Saturday, December 20, 2008

Award-winning disingenuousness

A little while ago, I wrote a letter to Private Eye concerning their investigation into Actis and the government's development arm. It went like this...

I have been following your exposé of CDC and Actis for a little while and, whilst I applaud your dedication and doubt that said organisations' motives are entirely pure, I do feel that you are labouring under several delusions.

Your ire centres around the idea that CDC is investing, not in "agriculture", but in technologies such as mobile phone networks which is not an appropriate way to "spend the taxpayers' money intended for poverty relief". Fair enough.

Except that several reports have shown that mobile phones have an extraordinary and positive impact on development in poorer countries; one showed that a rise of 10 mobile phones per 100 people leads to a 1.5% rise in the growth of GDP. Amongst other things, they allow the farmers that you profess to champion to 'phone the nearest population centres—rather than having to pick one to travel to—and determine the best price for their products.

Further, another recent study showed that the building of reliable infrastructure had a far more positive impact on the development of Western economies than protectionism, for instance, ever did and so I would have thought that you would applaud the constructing of such infrastructure in Africa and other developing nations.

You also claim that CDC is "deserting third world agriculture"; it might have escaped your notice but the development of Western societies shows that everyone wishes to desert third world-style agriculture: in this country, for instance, people preferred to work down the coal mines—hardly a walk in the park—rather than continue in subsistence farming.

If our government was really interested in helping these impoverished nations, they would sponsor action to enact, and enforce, strong property rights laws: once a farmer can be sure that his land will not be removed at a moment's notice, and with no compensation, he may determine that land to be worth investing in. Further, his land would then provide collateral for loans to make that investment.

As things currently stand, in all too many countries, farmers do not have that assurance. As it is then, we should help them to make the best of their position and building a technological infrastructure—given the geographical and capital problems inherent in building a tight physical one—has been shown to be an excellent way in which to do that.

Yours faithfully,


This is the first letter that I have sent to Private Eye (and I don't send that many) that the magazine has not seen fit to print. Whilst I wasn't really denigrating the investigatory journalism involved, I did criticise the conclusions drawn, i.e. that investing in peasant farmers was, per se, better than investing in mobile phone networks.

I felt that it was a pretty crucial point because it knocked down a key plank of the reports—that the people now in charge of the state arm of the overseas development agency were basically not benefiting those in Developing Countries and thus their stewardship essentially amounted to misappropriation of funds.

Still, it was a long letter and I was not entirely surprised that it didn't appear in the magazine, even in an abridged form. I was also aware that it went against Private Eye's general current philosophy, i.e. those who make profits are evil.

Anyway, you can imagine how delighted I was to see that the reporter who wrote that series of investigations, Richard Brooks, has now become the joint winner of the Paul Foot Award for investigative journalism 2008.

Which was nice.


DavidNcl said...

Do you think this statist organisation is in any sense of the word good?

CDC doesn't actually make direct investments in companies rather:

"We place our funds with skilled and experienced private equity fund managers in our target markets"
(all quotes from their web-site)


"We have, instead, chosen an intermediated approach which we believe enables us to leverage capital from other investors, increasing capital flows to markets where there is great need."

In other words it's more effective to interfere with free markets at the radical root focusing directly on investment and equity funds. I laughed out loud at:

"We require all our fund managers to subscribe to our best practice policy covering health and safety, environmental, social and governance issues."

Do you really think that they're trying to help free markets and capitalism emerge in sub-Saharan Africa - my crazy mad guess is, err no - there trying to stop it.

Richard Brooks complaint might be read as critique that CDC is too subtle in its undermining.

James Higham said...

Maybe it will appear in the next one, DK.

Anonymous said...

Not an overly long letter, but then Private Eye sadly is not what it was.

Have to say however I gave up reading it several years ago. If it has improved then I am clearly missing out...

Anonymous said...

I suspect that a lot of people write to Private Eye, which only has limited letter space. Just think how many comments blogs get for one article.

Anonymous said...

It is relatively long by their standard. It is also contrary to the idea which I'm sure most Private Eye readers hold, that aid is there to help the picanninies get richer in their own ethnic way rather than becoming like us.

Anyway only 1 not printed is a very good average & one I have not managed even if one excluded those I sent mentioning British government complicity in dissecting people in Kosovo.

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