Archive for August, 2007

fighting the good fight

August 17, 2007

Ghana Geek explains why African governments must not be tricked by Microsoft’s tactics.

Developing countries are still building the vast majority of their IT infrastructure. This means that they do not have a massive base of old documents in a restricted format. Those documents are on paper. Their offices are still being computerized. Their people are still learning how to use those computers. If you are going to teach someone to use an office suite anyway, what difference does it make if that suite is MS Office, or Google Writer? What difference does it make if those legacy paper documents go to ODF or OOXML? Either way the work has to be done and the money has to be spent.

The problem is, what happens when you lock yourself into a company’s proprietary format because they are giving you free stuff and claim the format is open, then they start charging you for it and you realize all those alternatives they assured you existed can’t fully open your documents and you are stuck with them and their licence fees?

MS is spending a lot of money in Africa and giving a lot of stuff away for free. That altruism won’t last. It can’t, its too expensive. If OOXML is truly open(and what I’m seeing has me doubtful of that) then it doesn’t matter. When they start charging we can just evaluate our options and go in the direction that makes the most sense for us. If it doesn’t, we’ve spent a lot of money to build a foundation that renders us slaves to one company’s whims, and unlike richer parts of the world, we can’t come up with the money to change directions.

and he will post more about the whole process during the next week or two.


say it aint so

August 17, 2007

This month the Cato Institute discusses anarchy. This guy writes a piece in which Somalia is used as proof that anarchy (well, capitalist anarchy) works better than you think.
I read it and was confused, then i read his paper (pdf) on the same issue and was even more confused.

Basically Peter Leeson presents evidence that statelessness has benefitted Somalia, its economy, its people’s welfare by comparing data on Somalia under Siad Barre to Somalia in a recent period. In the paper at least, the author covers one base by mentioning he believes that anarchy is not superior to any government but to predatory governments. And clearly Siad Barre’s government was predatory.

I expected to see somewhere a rebutal of some of his points, a thoughtful critique and didn’t see any, and now that I think of it, i see why the case of Somalia was used to start with.

Basically, US scholars and economits can construct any arguments they wish on Somalia because none of them know much about it, and none of them would notice a fallacious argument. And, dear, there are many in Peter Leeson’s paper:

Siad Barre being presented as a socialist dictator who “officially” renounced socialism in the early 80’s, implying that he was deeply socialist in his convinctions and then being described as the predatory dictator that he was is simply a tactic that leads us to think that socialist = bad.

well, let’s remember how it happened. First of all, contrary to what is said in Cato article, Somalia was an unstable parliamentary representative democracy from independence in 1960 to 1969. A mix of corruption, un-principled politicians, complex and rapid switches of alliances and tribalist politics explains the “unstable” part. In 1969, a group of young officiers from the army and the police overthrow the government. Though they’re vaguely nationalist and vaguely influenced by marxism, they don’t have anything that sounds like a plan for after the coup. So as often (see: Nigeria 66), the young officiers decide to follow the only rule that they all agree on and make the most senior military person in the country, General Siad Barre, the new ruler. As petty as it may sound in the context, i think it is important to all remember that Siad Barre was not part of the coup, he came in after, in an opportunistic fashion.
And neither has he ever been “socialist”. The last Somalian parliament had 2 marxist MPs. They both were part of the long list of people executed or jailed in the first three years of the regime. That list also included most of the other senior military and various politicians from all backgrounds.

Siad Barre “officially” adopted marxism in 1970 for one reason: he needed military aid to fight his irridentist war on Ethiopia and the USSR was all too happy to help. For the same reason, Siad Barre officially renounced Marxism in the early 80’s: Ethiopia had experienced a revolution, and the new regime was as close to Moscow as any african regime as ever gotten (and there is competion). The USSR refused to help Somalia fight for Ogaden, Siad Barre simply renounced marxism and got american military aid instead.

So consistently describing Siad Barre’s opportunist predatory corrupt militarist nationalist rule as socialist is a fallacity. Especially when during half of his rule, his people were murdered by guns given to him to fight off “communist expansion”.

