Category Archives: labor

Kalakaua Visits Meiji, 1881

From Emperor of Japan: Meiji and His World, 1852–1912, by Donald Keene (Columbia U. Press, 2005), Kindle pp. 346-347:

On February 23 the emperor had word from John Bingham, the American minister, that King Kalakaua of Hawaii would be arriving in Japan on a round-the-world journey. The king would be traveling incognito, but he had some state business to transact: he wished to encourage Japanese migration to Hawaii and to sign a treaty with the Japanese government. He was accordingly treated as a state visitor, and Prince Yoshiaki was appointed as the commissioner for the visit. Two other officials were charged with entertaining the king.

Kalakaua arrived in Yokohama on March 4. He was greeted with twenty-one-gun salutes by Japanese and foreign warships anchored in the bay. When the boat sent by the Japanese to take the Hawaiians from the Oceanic to their hotel touched shore, they heard the Hawaiian national anthem, played with explosive vigor by a Japanese military band. They were astonished that the Japanese musicians had learned the anthem of so remote and unimportant a country. The king and the others of his retinue, touched, were all but in tears. Along the way to the palace where they were to stay, they noticed that the houses of Yokohama were decorated with crossed Japanese and Hawaiian flags. The king and his party were stunned by the welcome.

Kalakaua traveled to Tōkyō the next day aboard the imperial train and, after receiving an official reception at Shimbashi Station, proceeded directly to the Akasaka Palace. The emperor, following the etiquette of European courts that requires a monarch to receive a visiting monarch at the threshold of his palace, went to a room close to the entrance of the palace to meet his royal visitor. He was resplendent in a dress uniform studded with medals. The two monarchs shook hands. The Hawaiians, having been informed that the emperor normally did not shake hands, interpreted the gesture as a special honor. The two monarchs, after exchanging formal greetings, walked side by side into an interior room. W. N. Armstrong, the king’s chamberlain and the chronicler of his journey around the world, had heard that because of his divine origin, the emperor had never before permitted anyone to walk by his side; even the empress followed him. “But, for the first time in his own reign, and in those of his predecessors, he walked by the side of his kingly guest.”

The empress was waiting for the royal visitor in the audience chamber. Meiji presented Kalakaua to the empress. “She did not rise, but returned the king’s salutation with the least movement of her head and eyes.” Sueko, the daughter of Inoue Kaoru, who had spent several years in England, served as her interpreter. (Armstrong wrote that she spoke perfect English.) Refreshments were served, but the Hawaiians, having been previously informed that they should not eat in the presence of the emperor, declined them.

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Tibetan Wealth in Caterpillar Fungus

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Tibetans also discovered a niche that was almost uniquely their own: collecting medicinal herbs. Herbs were commonly used in both Chinese and Tibetan medicine, and many of the more valuable were found on the Tibetan plateau. Beimu, an alpine lily used to treat coughs, grew at altitudes of more than 10,000 feet, and Tibetan nomads were perfectly situated to collect it.

Most lucrative was Cordyceps sinensis, a prized ingredient in traditional medicine, believed to boost immunity, stamina, and lung and kidney function. Tibetans call it yartsa gunbu, meaning “summer grass, winter worm,” or simply bu, “worm,” for short. [In Chinese, it’s 冬虫夏草 dōng chóng xià cao ‘winter worm, summer grass’.] The worm is actually a fungus that feeds on the larvae of caterpillars. In the past, the worm was commonplace enough that Tibetans would feed it to a sluggish horse or yak, but the Chinese developed a hankering for it that sent prices soaring. Chinese coaches with gold-medal ambitions would feed it to athletes; aging businessmen would eat it to enhance their sexual potency. At one point, the best-quality caterpillar fungus was worth nearly the price of gold, as much as $900 an ounce.

