The Unlikely Return of Cat Stevens


September 17, 2017

The Unlikely Return of Cat Stevens


Cat Stevens was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them.

Photograph by Matt Writtle / eyevine / Redux

Early in a Cat Stevens, a.k.a. Yusuf Islam, a.k.a. Yusuf/Cat Stevens, concert in Boston a couple of years ago, there was a hushed pause in the room as the then sixty-six-year-old performer waited for a stagehand to bring him a guitar in between songs. “I’m really happy to be here!” the singer suddenly exclaimed. It did not sound like ersatz show-biz banter; it sounded humble, childlike even, as if he himself were surprised by the emotion. It sounded like capitulation. The crowd, in response, rose to its feet en masse, producing a sound that was more than just a cheer. It was an embrace. It was an acknowledgment by artist and audience alike: Cat Stevens, a figure who, for all intents and purposes, had ceased to exist more than three decades ago, had come back.

For a long time, it has been hard to love the man once known (and now known again) as Cat Stevens. In the years since he formally retired from the popular music world, in 1978, his name has popped up in the media from time to time. He would be quoted, or seen in a video-clip interview, and it was difficult to accept the visage of the person whom he now presented himself as—to reconcile this cold, humorless, unhappy, and severe-looking man with the joyful, understanding, goofy, wise songwriter whose music we’d known and loved. For a long time, the man who’d changed his name to Yusuf Islam had completely disowned his artistic output as Cat Stevens—a confusing, dispiriting slap in the face to those it once meant a great deal to.

The man who was Cat Stevens ran Islamic schools for children, spreading the word of Allah, and acted as a spokesperson for Islam. After a while, he began making some children’s albums, but he wasn’t playing the guitar, and the music was not for his traditional fan base. In interviews, he sounded defensive and removed. Some remarks attributed to him seemed to be in line with some of the more distasteful prejudices of orthodox Islam.

Then, in 2006, came “An Other Cup,” his first album of commercial music in twenty-eight years. He’d dropped his adopted last name of Islam, and was now calling himself, simply, Yusuf. Something had shifted, certainly. How welcome it was to hear that voice with that guitar again, after all these years. Still, the album’s opening track, “Midday (Avoid City After Dark),” set a tone of unease, paranoia, and judgment that never really lifted. Elsewhere on the recording, there was a revisit to a much earlier composition (“I Think I See the Light”) and an interesting (if forced-sounding) reworking of a section of his “Foreigner Suite” (“Heaven/Where True Love Goes”), but the bulk of the album felt earthbound. Nowhere was there the joie de vivre that inhabited his best work. The follow-up, “Roadsinger,” in 2009, sounded fresher, but still unconvincing. Which was it—was he wary of us, or we of him? There seemed to be skepticism and distrust on both sides.

Some live performances began to appear here and there online. Yusuf was steadfast about not playing any old Cat Stevens material, save for a select few songs that he could justify in the context of his religious path, such as “The Wind” and “Peace Train.” He had collaborated on a musical called “Moonshadow” that featured actors singing some of his old songs and was having a run in Australia. It proved a critical and financial flop.

I paid attention to all of this because, unhip as this may be to admit, the music of Cat Stevens once meant a great deal to me. I did not grow up listening to it, per se (I was too young), but his music became the soundtrack to my adolescence when I watched “Harold and Maude” for the first time, and my world changed. I went out and got a guitar. I listened to Cat Stevens obsessively, played and sang his songs with friends, hunted down all of his albums. While it was clear that he’d lost his way artistically on later albums like “Numbers” and “Izitso,” the earlier, classic albums that he’s still known for (“Mona Bone Jakon” through “Foreigner”) were full of treasures that could be mined again and again. Indelible melodies, beautiful production, emotionally committed performances, and, most of all, a gentle wisdom, a repudiation of the status quo, a sense that we were not alone. Here was someone who was trying to make sense of life, too; he may not have had the answers, but he was looking for them, and we were encouraged to join him. Here was a friend.

Of course, I quickly learned that Cat Stevens had already ceased to be. My adolescent soul despaired, knowing that there would be no more Cat Stevens albums, no more Cat Stevens concerts. The man who had become a hero to me had long since retired from the music world.

In time, his music, too, would fade from my consciousness. As I grew and matured, so did my musical tastes and sensibilities. I might reach for a Cat Stevens album on rare occasions, to remind myself of something that I’d once treasured, sometimes surprised that a song or album held up as strongly as it did, but his music was no longer a living thing for me. I paid attention when he came out of retirement with the two Yusuf albums, and listened to each of them a handful of times with attendant hopes and (it seemed) inevitable disappointment. It was hard to get excited about his music now. The voice was the same, but the spirit was changed, different, unwelcoming.

