Thursday, July 07, 2005

Koranteng's Toli On The Radio

So Christopher Lydon called me up at 1pm yesterday wanting me to be on his radio show that evening to discuss the G8 summit, Live 8, Africa, debts, Ghana etc.

This came from out of the blue but I guess that's what having a blog and writing about all manner of things will do; one's jaundiced prose will occasionally hit fertile soil. I believe Ethan, who called in to the program also had something to do with making that connection, my first foray into punditry.

It was an hour long show and I was in the studio with Chris and Calestous Juma, a Kenyan professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. The Girlfriend was along for moral support and watched from the control room so I later got a fuller version of the way the show was put together.

Me Christopher Lydon Calestous Juma in studio

Lydon's program is called Open Source and the topic was ostensibly Is Aid Enough?.

You can download an mp3 of the show (it's a big file 24MB, but it should stream in your browser).

I'm surprised I came off okay... I suspect I'm better on the written page than in person. Mostly I was hungry. For some reason, the only thing I had eaten all day was a bar of candy I picked up just before we got to the studio... I don't think it was just nerves, my stomach really was growling.

At a certain point, it seemed that the discussion was turning into a dichotomy of NGOs or universities/technology which I found discomfiting since those are not the only alternatives facing Africa. As an unknown quantity on my first gig as a pundit, I didn't want to jump in and change the frame of the conversation. I'm a little diffident and there's also the respect for elders aspect, in retrospect I should have been a little bolder.

I would have liked to have a couple of women in the mix to bring wider viewpoints to the table. For example, Sokari Ekine of Black Looks, would have brought a far more nuanced dialog, although it turns out that she is in Spain and not Boston like I had long thought. When Chris called and asked for suggestions for what he billed as a dinner party conversation on Africa, I was a little at a loss to point out those others who I read and enjoy. I guess the onus would be on folks like me to have 5 names at the tip of the tongue so that those voices would be called on in the same way that I was picked up into punditry...


I think I made a couple of cogent points during the program which discussed Africa, luggage, aid, debt, cell phones, radio, universities and various other things.

On Luggage

Africans typically travel with huge amounts of luggage - we have lots of responsibilities to our extended families. When I was a teenager, I once had to carry a television as hand luggage for an aunt of mine, she didn't even blink when the airline agent was almost incredulous that she would make a youngster attempt to carry that beast. My aunt simply wasn't about to pay any excess luggage fees and it worked, the agent took pity on me and checked in that piece for free. Another aunt used to say as she packed what seemed like the world into her suitcase,
"You just have to make sure you don't show the strain when you carry the bag."

Thus I mentioned the following.
  • The luggage allowance on British Airways flights from London to Ghana is 40 lbs for economy fares and 60 lbs if you travel business class.
  • The normal trans-Atlantic allowance is 70 lbs for economy fares on all airlines (say London to Boston).
  • On the other hand, on British Airways flights from London to Lagos, Nigeria, the allowance is now 120 pounds per piece.
"It’s a matter of pricing power. They [the Nigerians] have the numbers, they have the economic activity, and because of that, British Airways, which 5 years ago did not even allow you to get frequent flyer miles to travel to Africa, now not only do that, but now for Nigeria, they will let you have almost double the luggage allowance that trans-Atlantic flights would have. So the Nigerians are moving."
I truly believe this. Ghana might be a current darling of the international community but with a population of 20 million, we simply do not have the kind of internal market that will allow us to weather oil at $60 a barrel like the US is doing without much pain. We are "helped" now that many of our neighbours are basket cases, and consequently this focuses a lot of development activity on us, but ultimately we'll never have the kind of pricing power that 100 million Nigerians will have.

I didn't mention the other statistic that underlies my point about Nigeria moving: the installation of 1 million cell phone lines in Nigeria in the past year. And anyone who has had to deal with the acumen of Nigerians in whatever sphere knows that if that society decides to advance, it will change in very short order. It will still be difficult, unwieldy and disorderly, but it will move and possibly even faster than India or China will.


