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A QUESTION OF POWER: Why Ethiopia’s economic transformation is a cautionary African tale

The arrival of reformist Prime Minister, Abiy Ahmed Ali, may have only given the ruling EPRDF a stay of execution. At the heart of the political crisis is an old problem: a command economy reluctant to liberalise. State-led infrastructure expansion fuelled a decade of miraculous growth, producing five times more electricity than the country requires. The returns on this investment are not forthcoming. Exports are falling, the Birr has been devalued; a severe forex shortage is underway. Is Ethiopia’s future as Africa’s premier power exporter viable? By DAVID NDII.

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A QUESTION OF POWER: Why Ethiopia’s economic transformation is a cautionary African tale

Something is stirring in Ethiopia. It began with the abrupt resignation of former Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn on February 15. After weeks of backroom dealmaking the EPRDF coalition which has governed Ethiopia with an iron fist since ousting the Derg, Mengistu Haire Mariam’s Marxist dictatorship in 1991, elevated youthful Abiy Ahmed Ali as prime minister. The new prime minister hit the ground running with a raft of political reforms.

Three years ago, students in the town of Ambo started a protest to oppose a metropolitan development plan that would have incorporated their town and seven others into the capital, Addis Ababa. Ambo is 120 kilometres west of Addis in the Oromia region. They accused the federal government of a top-down land grab that would deprive them of livelihoods and destabilize their communities and culture.

After the overthrow of the Derg, Ethiopia adopted an ethno-federalist constitution that even provides for orderly secession. But the EPRDF has sought to run a command-and-control developmental state. The Addis Ababa expansion plan was a head-on-collision between the two—the constitution’s federalist ethno-regional political bargain and the centralizing ideology and power politics of the EPDRF. While the EPRDF is a consociational coalition, it’s the late strongman Meles Zenawi’s Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), which led the liberation war, that wields most of the power in the coalition (and gets most of the spoils). The Tigrayans are a relatively small tribe (six percent of the population) from the north of the country.

The Addis expansion plan, which affected the Oromo and Amhara regions, ignited discontent whose depth the EPDRF clearly underestimated. The Oromo are the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia, accounting for a third of Ethiopia’s 100 million-strong population, with strong grievances of historic marginalization. The Amhara, who constitute just over a quarter of the population, are the erstwhile politically dominant ethnic group. Both Emperor Haile Selassie and Mengistu were Amhara (his father, originally Oromo, was adopted by an Amhara nobleman). Repression, including massacres, mass incarcerations and a state of emergency, a feature of both Emperor Selassie’s late rule and Mengistu’s Red Terror, returned under a beleaguered EPRDF.

Though unexpected, Desalegn’s resignation was preceded by a softening of the regime, including the release of political prisoners, which Desalegn said was meant to “foster national reconciliation”. The new prime minister is Oromo. His elevation was no doubt intended as an olive branch to the restive region.

The Addis Expansion Plan, which affected the Oromo and Amhara regions, ignited discontent whose depth the EPDRF had clearly underestimated…Repression, including massacres, mass incarcerations and a state of emergency, a feature of both Emperor Selassie’s late rule and Mengistu’s Red Terror, returned under a beleaguered EPRDF.

Hot on the heels of the tectonic shift in the politics have come equally momentous economic pronouncements. State owned Ethiopian Airlines and telecommunications and power utilities and other state corporations are to be partially privatized.

What exactly is cooking in Addis?

In his pronouncement speech, the Prime Minister Abiy spoke of a hard currency crisis. He is quoted in the media castigating his audience, Ethiopian businesspeople, for keeping their hard currency in Dubai and China and asking for their cooperation to resolve the crisis while also threatening unspecified actions on the hoarders of foreign exchange. Instructively, he also disclosed that the political crisis has dented diaspora remittances. Diaspora remittances are Ethiopia’s single largest source of foreign exchange, bringing in US$ 5.5 billion last year, almost double the country’s US$ 3 billion dollar export earnings.

The foreign exchange crisis is not new. In October last year, Ethiopia devalued the currency by 15 percent. While the recent government data shows foreign currency reserves equivalent to 2.3 months import requirements in December 2017, precarious but not dire (3-4 months requirements is the norm), some analysts say the reserves could have fallen below one month’s requirement, which is dire. Last week, the government announced that it had secured a US$1 billion foreign currency lifeline from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), part of a US$3billion aid and investment package. The UAE deal looks like a quid pro quo for Prime Minister Abiy’s de-escalation of tensions with Egypt over Ethiopia’s damming of the Blue Nile. The UAE is a strong ally of Egypt. This sequence of events begins to suggest that the foreign currency crunch is behind the softening of the EPDRF regime.

Prime Minister Abiy spoke of a hard currency crisis. [He castigated] his audience, Ethiopian businesspeople, for keeping their hard currency in Dubai and China and asked for their cooperation to resolve the crisis while also threatening unspecified actions on the hoarders of foreign exchange. Instructively, he also disclosed that the political crisis has dented diaspora remittances. Diaspora remittances are Ethiopia’s single largest source of foreign exchange, bringing in US$ 5.5 billion last year, almost double the country’s US$ 3 billion dollar export earnings.

Ethiopia has run into an old, mostly forgotten, economic development problem: the foreign exchange constraint. In the old days, it was caused by import substitution industrialisation. Import substitution industrialisation, the dominant development strategy for many sub-Saharan African states until the mid-seventies, entailed setting up industries to produce finished goods the country was importing, and protecting them from import competition with trade barriers, import and foreign exchange controls.

The new import substituting industries imported virtually everything from machinery, intermediate inputs, spare parts, technology and even management. The import substituting industry’s foreign exchange requirements ended up exceeding what the country was using to import the finished goods. Most of the import substitution industrializers relied on a few primary commodity exports. They soon found that their export earnings were insufficient to finance the industries.