Nevertheless, when it was announced, in late 2014, that he was going to perform in America for the first time in thirty-eight years, I put my misgivings aside and became a teen-ager again, queueing up for tickets on the phone the morning they went on sale. I did not listen to his latest album, “Tell ‘Em I’m Gone,” nor did I look for any news about the kinds of shows that he’d been playing of late. I simply drove up to Boston to see my old hero, expectations dimmed to almost nothing. I imagined that there I would see Yusuf Islam, delivering a respectful program of his latter-day music, with perhaps one or two old favorites thrown in as crowd appeasement. I wasn’t going for Yusuf Islam. I was going to pay homage to the singer who had once meant so much to me, for the chance to simply be in the same room with him for the first (and what I assumed would be the last) time.

It has taken some time for me to think clearly about what it was like to be at that show. What happened there was more than just a good concert given by a group of well-rehearsed, talented musicians, backing a pop icon on a comeback tour, though it was partly that. It was more than just a nostalgic trip down memory lane, as a sold-out crowd sang along to songs that many (including myself) never expected to hear played live again, though it was partly that, too. Without resorting to hyperbole, being there, for me, was an unexpected catharsis, something like seeing a ghost.

I didn’t know, until I got there, that the singer was now billing himself with the ungainly but revealing name of Yusuf/Cat Stevens. Was he now acknowledging his former self? This was a surprise, the first of many that the evening would hold.

The once and future Cat Stevens walked onstage to a tremendous ovation (no surprise there) and launched into a solo performance of “The Wind.” O.K., in some way, this was what we’d all come for, and here he’d already given it to us. All the latter-day Yusuf stuff would follow, we’d give him some hearty applause at the encore, and that would be that—or so I thought. What was this, though? He was wearing sunglasses and a leather jacket—not the austere, devotional garb he’d worn in the (admittedly not so recent) appearances that I’d seen him do online. And the stage set—it was elaborate, whimsical, evocative of the old Cat, whose tastes sometimes crossed the line into outright silliness. Most significantly, though, he himself seemed engaged, connected, and—hardest to believe—lighthearted.

“Here Comes My Baby” and “The First Cut Is the Deepest” followed, two pop hits from the infancy of his career, both secular love songs, both jarring surprises. “Thinking ‘Bout You” followed, a more recent song of love and devotion, but it was buoyed by an energy and commitment that sustained the freshness of what had come before, and served as a bridge to the first real shock of the night, as the singer made his way to a piano at the side of the stage and, unaccompanied, launched into the opening strains of “Sitting,” and the crowd seemed to collectively gasp before erupting into joyous, grateful cheers. Here he was again. Cat Stevens. Questioning, seeking, proudly admitting that he did not have the answers, but that he was on his way to find them. Our companion, our friend, had returned.

It was the first of what would be many goosebump-inducing moments in the generous, two-part concert. He followed it with “Last Love Song,” from 1978’s obscure (and mostly uninspired-sounding) “Back to Earth,” the mere fact that he was exploring and reclaiming obscurities from his back catalogue speaking volumes. By the time he reached the end of the first set, closing it with “If You Want to Sing Out, Sing Out,” the message was clear—something had happened. He was giving us back the songs he’d taken away so many years ago. He was, after all this time, validating their worth again, and with it, our love for them. After insisting for so many years, as Yusuf Islam, that there was only one way, only one truth, one law, one path, he’d relented. He was giving us permission, again, to do and think and live how we wanted. And he seemed genuinely happy saying and singing it.

The second set held even more surprises, as song after song from the old œuvre was brought back to life. “Oh Very Young,” “Sad Lisa,” “Miles from Nowhere” (I have my freedom / I can make my own rules / Oh yeah, the ones that I choose). They were presented, for the most part, as set pieces, with hardly any improvisation at all, but that didn’t matter. The faithful Alun Davies was there on lead acoustic guitar, as he has been since 1970. Matt Sweeney was a welcome addition on electric guitar, adding a pinch of verve and danger to the mix, but if old concert footage is any indication, Cat Stevens was never one for taking too many risks onstage musically, choosing instead to eschew spontaneity in deference to the arrangements on his studio recordings.

It was touching to hear the singer-songwriter still tinkering with that beautiful failure “Foreigner Suite,” still trying to get it right. Classics such as “Where Do the Children Play?” and “Trouble” brought with them a great sadness; confronted with the simplicity, the naïveté even, of the sentiments in these gentle lyrics, it was impossible not to think of how the world has changed and darkened since these songs were written and last performed. Even “Moonshadow,” that lullaby of Buddhist acceptance, carried with it the sting of longing for less dire times.

Being at that concert, hearing those songs again, sung with conviction by that man, was like being allowed to spend a night in one’s childhood home, with everything back the way that it was from some preëxistential, innocent moment—with even one’s family members frozen in time the way that they were decades ago. For me, it was eerie, spooky, unsettling, like Emily’s return from the dead in “Our Town.”