Tibetans had a natural monopoly on the caterpillar fungus. Non-Tibetans didn’t have the local knowledge or the lung capacity to compete. The best worm was in Golok, northwest of Ngaba. Nomadic families would bring their children with them, sometimes taking them out of school because their sharp eyesight and short stature allowed them to more easily scan the ground for the worm amid the grasses and weeds. The season ran for approximately forty days of early spring, the time when the melting snow turned the still-brown hills into a spongy carpet. The families would camp out for weeks in the mountains. In a good season, a Tibetan family could make more in this period than a Chinese factory worker could earn in a year.

The Communist Party would later brag about how their policies had boosted the Tibetan economy, but the truth was that nothing contributed as much as the caterpillar fungus, which according to one scholar accounted for as much as 40 percent of Tibetans’ cash earnings. Unlike earnings from mining and forestry, industries that came to be dominated by Chinese companies, this was cash that went directly into the pockets of Tibetans. The nomads acquired the spending power to support the new shops and cafés. The golden worm was part of a cycle of rising prosperity.

Until the 1980s, trade between the Tibetan plateau and southern China had gone only in one direction. Tibetans were eager customers for the newfangled electronics and ready-to-wear clothing stamped out by China’s new factories, but Han Chinese didn’t have much taste for Tibetan products like dairy and lamb. The medicinal herbs gave the itinerant traders something to put in their suitcases when they went on shopping trips to Shenzhen and other southern Chinese cities.

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Tibetans Take the Great Leap Forward

From Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town, by Barbara Demick (Random House, 2020), Kindle pp. 43-45:

The Communist Party had identified feudalism and imperialism as the greatest evils of society. Their dilemma was how to destroy feudalism without becoming imperialists themselves; they couldn’t simply force “reforms” on the Tibetans. In order to live up to their own lofty propaganda, they needed the Tibetans to carry out reforms voluntarily, joyfully. To convince them, they dispatched young Chinese recruits, some of them still in high school, to spread the word. These young Chinese cadres lectured about the corruption of the aristocracy and the monasteries, which also had large holdings of land. Delek remembers their speeches.

“You will be your own master,” the Chinese promised poorer Tibetans. “We will topple the feudal landlords.”

“Nobody will be able to exploit you anymore.”

“Religion is superstition. You are worshipping demons.”

The mass uprising never materialized. But the pitch did appeal to those Tibetans who hoped the redistribution of wealth would improve their lot in life. Tibetans who joined forces with the Communist Party were known as jiji fenzi, which loosely translates from Chinese as “activists.” The Tibetan term was hurtsonchen—the lowest level of enforcers, the collaborators who squealed on and beat up neighbors who resisted Communist rule. As a reward, hurtsonchen were allowed to loot clothing, shoes, and household goods from their wealthier countrymen. But anything of real value went to the Party-controlled communes, which turned out to be far greedier than the worst of the feudal landlords. Tibetans of this generation refer to this period simply as ngabgay—’58. Like 9/11, it is shorthand for a catastrophe so overwhelming that words cannot express it, only the number. But there are some evocative figures of speech. Some will call it dhulok, a word that roughly translates as the “collapse of time,” or, hauntingly, “when the sky and earth changed places.”

The “Democratic Reforms” in eastern Tibet roughly coincided with the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s misguided experiment in jump-starting the Chinese economy. Like so many catastrophes, it was the result of ambition run amok. Mao was a utopian who hoped to create not just a new society, but new, improved human beings. He believed that people could transcend their individual desires for the greater good and through collective enterprise boost their living standards and the country’s output. This was to be accomplished by herding 700 million people into cooperative farms.

Even to a child as young as Delek, it was obvious that Mao’s reforms were doomed to failure. The Chinese cadres in charge of the Tibetans had no experience with herding and even less with farming at high altitudes. Most of the Chinese troops came from lower-lying regions; they didn’t realize that barley was the only grain that thrived in the plateau and that the higher altitudes couldn’t support crops at all and were better used for grazing. Giddy from Mao’s exhortations, they denied the expertise of the people who had lived off the land for generations, insisting that the Tibetans were backward. “As the Han are the bulwark of the revolution…any thinking against learning from the Han nationality and welcoming the help given by the Han nationality is completely wrong,” expounded one propagandist at the time. The nomads were made to hand over animals to the collectives that didn’t know how to keep them alive, and to farm land that would never produce crops.