Foreign exchange became scarce, and self-reinforcing. To circumvent foreign exchange rationing, businesses would hoard foreign exchange abroad through transfer pricing (over-invoicing imports and under-invoicing exports), compounding the primary motive for transfer pricing— tax evasion. One such scheme came to light not too long ago during the unravelling of the Nairobi Securities Exchange-listed corporate icon, CMC, which has since been delisted. It was revealed that the company had maintained a secret account in Jersey to which proceeds of over-invoicing were deposited and paid to its directors offshore. Remarkably, many of the beneficiaries of the scheme were the same bureaucrats who were responsible for enforcing foreign exchange controls.

The 1973 oil-shock and declining primary commodity prices in the ‘70s compounded the external imbalance that import substitution industrialization started. By the early ‘80s, most import substituting countries were on their knees. In some, Tanzania for example, manufacturing ground to a halt.

Ethiopia’s external imbalance and attendant foreign exchange crises emanate from over-investment in infrastructure. Ethiopia adopted an infrastructure-led growth strategy known as the Growth and Transformation Plan (GTP) in 2010. It has since doubled electricity generation from 1800 to 4200 MW, against peak power requirement of 2000 MW. There is close to 7,000MW of new power projects under construction. The Ethiopia Grand Renaissance dam alone has a capacity of 6450 MW. When these are completed, Ethiopia’s generation capacity will be more than four times domestic demand. The road network has been expanded two-and-a-half fold, from 44 km to 110 km of road per 1000 square kilometres. And there is of course the 670-km Addis-Djibouti railway, and a light rail system for Addis Ababa, operational since late 2015 .

The infrastructure building boom, described in a recent World Bank report as “one of the highest rates of public investment in the world”, turbocharged Ethiopia’s economic growth rate from a respectable 5-6 percent to an exceptional 10 percent per year. But close to a decade on, the anticipated private investment that would enable Ethiopia to pay for it has not materialised. Ethiopia was banking on export processing zones investment, and has built several industrial parks around the country.

Besides failing to attract investment, building booms of this magnitude have the effect of shifting incentives against “tradable” sectors of the economy. This phenomenon is more commonly associated with natural resource booms that economists call Dutch Disease. This is reflected in the decline of Ethiopia’s export to GDP ratio, from 17 percent to eight percent of GDP compared to Sub-Saharan average of 27 percent. Its export to GDP ratio is now the second lowest on the sub-continent after Burundi (6.2%).

Ethiopia has compounded its infrastructure-driven external imbalance with classic import substitution—a massive state-drivend sugar industry expansion. The state-owned Ethiopia Sugar Corporation is currently developing ten large-scale sugar projects that will put a million acres of land under sugarcane production. A capital intensive, low value product with distorted markets and a permanent global glut floating in the high seas, sugar is as bad as import substitution industries get. Yet there is no shortage of export-oriented agriculture investments Ethiopia could have chosen. Oilseeds are Ethiopia’s second largest export earner after coffee. It has a promising livestock and leather apparel industry. Maize even.

The Bretton Woods institutions spent the ‘80s and ‘90s preaching the free market economic orthodoxy known as the Washington Consensus. Ethiopia has done the complete opposite. But the World Bank has been nothing but effusive. In a 2016 report, Ethiopia’s Great Run: The Growth Acceleration and How to Pace it, the World Bank asserts confidently that Ethiopia was on course to become a middle income country by 2025. Astoundingly the World Bank goes ahead to give a thumbs up to the policy regime that its structural adjustment programmes (SAPs) dismantled:

“Heterodox financing arrangements supported one of the highest public investment rates in the world. Three less conventional mechanisms stand out: first, a model of financial repression that kept interest rates low and directed the bulk of credit towards public infrastructure. Second, an overvalued exchange rate that cheapened public capital imports. Third, monetary expansion, including direct Central Bank budget financing, which earned the government seignorage revenues.”

Ethiopia has compounded its infrastructure-driven external imbalance with classic import substitution—a massive state-driven sugar industry expansion. The state-owned Ethiopia Sugar Corporation is currently developing ten large-scale sugar projects that will put a million acres of land under sugarcane production. A capital intensive, low value product with distorted markets and a permanent global glut floating in the high seas, sugar is as bad as import substitution industries get.

Heterodox means unorthodox or unconventional. In plain English, it means distorting credit markets, overvaluing the currency and printing money.

 After all the cheerleading, the Bretton Woods sisters now find themselves in an awkward situation. In its most recent debt sustainability report, the IMF acknowledges that Ethiopia is now staring at a debt crisis. It has no advice to give. Ethiopia’s hopes, it writes, now rest on exporting electricity. The IMF posits that Ethiopia has the potential to earn US$ 1 billion a year from selling electricity.

In reality, Ethiopia is selling a little power to Sudan and Djibouti, and has signed power purchase agreements with Kenya and Tanzania. But these countries are ramping up their own generation capacity. Kenya’s installed capacity is presently 35 percent above peak generation requirements excluding the 340 MW Turkana wind power which is awaiting completion of a transmission line, 55 percent when it is included. There are several other projects underway, and Kenya’s government seems dead set on proceeding with a controversial 1000MW coal plant in Lamu. Ditto Tanzania.

After all the cheerleading, the Bretton Woods sisters now find themselves in an awkward situation. In its most recent debt sustainability report, the IMF acknowledges that Ethiopia is now staring at a debt crisis. It has no advice to give. Ethiopia’s hopes, it writes, now rest on exporting electricity. The IMF posits that Ethiopia has the potential to earn US$ 1 billion a year from selling electricity.

Ethiopia’s biggest electricity customer potentially is Egypt. This may begin to explain the reason for the olive branch. Prime Minister Abiy also made a quick visit to Somalia last week. He might be hoping to sell some electricity there. To flog a billion dollars worth of power, Ethiopia will need to make peace with all her neighbours, and then some. If truth be told, the electricity export bonanza is a fig leaf.