At the end of each of these old songs, there was that same sustained applause that followed his aside, early in the show, about how happy he was to be there. It’s a sound I keep coming back to in my mind when I think about the experience of being at that concert, a sound distinct from any that I think I have ever heard. It was an entity, a palpable force, as though the emotion behind every voice and every pair of hands could be heard. There was a sort of desperate celebration to it. It was the sound of reconciliation, of gratitude, of forgiveness.

Yusuf/Cat Stevens has a new album coming out this week, called “A Laughing Apple,” and more tour dates have been announced. I have not heard the new recording yet, but news of its release has led me to reflect on that night, when it felt as though this shape-shifting performer had brought someone we once loved back from the dead, a phantom from another time, and with that act offered tacit acknowledgment that we’re so much better together than we are apart. It’s a notion as naïvely idealistic as any he ever gave us; an echo from the past, finding its way to us past a wall that is, miraculously, no longer there

Howard Fishman is a writer, performer, and composer based in Brooklyn,  New York.

 

A New Way to study Economics


September 13, 2017

A New Way to study Economics

by John Cassidy

https://www.newyorker.com

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Dealing with Unemployment,Inequality, and  Poverty

With the new school year starting, there is good news for incoming students of economics—and anybody else who wants to learn about issues like inequality, globalization, and the most efficient ways to tackle climate change. A group of economists from both sides of the Atlantic, part of a project called CORE Econ, has put together a new introductory economics curriculum, one that is modern, comprehensive, and freely available online.

In this country, many colleges encourage Econ 101 students to buy (or rent) expensive textbooks, which can cost up to three hundred dollars, or even more for some hardcover editions. The CORE curriculum includes a lengthy e-book titled “The Economy,” lecture slides, and quizzes to test understanding. Some of the material has already been used successfully at colleges like University College London and Sciences Po, in Paris.

The project is a collaborative effort that emerged after the world financial crisis of 2008–9, and the ensuing Great Recession, when many students (and teachers) complained that existing textbooks didn’t do a good job of explaining what was happening. In many countries, groups of students demanded an overhaul in how economics was taught, with less emphasis on free-market doctrines and more emphasis on real-world problems.

Traditional, wallet-busting introductory textbooks do cover topics like pollution, rising inequality, and speculative busts. But in many cases this material comes after lengthy explanations of more traditional topics: supply-and-demand curves, consumer preferences, the theory of the firm, gains from trade, and the efficiency properties of atomized, competitive markets. In his highly popular “Principles of Economics,” Harvard’s N. Gregory Mankiw begins by listing a set of ten basic principles, which include “Rational people think at the margin,” “Trade can make everybody better off,” and “Markets are usually a good way to organize economic activity.”

The CORE approach isn’t particularly radical. (Students looking for expositions of Marxian economics or Modern Monetary Theory will have to look elsewhere.) But it treats perfectly competitive markets as special cases rather than the norm, trying to incorporate from the very beginning the progress economists have made during the past forty years or so in analyzing more complex situations: when firms have some monopoly power; people aren’t fully rational; a lot of key information is privately held; and the gains generated by trade, innovation, and finance are distributed very unevenly. The CORE curriculum also takes economic history seriously.

The e-book begins with a discussion of inequality. One of first things students learn is that, in 2014, the “90/10 ratio”—the average income of the richest ten per cent of households divided by the average income of the poorest ten per cent—was 5.4 in Norway, sixteen in the United States, and a hundred and forty-five in Botswana. Then comes a discussion of how to measure standards of living, and a section on the famous “hockey stick” graph, which shows how these standards have risen exponentially since the industrial revolution.

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The text stresses that technical progress is the primary force driving economic growth. Citing the Yale economist William Nordhaus’s famous study of the development of electric lighting, it illustrates how standard economic statistics, such as the gross domestic product, sometimes fail to fully account for this progress. Befitting a twenty-first-century text, sections devoted to the causes and consequences of technological innovation recur throughout the e-book, and the information economy receives its own chapter. So do globalization, the environment, and economic cataclysms, such as the Depression and the global financial crisis.

Given the breadth of its coverage, the CORE curriculum may be challenging to some students, but it takes advantage of being a native online product. (In Britain, a paperback version of the e-book is also available.) The presentation features lots of graphs and charts, and, in some cases, students can download data sets to create their own. The quizzes are interactive, and the presentation is enlivened by potted biographies of famous dead economists (Smith, Keynes, etc.) as well as video interviews with eminent living ones, such as Thomas Piketty.