The result was years of failed harvests and dead animals. Grasslands where the crops failed were now stripped bare of vegetation, exposed to the winds that swirled through the plateau spewing dust into the air. The Communist cadres didn’t understand that the Tibetan way of sustenance required both nomads and farmers; in order to obtain enough nutrition, people needed to swap their animal products for grains, and that required markets. Now the markets were closed. Buying or selling grain was forbidden. Internal travel restrictions were imposed so people could no longer barter goods with other villages. When Delek’s mother returned from Lhasa, she would saddle up a horse in the dead of night to visit a cousin in another village with whom she could trade some butter for barley to prevent her family from starving. She only dared make the trip a few times a year.

Unlike Han Chinese, Tibetans had little experience with famine—the exception being the Long March interlude of 1935 and 1936 when the Red Army decimated their food supply. In the past, Tibetans were poor, often poorly nourished because of the scarcity of fresh fruit and vegetables, but they rarely went hungry.

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North Korea’s Caste System

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 120-123:

Why, then, if so many North Koreans know about the outside world, and know that the regime is lying to them, has the system survived? The answer lies in the unparalleled brutality of the regime, which has no compunction in meting out severe punishments for the smallest hint of disaffection.

To enforce the lie that he’s the best man for the job, Kim Jong Un has perpetuated North Korea’s political caste system with zeal, rewarding those deemed most loyal to him and ruthlessly punishing those who dare question him.

This caste system is another legacy of his grandfather. When he was creating his ideal state, Kim Il Sung borrowed some of the feudal practices of the Chosun Dynasty, which had ruled Korea for five centuries until almost 1900. He adopted the Chosun-era system of guilt by association. It is this system that, even now, can lead to three generations of an entire family being imprisoned, sometimes for life, for one person’s wrongdoing.

He also stole the discriminatory class system called songbun from the Chosun era, dividing North Korea into fifty-one different categories that fall into three broad classes: loyal, wavering, and hostile.

To this day, in Kim Jong Un’s North Korea, the loyal are given every advantage. They are the 10 to 15 percent of the population who are considered the most politically committed to the system and have the most interest in it continuing. They get to live in Pyongyang and receive better schooling, including the possibility of attending Kim II Sung University. They are set up for plum jobs and have a head start on Workers’ Party membership. The loyal caste live in better apartments, wear better clothes, eat better and more food, and are more likely to be able to visit a doctor who actually has medicine.

At the bottom are the hostiles: the Japanese collaborators, the Christians, the skeptics. They comprise about 40 percent of the population and are generally banished to the inhospitable mountains of the north, where winters are unbearable and food is scarce even by North Korean standards.

These “undesirables” have no social mobility and no hope of advancement. Their lives revolve around a collective farm or factory—an assignment that, for the last few decades, has meant fending for themselves.

In between the loyal and the hostile is the wavering class, the ordinary people who make up about half the North Korean population. They exist in a kind of limbo. They have no chance of going to college or having a professional job, but if they’re lucky, they might secure a good assignment during their military service that will help them work their way to a slightly better standard of living.

Someone born with bad songbun has no hope of moving up the social hierarchy. The upper levels, however, can plummet all the way to the bottom if they put a foot wrong. Through this system, and the constant threat of being demoted down the classes, Kim Jong Un has been able to maintain power.

