Price Wars: How the Commodities Markets Made Our Chaotic World: Q&A with Rupert Russel

In Price Wars: How the Commodities Markets Made Our Chaotic World, sociologist and filmmaker Rupert Russell travelled to some of the world’s most chaotic places: war zones in Ukraine, Iraq, and Somalia, the climate wars in Kenya and Guatemala, and Venezuela’s economic catastrophe. Told as gonzo investigation into what made the 2010s so tumultuous, Russell links each of these eruptions to swings in commodity prices, and the financial speculators whose bets set their prices.

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Race to the bottom: Competition between Indonesian food delivery platform companies for cheap gig workers

The race to pay drivers as little as possible is underway in Indonesia. In this competition, the participants are platform companies in online transportation services, such as Gojek, Grab, Shopee Food, Maxim, InDriver. Some researchers argue that competition between platform companies will create equilibrium prices, also called a race to the middle, which is considered positive.

This positive assessment of the platform’s inter-corporation competition is rooted in the neoclassical economic notion of perfect competition. In this theoretical framework, it is assumed that competition equalizes supply and demand to create a balance of goods prices, wages, and profits; the results of which will create mutual benefits. Therefore, the preconditions for such competition are emphasized as important from a policy perspective. These preconditions include strong legal systems to support the operation of the ‘free’ market and the minimization of state intervention, which is thought to distort market price signals.

However, the story of perfect competition is far removed from how competition actually plays out. Indeed, capitalism is not as harmonious as the neoclassical framework suggests. This has led to the recognition of imperfect competition within the neoclassical framework. Stiglitz, for example, sees that markets may not work perfectly because of information asymmetries. The Marxist economist Anwar Shaikh has proposed an entirely different view of competition. For him, what takes place in capitalism is not perfect competition, but real competition. In a real competition framework, there is competition between companies to cut production costs so as to enable them to lower commodity prices below those of their competitors. With lower prices compared to their competitors, their commodities tend to be chosen by consumers. This means that competition is a fight to beat rival companies, which often leads to a process of centralization: the strong get stronger and the weak get competed out of the market.

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On the perils of embedded experiments

There is growing interest in ‘embedded experiments’, conducted by researchers and policymakers as a team. Aside from their potential scale, the main attraction of these experiments is that they seem to facilitate speedy translation of research into policy. Discussing a case study from Bihar, Jean Drèze argues that this approach carries a danger of distorting both policy and research. 

Evidence-based policy is the rage, to the extent that even village folk in Jharkhand (where I live) sometimes hold forth about the importance of ‘ebhidens’, as they call it. No one, of course, would deny the value of bringing evidence to bear on public policy, as long as evidence is understood in a broad sense and does not become the sole arbiter of decision-making. However, sometimes evidence-based policy gets reduced to an odd method that consists of using randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to find out ‘what works’, and then ‘scale up’ whatever works. That makes short shrift of the long bridge that separates evidence from policy. Sound policy requires not only evidence – broadly understood – but also a good understanding of the issues, considered value judgements, and inclusive deliberation (Drèze 2018a, 2020a).

Enormous energy has been spent on the quest for rigorous evidence, much less on the integrity of the process that leads from evidence to policy. As illustrated in an earlier contribution to Ideas for India (Drèze et al. 2020), it is not uncommon for the scientific findings of an RCT to be embellished in the process. This follow-up post presents another case study that may help to convey the problem. It also illustrates a related danger – casual jumps from evidence to policy advice. The risk of a short-circuit is particularly serious in ‘embedded experiments’, where the research team works ‘from within’ a partner government in direct collaboration with policymakers.

The case study pertains to an experiment conducted in Bihar in 2012-2013 and reported in Banerjee, Duflo, Imbert, Mathew and Pande (2020)1. This is a large-scale, influential experiment by some of the leading lights of the RCT movement – indeed, a formidable quartet of first-rate economists reinforced by one of India’s brightest civil servants, Santhosh Mathew. The high technical standards of the study are not in doubt, and nor is the integrity of the authors. And yet, I would argue that something is amiss in their accounts of the findings and policy implications of this study.

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Remembering Ian Taylor

Last year in February, Professor Ian Taylor of the University of St Andrews passed away after a short struggle with cancer. Ian was a world-renowned scholar in the fields of African Studies, International Relations and Global Political Economy. Besides his remarkable academic achievements, Ian was an extremely passionate educator as well as a kind, humorous and supportive colleague and friend to many of us. This is a modest attempt to pay tribute to an inspiring intellectual and true friend of Africa.