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Unlike most textbooks, the CORE e-book was produced by a large team of collaborators. More than twenty economists from both sides of the Atlantic and from India, Colombia, Chile, and Turkey contributed to it. (Two of them, Suresh Naidu and Rajiv Sethi, teach at Columbia and Barnard, respectively.) The coördinators of the project were Wendy Carlin, of University College London, Sam Bowles, of the Santa Fe Institute, and Margaret Stevens, of Oxford University. The Institute for New Economic Thinking provided some funding to help get things off the ground.

The members of the CORE team deserve credit for responding to the critics of economics without pandering to them. They have produced a careful but engrossing curriculum that will hopefully draw more young people into economics, and encourage them to continue their studies. (At University College London, students who took the CORE course did better in subsequent economics classes than earlier cohorts who took a more traditional introductory course.)

But the CORE material isn’t just for incoming students. It will also reward the attention of general readers and people who think they are already reasonably conversant with economics. (Personal testimony: Having gone through some of the material in detail, I think I might finally understand the Malthusian model and how to calculate bank leverage ratios!) All this, and the price can’t be beat.

 

ASEAN– New Challenges Ahead after 50 years


August 12, 2017

ASEAN– New Challenges Ahead after credible 50 years

by Dr. Munir Majid

http://www.thestar.com.my

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FIRST, let us give credit where it is due: 50 years of continued existence in half a century of challenge and change is a feat of achievement. ASEAN can consider that the cup is half full.

The problem with ASEAN is that not enough is known about it. And what is known is usually about where it has failed, like its failure to take a common stand or to propose creative cooperation in the South China Sea disputes.

Or its pusillanimity in removing non-tariff barriers (NTBs) which are seriously hindering ASEAN economic integration and establishment of a single market and production base.

The fact that so many things – the half-full cup – are happening on the ground, is lost. Taking just the ASEAN Economic Community (AEC), how many Malaysians, for instance, appreciate there are over 1,000 of our companies all over ASEAN, taking advantage of regional growth against the frustrations of investment laws and domestic bureaucracies?

How many are aware of huge Thai companies like Charoen Pokphand (one of the largest private conglomerates in the world, employing 500,000 people across the globe) with big plans to make Malaysia its halal food hub?

Just imagine, Buddhist Thailand working in Muslim Malaysia to propel a fast-growing industry forward – despite whatever halal certification problems it might face in Indonesia, for instance – for its food products. Charoen Pokphand will find a way, as it has all over the world, since its establishment in 1921.

The point is, what is heard are the complaints. Inevitably, as these are louder than what is quietly achieved, with whatever difficulty, by the likes of Sime Darby or Gamuda Land or auto-parts company Ingress Corp Bhd.

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AirAsia Bhd, however loud and incessant its complaints, is now the largest low-cost airline in Asia, truly well-established in ASEAN.

The other side of the story, of course, is – the glass is half empty. The loud, big, private sector push is for ASEAN to strive for optimality.

This is where the great divide begins. Old ASEAN hand Bilahari Kausikan of Singapore once famously said ASEAN is a cow which some people expect to be a horse. The suggestion is, it cannot.

However, why not? Even if it cannot, is the cow fully-milked? Perhaps there should be a convergence between those who say the glass is half full and those who say it is half empty.

With respect to the AEC, there is great effort by the official ASEAN side to engage the private sector to forge cooperation, if not quite convergence. The AEC 2025 Blueprint clearly recognises the role of the private sector in the economic integration process.

In 2015, ASEAN Economic Ministers acknowledged there has to be concentrated effort to get NTBs reduced, and agreed with the ASEAN Business Advisory Council (ASEAN-BAC) that the way forward is by concentrating on a few people-centric sectors – agri-food, healthcare, retail and e-commerce, and logistics.

In the middle of 2016, the ASEAN Trade Facilitation Joint Consultative Committee (ATF-JCC) was revived, with part of its remit being to form working groups with expert private sector entities to address NTBs in those four sectors with, additionally, the tourism sector.

In January this year, the ATF-JCC met in Bangkok and ASEAN-BAC was called to discuss the way forward. Some progress in terms of customs procedures was made just recently on how intra-ASEAN trade could be facilitated. But work on the specific, prioritised sectors has yet to begin.

This is part of the reason why, while there is cooperation between the official and private sectors, there is not quite convergence. Rate of progress: the process is not just slow. It is long, grinding and exhausting.

Beyond the AEC, more generally, there is great need to raise the profile of ASEAN among the people at large, especially the young, whose knowledge of what it does is lacking. It is like a close-kept secret. The top-down approach among those of a certain age has to change.

ASEAN’s young population have to be brought into the whole process, to energise it and to form the future that will be theirs. If ASEAN wants to bring them along into that future, it is absolutely essential to form an ASEAN Youth Consultative body to hear from the young what they want of and for ASEAN.

If ASEAN does not do this, it will be wasting one of its most valuable assets – its demographic vitality. They can take on the digital world.

