Feb
23

Travesty in Haiti

I cannot recall where or how I was directed to "Travesty in Haiti: A True Account of Christian Missions, Orphanages, Food Aid, Fraud and Drug Trafficking" (2008) by Timothy Schwartz. The book appears to be self-published, and Paul Farmer is quoted on the back as saying "This book knocks it out of the park" (assuming that is the Paul Farmer, who better to speak on a book about Haiti and the NGO sector?). The author spent ~10 years in Haiti, for graduate school research and then consulting work in the NGO sector. This is an academic book, and closer to a reflective personal history as well as quasi-expose of the aid industry. The personal stories make it an engaging and easy read. There are some errors here and there. For anyone seeking out a reality check on the non-profit sector, this is the book. One lengthy note:

"...beneath the surface it was a fiasco. Massive reforestation projects had consumed millions of dollars but when I investigated they turned out to be decades long failures. Irrigation projects meant for the poor turned out, when I investigated, to be owned by congressmen and senators, doctors and nurses, engineers, and lawyers, some of whom were living in the United States. I could tell about a dike that became a dam and caused flooding and about a dam built at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars but that with the first heavy torrent snapped like a stick. I could tell about roads the NGOs built that became massive gullies. About twenty years and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on BIGs (Bio Intensive Gardens that are small, highly productive vegetable gardens) that the peasants never paid the slightest bit of attention to but into which CARE International went right on pumping hundreds of thousands of dollars of aid. I could tell about a massive seed project in which, despite the fact that the Jean Makout rainy season is only three months, the NGO agronomists distributed long season seed varieties, causing the peasants who accepted and planted the seeds to lose their harvests, to be driven deeper into poverty, and I could then tell how the project was continued for four more years, how the peasants instead of planting the seeds took to soaking them to remove the pesticides and then ate them. I could tell about hundreds of barefoot doctors trained to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars and two years of effort, but when we tried to hire them for the survey, we found only five of whom could accurately take a pulse. I could tell about networks of local agricultural extension agents who are even more poorly trained, about the United Nation's million dollar fishing projects that were flops as well: Smoking pits going unused gran neg (political bosses) commandeering refrigerators and solar panels meant for the storage of lobster, motor powered fiberglass boats that never went to sea for any other reason than joyriding and sightseeing when local and visiting VIP's could afford The US$2 per gallon for gasoline. I could tell about all these failed projects and most bizarre of all I could tell the same stories several times over for they have been repeated in Jean Makout and throughout Haiti for over half a century the same projects, often in the same places, and always with the same result, failure." (p. 70-71) 

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Feb
19

Fields of Gold

Focusing on two country studies of the USA and Brazil, Madeleine Fairbairn's "Fields of Gold: Financing the Global Land Rush" (2020) explores the financial side of the global rush for land. This book provides unique perspectives on a widely written about topic (often under the land grab or large-scale land acquisition frame, I've also used the land rush in a book). A downside to the book is that it seems almost all of the interviews were conducted between 2011 and 2015, creating a rather large gap between the data / issues covered and the date of publication. The author has put a full copy of the book on Academia (available here). A few notes:

"In recent years, the financial sector has developed a surprising interest in farms. Institutional investors—pension funds, university endowments, private foundations, and other organizations that manage huge pools of capital—are increasingly incorporating farmland into their investment portfolios. The same is true of those extremely wealthy people who in financial circles are euphemistically termed "high-net-worth individuals." This investor interest has spawned a host of new asset management companies eager to accommodate and encourage investors' newfound passion for soil. Promoting shiny new investment vehicles including farmland-focused private equity funds and real estate investment trusts (REITs), these managers promise to shepherd investor capital safely, and often extremely profitably, into plots of farmland the world over. This book examines why and how this transformation is taking place…" (p. 2)

"In the 1970s, this plodding increase in land prices once again transformed into a mad dash. The US entered another farmland boom, this time lasting from roughly 1972 to 1981. The causes of the boom were many: global droughts in 1972, a huge sale of grain by the US government to the Soviet Union in the same year, the devaluation of the US dollar, a highly inflationary environment that translated into low real interest rates, and a certain amount of ungrounded optimism." (p. 25)

"Perhaps the most fundamental shortcoming of voluntary guidelines, however, is that they take the land deals as a given. They start from the premise that con-version to larger-scale, more capital-intensive agriculture is inevitable—or even necessary for rural development—and then strive to make those investments more environmentally and socially friendly." (p. 138)