There is a cold reality that the Ethiopian government seems to be still in denial about. Its heterodox macroeconomic regime is now untenable Investors do not like putting their money in places where it is difficult to get out. And now that people know how precarious the situation is, hard currency hoarding and capital flight will get worse, not better.

The competing destinations for the export processing investment that Ethiopia is building industrial parks for do not have exchange controls. And Ethiopia has many disadvantages to overcome, not least, being landlocked, not to mention its byzantine bureaucracy and anti-capitalist instinct. Financial liberalisation is inevitable, a matter of when and how, not if. The Prime Minister talked of the foreign exchange problem being a long term problem. He is dead wrong. He has eighteen months—best case scenario. His options boil down to whether to do big bang or gradual – rather like choosing whether to do your root canals all at once or every other week.

The announced fire sale of family silver will not do it either. Deregulation should precede privatisation otherwise it substitutes public monopolies for private ones. In the case of the telecom monopoly in particular, deregulation will kill a whole flock of birds with one stone—bring in hard currency from license fees, investment, access (at 40% Ethiopia’s mobile penetration is the lowest in the region) and quality of services. The sugar factories I would sell right away on an “as-is-where-is” basis. A stitch in time saves nine.

Ethiopia is by no means the only country floundering on infrastructure-led growth. It is a foolish idea. Monuments, delusions of grandeur, cargo cults—this columnist has all but run out of metaphors. Last year, Zambia’s President called a national day of prayer for the Kwacha. Last week he suspended borrowing and instituted an austerity programme that includes freezing projects that are less than 80 percent complete. Kenya is surviving on speculative capital inflows and juggling debt as it negotiates an IMF bailout.

Ethiopia’s unravelling is a reflection of its macroeconomic policy regime. When demand and supply don’t balance, something must give. In a liberal regime it is prices that adjust (exchange rate, interest, and inflation). If prices are controlled then demand or supply must give, in this case, the supply of foreign exchange. Still, the crisis has provided an opportunity for transformational political and economic change. To quote economist Paul Romer, a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.

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David Ndii

David Ndii is one of Kenya's leading economists and public intellectuals.

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Shopping Mall Economics: A note on the value of the Kenya shilling

What does a recent spat between the IMF and the Central Bank’s Prof Patrick Njoroge, himself a veteran of the Fund, tell us about the state of the Kenya shilling? By DAVID NDII.

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Shopping Mall Economics: A note on the value of the Kenya shilling

Is the Kenya shilling overvalued or not? According to the IMF it is currently overvalued by 17 percent. In an unusually combative response to his former employer the Central Bank governor says that is only off-kilter by 5 percent and accuses the IMF of making Kenya a “guinea pig in its new approach.” The offensive claim, contained in the IMF’s latest report on the country dated October 2018, states as follows:

“The EBA-lite methodology for the exchange rate suggests that the external position is weaker than fundamentals. The current account approach shows that the current account deficit (both actual and cyclically adjusted) are above the norm (the CA gap is -2.5 percent), suggesting an overvaluation of about 17.5 percent of the real exchange rate. This can only marginally be explained by the policy gap. The REER approach also shows a similar-size of overvaluation, equivalent to about 18.0 percent. Again, the policy gap is marginal. Given the continued appreciation of the real exchange rate, the external position is assessed to be weaker than fundamentals. Regarding the last approach, the external sustainability approach, it was not possible to use it as the international investment position data is not yet produced by the authorities.”

This needs a fair amount of disambiguation. EBA is a needless acronym that stands for external balance approach for exchange rate assessment. The methodology is described in an IMF paper published in 2013 as an update of a previous methodology known as CGER. CGER is another needless acronym for consultative group for exchange rate assessment. This EBA thing appears to be what the CBK governor is referring to as a new approach.

The methodological spat is a red herring. Economic models are tools, not oracles. What we have here is workmen quarrelling over tools. Our top three economic mandarins are former IMF staffers. Surely, they can sit together with their colleagues and their models and converge on an assessment as to whether the shilling is overvalued or not?

The IMF refers to three methodologies: the Real Effective Exchange Rate (REER), the current account and external sustainability approach. Of the three, the REER is the most intuitively understandable and also the one for which we have data. But what is this animal the REER?

The methodological spat is a red herring. Economic models are tools, not oracles. What we have here is workmen quarrelling over tools. Our top three economic mandarins are former IMF staffers. Surely, they can sit together with their colleagues and their models and converge on an assessment as to whether the shilling is overvalued or not?

Suppose bananas are retailing at KSh 100 shillings a bunch in Kenya. The Kenya/Uganda shilling exchange rate is one to ten. At this exchange rate and banana price, 20 percent of bananas are coming from Uganda. Suppose price of Kenyan bananas goes up to KSh 125 a bunch (e.g. because of increase in taxes), and exchange rate remains the same. Ugandans can continue to sell bananas in Kenya profitably at KSh 100 while many Kenyan producers cannot. In fact, Ugandans are likely to hike their price to let us say KSh.110 making Kenya an even more profitable market than their home market. Uganda bananas will flood the market and put Kenyan producers who are not profitable at Ksh. 110 out of the banana business. For the market to remain at the old equilibrium (i.e. 20/80 Uganda/Kenya market share) requires Kenya shilling to fetch USh. 8.00 so that to get USh. 1000 as before, the Ugandans will also have to sell their bananas at KSh125.

Its readily apparent that if our domestic prices go up faster than those of our trading partners, then foreign goods will keep becoming cheaper. But you cannot tell by just looking at the dollar shilling exchange rate. We need to factor in the price movements with every trading partner. The REER is an index that combines the relative exchange rate and price movements of all our trading partners.

If the REER is rising our goods are becoming more expensive. We can expect to import more and export less. If this happens our trade deficit will widen. If the trade deficit continues to widen, we run the risk of defaulting on our international obligations in particular debt service and repatriation of profits and capital. This is where the IMF comes in. The IMF’s mandate is to maintain international financial stability. The IMF is a financial cooperative whose job it is to ensure members do not run into external payments difficulties, and to bail them out when they do, in order to keep global finance and commerce going.