After we recognise credit should be given to ASEAN for what it has achieved, it is a totally pro-ASEAN thing to do to highlight the formidable challenges it faces going forward. The biggest is happening now: digitisation.

ASEAN has not quite addressed what is now popularly dubbed Economy 4.0. ASEAN talks about the opportunities of e-commerce and, correctly, intones that the trading platforms, payments settlement and connectivity have to be in place to drive it. But even as this being talked about – and inadequate progress is made – the sweep of the digital economy might have uncomfortable consequences for ASEAN if it does not prepare itself.

The fourth industrial revolution is more comprehensive than just e-commerce. There are vast opportunities for new industries and services, as well as for greater productivity. But there are also grave challenges to employment and skills development.

ASEAN needs to fashion clear policies on education and training – with emphasis on cognitive skills – and retraining, and on employment displacement. Yet the ASEAN mantra to attract investment remains low-cost of production. But will the manufacturing industries come to low-labour cost Indonesia or Myanmar in the new digital economy?

Unemployment and unemployability could seriously affect these countries, particularly their micro, small and medium enterprises sector. Serious socio-economic problems could scupper ASEAN economic integration, indeed threaten regional cohesion.

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The time to act is now. ASEAN really has not that much time to celebrate its creditable 50 years.

China’s Resource Diplomacy: It’s not Charity for sure


August 5, 2017

China’s Resource Diplomacy: It’s not Charity for sure

By Jealous Chishamba

http://allafrica.com/stories/201708040279.html

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Resource diplomacy refers to the diplomatic activity designed to enhance a nation’s access to resources and its energy security.

It normally happens when great powers contend for supremacy. There are several interlinked components of resource diplomacy. Generally, resource security has three components namely insuring a stable supply of energy and resources; keeping resource supplies at acceptable prices; and being able to transfer those resources to fixed locations, not necessarily to the home country but where they can be processed or consumed.

In economic context, if recipient countries negotiate for a win-win outcome, resource diplomacy can work positively in supporting infrastructure growth for developing countries. However, in most instances, the inhibiting factor for a balanced outcome is that beggars cannot be choosers.

China’s enormous overseas spending has slowly allowed it to write the rules for 21st Century commerce as part of this resource diplomacy.

The increased overseas purchases of resources makes other countries dependent on China’s economy for their own growth, thereby expanding China’s global influence.

 

The transformation of the BRICs acronym from an investment term into a household name of international politics and, more recently, into a semi-institutionalized political outfit (called BRICS, with a capital ‘S’ after South Africa’s inclusion), is one of the defining developments in international politics of the first decade of the 21st century.

 

Beijing’s aim is to help displace the United States and Europe as the leading financial power in large parts of the developing world. To some extent, Beijing may wield some economic power over other competing global economies given that history has never set any precedent that an empire is capable of governing the world forever. Currently, international order is being restructured where traditionally-dominant economies have undergone adjustments and restrictions necessitated by the global financial crisis and its aftermath.

As if endorsing the foregoing assertion, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) unavoidably blessed the Chinese Renminbi as one of the world’s elite currencies, alongside the Dollar, Euro, Pound and Yen. Developing countries especially in Africa are increasingly finding that they must operate in China’s orbit to support their growth.

China and the African continent collectively contain a third of the global population and have recorded the fastest growth rates in the world over the past 15 years.

In some countries across Africa, a deeper relationship with China is already paying dividends. For example, the findings from Afrobarometer’s 2014/2015 surveys in 36 African countries, which included a special series of questions on China, suggest that generally 63% of the respondents have favourable views on economic and assistance activities by China.

Although there are several caveats to using this data to corroborate economic sense, the exactness of these survey results is less important than what the actual numbers signify. The recent exponential growth in China-Africa trade corridor numbers support the view that China and African countries are developing commercial ties that are more balanced, diversified, and beneficial to both regions.

China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China have financed big-ticket projects in Asia and Africa as compared to Bretton Woods Institutions (the World Bank and IMF).

In addition, the birth of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank where China has significant power was a result of the difficulties China faced to get veto power in Bretton Woods Institutions. In 2015, the BRICS bank was also formed and China holds a clear dominance within the BRICS group (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa).

BRICS bank is highly regarded as a competitor or alternative to the IMF and World Bank. China’s economic clout in Africa has strengthened and there are fears that Beijing would use these development banks as another tool to exert its influence across the global economy.

Although China-Africa relationship has evolved greatly over the past few years, critics and common pessimistic perceptions have not kept pace with changing realities. Traditionally, the Chinese are not very transparent about their flows of overseas loans.

China is not a member of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and thus they do not participate in the OECD’s Creditor Reporting System, which is the source for much of the data on official flows from the wealthier countries.

