRICS conceit, it is the recent blackout in India, which left as many as 600 million people without power for up to two days. More than anything else, it reveals the sorry state of India’s governance. Yes, there are some extenuating circumstances: an unusually hot and dry monsoon season, which has reduced the available flow in hydroelectric plants while also causing the wealthy to use more power to run their air conditioners, while at the same time farmers are using more power to run pumps bringing up irrigation water from deep wells.
But the real story is under-investment in power generation, in coal production, and in transmission and distribution infrastructure, which in turn are attributable to monopoly pricing, hugely inefficient subsidies, endemic corruption, and political stagnation. The power outage was unique only in its extent and duration. Businesses, households, and public institutions all rely on diesel generators, which to a large extent have gone from a backup to the primary source of electricity, as “load shedding” – the system of rolling blackouts that utilities impose to reduce the strain on an overtaxed network, which often deprive whole areas of a city of power for as much as 14 hours a day. The event, and the global publicity it has attracted, has put a dent in India’s self-image as a nascent superpower. India has nuclear weapons and a space program – it launched a lunar probe in 2008 and has announced plans to send an orbiter to Mars next year – but it can’t keep the lights on. [click to continue…]
I have just seen a graph prepared by technology consultant Chetan Sharma of Issaquah, Washington, which purports to show that a greater number of Earth’s inhabitants – six billion, if the data are correct – have mobile phone subscriptions than have electricity or safe drinking water. The data aren’t correct. For one thing, these six billion people, according to Mr. Sharma’s chart, constitute 80 percent of the world’s population, which would put world population at 7.5 billion, when the World Bank tells us it is only 6.84 billion. Also, in most of the world outside Europe, Japan, and North America, the overwhelming majority of mobile phone usage is via prepaid cards rather than contract subscriptions. And to add to that, if a substantial number of people have cell phones but not electricity, how do they recharge their phones? Still, the basic message conveyed by this chart – that mobile phone penetration is becoming nearly universal among people at all income levels – stands. [click to continue…]
A few years ago I was in Sierra Leone, just a week after Angelina Jolie, in her capacity as Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, had visited. The owner of the Crown Bakery, the cleanest and best place to eat lunch in downtown Freetown, proudly pointed out the chair in which she had sat. Her visit, every minute of which was videotaped, highlighted the poverty and misery of the country’s children, the lack of the most rudimentary health and sanitation services, and the ferocious savagery of the civil war, in which rebels made a habit of cutting off people’s limbs with machetes.
As much as I admire and respect Ms. Jolie’s dedication to bettering the lot of the world’s poorest people, her sojourn caused visible harm to the initiative in which I was engaged, to improve the business environment and attract foreign investment to Sierra Leone. Her televised interview on CNN in 2007, in which she tearfully recounted the “nightmare” of meeting Sierra Leonian amputees, was not the kind of thing that attracts stampedes of potential investors. And make no mistake: it is productive investment far more than humanitarian assistance that will save Sierra Leone and countries like it, if indeed they can be saved. [click to continue…]
In Nairobi last week African officials and businessmen met with their U.S. counterparts for the eighth annual AGOA Forum. Hillary Clinton delivered the keynote speech. AGOA – the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act – is the U.S. law, passed in 2000 and set to remain in force until 2015, which grants preferential duty-free and largely quota-free access to the U.S. market for some 1,800 products from 41 sub-Saharan African countries. To what extent has AGOA helped Africa? [click to continue…]
President Obama’s visit to Africa this weekend was bound to be a big event, especially for Africans themselves, who took it as a portent of great meaning even before he set foot on the continent.
In the days leading up to the visit many people in Africa read great significance into the President’s itinerary. Why did he not choose to visit Nigeria – the country with the largest population and second-largest economy in Black Africa – and/or Kenya, the land of his ancestry? [click to continue…]