Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Regarding research, and other things.

Hereby a post with several things that I wanted to write down already for a while, but still hadn’t. There we go:

Regarding research.

Why do I not research Europe, instead of Africa? I know Europe, travelled through most of it, grew up there, know many of its cultures, etc. Why not let Africans study Africa? They know the area better than I ever will, they know its (local) languages, etc. Well, next to the fact that Africa is much more interesting than Europe, it is crucial for a researcher not to be biased. Somebody researching his/her own region, however, takes sides either knowingly or unknowingly; especially if one is interested – like me – in issues such as conflict. This point was emphasized during a talk Simon and I had with our driver during dinner in Walunga Centre several weeks ago. In brief: He is from the east of the Congo, and we asked him about the situation in the region. He then started raving about how the situation is all the fault of the Rwandans and the Buyamulenga (Rwandan-speakers in the east of the DRC). He claimed, for example, that Paul Kagame (the president of Rwanda) was aiding the FDLR; the main rebel group here in the east at the moment. I noted to him that I thought this was a problematic statement as Kagame is Tutsi and the FDLR is (to a large extent) Hutu-based. He then became even wilder. He could be right, but how he reacted showed that he is far from being unbiased. Research has to be objective; a search for the truth. Biases whenever possible should be avoided. So, once back in NYC, I will invest in finalizing my French, and after that it is Swahili.

Boring Africans.

In general, it is difficult to bore Africans; they can talk for hours, sit quitely for hours, etc. The amazing thing is that Simon and I already bored Africans several times. For example, several weeks ago in Burhuba, when we were waiting for our surveyors to return, after a few hours of chit-chatting people started walking away. :)

Off to China.

The few roads that are build in the Democratic Republic of Congo – and that are of decent quality – are made by the… Chinese. Do they do this because it makes it easier to extract minerals from the DRC? When we were in Lubumbashi we noticed that the main road going out of the city carried a lot of trucks with loads and loads of casserite and coltan:

Although, I have to admit that I got the following information from Wikipedia, I think it is still interesting: “Currently, industry experts estimate that the majority of coltan from the DRC is being exported to China for processing into electronic-grade tantalum powder and wires.”

The Washington Post recently had an story on exactly the above-mention road (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/story/2008/05/02/ST2008050200125.html) and noted that “As part of a $10 billion deal between the newly elected government and the Chinese, to be signed in coming weeks, the Chinese will build major routes linking south to north and connecting mining cities to western ports, mostly in exchange for lucrative mining concessions. Here in the mineral-rich province of Katanga, projects for secondary roads such as the one to Kilongo are being undertaken by foreign mining companies that need to get minerals to market.”

All in all, it reminds me of a map of Africa of the railroad systems build by the Europeans during the colonial period and mainly to extract as much as possible as quickly as possible from the continent. See how all the lines nicely go to the ocean; i.e. to European ships:

It is just a pity (understatement) that for centuries the benefits of the minerals from this country and continent has gone to everybody except its people.

Top dog.

As in most of Africa, also many government officials in Congo try to be more important than their job give them reason to. People (that are often illiterate) look for ages into your passport, customs seems extremely important and your entrance and departure is carefully written down in thick books (that nobody ever looks into again), etc. This is ok (don't get me started on US customs), and most of the times I play the game along. I do want to note what happened at the airport in Lubumbashi. The European Union is helping the migration-offices in the Congo and, as a result, there were several computers installed in the migration office at L'shi airport. Of course, when after a bit of waiting finally the migration officers arrived, the keyboard were carefully put aside and the thick book was brough out again, ready to scribble down my name and look for tens of minutes at my passport.

That’s deep.

The Congo river is the deepest river in the world; again, I got this from Wikipedia. At some places it is up to 750 feet (around 250 meter) deep!

James Bond is a loser.

When I travel I wear one of those jackets with a ziljon pockets in it, and I carry loads of stuff with me: 2 or 3 cellphones, photocamera, notebook, compas, several pens, a GPS receiver, and … a Swiss Army knive. I know, James Bond is not even half as cool as I am. The pocketknive, however, was – I thought – going to be problematic when entering our ECHO plane in L’shi, because there was a guy with one of those handscanners scanning all passengers. When it was my turn, the handscanner was, of course, beeping all over. After showing him the goodies I was carrying one by one he got tired after I showed him the third phone, and he ordered me to walk on. Ha! The next pocket would have been my pocket knive.

William People.

I make a lot of friends here in Africa. I think the biggest one up to now is William People; a guy in his twenties whom we met in Yandisha – a few hours drive away from Lubumbashi. He only knows half a sentence of English, but he was able to repeat that sentence several tens of times (and very loudly) during the few hours we were in his village. Him and me:

I think the really fun thing of this picture is that we actually both - honestly - tried to look cool. :). I know mom, I have a big face. I will eat a bit less Goma cheese upcoming week.

Family fight.