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China and Nigeria

While Chinese policy bank officials do release data from time to time on their African loan commitments, this is not systematic in either their parameters or specificity. As is the case with the United States Export Import Bank and other export credit agencies, Chinese banks also rarely publish information regarding specific financing agreements.

It is also uncommon for the recipients of such financing to fully disclose the details of the finance they receive. More often, the loans are tied to the use of Chinese contractors on the projects.

In this regard, China’s investment has been cast as an exploitative neo-colonial business partner with little interest in forging genuine win-win deals in African nations.

Sometimes, the pessimists’ views have some merit given the opaque, government-to-government nature of China’s relationship with the continent. Other schools of thoughts opine that the behind-closed-doors, government-to-government approach of the Chinese state entities lacks transparency and it has therefore been criticised for compromising the expected economic and social benefits of such deals for African countries.

According to China Africa Research Initiative, loans or grants from Chinese government agencies to African counterparts have traditionally outweighed foreign direct investment.

For example, from 2000 to 2015, the Chinese government, banks and contractors extended US$94,4 billion worth of loans to African governments and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).

The figures speak for themselves that indeed the burgeoning of Sino-African links is unprecedented and is becoming the main topic of interest in Africa’s international relations. African governments typically agree to long-term concessionary loans from the Export Import Bank of China to fund major infrastructure projects. They do so because other sources of financing are lacking or are too slow to meet immediate infrastructure needs.

China has realised that Africa is unique and that the approach by Bretton Woods is tied to archaic and largely ineffective Africa investment models hence the danger of missing out on the double digit returns that successful African investments provide.

Wenjie Chen, an economist in IMF’s African Department found that whereas Western investment favours the better governance environments, Chinese investment in strong and weak governance environments is about the same, but its share of foreign investment is higher in the weak governance states.

Thus, the capital flows behind this system of infrastructure financing, often results in illogical comparison between United States, European, and Chinese forms of investment in Africa. Zimbabwe has also been the loci for Chinese investments.

In July 2017, Zimbabwe made an application an application for US$153 million from China Export Import Bank for the upgrade of Harare International Airport. Loans pledged by Exim Bank are in excess of US$1 billion.

In 2016, China’s Premier surprised several global powerhouses when he visited Zimbabwe and pledged around US$4 billion of China-led Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). If executed, this level of commitment contrasts starkly with the action or lack thereof from Bretton Woods banks in Zimbabwe.

Post the visit of China’s President Xi Jinping in Zimbabwe, Fay Chung, did a balanced analysis in his correspondent article entitled Unpacking China’s USD4bln Zim investment.

It is unfortunate that some of the innumerable challenges mentioned as investment deterrents in Chung’s article have not been addressed hence the delays in real China-led FDI flow in the country. It is worth emphasising that given the shifting global dynamics, what ultimately comes from China’s promises depends largely on what we do ourselves.

Sustainability relies not only on goodwill from the East and the West, but also on us being able to add value, negotiate and focus on long-term goals as already achieved by other neighbouring countries whose China-led FDI flows are comparatively high despite vast opportunities in-country.

China has backed its proposal for real win-win cooperation between China and Africa by committing US$60 billion of new investment in major projects which can help develop local economic capacity if the country religiously pursues these opportunities.

Pursuing the opportunities embedded in China-Africa trade corridor is a low hanging fruit for Zimbabwe given that China’s investment in Africa often eschews conditionality as compared to Bretton Woods Institutions.

As for Zimbabwe, the compelling returns will be gained by setting up an investment-led task force to take advantage of China’s resource diplomacy and unlock massive investment potential for the benefit of the country.

The enormity of infrastructure gaps that Zimbabwe needs to resolve requires exploring these strategic opportunities offered by these “all-weather” friends.

Chishamba is a Zimbabwean banker with experience in treasury and corporate banking. He writes in his personal capacity.

Cambodia–Civil Servants and the State


August 5, 2017

Cambodia–Civil Servants and the State

by David Hutt

http://www.newmandela.org

There are times when the work of a journalist in Cambodia is made so easy. Compared to some other countries, where politicians rarely say what they think (or think beyond what they are told), Cambodian officials tend to wear their innermost thoughts on their sleeves, words rolling from the tongue in almost stream-of-consciousness fashion.

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Prime Minister Samdech Techo Hun Sen delivers peace, stability and development. Young Cambodians are proud of their country

Such an occasion happened on Monday when Vong Sauth (sometimes spelled Vong Soth), the social affairs minister, spoke at a small gathering for the appointment of new civil servants. The Phnom Penh Post quoted him: “Officials eat the state’s salary, and are asked to be neutral, but do not forget that the state was born from the party, and I think all of our officials must have the clear character of firmly supporting the party.”