Together with his twin brother Eric, Ian grew up on the Isle of Man, before the family relocated to West London where he spent his teens and would become a die-hard Brentford FC supporter – in his words a ‘100% local club’. Whilst there were few points of contact to Africa on the small Crown dependency in the Irish Sea, Ian, early on, developed an interest in Africa, as he heard stories from his grandmother whose parents had lived in South Africa, and where a large network of relatives still live.

After reading History and Politics at what was then the Leicester Polytechnic, Ian used a gap year in 1991-92 for his first travel to southern Africa – obviously at quite a formative time for the region. This trip clearly left a firm impression on him, as he would return to the region throughout his life. However, first he joined Jo, the love of his life whom he met in South Africa, when she took up Ph.D studies at the University of Hong Kong in 1994. Ian enrolled himself for a Master’s there. His 368-pages M.Phil thesis on China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Africa laid the cornerstone for one of his research specialisations and arguably also for a new sub-discipline, China-Africa studies. One of his first academic articles, an output from his M.Phil research, was published in the Journal of Modern African Studies and has since been cited 357 times (Taylor 1998). Exactly 18 years later, Ian became co-editor-in-chief of this prestigious journal, together with Ebenezer Obadare.

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Pressure to Succeed: From Prosperity, Stress (A reflection on aspiration in the new Kenya)

Wherever you go in contemporary Nairobi, you will find yourself confronted with images of economic success. Whether the suited and smiling young professionals on the Safaricom billboards, celebrating the speed of their new data bundles, the fleet of range-rovers that block the streets in the gridlock hours of commuting, or the synthetic marbled fortresses (the office towers, the luxury flats) – Nairobi’s wealth announces itself over and above the streets below: Streets of kiosks selling warm soda, vendors (‘Mama Mbogas’ – the stereotypical figure of market trader women selling vegetables and fruits from the city’s rural hinterlands), construction workers eating chapo (chapatis)on breaks; Streets of boda-boda (motorcycle) drivers talking to each other in the sun, streets of fundis (mechanics) hammering crumpled matatu minivan doors back into shape; Streets where students gather in groups outside the University of Nairobi, where aspiring politicians argue in Jevanjee Gardens. Images of wealth barely conceal inequality, the reality of the informal economy in which the majority of Kenyans work with their ingenuity and hands to accrue cash, the lifeblood of social reproduction.

Drawing on over 21 months of fieldwork conducted on the changing peri-urban peripheries of Nairobi,[1] this blog draws attention not only towards the city’s shifting landscape of urban inequality, but also desire – of aspirations for better lives, membership in a developing Kenya evoked by the visible presence of vast wealth, evident especially in the material lifestyles of the city’s nouveaux riches, whether wealthy business and political elites or the posh ‘mapunk’, a pejorative Sheng term for those youth wealthy enough to have grown outside the ghetto. But for the Kenya’s aspirant youth, the city’s landscape of inequality is experienced not so much as a fixed condition but as a subjective and personal challenge to succeed, to ‘make it’ to a middle-class standard of living possessed by others. The failure to do so produces subjective experiences of stress, failure and disappointment, the product of comparison with the wealth of others. Rather than purely economic pressure, this blog seeks to foreground the mental pressures produced by this landscape of desire, and the pressure to succeed.

As the editors of this blog series write, ‘economic pressure and stress are not confined to the urban poor’. Of Kenya’s ‘hustler masses’, the 80 per cent of the country’s inhabitants who work in the informal economy. The figure of the ‘hustler’ regularly evokes a young man, living in one of Nairobi’s informal settlements, struggling day-to-day for his immediate needs. And yet, as this brief portrait of Nairobi suggests, finer grain distinctions are possible that reveal more complex relationships with ‘economic pressure’ that do not simply amount to the short-term temporalities of day-to-day survival. Whilst short-term needs are hardly absent from Kenyans’ economic subjectivities and their careful modes of economisation, in the long-term Kenyans work hard to accumulate the wealth that affords participation in the New Kenya, and, not incidentally, status and recognition from others. Consider, for instance, the Kenyans pursuing success from such predicaments of economic uncertainty.

Lazima huu mwaka niwashangazi’, sings Jaguar in his 2015 hit Huu Mwaka’(This Year). ‘This year I’ll blow their minds!’. Jaguar’s narrator is an aspirant Kenyan whose motivation is not simply self, but self in relation to others – a rural migrant who desires the status and recognition from his kinsmen and neighbours whence he returns from the city with the wealth he has won. ‘A good job, a good house, a good wife’ (‘Kazi nzuri! Nyumba nzuri! Bibi nzuri!’), he sings, imagining the future that lies ahead. ‘I’ll be a rich man like Sonko’, he tells us, a play on words in reference to Nairobi’s now former Governor Michael Mbuvi Sonko, a man who has quite literally appropriated the term ‘sonko’, meaning ‘rich person’ (or sometimes ‘boss’). Regardless of the true origins of his wealth, his identity is one of a ‘hustler’ who has ‘made it’ in life.