The spat between the IMF and the CBK is therefore about our external creditworthiness. The key indicator for this is the current account balance. The current account balance has two components: trade and income. The trade account I have already mentioned. The income account consists of payments for “factor services” such as interest (use of capital), payments for services of Kenyan troops abroad (labour services) and another component we call unrequited transfers (meaning money we have not earned) such as diaspora remittances and grants. The external account in turn, has a third component, the capital account where, as the name suggest, we record investment transactions.

The spat between the IMF and the CBK is…about our external creditworthiness. The key indicator for this is the current account balance.

This is how it works. Kenya Airways buys an aircraft using a foreign loan. The aircraft is entered in the trade account as an import and simultaneously in the capital account as a capital inflow. The following day it ferries passengers from Lagos to Dubai. The income is recorded in the trade account as a service export. At the end of the month it remits repayment on the loan. The interest is recorded in the income account as a factor service payment and the principal is in the capital account as a capital outflow.

The net of the current account and the capital account are added together to give the overall balance. An increasing overall deficit depletes foreign reserves, while a surplus leads to a build up of reserves. Current account surpluses mean that a country’s savings exceed its investment; it can, therefore, export capital, like China. A current account deficit means that a country is investing more than its savings, in other words, it is importing capital (either debt, FDI, remittances, grants etc).

Chart 1

The country’s creditworthiness thus depends not just on trade but also on other financial flows, that are determined by factors other than trade competitiveness, both economic and non-economic. Complicated stuff.

Both the IMF and CBK agree that the shilling has appreciated, but they disagree on the magnitude. The IMF also implies that the appreciation is a reflection of policy action while the CBK maintains that it is a reflection of market forces. The IMF view translates to accusing the CBK of misleading the public by espousing a monetary policy that claims to target inflation, while in practice it is actually targeting the exchange rate. The IMF’s “smoking gun” is the fact that the NEER has flatlined for the past six years (see Chart).

Recently the IMF re-classified the Kenya shilling from a “floating” (meaning market determined) to “other managed arrangement.” This means the IMF is convinced that the Central Bank is propping up the shilling. What reason would the Central Bank prop up the shilling especially if it undermines the country’s competitiveness and solvency?

Foreign currency debt exposure is one reason. The interest payments on the first Eurobonds issued in 2015 ($185 million a year) has increased by KSh 3 billion, KSh 16 billion to KSh 19 billion on account of the depreciation of the shilling. Translate that to the total interest payments this year which are in the order of $1.4 billion dollars. The shilling has weakened by about three shillings to the dollar since the beginning of the financial year. This translates to a KSh 4 billion squeeze on a government that is already living way beyond its means. The last thing the Treasury wants to hear is that the shilling should be trading at about 120 to the dollar.

Recently the IMF re-classified the Kenya shilling from a “floating” (meaning market determined) to “other managed arrangement.” This means the IMF is convinced that the Central Bank is propping up the shilling. What reason would the Central Bank prop up the shilling especially if it undermines the country’s competitiveness and solvency?

Another reason is pressure to keep low interest rates. Interest rate is the policy instrument in an inflation-targeting monetary policy regime such as we claim to have. Central Banks are given statutory independence to insulate them from such pressure so that they can raise interest rates when they need to, even when it is politically costly for the government. But that does not make Central Banks immune from the pressure to accommodate political objectives of the government of the day. Parliament’s capping of interest rates two years ago is ample demonstration that political pressure on Central Banks is real.

Keeping interest rates artificially low puts pressure on the exchange rate. A weakening currency creates inflationary pressures, which is what the Central Banks are mandated to control in the first place. The Central Banks end up trying to meet incompatible objectives, low interest rates, low inflation and a stable currency.

This is precisely what happened from mid-2009 to September 2011. The Central Bank bent over backwards to accommodate the government’s economic stimulus meant to respond to both the post-election violence and the global financial crisis. Interests rate were driven to the floor. From mid-2010 to mid-2011 the benchmark 90-day Treasury bill rate was kept below 3 percent. The IMF’s charts show how this ended— with a very hard landing. The shilling which had been propped up at about 80 to the dollar, started unravelling in April peaking at KSh100 to the dollar in September. The Central Bank was forced to jack up interest rates in a hurry. By the end of 2011, the T-bill rate was heading to 20 percent.

The IMF seems to believe that, left to market forces, the shilling will depreciate in real terms. The IMF’s REER chart covers eight years, from 2010 to 2017. A longer timespan does not necessarily support this contention (see Chart). My chart goes back to the beginning of the liberalized regime in 1994. What do we see? The shilling has been appreciating in real terms since it was liberalized. Overall it has appreciated 157 percent, by 9 percent per year on average. This could mean that the Government has been propping up the shilling all these years, or that market forces are not working the way the IMF expects.

Chart 2

Many Kenyans have observed that we have become an importing country. One also hears policymakers lamenting that we are losing our markets in the region and blaming all manner of things. There is no mystery to it.

My [assessment is that] the shilling has been appreciating in real terms since it was liberalized. Overall it has appreciated 157 percent – by 9 percent per year on average. This could mean that the Government has been propping up the shilling all these years, or that market forces are not working the way the IMF expects.

But is the Central Bank propping up the shilling? That we cannot be able to tell that easily. There are lots of moving parts. It can also be on account of some trading partners manipulating their currencies: China, for example, is regularly accused of maintaining an artificially weak currency. China has a big weight in our REER and it’s been growing over time.

The ultimate question is whether it is sustainable. There are two parts to this, financial and economic. The widening trade deficit has been plugged by remittances and portfolio inflows (money flowing into the stock exchange and government securities), not all of it honest money, and lately, government commercial borrowing, the ubiquitous eurobonds and syndicated loans. As long as these keep flowing, the show can go on.