Oh, such honesty. By officials, he means civil servants. And by saying this, he echoed what pundits have long accused the ruling Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) of doing: making civil servants’ jobs dependent upon their support of the party. Indeed, Sauth went on to say that civil servants can’t support the political opposition, the Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP). “If anybody does not support the CPP, submit applications of resignation, and I can help you [with that], but if you are loyal to the CPP you must vote for the CPP, and then you can stay,” he said.

Knowing where the State begins and Party ends in Cambodia entails a microscopic study. It used to be said of Prussia that it was “not a country with an army, but an army with a country”. Might Cambodia be rendered “not a country with a party, but a party with a country”?

The military, supposed to be an independent of political parties in any democratic society, is already firmly symbiotic to the CPP’s interests. Last year, Chea Dara, a high ranking military officer who was incorporated into the CPP’s Central Committee, said: “Every soldier is a member of the People’s Army and belongs to the CPP because [Prime Minister Hun Sen] is the feeder, caretaker, commander, and leader of the army… I speak frankly when I say that the army belongs to the [CPP].”

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Cambodia at Sunrise–Calm, Serene and Captivating

And now we have Sauth demanding loyalty declarations from civil servants. Phil Robertson, Deputy Asia Director of Human Rights Watch, wrote in an email to journalists that he “should be immediately fired for his outrageous remarks that demonstrate he knows nothing about either human rights or democracy.” Robertson went on: “He shows his ignorance of modern democratic principles when he fails to recognize that in a democracy, it is politicians who are elected to make decisions on law and policy, but the civil servants have different duties, such as carrying out the day to day functions of government in an impartial and professional way”.

Prime Minister Hun Sen publicly responded to Robertson by saying he was “better off focusing on his chaos-ridden, war-mongering U.S. home that was unfit for the premier’s grandchild”, as the Cambodia Daily phrased it.

Since 1979, the State has been fashioned by the CPP—or “born from the party”, as Sauth said—and, like any offspring, it shares much maternal DNA. And, although the CPP supposedly discarded its communist credentials in the early 1990s, they weren’t completely lost. As I wrote at The Diplomat:

“Not dissimilar to the reign of Norodom Sihanouk, or the Angkor “god-kings” of earlier centuries, Cambodia operates a system noblesse oblige. Education, roads, and other basic services are, typically, not provided by the state but by the ruling CPP – at least this is how the government spins it. Rather than a welfare state, Cambodia has a philanthropic party. And all of this development work comes with the express condition of voting CPP when elections come around.

In an earlier article I described the ethos this creates amongst ordinary Cambodians and the civil servants: “because basic services are doled out by the party and not the State, they have to be earned.” One might also add employment for civil servants to this.

If this is a problem now, it will become even more apparent as the next general election approaches (it is set for next year). Sauth seems to think victory for the CPP is assured: it has the human resources, money, and power, he said. In his speech, he also imparted what was discussed at an internal meeting the day before, at which, he said, Prime Minister Hun Sen laid out the party’s strategy: “This election, if there are more problems with protests, your heads will be hit by the bottom of bamboo sticks.”

Elections in Cambodia are testing anyway but added to this is the knowledge that a handover of power to another political party (if that ever happens, or is allowed to happen) also entails the reformation of much of the State apparatus. Indeed, the question for the opposition CNRP is not just whether it can win next year’s general election but whether it can take over a State that appears inseparable from the CPP. This, in fact, might be the more difficult task.

David Hutt is a journalist and writer based in Phnom Penh. He is also the Southeast Asia Columnist for the Diplomat, and a contributor to numerous regional publications.

 

South-East Asia’s future looks prosperous but illiberal


July 24, 2017

More money, less freedom

South-East Asia’s future looks prosperous but illiberal

Democracy is losing ground even as the region grows richer

Print edition | Asia

Image result for ASEAN Forging ahead --Economic Intelligence Unit

ASEAN–Peace, Stability and Economic Development First

THE young woman with the microphone cajoles, hectors and wheedles customers with the breathless enthusiasm of a livestock auctioneer at a county fair. She is standing behind a table stacked high with blue jeans; most of the milling crowd is dressed in lungyis, Myanmar’s skirt-like national dress. The fancy mall around them is anchored by a huge department store, dotted with banks and mobile-phone stalls and topped by a cinema and video arcade.

Myanmar has been growing so fast—by an average of 7.5% a year for the past five years—that the boom is reverberating in Mae Sot, just across the border in Thailand. Two years ago, says a longtime resident, the site of the mall was a swamp, and Mae Sot was a poky little border town with two small grocery stores. Today huge supermarkets, car dealers, electronics outlets and farm-equipment showrooms line the wide new road from the border into town, patronised by a steady stream of Burmese shoppers. Skeletons of future apartment blocks loom; the Thai government is building a new international airport. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) forecasts that Myanmar’s growth will hit 8% next year.

