Research Notes: commodity prices and impacts on Africa

SSRN’s email system delivered this week into my inbox a set of abstracts from the World Bank Policy Research Working Paper Series.  This collection (all published in October 2008) speaks specifically to the potential impact of commodity price changes on African countries. These are critical issues for most African countries which are heavily dependent on the trade in commodities. But as a recent paper (2009) by Jacks, O’Rourke and Williamson highlights, commodity price volatility has not increased over time (they go back to the 1700s) and may even decrease with “world market integration”.

All of the SSRN papers are part of a larger program at the World Bank:

World Bank’s Development Dialogue on Values and Ethics: Africa Food and Oil Price Crises

One paper by Wodon et al. is central to the overall project and finds that not only may poverty rates increase in much of Africa, but that those who are already poor may find themselves even worse off than they already are. Another study by Parra and Wodon was even more pessimistic about the prospects for Ghana when looking at the potential multiplier effects of high energy prices.  Of course, energy prices have fallen quite a bit since they conducted their study. But their study surprisingly resembles another one conducted by Arndt et al. in Mozambique and which appeared in the journal of Agricultural Economics last year.

Generally, the findings are not that surprising and they echo other recent research (such as that by their colleagues Ivanic and Martin). However, that consensus is not unchallenged. See, for instance, Aksoy and Isik-Dikmelik.

One minor problem I have is their claim that we can generalize from their West and Central Africa findings to conclude that Africa “as a whole” could have 30 million more poor people with a 50 percent increase in “selected food prices”.  Even within their sub-regions variance was relatively high (a 1.8% increase in Ghana’s poverty headcount versus a 9.6% increase in Senegal).

Overall, the work of this group is a valuable empirical addition to our understanding of the links between commodity prices and poverty.


News stories I have been following

The impact of the finanicial crisis on Africa:

The Financial Times notes that Sub-Saharan African growth will continue, albeit at a much slower rate than in recent years. Recent news from southern Africa has been cautiously optimistic.  And China plans to increase its investments in Africa. However, ActionAid reports that the crisis will cost African economies as much as US$49billion this year. And in Nigeria, some banks have asked employees to take early retirement, reportedly as a result of the crisis.

The Financial Times also reports that African states are trying to increase their voice in on-going G20 talks about the crisis.

The crisis in Madagascar:

Global Voices has a round-up of news about what appears to be a very fluid situation.

Darfur and the ICC

A major debate has been brewing over whether the ICC’s decision to issue an arrest warrant for Sudanese President Omar Al Bashir was a “good idea”. In my view, our answer to this question depends on our criteria for a “good idea”. I think a common perception is that this is a justice versus order issue. Justice may be achieved by the ICC’s actions, but at the cost of more lives and greater political chaos in the Sudan. However, a number of commentators have (rightfully) muddied that easy equation. A roundtable discussion at The New Republic is also trying to answer these questions while making suggestions for what, exactly Obama should do.

Criteria One: Good Idea = Contributes to End of the Humanitarian Disaster in Darfur

Probably the most popular criteria is based on the assumption that our primary goal should be to end the current humanitarian disaster in Darfur, whether or not we call it a genocide (I still like Scott Strauss’ Foreign Affairs article on this point).

Julian Ku at Opinion Juris makes the clear academic argument that international criminal tribunals can lead to greater humanitarian atrocities (but not that this is a necessary outcome). Michael Kleinman offers a similar view from the perspective of someone who has worked in the field of humanitarian relief, arguing about the already clear dire humanitarian consequences of the ICC’s decisions.

Chris Blattman,  is among those who seriously doubt that the ICC’s actions can have positive consequences. He has a great link to Wronging Rights’ post on the subject.

However, one could also make the argument that the short-term costs are outweighed by the long-term benefits of action, as Kevin Heller seems to in a recent post. After all, someone has to do something about the roots of the crisis and no other actions (yet) seem to aim for that.

Criteria Two: Good Idea = Contributes to the Development of International Human Rights

Human Rights Watch clearly supports the ICC’s decision. In a separate Q&A section, they highlight the cases that arrest warrants against Liberian leader Charles Taylor and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic actually helped the peace processes in those countries as well. One can wonder whether these are useful cases as a number of commentators have mentioned that, for instance, the international community only went after Milosevic once the conflict had been settled.

Alex de Waal also makes a great case for how the ICC actions may actually undermine the cause of human rights in Africa. He wonders whether African countries will follow Libya’s calls to de-ratify the Rome Statute of the ICC.  I’m not convinced this is really going to happen on a large scale, but it is true that the ICC’s actions may make some African states that have not joined more wary about joining (there are only 30 African states that have ratified at this point, I believe).

Criteria Three: Good Idea = Contributes to Justice (International and/or Local)

As some of the commentators already mentioned above have argued, the question of how to achieve justice is far from clear. Alex de Waal mentions Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s New York Times call for African states to support the ICC and its role in providing justice.  However, Alex notes that South Africa demonstrated that retributive justice is not the only form of justice.  Additionally, there is the concern that ICC’s actions have undermined the ability of local judicial (and political–there is to be an election later this year) institutions to deal with the problem.

Criteria Four: Good Idea = This is What International Law Tells Us to Do

This is essentially the case that Eric Reeves makes when he argues that Obama should support the ICC’s actions (Elizabeth Rubin makes a similar point.)

Some question issues of ICC jurisdiction and whether the UN Security Council’s referral to the ICC undermines the principle of complementarity (the idea that the ICC should be a court of last resort and that local judicial institutions should be used first).

Relevant to these points is a consideration of the proper role of the ICC. Should we think of ICC prosecutors as we think of criminal prosecutors in domestic legal systems?  A common theme in American legal textbooks is that the role of the prosecutor is “to seek justice”. This is not too different from the primary emphasis described in the Rome Statue: Prosecutors should investigate crimes.  Does the ICC really have any responsibility to consider the trade-offs between justice and peace/order?  Justice Goldstone has argued that the Prosecutor’s duites are “exernal to the political process of negotiations to end armed conflict”, but there is an “order” dimension to Moreno-Ocampo’s assertion that the Prosecutor’s office should also contribute to the prevention of crimes (see Winfield‘s post on this). But has the international community provided the ICC with all of the necessary tools to consider such trade-offs?

Further Thoughts on What To Do About Leaders We Do Not Like

All of this reminds me of arguments that have been made a number of times about what should be done about problematic political leaders, and especially dictators.  Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame, has even piped in on such debates with his idea of a “retired dictator program”.  His idea is more serious than it might at first sound.  Kieth Hartley at York University, made the argument in 2005 that it would have been cheaper to pay Saddam Hussein to leave Iraq. And, while optimistic about the role of an ICC, Hans Koechler has argued in the past that “the promise of a comfortable pension or discreet exile is sometimes the most expedient way to dislodge despots from power” (cited by Jeremy Bransten).

More generally–and not necessarily directed at “bad” leaders–Mo Ibrahim has wondered whether something should be done to make retirement more attractive to African leaders. This thinking contributed to his prize for African leaders who rule fairly and resign to elected successors.

Final Thoughts

In many respects, the debate about whether or not the ICC should have issued an arrest warrant for President Omar Al Bashir is rapidly losing relevancy.  We now need to turn to thinking about what to do about the current situation. Clearly there have been short-term negative consequences for the humanitarian situation in Darfur.  What can we do to make the medium- and long-term situation improve?


A first post

This is my first post on what is to be a new blog on African Politics and International Relations.  The point is to use this as a forum to engage scholars, students and policy-makers with similar interests. I look forward to any feedback others may have.