Such optimism recalls the now famous narrative that the African continent is ‘rising’ – that economic growth is catapulting countries towards middle-income status, creating new middle classes able to live lives of conspicuous consumption. Since the end of Daniel arap Moi’s de facto one-party state, and the political and economic liberalisation ushered in under Kenya’s Rainbow Coalition (2002-2005), economic growth has shaped the intensification of desires for middle-class lifestyles and their material trappings.

At the same time, such narratives belie the immense economic pressure faced by Kenyans on their pathways towards prosperity. Indeed, the sheer discrepancy between piecemeal incomes (gleaned through irregular labour in Nairobi) and the pressure to succeed, gives rise to feelings of failure, shame, and distress. Such affective states readily evoke ‘pressure’ rather than aspiration, as the authors of this series call it: ‘a cognitive assessment of a real/imagined disbalance between real/imagined economic demands and the real/imagined ability to fulfil them.’

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Max Ajl in conversation with Habib Ayeb on Food Sovereignty and the Environment

Max Ajl interviews radical geographer and activist Habib Ayeb. Habib Ayeb is a founder member of the NGO Observatory of Food Sovereignty and Environment (OSAE) and Max Ajl is a Postdoc at Wageningen University’s Rural Sociology Group, associate editor at Agrarian South and the author of A People’s Green New Deal.

Max:  Habib, you have made many films and written at length about food sovereignty in Tunisia and in Egypt. Can you start by telling us how you see the conversation around food sovereignty in this part of the world?

Habib: In recent years, the issue of food sovereignty has begun to appear in academic and non-academic debates, and in research as well – although more tentatively – in all the countries of the region. That said, the issue of food and thus agriculture has always been important, both in academic research and public debate, as well as the academy, political institutions, and elsewhere. During the 1970s and 1980s, in Tunisia and throughout what was called the Third World, we spoke mainly of food self-sufficiency. This was, in a way, and at that time, a watchword of the left – a left that was modernist, developmentalist and statist.

If I’m not mistaken, I believe that the concept of food self-sufficiency dates from the late 1940s with the wave of decolonization, which began after the Second World War, and probably also dates to the great famines which claimed millions of lives in India and other areas of the South. Furthermore, many states, particularly those governed by the state-socialist regimes that had acquired political independence during the 1950s and 1960s, had initiated Green Revolution policies.  These had the aim of achieving food self-sufficiency to strengthen political independence, in a Cold War context wherein food was already used as a weapon and a means of pressure in the context of the confrontation between the USSR and the Western bloc. It is in this context that the experiences of agrarian reforms and agricultural co-operatives in Tunisia (from 1962), in Egypt (from 1953) and in many other countries had proliferated. But almost all of these experiments ended in failure or were aborted by liberal counter-reforms, which were adopted everywhere beginning in the 1980s amidst the victory of liberalism, the USSR’s disappearance, and the development of a global food regime, and its corollary: the global market for agricultural products and particularly cereals.

It is at this point that the concept of food security, based on the idea of comparative advantage began to gradually dominate. It would appear for the first time in the official Tunisian texts in the sixth Five Year Plan of the early 1980s, in which the formula of food self-sufficiency would give way to that of food security. From then on, agricultural policies would favour agricultural export products with a high added value, whose revenues would then underwrite the import of basic food products.

Paradoxically, agricultural issues, food issues, and rural issues writ large would gradually disappear from academic agendas. There was a sharp reduction in funding for research on the rural world, and instead it went first, to the urban research profile, but also to examine civil society and political organizations. It was not until 2007/2008 and the great food crisis that agricultural and food issues, and furthermore the peasant question with its sociological dimension, would reappear in public debates focused on these matters. It was during the same period that the concept of food sovereignty, proposed by Via Campesina in 1996, would appear in Arab countries and to a much lesser extent in research. Even today, many use the food sovereignty frame to talk about food security, even while the two concepts are radically opposed, even incompatible.

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The colonial geographies of Kenya’s fintech boom

Digital and mobile finance applications have boomed in Kenya over the last decade. Mobile money, Vodafone’s M-Pesa system in particular, is ubiquitous. Kenyan banks and smaller start-ups have led the adoption of a wider range of mobile and digital financial applications.