In my Strange Bedfellows and the Journalistic Impulse piece, I asked
"Why can't we be like the Indians for whom it increasingly makes a lot of sense to stay put back home or to even head back from abroad?"
Chris picked up on that and pressed me to address that very same point; it's a question that I ponder daily but have no satisfactory answer for.

I alluded to my manifesto about what is taking place in many African countries and you'll notice nary a mention of aid, debt or the West, even though all those can play a part in the answer
The messy business of development is about countries where three centuries of history are simultaneously taking place. The challenge is to creatively find ways to move the laggards into this century and the next. Giving goat herders mobile phones is only a first step.
I managed to get in a couple of customary toli zingers during the program:
"It takes two to do the corruption tango"
when the discussion inevitably turned to charity, handouts and rogues. The corruption tango is something I addressed in passing earlier on. It deserves a fuller treatment at some point. Right after that comment, someone called in (an American businessman) talking about trying to do business in Nigeria and how everyone wanted handouts and paraphrasing here "how he had to pay if he wanted to get anything done" and the "mentality of the people on the street". The juxtaposition was inspired and all credit is due to David Miller who is a great producer. A great corrective was then supplied by Ethan who mentioned that in all his dealings, and there have been many, he has never paid any bribes.
"I’ve never seen money return from Swiss banks."
Despite the amount of shaming that the Swiss and others have endured in recent years (at the expense of the Holocaust lobby and others), I can guarantee you that the bulk of Mobutu, Savimbi or Abacha's money (let alone what we know about General Pinochet's dealings with Riggs bank and the like) will never be seen in their native countries, it is destined to be played with by Swiss and American bankers. I hope to be proved wrong but if you believe that all the money will be repatriated perhaps you're still waiting for the discovery of Saddam's Weapons of Mass Destruction.


Anyway it was a great experience, I want to do more...

It's funny, I'm more interested in the process of putting the show together than on the show itself. So I was completely at ease in the studio or chatting with Chris. As I've mentioned before, I've seen my mum do this countless times: at 1pm call around and try to put together a show for the evening - figure out who's in town, try to gather names of "interesting" folks, sounding them out quickly to see if they can talk, if they are quotable, quick-witted or ponderous all the while thinking about what the framing device will be etc.

In many ways the conversation I had when Chris cold-called me was even more interesting than what was ultimately broadcast, and looser also because there wasn't a particular angle that he had in mind. As you might know I too have a roving mind... We have a shared love of journalism in general, and radio in particular, and it was a great thing to see him at work. I think I mentioned the impact that mobile phones and FM radio stations had on ensuring clean elections in Ghana in the 2000 elections. It takes a lot of nerve to steal ballot boxes if your car license plates and description are likely to be phoned in and broadcast on various FM stations. I have long been a fan of his interviewing style and it seems that he got a lot out of his time in Ghana. I hope to continue the conversations we begun.


I believe I had the last word in the program; the question was something about what one would say if one was able to have 30 seconds with President Bush at the G8 summit. I started to say something about wanting "a level playing field" in world affairs but midway through my sentence, reality struck me, a level playing field is a tall order in the light of manifest destiny or The Long Thief in the Night. Thus I cut my thought short and simply ended with
"Just listen."
That's really all that that one can hope for from them. Lots of people have opinions on Africa, and many are quick to pontificate and prescribe solutions. But it would be good to hear the breadth of ideas that come from the continent itself; Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's is only one of many. That's what makes me add my voice to the cacophony of the blogosphere, not that I have any particular insight, but rather that I can add value to the ongoing conversation. Maybe somewhere, someone will indeed "just listen".

Soundtrack for this joint

See also: Chris Lydon Radio Toli

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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Koranteng, I really learned quite a bit about Africa listening to this excellent broadcast. I have been so curious about Africa, especially lately, after listening to/watching many hours of the Live 8 concert this past weekend and this helped fill in many of my gaps.