What Is Somalia ?
The second fallacy in my humble opinion, is the description of Somalia as stateless. Since 1991, two regions of Somalia have experienced government: Puntland and Somaliland. Leeson dismissed them as “limited”, thus making Somalia “stateless”. Apparently, they’re not very efficient at raising taxes and don’t fully control their declared territory (that would turn Nigeria, Sudan, DRC and many others into stateless countries). And these are the regions. Other parts are controlled by alliances of tribal chiefs and warlords and are actually governed too.

I mention this because, anyone who knows about the existence of Somaliland, would be convinced by that argument only if the data showed that Somalians in the south are better off than in Somaliland or Puntland. I suspect that such distinction is ignored and the data non-existent because people are simply better off in Somaliland than in the wild southwest.

Also 1985-1990 are the two years used as a data reference for Somalia under government. Those are the 5 finals years of Barre’s regime, after he lost the Ogaden war, with international aid drying up, with a pan-sahelian drought, with Ethiopia and the diaspora (mostly the affluent Isaac clan) financing a dozen or so rebel groups. Basically, years of decay. Although i’m fairly convinced enough of the evil of Barre to not think the data is off base, i think the chosen years are convinient.

But back to modern Somalia, in 2006, for six months, southern Ethiopia was reunited again, this time by a radical islamist coalition called Islamic Courts Union. The Courts were later overthrown by Ethiopia, officially supporting the “de jure” Trans-National Government, with US backing. So one has to ask, how did somalians react to that short-lived re-unification ?

Well, while some people in the business community had reactions that would make the day or the week or the year of most libertarians (“We heard the TNG will make us pay taxes. We don’t want taxes”), most observers also mention the fact that the Somalian business community, at least in the south, supported the Islamic Courts.
Let me say it again, the business community supported a regime that western governments have described as a totalitarian, talibans-style government.

Is that proof of a desire for strong government ? Well i have too much integrity to say “yes”. The Islamic Courts, just like the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria or the current regime in Iran, had the support of the local business community mostly because of their relative economic liberalism. They supported free trade and most importantly provided one thing that makes trade easier: Law and Law Enforcement. And Peace too.
But suspicion towards TNG is not only rooted in tax rebelion, it’s also caused by Ethiopia’s support in a country where Ogaden is still viewed as an occupied territory (Barre used that card extensively and Ethiopia intervenned in 2006 because the Islamists were using it too), and it’s caused by doubts about its future.
If the local business community wants peace and law and a unified country, does that mean that capitalist anarchy is not even supported by people who are supposed to benefit from it ?

And there’s the data too. First, it’s collected by UN agencies and we’re not sure how. The paper says that neither Siad Barre’s Somalia nor Somaliland has reliable statistics on anything but doesnt tell us how the World Bank, the World Health Organization and others have collected it. Or is stateless Somalia easier to visit ?

And then, there’s something very interesting. Literacy rates and school enrollement, the categories in which Pre-1991 Somalia does better are compared to thing like number of radio owners and phone lines. Honestly, in which world is the decrease of one the lowest literacy rate less important than an explosion of the number of phone lines per 1,000 inhabitants ? There are other categories, of course, some in which the improvements are anectodal, some that are more or less the same.

The main issue, of course is causality.
How do we know that the improvements do not come from Puntland and Somaliland ?
How do we know the improvements are not simply caused by peace (or lack of fighting) ?
How do we know the improvements in radio, telephone and TV ownership are not caused by cheaper and more flexible technology (cellphones) and Chinese imports like everywhere else in Africa ?
And why has the Peter Leeson has data on Somalia that the Somaliland government doesnt have ?
And finally, why isn’t it an argument for local capitalism and isolationism ? After all, American and British and French companies aren’t busy mining, selling, trading, buying anything in modern Somalia.. After all Somalia isn’t part of the WTO, its rulers aren’t following advice from the World Bank, the IMF isnt giving it loans. Trading with Somalia is hard non-somalians. May be DRC would see some improvement too if it was under an embargo (the fishermen on the congo river would make a killing smuggling items on their boats though).

This attempt to show that medieval Iceland is not the only example anarcho-capitalists and libertarians could use to show that statelessness works best will probably be convincing to people who think Mugabé is beating records of longevity as head of state in Africa. For people who know what’s going ? Not so much.