Why are we told the economy is growing and yet we cannot feel it? This is the shopping mall economy. How long can we keep that going?

The economics is a different story. It is not good for employment and equity. It is part of the answer to the question that Kenyans keep asking: why they are told the economy is growing and they are not feeling it. This is the shopping mall economy. How long can we keep that going? Your guess is as good as mine. Governments are known to manipulate currencies and to distort financial markets generally. The IMF is known to (a) have more faith in market forces than warranted and (b) get the workings of those market forces wrong. What to do?

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70 Years After the UN’s Declaration on Human Rights, the Struggle Continues Against Poverty, War, Disease – and Whistleblowers

The UN’s internal benchmark of success is the amount of money raised, not the successful execution of a programme. War and poverty remain necessary for the functioning of a system of phantom projects characterised by waste, mismanagement and corruption. And since the Iraq Oil-for-Food scandal of the early 2000s, in which billions went missing and the perpetrators scot-free, senior management has waged a silent war against its own whistleblowers. Who will police the world’s watchdog? By RASNA WARAH

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70 Years After the Un’s Declaration on Human Rights, the Struggle Continues Against Poverty, War, Disease - and Whistleblowers

The resignation last month of the Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), Erik Solheim, after an internal audit found that he had misused funds from the organisation, has been construed as a sign that the UN is serious about tackling wrongdoing within its ranks. However, this high-profile case should not distract us from the fact that waste, fraud and corruption are rarely punished in the UN system, and that the majority of offenders get away scot-free.

Solheim is accused of spending nearly half a million dollars on unnecessary travel within a period of less than two years. The audit showed that between May 2016 and March 2018 he spent 529 days travelling and only stayed in Nairobi, where UNEP has its headquarters, for about 20 per cent of the time.

Much of this travel was wasteful. For instance, in July 2016, he travelled to Paris for a one-day official meeting but decided to stay on in the French capital for a whole month (at taxpayers’ expense). In the following two months, he travelled for 42 days to 24 destinations. One official trip to Addis Ababa was routed through Oslo in his home country Norway, even though the Ethiopian capital is just a two-hour flight from Nairobi. The audit report also showed that Solheim was not the only culprit – other senior managers at UNEP have been accused of spending a whopping $58.5 million on travel alone over a two-year period – and this, from an organisation that advocates for the reduction in the use of fossil fuels.

Solheim is accused of spending nearly half a million dollars on unnecessary travel in less than two years. Between May 2016 and March 2018 he spent 529 days travelling and only stayed in Nairobi, where UNEP has its headquarters, for 20 percent of the time.

This blatant abuse of taxpayers’ money is not new at the UN and Solheim’s conduct is hardly unique. The differences between Solheim’s case and others are: one, his case managed to reach the internal investigation stage, which only happens when there is political will to carry out such an investigation; two, the findings of the investigation were made public, which is usually not the case; the case against him was strong because the trail of misused funds could be traced through flight and hotel bookings, which is not normally the case when deceptive UN managers make UN money disappear without a trace.

One common way of diverting or stealing funds in the UN is to create phantom projects. Let me give you a personal example. Sometime in 2009, my boss at the United Nations Human Settlements Programme (UN-Habitat) called me into his office to tell me that he urgently needed to spend $100,000 of donor money before the end of the year because if he didn’t, he’d have to return the funds to the donor country. So he appointed me to manage a $100,000 project that would result in a book on cities for which he said he would hire consultants from abroad to research and write such a book. The consultants (some of whom were friends of the boss’s boss) were hired and a phantom book project was created.

Two months later, the book project was “closed” (without my knowledge, yet I was supposedly heading the project) even though no manuscript or book had materialised. When I realised that the project was fake and that money may have been diverted to a personal project, I reported the matter to the project/funds manager (a junior officer, essentially a bookkeeper, who had no say in how money in the organisation was spent and who only followed the instructions of her bosses). There was no response and within hours of my email, the process of eliminating me from the organisation began. I suffered retaliation, threats of non-renewal of contract and a whole range of psychological warfare tactics that eventually made me leave the organisation. I realised then that I had inadvertently become a “whistleblower”.

One common way of diverting or stealing funds in the UN is to create phantom projects. Millions of dollars have disappeared from the UN’s coffers through such opaque practices, the fiddling of books, and even downright theft, but few of the culprits are reprimanded, fired or even identified.

When I eventually took UN-Habitat to task through the UN Ethics Office – which was created in response to the Oil-for-Food debacle in Iraq, and which is mandated to look into whistleblower cases – I was enmeshed in a labyrinth of doublespeak and obfuscation that convinced me that the UN Ethics Office was created to muzzle and suppress whistleblowers so that the UN’s reputation would not be tarnished. I got no support from the office; on the contrary, I was told, both by the Ethics Office and UN-Habitat’s senior bosses, that the whole thing was a figment of my imagination. I have had to live with that “gaslighting” humiliation for the last nine years.

Millions of dollars have disappeared from the UN’s coffers through such opaque practices, the fiddling of books, and even downright theft, but few of the culprits are reprimanded, fired or even identified. (Even Solheim was allowed to quietly resign.) On the contrary, whistleblowers find themselves out of a job or demoted.

For instance, senior UN officials implicated in the scandalous UN Oil-for-Food Programme in Iraq are still walking around freely, enjoying their UN perks and benefits. A 2005 investigation led by Paul Volcker – who was appointed by the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan after a series of exposés about money being diverted from the programme appeared in the media – found that billions (yes, billions!) of dollars had been lost through a network that included Saddam Hussein, dubious foreign companies and individuals who paid bribes or received kickbacks to participate in the programme and UN employees who received bribes or chose to look the other way. Not one person identified as having fraudulently benefitted from the programme – it was supposed to help the Iraqi people cope with the sanctions imposed after Saddam invaded Kuwait – has been charged with this crime in any national court. (Saddam Hussein was eventually tried and executed by a kangaroo court, not for diverting funds from the programme, but for crimes he had committed against the Iraqi people.)