For promoters of fintech as a tool for development, Kenya is a paradigm case. Estimates from Tavneet Suri and William Jack – suggesting that the advent of M-Pesa had directly moved 194 000 households, equivalent to 2 percent of the country, out of extreme poverty – have been triumphantly cited across a wide range of media reports and policy documents. The rapid adoption of mobile and digital finance, according to advocates, has allowed Kenya to ‘leapfrog’ the developmental constraints of its existing financial system. In the words of one author: ‘new technologies solve problems arising from weak institutional infrastructure and the cost structure of conventional banking’.

There are good reasons to question this rosy narrative, as recent critics have demonstrated compellingly. Among others, Milford Bateman and colleagues raise a number of important methodological and other objections to Suri and Jack’s claims, and Serena Natile shows how narratives of ‘inclusion’ mask the perpetuation of gendered patterns of exclusion and inequality. Wider applications of fintech in Kenya have come in for critique as well. Kevin Donovan and Emma Park highlight emerging patterns of digitally-enabled over-indebtedness. Laura Mann and Gianluca Iazzolino trace the emergence of monopolistic corporate power enacted through the extension of digital platforms (including for finance) in Kenyan agriculture. Ali Bhagat and Leanne Roderick show the emergence of new forms of racialized dispossession and exploitation through efforts to extend fintech applications to refugees in Kenya.

On a more basic level, ‘leapfrogging’ narratives have to contend with the fact that the geography of Kenyan fintech looks a lot like that of the financial system more generally. The fintech boom is predominantly an urban phenomenon, and especially concentrated in Mombasa and in and around Nairobi. Data from the 2019 national ‘FinAccess’ survey shows that 6.6 percent of respondents currently or had previously used of mobile lending services, and 6.4 percent reported the same of digital lending apps. The corresponding figures among urban residents were 17.2 and 11.4 percent. The proportion of residents in Nairobi Metropolitan Area and Mombasa using mobile money services (25 percent) and digital lending apps (18.2 percent) is more than double the respective use rates of mobile (12.3 percent) and digital borrowing (7.1 percent) among urban residents elsewhere.

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Neoliberal capitalism and the commodification of social reproduction, from our home to our classroom

It is official: we are getting ready for another round of industrial action in the UK higher education sector. For those who may be wondering what the current UCU national strike 2021-22 is all about, a short recap may help. Higher education UCU members are striking because of planned pensions cuts that risk pushing academic staff into ‘retirement poverty’; to fight against ever-growing labour casualisation in universities; and because of the growing inequalities of gender, race and class the UK higher education sector has nurtured in the last five decades. Colleagues at Goldsmith – to whom we shall extend all our support – are also fighting against planned mass staff redundancies.

We – higher education workers and students – were on this picket before, so many times, fighting other policies deepening the process of commodification of education. We were on this picket fighting cuts in real wages – which education workers are still experiencing. We were on this picket to fight against the trebling of university fees for our BA students. At SOAS, where I work, we were on this picket to fight against cuts to our library, against Prevent, against the deportation of SOAS cleaners on campus ground – an event which remains the darkest chapter of SOAS industrial relations and for which the university has not yet apologised in recognition of the harm caused to the SOAS 9 and to all our community. We hope the school will acknowledge the need to do so, so that we can move forward, together.

We were at other demonstrations and on other picket  lines, protesting against austerity, in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, against climate change, against racism and in support of Black Lives Matter, against gender violence. The picket really is a sort of archive, which can be consulted backward to reconstruct a history of attacks to our rights – at work, at home, or both.

And if we consult this archive, we can clearly see a pattern emerging in the last decades, a pattern which in fact connects neoliberal Britain with many other places in the world economy, which have also experienced processes of neoliberalisation. All the pickets and demonstrations, become a sort of tracing route; we can reconnect the dots spread across a broader canvas. These dots design a specific pattern; that of a systematic attack to life and life-making sectors, realms and spaces.

Neoliberal capitalism, starting from the 1980s, has promoted a process of systematic de-concentration of resources in public sectors, and particularly in so-called ‘socially reproductive sectors’, that is those that regenerate us as people and as workers. This attack has been massively felt in the home, which has become a major battleground for processes of marketization of care and social reproduction. The withdrawal of the state from welfare provisions, the rise and rise of co-production in services (i.e. the incorporation of citizens’ unpaid labour in public service delivery;  a practice further cheapening welfare) –  and processes of partial or full privatisation of service delivery in healthcare and education have generated massive reproductive gaps. These gaps have been filled through outsourcing of life-making to others. Homes have become net users of market-based domestic and care services. The in-sourcing of nannies, au-pairs, and elders carers, from a vast number of countries in the Global south and transition economies have remade the home as a site of production and employment generation, at extremely low costs.

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