If you’re a member of the loyal class—living in Pyongyang and able to earn some money on the side of your ministry job to send your children to university—you would think twice before openly questioning whether the leader could really drive a car at age five or criticizing the decision to spend millions on nuclear weapons instead of on hospitals and schools. There is always someone to keep an eye on you and report if you’re not sufficiently devoted to the regime. At the grassroots level, it starts with the inminban, literally “people’s group,” a kind of neighborhood watch system. Each neighborhood is broken down into groups of thirty or forty households, with a leader who is always an interfering middle-aged woman. It is her job to keep an eye on what people in her assigned households are up to. North Koreans like to say that the leader of their neighborhood group is supposed to know how many chopsticks and how many spoons each house has.

She is responsible for registering overnight visitors—in North Korea, a person can’t stay at a friend or relative’s house without notifying the authorities—and often, together with the local police, conducts dead-of-night raids to ensure there are no forbidden guests or that residents like Man-bok or Jung-a are not watching South Korean movies. She inspects everyone’s state-issued radio to make sure they haven’t tuned it to anything other than the state station. She checks cell phones to make sure they don’t contain unauthorized music or photos from the outside world.

She also encourages neighbors to report on one another. If a family is thought to be eating white rice and meat suspiciously often, people might wonder how they’re making their money.

North Koreans live in a system where every aspect of their lives is monitored, where every infraction is recorded, where the smallest deviation from the system will result in punishment. It is ubiquitous, and it keeps many people from even raising an eyebrow at the regime. The neighborhood leader needs to report transgressions in order to stay in good stead with the higher authorities, especially the two main security agencies.

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North Korea’s Market Economy

From The Great Successor: The Divinely Perfect Destiny of Brilliant Comrade Kim Jong Un, by Anna Fifield (PublicAffairs, 2019), Kindle pp. 100-101:

Chinese-style reform and opening—allowing information to flow in at the same time as loosening up on the economic controls—was not an option for Kim. Allowing the population to have access to the truth would mean they would also see that the Great Successor was, in fact, not so great. But small economic “improvements”—North Korea doesn’t call them “reforms” because that implies there’s something wrong with the system—pose relatively little risk.

Instead, he allowed the markets, called “jangmadang,” to blossom.

From the smallest of towns to the biggest of cities, there’s at least one bustling marketplace. Across the country, these markets have become the center of daily life. They are overwhelmingly run by women, who, once married, are no longer required to work in state jobs. So while their husbands go off to coal mines without electricity or hospitals without medicine, the women make proper money.

People with permission—or with enough money to buy permission—to travel to China cross the Tumen River and bring back rice cookers, high-heeled shoes, solar panels, deworming tablets, colorful shirts, cell phone cases, and screwdrivers. Sometimes they bring literal kitchen sinks. About 80 percent of the products in North Korea’s markets are made in China.

Those who can’t travel set up shop as hairdressers or bike repairers, open restaurants, or sell homemade sweets. Some entrepreneurial types make money by renting out their cell phones for calls to South Korea or their apartments to couples wanting some privacy.

These markets have become the biggest agent for change that North Korea has ever experienced. People across the country have seen their living standards improve—just as Kim Jong Un promised. Maybe things didn’t improve as much as many citizens, such as Mr. Hong, wanted, but they’re still heading in a positive direction. There is now a middle class in North Korea.

There are now more than four hundred government-approved markets in North Korea, double the number that existed when Kim Jong Un took over the country. The city of Chongjin alone has about twenty. The markets in Sinuiju and the “smugglers’ village” of Hyesan, both close to the border with China, as well as those in the port city of Haeju, have all grown rapidly and visibly in recent years. Satellite images show new markets popping up all over North Korea and old markets moving into bigger, newer buildings.

With an average of fifteen hundred stalls in a market, there is stiff competition to secure a prime spot. A good stall in a prominent place in Hyesan was going for about $700 in 2015—an astronomical sum in North Korea. But there is so much demand for stalls that even these expensive slots are being snapped up as soon as they become available.