"A final approach to re-embedding land markets in the social fabric lies in alternative ownership structures, such as community land trusts (CLTs) and real estate investment cooperatives (REICs). Unlike the previous two approaches, these are not explicit responses to the (financialized) land rush, but rather efforts to address the negative impacts that rentier landownership and real estate speculation, in general, can have on communities. The CLT model is based on the idea that property ownership should not just benefit individual property owners but should instead serve the interests of the entire community, particularly its most disadvantaged members. Under the CLT model, the landowner is a private, nonprofit corporation that is governed by a board largely composed of local community members and homeowners/lessees of the trust. This entity owns the land, while the buildings on the land are available for purchase, and the building owners are granted extremely long-term, inherit-able leases for the property upon which their buildings stand (ninety-nine years is a common lease term)." (p. 142-143) 

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Feb
13

The Horn of Africa

One of the Horn of Africa's long-time scholars, Christopher Clapham, wrote "The Horn of Africa: State Formation and Decay" (2017), with Oxford University Press. A lot of the book, expectedly, focuses on Ethiopia. And, unfortunately for Clapham, the world of Ethiopia and the Horn has changed dramatically since. The book is accessible, which is often a nicer way to say this is not a detailed academic book for experts of the area but for students and/or generalists who might be interested to learn about the region. I am sure experts will read this book / have read this book, but may take away comparatively less (that said, a number of leading academics of the region have cited this book). I collected a few notes on ethnicity and on the Somali state, which are below:

"All ethnicities, nonetheless, are to some extent fluid, and this fluidity is encouraged in the societies of the northern highlands by the principle of bilateral descent. Whereas in most African cultures, to which lineage is characteristically extremely important, descent is traced primarily either through the male (patrilineal) or female (matrilineal) line, in this region each enjoyed a broadly equal status, and hereditary rights in land in particular could be claimed either through one's father or one's mother. This made it relatively easy to blur one's identity, by selectively emphasising the most advantageous line." (p. 13)

"The genie of ethnicity, however, once unleashed, could not be put back in its bottle. The assumption, derived from the TPLF's (and especially Meles Zenawi's) ideological commitment to Marxism, that ethnicity was no more than a superstructural phenomenon derived from economic exploitation, which could in turn be neutralised by representation and development, proved utterly inadequate. Instead, predictably enough, ethnic identities have become increasingly entrenched within a system that had been intended to nullify them. A new politics of identity has emerged, despite (and not least within) a hegemonic party that has become decreasingly able to control the forces of proliferation that it did not create (since these were already implicit in the mismatch between the state and its population), but which it had at least sought to manage." (p. 107)

"Somali societies have operated in the absence of formal government institutions in a way that could scarcely be conceived in the agricultural highlands of the Horn, where the breakdown of hierarchical control has been coterminous with violence. Nowhere is this clearer than in the operation of an economy that has functioned with remarkable efficiency despite the lack of overall political control, and has in the process spared many Somalis the levels of destitution that statelessness might have been expected to bring with it." (p. 149) 

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Jan
29

Shariah Law Questions and Answers

In 2017, Mohammad Hashim Kamali, published a collection of crafted questions about Shariah, divided into 17 sections and 190 questions. I have posted on a number of Kamali's books, largely with reference to their use in teaching ethics and integrating more diverse thought traditions into the course. The audience of the book appears geared toward readers unfamiliar with Islamic law, and in that respect the book moves from basic introductions to specific issues. The selected questions appear geared toward addressing commonly raised questions about Shariah, particularly by Western readers. Each chapter concludes with a listing of evidence and legal maxims. One example question from about midway through the book:

"Q97) Is Islamic law compatible with democracy? With political pluralism? What is Shura, and how does it relate to democracy? A) Yes it is for the most part. A democratic system of rule on the whole compatible with Islam Because democracy is about people's participation, a representative by the people and for the people, it is also about fundamental rights and liberties, the rule of law, limitations, on the coercive of the state through checks and balances and equality before the law. Broadly, Islamic law approves of most of these and takes affirmative positions on the protection and realisation of people's welfare and their rights. Islam advocates a consulted and also a limited government that does not impinge on people's rights and liberties, one that is committed to accountability and justice. Islam also envisages a service-oriented system of rule that carries no barriers between ruler and ruled, and shuns pomp and ceremony of the kind that came into vogue with the onset of monarchy and dynastic rule under the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. What is just said here is mainly meant to depict a general picture - let it be said, however, that Islamic history in almost every period and dynasty has also known many good and upright, indeed exemplary, rulers who inspired the confidence of their people and left an impressive legacy of dedication to public service" (p.106) 

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