Meanwhile, the UN simply noted the findings of the Volcker investigation and UN member states continued with business as usual. Besides, by the time the findings of the Volcker investigation were made public, the United States and Britain, two of the five veto-holding powers in the UN Security Council, were embroiled in an illegal war in Iraq, which diverted the public’s attention from one of the biggest scams the world has ever witnessed.

The Oil-for-Food Programme put a huge dent in the UN’s reputation because of the scale of the theft, but this particular UN-managed initiative only got exposed because there were people within the organisation, such as Michael Soussan, author of Backstabbing for Beginners, and Rehan Mullick, a database manager, who were willing to blow the whistle on wrongdoing within the programme. Many smaller-scale thefts are taking place every day under the noses of UN bosses, and sometimes with their collusion.

The reason why such thefts and cover-ups are so common in the UN is that UN agencies are often deliberately vague about how they spend their money. A NORAD-commissioned investigation in 2011 found that most of the UN agencies surveyed had difficulty explaining where their money had gone or to which specific projects, and that information about expenditure was either limited or fragmented.

The Oil-for-Food Programme put a huge dent in the UN’s reputation because of the scale of the theft, but this particular UN-managed initiative only got exposed because there were people within the organisation, who were willing to blow the whistle on wrongdoing within the programme. Many smaller-scale thefts are taking place every day under the noses of UN bosses, and sometimes with their collusion.

When internal investigations are carried out, it usually means that things have gone out of hand (or that enough people in the organisation are pissed off and are complaining), which is what happened with Solheim at UNEP and also at the UN’s refugee agency in Uganda recently. An internal audit of UNHCR’s operations in Uganda found that the agency wasted tens of millions of dollars in 2017 by overpaying for goods and services, awarding major contracts improperly and failing to prevent fraud and waste. In addition, thousands of blankets, wheelbarrows and solar lamps meant for South Sudanese refugees went missing. The UN agency also entered into inappropriate arrangements with Ugandan government officials. For instance, it paid the Office of the Prime Minister $320,000, ostensibly to buy a plot of land to expand the government’s refugee-handling capacity; yet the Office of the Prime Minister could not produce a title deed to prove ownership and the land is now being used as a parking lot.

Part of the problem is that UN agencies are expected to monitor, evaluate and audit their own programmes and projects – the poacher as game-keeper. Donors to the UN expect the global body to report on the the projects they fund. This is problematic because it means that UN agencies can easily manipulate their monitoring and evaluation reports to suit their own agendas, needs and funding requirements. Besides, success is often measured by how much money was raised and spent, not on whether the project achieved its goals. There is, therefore, a desire to spend large amounts of money in the quickest way possible – even if it means travelling first class to a vague conference in a distant part of the world.

An internal audit of UNHCR’s operations in Uganda found that the agency wasted tens of millions of dollars in 2017…Thousands of blankets, wheelbarrows and solar lamps meant for South Sudanese refugees went missing. The UN agency paid the Office of the Prime Minister $320,000 to buy a plot of land to expand the government’s refugee-handling capacity. Yet the Prime Minister’s office could not produce the title deed to prove ownership. The plot is now a parking lot.

Moreover, a project is not “closed” because it was successful (which should be the ultimate aim of any project); rather, it remains “ongoing” even when the situation on the ground has changed (which explains why there are still UN peacekeepers in Haiti even though the civil conflict there ended years ago). No one wants to know how many people’s lives improved significantly as a result of the project or why the crisis that led to the project keeps recurring.

This explains why, year after year, the UN fabricates or exaggerates a humanitarian crisis in some part of the world. A few years ago it was Somalia; today it is Yemen. No one wonders why, if the UN has been so successful in stemming the scourge of war around the world the refugee crisis today is bigger than it was when the UN was established. To avert a humanitarian crisis in Yemen, would it not have been wiser to sanction Saudi Arabia for going to war with Yemen or to sanction the United States, the main supplier of arms to Saudi Arabia?

But these are the uncomfortable questions that UN bureaucrats – and the power wielders at the UN Security Council – do not worry too much about as they travel in luxury around the world to some god-forsaken country whose people will never be lifted out of misery because the UN will not have it any other way: too many UN jobs depend on people remaining poor, hungry and homeless.

What can be done to reverse this situation? Well, for starters, as the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human rights on 10 December, there has to be an honest discussion about whether the UN has fulfilled its mandate of promoting peace, human rights and development around the world. A scorecard would indicate success in some areas (e.g. smallpox eradication and child vaccination programmes) but dismal failures in others (e.g. wars in Iraq, Syria and Yemen and genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica). If the UN cannot prevent wars and suffering, then what is its purpose?

As the world celebrates the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human rights on 10 December, there has to be an honest discussion about whether the UN has fulfilled its mandate of promoting peace, human rights and development around the world.

Secondly, we need to democratise the UN Security Council, which is currently the bastion of only five veto-holding countries – the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia – which also happen to be the world’s leading weapons manufacturers and suppliers and who, therefore, have a vested interest in conflicts outside their borders. These countries decide which countries can go to war and which can’t (which is why no sanctions were imposed on the United States and Britain when they went to war in Iraq). All permanent members of the UN Security Council should have an equal say in matters concerning global security, and should be working towards preventing wars, not starting them.

We need to democratise the UN Security Council, which is currently the bastion of only five veto-holding countries, which also happen to be the world’s leading weapons manufacturers and suppliers and who, therefore, have a vested interest in conflicts outside their borders.

Thirdly, the UN’s internal oversight system needs to be overhauled. The UN’s internal justice systems, including the UN Ethics Office, should be abolished in favour of an external, independent mechanism that can provide the checks and balances that the UN so desperately needs. This mechanism, possibly in the form of a tribunal, would also allow UN whistleblowers to present their cases without fear of retaliation. Such a mechanism would, hopefully, also permit perpetrators of crimes committed by UN personnel to be brought to justice in national courts, rather than the current system that gives immunity to UN employees implicated in crimes and wrongdoing (which means they cannot be tried in any court, not even in their own country).