At every turn, there is someone seeking to make money from the markets. The security services extract bribes from those seeking to cross the river into China. The supposedly communist authorities have embraced the decidedly capitalist concept of tax. People running stalls in the markets must now pay 10 percent of the value of their sales to the market management office. South Korean researchers estimate that the authorities rake in about $15 million a day in stall rental fees from merchants, while other estimates suggest the state can earn almost a quarter of a million dollars in a single day by levying taxes on stall owners.

Each market is run by a manager, someone who is almost always a man and who is well connected with local bureaucrats. This is a powerful role that comes with the opportunity to make a lot of money—and, of course, an obligation to pay kickbacks to higher-ups who put them in the job.

As the state economy has failed, with industry grinding to a halt thanks to a lack of electricity or raw goods, the markets have become the lifeblood of North Korea.

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Negative Human Development in Resource States

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 211-212:

In 1970, the year the Olympic movement expelled South Africa, the government passed legislation formally stripping blacks of their citizenship and restricting them to destitute “homelands,” and the authorities appointed a barbaric new commanding officer at Robben Island prison to watch over Mandela and his fellow inmates, South Africa produced some 62 percent of the gold mined worldwide. From the early 1970s to 1993 gold, diamonds, and other minerals accounted for between half and two-thirds of South Africa’s exports annually.

South Africa’s gold and diamonds provided the financial means for apartheid to exist. In that sense white rule was an extreme manifestation of the resource state: the harnessing of a national endowment of mineral wealth to ensure the power and prosperity of the few while the rest are cast into penury and impotence. None of Africa’s resource states today come close to the level of orchestrated subjugation of the majority that the apartheid regime achieved. Neither do they employ apartheid’s racial creed, even if ethnicity has combined poisonously with the struggle to capture resource rent in Nigeria, Angola, Guinea, and elsewhere. But as their rulers, in concert with the multinational corporations of the resource industry, horde the fruits of their nations’ oil and minerals, Africa’s resource states have come to bear a troubling resemblance to the divisions of apartheid.

While the children of eastern Congo, northern Nigeria, Guinea, and Niger waste away, the beneficiaries of the looting machine grow fat. Amartya Sen, the Nobel Prize–winning Indian economist who has examined with great insight why mass starvation occurs, writes, “The sense of distance between the ruler and the ruled—between ‘us’ and ‘them’—is a crucial feature of famines.” That same reasoning could be applied to the provision of other basic needs, including clean water and schooling. And rarely is the distance Sen describes as wide as in Africa’s resource states.

Many of Africa’s resource states experienced very high rates of economic growth during the commodity boom of the past decade. The usual measure of average incomes—GDP per head—has risen. But on closer examination such is the concentration of wealth in the hands of the ruling class that that growth has predominantly benefited those who were already rich and powerful, rendering the increase in GDP per head misleading. A more revealing picture comes from a different calculation. Each year the United Nations ranks all the countries for which it can gather sufficient data (186 in 2012) by their level of human development, things like rates of infant mortality and years of schooling. It also ranks them by GDP per head. If you subtract a country’s rank on the human development index from its rank on the GDP per head index, you get an indication of the extent to which economic growth is actually bettering the lot of the average person in that country. In countries that score zero—as Congo, Rwanda, Russia, and Portugal did in 2012—living standards are roughly where you might expect them to be, given that country’s GDP per head. People in countries with positive scores enjoy disproportionately pleasant living conditions relative to income—Cuba, Georgia, and Samoa top the table with scores of 44, 37, and 28, respectively. A negative score indicates a failure to turn national income into longer lives, better health, and more years of education for the population at large. Of the ten countries that come out worst, five are African resource states: Angola (–35), Gabon (–40), South Africa (–42), Botswana (–55), and Equatorial Guinea.

Equatorial Guinea’s score (–97), comfortably the worst in the world, is all the more remarkable because its GDP per head is close to $30,000 a year, not far below the level of Spain or New Zealand and seventy times that of Congo.

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New African Infrastructure for Whom?