The region is full of such stories. Cambodia, Laos, the Philippines and Vietnam have been growing only slightly more slowly. Overall, the ten countries of the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) grew at an annual rate of 5% over the past five years: not quite as fast as China or India, but much faster than Europe, Japan or America. The region’s 625m-odd people are growing richer and better educated; they will live longer, healthier and more prosperous lives than their parents. Of course, plenty of poverty remains—most people in Myanmar are still subsistence farmers—but the region’s economic trends are promising.

Back from the red

It was not always obvious that the South-East Asian economies would do so well. Only a generation ago Myanmar was cut off from the world by despotic generals; Cambodia’s 25-year-old civil war was still sputtering; and Vietnam was only just beginning to experiment with some timid market reforms. The wealthier countries in the region, meanwhile, had seen their economies, and the underlying models of growth, shattered by the Asian financial crisis of 1997.

The crisis proved salutary. Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand all adopted sounder macroeconomic policies and made some effort to curb the cronyism that had accompanied earlier growth. Nominally communist Laos and Vietnam and autarkic Myanmar all embraced free markets, up to a point. The days of nationalisation and central planning seem to be over. In much of the region inefficient and coddled state-owned businesses endure, and rent-seeking, corruption and protectionism are all more common than they should be. But across South-East Asia, liberal economics has won the argument.

Politically, however, the region is moving in the opposite direction. The Asian crisis may have brought huge economic hardship, but it did at least unseat Suharto, Indonesia’s strongman of 32 years, and instigate political reforms elsewhere. In the years that followed, imperfect democracies in Malaysia, the Philippines and Thailand appeared to be gaining strength. And Myanmar, after years of isolation and repression, embarked on an unexpected transition to democracy.

But hoped-for openings never came in Laos and Vietnam, where the Communist Party has always been nakedly repressive. Singapore remains an illiberal, albeit effective, technocracy. The leaders of Malaysia and Cambodia, Najib Razak and Hun Sen, have proved depressingly adept at locking up critics and persecuting opponents. Cambodia’s most prominent opposition politician, Sam Rainsy, lives in exile to avoid imprisonment for a spurious conviction for defamation. Opposition figures in Malaysia find themselves in court on charges as varied as corruption and sodomy.

The junta that seized power in Thailand three years ago promises an election next year. Even in the unlikely event that it is free and fair, the constitution—which the army wrote and the new king signed in May—creates a junta-led Senate, imposes the generals’ 20-year plan on the country and provides ample grounds to remove any elected leader whom the army finds lacking. All this is designed to prevent voters from electing the “wrong” leaders, in the army’s view, as they have done at every opportunity over the past 15 years.

Image result for ASEAN Forging ahead --Economic Intelligence Unit

Democratic institutions are not yet quite that weak in the region’s two biggest countries, Indonesia and the Philippines, but in both liberals have more cause for fear than hope. Filipino voters, justifiably frustrated by the way that a few prominent families dominate politics, and by how recent economic growth has failed to reduce the high poverty rate, elected Rodrigo Duterte as president last year. Alone among the five candidates, he seemed to care about ordinary people; his brutal anti-drug campaign has appalled foreigners but is popular at home.

Mr Duterte reminisces fondly about the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos and seems to crave dictatorial power himself. He has declared martial law on the southern island of Mindanao (see Banyan), and often muses about doing the same nationally. He veers between indifference and hostility to troublesome principles such as due process, the separation of powers and the rule of law—all of which need shoring up, not weakening.

An election for Governor of Jakarta in April, meanwhile, has harmed Indonesia’s reputation for religious tolerance (see next story). Islamist agitators campaigned against the Christian incumbent, Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, falsely claiming that he had insulted the Koran. Anies Baswedan, one of his rivals, embraced their shameless attempt to stir up sectarian tension, and won. Prabowo Subianto, a tub-thumping nationalist who lost the presidential election in 2014, backed Mr Baswedan. The fear is that Mr Prabowo, inspired by Mr Baswedan’s success, will try to foster similar divisions at the national level.

But it is Myanmar that most encapsulates the region’s democratic reversal. When the army ceded power last year to Aung San Suu Kyi, its Nobel-prize-winning opponent of 30 years, expectations were astronomically high, even though the constitution the generals had written severely limited her powers. That has made her government’s craven and repressive acts all the more bewildering. It has charged more reporters with defamation than did her military-backed predecessor. She has been shamefully silent about the continuing persecution of the Rohingya, a Muslim minority, not even admitting, let alone trying to stop, the army’s well-documented campaign of rape, murder and destruction against Rohingya villages. It does not help that since Donald Trump became president, America, long the loudest champion of liberal values in the region, has more or less let the subject drop.

This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “More money, less freedom”–The Economist