The UN cannot – and should not be allowed to – police itself. Given all the scandals at the UN, I think it is time an independent entity be entrusted with the responsibility of watching the world’s watchdog.

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Fake It till You Make It Nations and Bling Bling Economics: Debt, Dictatorship and Underdevelopment

Once upon a time, financial recklessness was the preserve of resource-rich nations. Now, resource-poor African nations, their thoughtless leaders seduced into taking printed money circulated by the US Federal Reserve after the global financial crisis a decade ago, have become the new sultanates of debt distress. DAVID NDII ponders a different path.

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Fake It till You Make It Nations and Bling Bling Economics: Debt, Dictatorship and Underdevelopment

Not too long ago, Angola opened an embassy in Nairobi on a quite well-appointed address on Redhill Road in the diplomatic suburb of Gigiri, a road I use frequently. You couldn’t miss it. It had an outlandish gate and a black granite signboard with gold lettering. I was rather intrigued that Angola would need such a large embassy in Kenya. I have made a point of observing how much activity was going on there— very little. I passed there the other day and lo and behold, the outlandish gold lettered black granite signboard was gone, replaced by a more modest one announcing the Botswana High Commission. The Angolan foray would have cost no less than $10 million, and I would imagine that Kenya was not the only country that Angola had spread its diplomatic footprint. What has changed?

Angola has squandered the oil bonanza of the last decade. Angola is Africa’s second-biggest oil producer after Nigeria, with a daily output of 1.6 million barrels of crude and 18 million cubic metres of natural gas. There is an economic principle that windfall earnings should be saved. Angola did not save. Instead, it leveraged the oil boom to pile up debt. Angola is China’s biggest debtor in Africa, owing US$ 23 billion accounting for about a fifth of Africa’s debt to China.

If Angola had set a windfall benchmark at $50 per barrel, its nest egg for the five and a half year oil boom (April 2009 to May 2014) would have been in the order of $100 billion on crude oil alone ie. excluding natural gas. A conservative investment yielding 5 percent a year would be earning Angola $5 billion a year to invest in infrastructure or whatever else it chooses. This is how Norway got rich on oil. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund, the worlds largest, is now worth a trillion dollars. If Norway was to pay dividends from the fund to its 5.2 million citizens, each would get US$9,000 a year.

There is an economic principle that windfall earnings should be saved. Angola did not save. Instead it leveraged the oil boom to pile up debt. If Angola had set a benchmark of $50 per barrel of petroleum, its windfall for the five and a half year oil boom (April 2009 to May 2014) would have been in the order of $100 billion on crude oil alone… A conservative investment yielding 5 percent a year would be earning Angola $5 billion a year to invest in infrastructure or whatever else it chooses.

They say once bitten twice shy. Not Zambia. When I was a college student eons ago, Zambia was a case study on how not to manage an economy. Zambia rode the post independence commodity boom into middle income status by the early seventies. At $600, Zambia’s income per person was one-third higher than the Sub-sahara Africa average. In Nairobi, Zambia’s heydays are represented by its well-appointed embassy property on Nyerere Road, overlooking Uhuru Park. When commodity prices receded from the late seventies, Zambia plugged its finances by borrowing – and borrowed itself into poverty. Over the next decade, Zambia’s foreign debt increased seven-fold, from one to seven billion dollars. By the mid-90s when it got HIPC (Highly Indebted Poor Countries) debt relief, average income adjusted for inflation was half of the mid-1970s level.

Zambia rode the post independence commodity boom into middle income status by the early seventies. When commodity prices receded from the late 1970s, Zambia plugged its finances by borrowing – and borrowed itself into poverty.

Copper prices surged again in the 2000s peaking in 2011 at $4.60 a pound, about the same in inflation-adjusted terms, as at the 1970s peak. In 2012, against the backdrop of retreating copper prices, Zambia debuted in the Eurobond market, borrowing $750 million. It also borrowed heavily from China. Copper prices have fallen again and Zambia is in debt distress. The eurobonds are now trading at around15 percent yield, almost three times the debut bonds 5.6 percent yield at issue. What this means is that the bonds for which investors paid $94 are now trading at $34. It means that Zambia is now effectively locked out of any more borrowing in the sovereign bond market. Will Zambia turn around its finances before the bonds are due for re-financing? Doubtful.

Zambia is only slightly less dependent on copper now than it was in the 1970s. Copper still accounts for two-thirds of exports. Zambia has no shortage of low-hanging fruit in terms of diversification options: it has plenty of idle arable land and underexploited tourism potential. Chile was once as copper dependent as Zambia. In fact, copper still accounts for half of Chile’s exports. But Chile has diversified its economy and worked its way up to being the first Latin American country to be admitted to the OECD club of rich countries. Interestingly, Chile has become a wealthy country without following the Asian Tiger holy grail of export manufacturing, but rather by diversifying to services and agricultural exports. Its other key exports are agricultural including horticulture, wine and fish, especially farmed salmon.

Chile was once as copper dependent as Zambia. Copper still accounts for half of Chile’s exports. But Chile has diversified its economy and worked its way up to being the first Latin American country to be admitted to the OECD club of rich countries. Interestingly, Chile has become a wealthy country without following the Asian Tiger holy grail of export manufacturing, but rather by diversifying to services and agricultural exports.

Historically, financial recklessness on this scale was the preserve of resource-rich African countries. But the disease has spread all over the continent. Resource-poor countries such as Ethiopia and Kenya are now just as reckless as the resource-cursed. In the past, resource-poor countries simply did not have access to the money to steal or finance megalomania. When they tried to do so by domestic borrowing and printing money, the macroeconomic feedback loop quickly kicked in and wreaked financial havoc. Moi learned this lesson. Mugabe did not. He ended up with a hyperinflation for the ages, and the demise of the Zimbabwe dollar.