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 147-149:

It is too simplistic to see China’s quest for African resources as a Manichean struggle for nature’s treasure between East and West. There is competition, but there is also cooperation in the business of resource extraction. And for all its increased attractiveness to rival investors from overseas, much of Africa remains locked at the foot of the global economy.

Ibrahim Iddi Ango, the industrialist who headed Niger’s chamber of commerce, told me that Niger’s rulers had sold the country short in their negotiations with the Chinese. “They need strategic resources. You must say, ‘You are interested in that? These are the conditions. First, you must use local labor. Second, all the needs you have—for example, the transit—you must use at a minimum 50 percent local operators.’ But when they came the government said none of this. The state took a percentage of the businesses and let the Chinese do what they want.” A brief window of opportunity to use China’s desire for African minerals to insist on securing for Niger the skills and infrastructure that might help to salve the resource curse by broadening the economy was closing. “To diversify, it’s central,” Iddi Ango said—and with good reason. Niger is among the African states most acutely dependent on a handful of raw commodity exports, their economic fortunes yoked to the whims of far-off consumers. On the African Development Bank’s index, where a higher score indicates a more diversified economy, relatively wealthy countries not shackled to the resource trade such as Mauritius and Morocco score 22 and 41, respectively. The average for the whole of Africa, including more prosperous North Africa, is 4.8. The most oil-dependent states, Angola and Chad, record the lowest scores, 1.1. Niger does only marginally better, with a score of 2.4.

“But if you let China do what it wants—as many African countries have—they pay for the oil or the resources and use Chinese labor, Chinese trucks. It’s a big problem,” Iddi Ango said. “They are coming because the resources are here. This moment will not be repeated. We can’t miss it. When the uranium or the oil is finished, they will leave.”

The fall of Tandja demonstrated the limits of China’s readiness to get involved in domestic politics to protect African allies. But Xia Huang, the Chinese ambassador in Niamey, encapsulated how China’s readiness to spend and build allowed Beijing to gain a foothold sufficiently strong that its interests could withstand a coup against an ally. “Today there is a bridge between the two sides of the River Niger,” he told me. “But there is also a bridge that links China and Niger.”

Yet the true value of China’s offer to guide Africa on a path to economic diversification and industrialization—the road that led the rich world to prosperity—rests on whether its construction spree is geared primarily toward cultivating the rulers who govern access to resources or toward broadening the opportunities of the population at large. Neither railways that simply connect Chinese-owned mines to Chinese-built ports for the export of commodities nor vanity projects of great cost but little economic usefulness will lift resource states’ inhabitants from their poverty. Martyn Davies, the chief executive of a South African consultancy called Frontier Advisory who has worked as an adviser on Chinese deals in Africa, told me, “When you have a commodity-driven economy, where a lot of people are excluded, it’s a silo economy. It’s very difficult to build infrastructure that supports inclusive growth. Is Chinese-financed infrastructure going to provide diversification? Which comes first?” He added, “African governments should never assume that responsibility for the development of our continent has been outsourced to Beijing.”

Beijing appears to be undercutting its side of the deal. Chinese goods like the counterfeit textiles flooding into northern Nigeria drown out hopes for industrialization, regardless of how many roads and railways Chinese companies lay. Lamido Sanusi, governor of Nigeria’s central bank from 2009 to 2014, put it well: “So China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism. The British went to Africa and India to secure raw materials and markets. Africa is now willingly opening itself up to a new form of imperialism.”

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Congo’s Tantalum Wealth

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle p. 30:

The Congolese are consistently rated as the planet’s poorest people, significantly worse off than other destitute Africans. In the decade from 2000, the Congolese were the only nationality whose gross domestic product per capita, a rough measure of average incomes, was less than a dollar a day.

Tantalum’s extremely high melting point and conductivity mean that electronic components made from it can be much smaller than those made from other metals. It is because tantalum capacitors can be small that the designers of electronic gadgets have been able to make them ever more compact and, over the past couple of decades, ubiquitous.

