Visits to the West Coast of Africa

I have done a lot of travelling in these last few weeks and am therefore a bit late with my blog. I went to Namibia to moderate a session at the Conference of the Parties of the UN Convention to Combat Desertification. This is an issue on which African governments feel very strongly and were well represented at the conference, but in fact more land is being degraded outside the arid regions than within. It is another important issue where we are using nature’s resources unsustainably. There were many calls to include a target to reverse the rate of land degradation in the Sustainable Development Goals, which will replace the Millennium Development Goals from 2015. I had never been to Namibia before and therefore stayed on for a few days to visit a nature park and the desert. This was a very moving experience.

In mid-October I went to Cote d’Ivoire for a meeting of EITI Board and made a brief visit to Abuja beforehand and Conakry afterwards to discuss progress with EITI. Nigeria is a classic example of the “resource curse”; it has rich natural resources and yet gross inequality, corruption and poverty. The Nigerian EITI has done some great work in identifying where the money has been going missing; what is needed now is the implementation of the reforms they have recommended. Abijan, the capital of Cote d’Ivoire, is a most beautiful city with a stunning waterfront. Cote d’Ivoire has been through very turbulent times but now has a legitimate government which is keen to use the EITI to help drive reform. Guinea Conakry has similarly had an experience of many years of dictatorship and then a coup but now as a reforming president who is determined to managed their rich natural resources for the benefit of the people. Guinea has almost half the world’s reserves of bauxite.

Britain amongst bottom 3 in OECD survey of adult skills

A recent OECD report ranking 24 countries in adult skills showed the UK amongst the bottom 3 on the skills of 16 to 25-year-olds and the USA bottom. Denmark, Finland, the Netherlands,Norway and Sweden were the most successful in organising adult learning amongst low skilled workers. It is depressing but unsurprising that the USA, the most unequal OECD country, should come bottom of this list and the UK, which has become increasingly unequal since the 1970s, should come so low. But it is also notable that after years of educational reform started by Thatcher, intensified by New Labour and now further intensified under the present government, with regimes of endless testing and ranking of children and schools, Britain should do so badly. I’m afraid the British educational system has become a teaching to test system that does not educate and tends to marginalise low achievers.


Inequality has grown across the world particularly since 1989. That great book The Spirit Level by Wilkinson and Pickett shows very clearly, and with complete statistical authority, that in the OECDcountries more inequality means more violence, crime, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, school dropouts, teenage pregnancy etc. In China rapid economic development has also been associated with growing inequality and corruption and increasing protests from the people. In Africa better economic growth over the past 10 to 15 years than in any period since independence, is partly explained by the boom in commodity prices, but has also been accompanied by growing inequality. Latin America is of course famously blighted by gross inequality. Interestingly the new President of the World Bank has set himself two targets to be met by 2030, the elimination of extreme poverty and a reduction of inequality. The 2 are linked because economic growth brings very limited benefits to the poor in grossly unequal countries. Similarly, the expert panel which has made recommendations for the Sustainable Development Goals to replace the MDG is in 2015, has included a focus on reducing inequality. I have heard very little debate in the UK or the US about the need to reduce inequality to create a civilised society but perhaps this challenge to the consequences of neoliberalism will come to the OECD from a development focus.

Interesting facts

  • UK government debt was £760 billion in 2010, it is projected to be £1.4 trillion by 2015 (Anthony Barnett New Statesman 20 to 26 September).
  • In the siege of Leningrad, in the Second World War, 800,000 starved to death (Max Hastings FT 14/9/13)
  • The Bank of England has calculated that 40% of the Quantitative Easing benefit has gone to the top 5% (Gillian Tett FT).
  • By 2025 families with children will form only one quarter of US households (John Gapper book review FT 9/913).
  • In the US Labour’s share of national income has stabilised at about 59% of GDP; it was 62% before the recession. Median household income is lower than before the recession as inequality rises (Robert Harding FT 11 September)

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