There are two reasons why resource-poor countries have also caught the disease: the 2008 global financial crisis, and China.

Since the global financial crisis, which began in 2007 and properly set in the next year, the financial markets have been awash with money churned out by the US Federal Reserve and other central banks, thereby depressing interest rates to near zero, prompting money managers to go looking for better returns in emerging markets in what is known in market lingo as “hunting for yield”. Aggressive salesmen were everywhere scouting for and massaging the egos of potential borrowers. When Kenya set out to debut in the Eurobond market it indicated that it would raise a $500m “benchmarking” bond whose proceeds were to retire a syndicated bank loan borrowed two years before, and which was the only foreign loan in Kenya’s books at the time. By the time the issue was going to the market, it had grown fourfold to $2 billion. By the time it closed, the government had borrowed $2.8 billion.

Within weeks of the successful debut, the treasury mandarins were talking of Sukuks (Islamic bonds) and Samurais (Japanese Yen denominated bonds), like children accidentally locked inside an ice cream parlour. Other than the syndicated loan repayment of $600 million there is no trace of anything financed with the money.

Since the global financial crisis, the financial markets have been awash with money churned out by the US Federal Reserve and other central banks, thereby depressing interest rates to near zero, prompting money managers to go looking for better returns in emerging markets. Aggressive salesmen were everywhere scouting for and massaging the egos of potential borrowers. Africa Rising.

China is getting more than its fair share of flak for Africa’s debt distress. The fear of the Dragon is over the top. Unlike the Western banks and markets which are embedded in the Western power structure, China will have little recourse when countries default. It cannot run them through the mill we saw “the troika” run Greece when it went into debt-distress in 2009. The head of China Export and Credit Insurance Corporation, known as Sinosure was recently quoted lamenting the poor quality of China’s infrastructure loans abroad. He went on to disclose that the agency is already a billion dollars out of pocket on Ethiopia’s new railway, whose preparation he termed “downright inadequate”. “Ethiopia’s planning capabilities are lacking, but even with the help of Sinosure and the lending Chinese bank it was still insufficient.”

It has also been reported that China may offload its infrastructure loans to the secondary market. The plan is to sell the loans to the Hong Kong Mortgage Corporation which will in turn repackage them, dice them up and sell them to investors, thereby releasing liquidity back to the primary lenders such as China Exim Bank to make more loans.   This is not funny. First, the lenders admit that they have made dud loans. Then they follow this with an announcement that they will sell the same to investors. It is a scheme such as this, which mixed up low risk and high risk (a.k.a sub-prime) mortgage loans into securities known as Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) that precipitated the erstwhile mentioned global financial crisis. More poignantly, the Dragons debt trap diplomacy as it’s been called, begins to look uncannily like hunting for yield.

That is the supply side. On the demand side, you have African leaders who have no ideas of their own. From import substitution industrialization, to neoliberal orthodoxy in the 80s, to poverty reduction strategies and now infrastructure-led growth, they wander thoughtlessly from one aid paradigm to the next, all the while living up to Fanon’s prediction that they were destined to become “a transmission line between the nation and capitalism.”

The bigger problem is delusions of grandeur. Seemingly every one of these African big men has a Lee Kwan Yew complex. Even Uhuru Kenyatta, a man who couldn’t run an orderly kindergarten in a children’s park if his life depended on it, is prone to bouts of megalomania during which he comically dons military fatigues and goes around doing General Park Chung-hee skits.

On the demand side, you have African leaders who have no ideas of their own. From import substitution industrialization, to neoliberal orthodoxy in the 80s, to poverty reduction strategies and now infrastructure-led growth, they wander thoughtlessly from one aid paradigm to the next, all the while living up to Fanon’s prediction that they were destined to become “a transmission line between the nation and capitalism.

Africa has its economically successful nations: Botswana, Namibia, Mauritius, Cape Verde and the Seychelles. What do these successful African nations have in common? First, they are all small. Three of them are small island nations. Namibia is large geographically, but its population is only 2.5 million people. Second, they are also successful democracies. The five are consistently the highest ranked African countries in democracy league tables such as the Economist’s Democracy Index and the Freedom House Index.

Why are Africa’s small countries more politically and economically successful than the big ones?

Size matters. It is easier to build a small nation than a big one. Small islands are natural nations, hence it should not surprise that all the small island nations are successful. Madagascar is Africa’s sole big island nation, and it is not successful at all.

The big African countries are almost invariably very ethnically diverse. Recently, someone on social media asked me why benevolent dictatorship cannot work in Africa the way it worked in South Korea. My answer was a question: what tribe will the dictator be? He has not responded. Proponents of developmental autocracies fail to recognize that the East Asian countries are old nations, not the arbitrary colonial creations that African countries are. Korea is a culturally homogenous society with unified dynastic rule going back to 900 AD, and a political history, known as the Three Kingdoms, going back another millennium. The Thai Kingdom dates back 700 years.

Proponents of developmental autocracies fail to recognize that the East Asian countries are old nations, not the arbitrary colonial creations that African countries are. Korea is a culturally homogenous society with unified dynastic rule going back to 900 AD, and a political history, known as the Three Kingdoms, going back another millennium. The Thai Kingdom dates back 700 years.

Ethiopia is Africa’s oldest nation-state, and the only one that is not a colonial creation. It is also one of the largest and most diverse(100 million people, over 80 officially recognized ethnic groups). After the Derg’s reign of terror, Ethiopians adopted a constitution based on a loose ethnic federation. But Meles Zenawi could not resist the allure of the developmental autocrat. He borrowed and built like a man possessed but the economic miracle did not materialize, and Ethiopians, tired of autocracy without prosperity, took to the streets. The edifice has unravelled. The leadership is coming to terms with a historical fact that the rest will be reckoning with sooner or later: political development precedes prosperity.

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