Congo is not the only repository of tantalum-bearing ores. Campaigners and reporters perennially declare that eastern Congo holds 80 percent of known stocks, but the figure is without foundation. Based on what sketchy data there are, Michael Nest, the author of a study of coltan, calculates that Congo and surrounding countries have about 10 percent of known reserves of tantalum-bearing ores. The real figures might be much higher, given that reserves elsewhere have been much more comprehensively assessed. Nonetheless, Congo still ranks as the second-most important producer of tantalum ores, after Australia, accounting for what Nest estimates to be 20 percent of annual supplies. Depending on the vagaries of supply chains, if you have a PlayStation or a pacemaker, an iPod, a laptop, or a mobile phone, there is roughly a one-in-five chance that a tiny piece of eastern Congo is pulsing within it.

The insatiable demand for consumer electronics has exacted a terrible price. The coltan trade has helped fund local militias and foreign armies that have terrorized eastern Congo for two decades, turning what should be a paradise into a crucible of war.

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Africa’s Resource Curse

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 4-6:

The sheer number of people living in what are some of the planet’s richest states, as measured by natural resources, is staggering. According to the World Bank, the proportion of the population in extreme poverty, calculated as those living on $1.25 a day and adjusted for what that wretched sum will buy in each country, is 68 percent in Nigeria and 43 percent in Angola, respectively Africa’s first and second biggest oil and gas producers. In Zambia and Congo, whose shared border bisects Africa’s copper-belt, the extreme poverty rate is 75 percent and 88 percent, respectively. By way of comparison, 33 percent of Indians live in extreme poverty, 12 percent of Chinese, 0.7 percent of Mexicans, and 0.1 percent of Poles.

The phenomenon that economists call the “resource curse” does not, of course, offer a universal explanation for the existence of war or hunger, in Africa or anywhere else: corruption and ethnic violence have also befallen African countries where the resource industries are a relatively insignificant part of the economy, such as Kenya. Nor is every resource-rich country doomed: just look at Norway. But more often than not, some unpleasant things happen in countries where the extractive industries, as the oil and mining businesses are known, dominate the economy. The rest of the economy becomes distorted, as dollars pour in to buy resources. The revenue that governments receive from their nations’ resources is unearned: states simply license foreign companies to pump crude or dig up ores. This kind of income is called “economic rent” and does not make for good management. It creates a pot of money at the disposal of those who control the state. At extreme levels the contract between rulers and the ruled breaks down because the ruling class does not need to tax the people to fund the government—so it has no need of their consent.

Unbeholden to the people, a resource-fueled regime tends to spend the national income on things that benefit its own interests: education spending falls as military budgets swell. The resource industry is hardwired for corruption. Kleptocracy, or government by theft, thrives. Once in power, there is little incentive to depart. An economy based on a central pot of resource revenue is a recipe for “big man” politics. The world’s four longest-serving rulers—Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea, José Eduardo dos Santos of Angola, Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Paul Biya of Cameroon—each preside over an African state rich in oil or minerals. Between them they have ruled for 136 years.

From Russia’s oil-fired oligarchs to the conquistadores who plundered Latin America’s silver and gold centuries ago, resource rents concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few. They engender what Said Djinnit, an Algerian politician who, as the UN’s top official in west Africa, has served as a mediator in a succession of coups, calls “a struggle for survival at the highest level.” Survival means capturing that pot of rent. Often it means others must die.

The resource curse is not unique to Africa, but it is at its most virulent on the continent that is at once the world’s poorest and, arguably, its richest.

Africa accounts for 13 percent of the world’s population and just 2 percent of its cumulative gross domestic product, but it is the repository of 15 percent of the planet’s crude oil reserves, 40 percent of its gold, and 80 percent of its platinum—and that is probably an underestimate, given that the continent has been less thoroughly prospected than others. The richest diamond mines are in Africa, as are significant deposits of uranium, copper, iron ore, bauxite (the ore used to make aluminum), and practically every other fruit of volcanic geology. By one calculation Africa holds about a third of the world’s hydrocarbon and mineral resources.

