Daily Archives: 14 March 2006

Economic Disincentives in Cameroon

In the libertarian magazine Reason, Financial Times columnist Tim Harford looks at disincentives for investing in economic infrastructure in Cameroon.

Many people have an optimistic view of politicians and civil servants—that they are all serving the people and doing their best to look after the interests of the country. Other people are more cynical, suggesting that many politicians are incompetent and often trade off the public interest against their own chances of re-election. The economist Mancur Olson proposed a working assumption that government’s motivations are darker still, and from it theorized that stable dictatorships should be worse for economic growth than democracies, but better than sheer instability.

Olson supposed that governments are simply bandits, people with the biggest guns who will turn up and take everything. That’s the starting point of his analysis—a starting point you will have no trouble accepting if you spend five minutes looking around you in Cameroon….

When [President Paul] Biya came to power in 1982, he inherited colonial-era roads that had yet to fall apart completely. If he had inherited a country without any infrastructure, it would have been in his interest to build it up to some extent. Because the infrastructure was already in place, Biya needed to calculate whether it was worth maintaining, or whether he could simply live off the legacy of Cameroon’s colonial rulers. In 1982 he probably thought the roads would last into the 1990s, which was as long as he could reasonably have expected to hold onto the reins of power. So he decided to live off the capital of the past and never bothered to invest in any type of infrastructure for his people. As long as there was enough to get him through his rule, why bother spending money that could otherwise go right into his personal retirement fund?…

Mancur Olson showed that kleptocracy at the top stunts the growth of poor countries. Having a thief for president doesn’t necessarily spell doom; the president might prefer to boost the economy and then take a slice of a bigger pie. But in general, looting will be widespread either because the dictator is not confident of his tenure or because he needs to allow others to steal in order to keep their support.

The rot starts with government, but it afflicts the entire society. There’s no point investing in a business because the government will not protect you against thieves. (So you might as well become a thief yourself.) There’s no point in paying your phone bill because no court can make you pay. (So there’s no point being a phone company.) There’s no point setting up an import business because the customs officers will be the ones to benefit. (So the customs office is underfunded and looks even harder for bribes.) There’s no point getting an education because jobs are not handed out on merit. (And in any case, you can’t borrow money for school fees because the bank can’t collect on the loan.)

It is not news that corruption and perverse incentives matter. But perhaps it is news that the problem of twisted rules and institutions explains not just a little bit of the gap between Cameroon and rich countries but almost all of the gap. Countries like Cameroon fall far below their potential even considering their poor infrastructure, low investment, and minimal education. Worse, the web of corruption foils every effort to improve the infrastructure, attract investment, and raise educational standards.

via Foreign Dispatches

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Spreading Malay Literacy in the 1930s

A new generation of Malay commoners was also finding a voice [during the 1930s]. An important source for this was the Sultan Idris Training College for Malay schoolteachers in Tanjong Malim, just north of Kuala Lumpur. The college was an unlikely site for innovation because it was founded to provide teachers for vernacular schools, the stated role of which was to educate Malays to become better fishermen and farmers. Yet the Malay staff of the college generated new enthusiasm for Malay literature and history, particularly the vanished golden age of the fifteenth-century empire of Melaka. They developed the Malay language in a new, standard Romanized script. The Japanese ally Ibrahim Yaacob was a graduate, and it was from amongst his costudents that many of the members of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda – the Union of Malay Youth – were drawn. To Ibrahim Yaacob, the rulers had left Malays like ‘a boat without a steersman’. His writings were a call to awareness of the Malay nation, the ‘Bangsa Melayu’, which was to take precedence over old loyalties. In this, the young had a special role. A Penang magazine called Saudara (‘Friend’) had created a revolutionary league of pen-friends modelled on the ‘Teddy Tail League’ of the Daily Mail. It allowed young Malays to address each other as strangers, as equals and across gender lines. Conservatives panicked that it would encourage girls to write love letters.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 48-49

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Reconstructing Virginia Algonquian

Language Hat notes a NY Times story about the efforts to reconstruct the dead Algonquian language spoken by Powhatan and Pocahontas in order to lend an air of authenticity to the dialogue in the movie The New World.

This family of Indian tongues, in one respect, reminded linguists of the Romance languages. Each was distinctive but as closely related as Spanish is to Italian or Italian to Romanian. Comparisons with related languages revealed the common elements of grammar and sentence structure and many similarities in vocabulary.

A translation of the Bible into the language once spoken by Massachusetts Indians offered more insights into the grammar. The Munsee Delaware version spoken by coastal Indians from Delaware to New York, including those who sold Manhattan, may be dead, but its grammar and vocabulary are fairly well known to scholars.

“We have a big fat dictionary of Munsee Delaware,” said Dr. Rudes, who adapted some of those words when needed for Virginia Algonquian. Recordings of the last Munsee Delaware speakers, a century ago, were a valuable guide to pronunciations.

Another research tool was what is called Proto-Algonquian. It is the hypothetical ancestor common to all Algonquian speech, 4,000 words that scholars have compiled from the surviving tongues and documentation of the extinct ones.

The reconstruction involves educated guesses. Strachey set down words for walnut, shoes and two kinds of beast, “paukauns,” “mawhcasuns,” “aroughcoune” and “opposum.” In Proto-Algonquian, similar words are paka-ni (meaning large nut), maxkesen (shoe), la-le-ckani (raccoon) and wa-pa’oemwi (white dog).

From this, Dr. Rudes reconstructed the Virginia Algonquian words pakán, mahkusun, árehkan and wápahshum,” or pecan, moccasin, raccoon and opossum.

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