Once in a while we noticed “This house is not for sale” on a building or on a wall that is around the building. We asked several locals what was going? Well, when one has a family fight it can happen that one part of the family wants to sell the house. By writing the above on the house, this can be avoided. It is probably a strategy that works. Unfortunately, of course, also everybody immediately knows you have family problems.

Fun with village kids.

This is a thing that our driver last weekend liked to do. As always, when you stop your car near a village within minutes there will be tens of kids around the car. The driver then attracks them even closer to the car by turning the headlights on and off. Once 10 or more children have placed their heads on the headlights to see the lights go and off… claxon! Both the children and us laughed hard.

Peter and Ophrah Winfrey.

Yes, Simon and I are toilet-readers. We read a lot for work during the day and in the evening, and in the evening and night we read articles for our upcoming comprehensive exams. Therefore, at the toilet we have "light-reading"; the best we could find in the house are magazines like "Hello", “Marie Claire”, "Best", "People", “Oprah”, etc. Anyhow, instead of it being nice easy reading, these magazines piss me off. Ophrah (August 2008), for example notes: “If you are craving a European vacation, but the exchange rate is scaring you, skip Paris, London, and Rome and try these four fabulous cities where your dollar will let you splurge…” They continue and note that these four places are Valencia, Dubrovnik, Antwerp and Belfast! How stupid are they! Spain and Belgium have, just like France and Italy, the euro. Croatia with its kuna is soon to be added to the euro area, and Northern Ireland has just like the UK the pound. “… but the exchange rate is scaring you…” Aargh!

Barack Obama.

I know, I haven't written anything about President Obama’s speech. For two good discussions, please see:

http://chrisblattman.blogspot.com/2009/07/grading-obamas-africa-speech.html and http://www.congoresources.com/.

We maybe should have called this blog…

"Rumble in the Jungle". As Simon told me yesterday evening this was a historic boxing event that took place on 30 October 1974 in Kinshasa; the capital of what was then Zaire. It pitted then world Heavyweight champion George Foreman against former world champion and challenger Muhammad Ali.

More serious.

Finally, let me end with something a bit more serious. In the evenings – that is, whenever I have some time and am not writing something for this blog – I study for my comprehensive exams. The latter are exams that PhD-students have to take at the end of their second-year to show that they are familiar with the material in their field of research. In other words, we have to make sure that we have read (literally) hundreds of articles and books; and even pretend we remember something from it.

Anyhow, I read, among others, a 2003 article by William Easterly and Ross Levine, published in the JME, asking itself what leads to economic growth: Is it endowment (disease environment, proximity to the tropics, landlocked, weather type for crops, minerals, etc.)? Is it institutions? Or, is it policies (inflation, trade policies, exchange rate, etc.)? Easterly and Levine find evidence for the second, and argue that the first is only important via the second.

For now let me focus on the proximity to the tropics. For the people that read this blog once in a while you know by now I am frustrated that in the afternoon and evening in the villages the men do absolutely nothing; while the women work hard. Interestingly, Easterly and Levine quote Montesquieu on the association between tropical location and underdevelopment:

“You will find in the climates of the north, peoples with few vices, many virtues, sincerity and truthfulness. Approach the south, you will think you are leaving morality itself, the passions become more vivacious and multiply crimes... The heat can be so excessive that the body is totally without force. The resignation passes to the spirit and leads people to be without curiosity, nor the desire for noble enterprise.”

Seemingly counter-intuitive, Easterly and Levine also note other work that argues that because it is easy to gather food crops in the tropics it reduces the need to work hard and produce. They quote Machiavelli (1519): "Fertile countries are apt to making men idle and unable to exercise any virtue’’. Interestingly, I thought of a similar thing over the last few weeks. Here in the Great Lakes Region (I don't want to generalize too much) food is almost literally lying on the ground; manioc all around, corn all around, etc. If it is so easy to survive there is no need for specialization; something that in my opinion is crucial for development. Moreover, and these are just my thoughts, if nobody specializes there is also no need to build cooperative structures; everybody can survive on its own. Maybe something for future work...

For now as a final thing on the tropics (one can write many pages on this), Chris Blattman (professor at Yale, interesting research, great blog, etc.) has a reference (http://chrisblattman.com/2009/07/14/you-say-potato-i-say/) to a great article that argues for the importance of the potato. I am quoting Blattman now: “Humans can subsist healthily on a diet of potatoes, supplemented with only milk or butter, which contain the two vitamins not provided for by potatoes, vitamins A and D.” Why are no patatos being grown here in the East of the Democratic Republic of Congo? There are also cows around, so we have milk and butter and we are done. Unfortunately, we are close (very close) to the equator; it is dry here for three months and then... it rains and rains. From experiences back home, I know that patato farmers do not like much rain.

1 comment:

  1. Did you not want to be so obvious as to point this out? -- Sure, maybe the heat makes the MEN not want to work, but uhm, SOMEONE is working and it's the women.

    These are perfect examples of what happens when you only look at half the story, half the population, half the reality. So Easterly, and everyone else, come to completely false and stupid conclusions because they think MEN = EVERYONE. Yea, perhaps mankind can't handle the heat, but womankind is working her butt off.