Outsiders often think of Africa as a great drain of philanthropy, a continent that guzzles aid to no avail and contributes little to the global economy in return. But look more closely at the resource industry, and the relationship between Africa and the rest of the world looks rather different. In 2010 fuel and mineral exports from Africa were worth $333 billion, more than seven times the value of the aid that went in the opposite direction (and that is before you factor in the vast sums spirited out of the continent through corruption and tax fiddles). Yet the disparity between life in the places where those resources are found and the places where they are consumed gives an indication of where the benefits of the oil and mining trade accrue—and why most Africans still barely scrape by. For every woman who dies in childbirth in France, a hundred die in the desert nation of Niger, a prime source of the uranium that fuels France’s nuclear-powered economy. The average Finn or South Korean can expect to live to eighty, nurtured by economies among whose most valuable companies are, respectively, Nokia and Samsung, the world’s top two mobile phone manufacturers. By contrast, if you happen to be born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, home to some of the planet’s richest deposits of the minerals that are crucial to the manufacture of mobile phone batteries, you’ll be lucky to make it past fifty.

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Political Economy of the Roadblock

From The Looting Machine: Warlords, Oligarchs, Corporations, Smugglers, and the Theft of Africa’s Wealth, by Tom Burgis (PublicAffairs, 2016), Kindle pp. 44-45:

Our two-jeep convoy slowed as it approached a roadblock deep in the tropical forests of one of eastern Congo’s national parks. Manning the roadblock were soldiers from the Congolese army, theoretically the institution that should safeguard the state’s monopoly on the use of force but, in practice, chiefly just another predator on civilians. As my Congolese companions negotiated nervously with the soldiers, I stepped away to take advantage of a break in a very long drive and relieve myself, only to sense someone rushing toward me. Hurriedly zipping up my fly, I turned to see a fast-approaching soldier brandishing his AK47. With a voice that signified a grave transgression, he declared, “It is forbidden to piss in the park.” Human urine, the soldier asserted, posed a threat to eastern Congo’s gorillas. I thought it best not to retort that the poor creatures had been poached close to extinction by, among others, the army nor that the park attracted far more militiamen than gorilla-watching tourists.

My crime, it transpired, carried a financial penalty. My companions took the soldier aside, and the matter was settled. Perhaps they talked him down, using the presence of a foreign journalist as leverage. Perhaps they slipped him a few dollars. As we drove away it occurred to me that we had witnessed the Congolese state in microcosm. The soldier was following the example set by Kabila, Katumba, Mwangachuchu, and Nkunda: capture a piece of territory, be it a remote intersection of potholed road, a vast copper concession, or the presidency itself; protect your claim with a gun, a threat, a semblance of law, or a shibboleth; and extract rent from it. The political economy of the roadblock has taken hold. The more the state crumbles, the greater the need for each individual to make ends meet however they can; the greater the looting, the more the authority of the state withers.

While we were visiting my historian brother during his sabbatical in Cameroon, we hired a driver to take us into the Southern Region. As we approached Lolodorf (a name dating back to German Kamerun), I stepped out of the car to take a photo of the sign. As I got back in the car, a policeman, who had been sitting in his car in the shade across the road, came over to tell us it was forbidden to take photos of road signs. After we politely asked why, he began to find fault with the windshield documentation required for the hired car. He went back and forth to his car several times, supposedly checking with his superiors, while we quietly waited to see how much of a bribe it would take to get free of him. He asked for all our IDs, and we gave him anything except our passports. After perhaps 20 minutes of quiet back and forth, we were able to pay him a “fine” equivalent to about US$10, enough for him to buy more beer for his afternoon in the shade.

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Filed under Cameroon, Congo, democracy, economics, labor, migration, military