Global Glance: April 25, 2016
A quick look at intriguing international stories
By John Bostwick, Managing Editor, Radius
Welcome back to Global Glance. This week we look at:
- Africa’s amazing HeroRATS
- Why Djibouti is the most important African nation you’ve never heard of
- Africa’s 2016 economic outlook
Africa’s Amazing HeroRATS
A 2015 World Health Organization report on global tuberculosis revealed that the mortality rate for the disease has nearly halved since 1990. Unfortunately, TB is still a leading global killer, accounting for 1.5 million deaths in 2014 alone, including 140,000 children. The majority of those deaths were in the South-East Asia and Western Pacific regions. But Africa bore the heaviest burden per capita, with a death rate of 281 cases per 100,000 people, more than twice the global average.
For a look at one fascinating technology being used to cut those African TB rates, check out this recent article in SciDev.Net. APOPO, a Belgian non-governmental organization, trains and uses Gambian pouched rats to detect tuberculosis in patients from countries with high TB rates such as Mozambique and Tanzania. The rats — dubbed HeroRATS — are incredibly efficient and effective at diagnosing the disease. Here’s SciDev.Net: “A single HeroRAT can check about 100 sputum samples in just 20 minutes, compared to conventional methods of microscopy, which would take a laboratory technician two days or more,” and the lab technician still may miss many of the true positives.
Amazingly, HeroRATS are similarly efficient and effective at detecting landmines, another grave public health concern in some African nations. Nicholas Kristof wrote about this subject for The New York Times in April of last year, and I strongly recommend you check out that excellent column (and related video), which is my favorite Kristof piece. He explains how six years ago his kids donated money as a Father’s Day gift to train a mine-sniffing HeroRAT. And last year, he visited rural Angola to see his adopted rodent in action.
— APOPO's HeroRATs (@HeroRATs) July 25, 2015
Kristof was not disappointed. While pouched rats weigh up to two and a half pounds (“which is a lot of rat”), they’re not heavy enough to trigger mines. Their handlers put the HeroRATS on leashes and systematically cover ground in the minefields. The rats’ acute sense of smell allows them to detect the explosives in mines while disregarding bullet shells, nails and other metal scraps that trigger false-positive readings on metal detectors. As a result, the rats are 20 times faster than humans at clearing minefields. And because a rat’s concentration doesn’t wane like a human’s, they’re also more reliable.
In a touching, humorous passage that concludes the piece, Kristof writes that at least one Angolan HeroRAT handler has grown so fond and respectful of his charges that he now sees all rats in a favorable light, to the consternation of his wife. The handler is quoted as saying, “When there are rats in the house, I just shoo them away. … I can’t kill rats now.”
Mother’s Day and Father’s Day are coming up, and if you want to make a HeroRAT donation of your own, go to APOPO.org.
Why Djibouti Is the Most Important African Nation You’ve Never Heard Of
2015 was a sluggish year for many African economies, as Global Glancers will discover (or be reminded of) if they read the final section of this post. At least one African state, however, is attracting worldwide attention for its foreign investors. Djibouti is a desert state about the size of New Hampshire and has no natural resources to speak of. However, it’s centrally located in the Horn of Africa, directly across the Red Sea from Yemen, and its ports have been called the entryways to the Indian Ocean. It also borders Ethiopia, ranked by the International Monetary Fund as one of the five fastest growing economies in the world, Eritrea, and Somalia, widely known for its civil unrest and for the pirates that threaten international ships off its coast.
Given Djibouti’s strategically important location, the country is now host to military bases of France (Djibouti is a former French colony), the United States and, most remarkably, China. As a recent article in The Economist explains, China’s naval base in Djibouti, which is under construction, is that nation’s first-ever foreign military installation anywhere in the world.
China has indicated that the base is “nothing more than a logistics hub for anti-piracy operations and evacuating citizens from hotspots like Yemen,” but its presence has alarmed US officials. An April article in The Diplomat notes: “With the Chinese military close by, fears abound that American intelligence gathering may be disrupted by allowing Beijing to establish a strategic foothold in close proximity to the oil trade routes from the Middle East and to the Indian Ocean.” In other words, The Diplomat adds, these are uneasy times for two nations that are “vying for regional (and global) dominance.”
The Economist article goes on to explain that many Djibouti officials are not content to simply rent space to foreign military powers; they also have “ambitions to become a Dubai or Singapore at the gateway of the Red Sea and Indian Ocean.” Due largely to the Ethiopia-Eritrea war, nearly all of Ethiopia’s imports now go through Djibouti, and “Ethiopia’s double-digit growth over the past decade has rubbed off” on its neighbor. The Economist reports that while Djibouti’s GDP was only $1.6 billion in 2014, it now has over $9 billion of energy and infrastructure projects in the works, with many more proposals in the pipeline. It adds that “China is the biggest investor, much of it via soft loans.”
The investment and growth, however, come with risks. The IMF and African Development Bank, according to The Economist, “have warned about [Djibouti’s] public debt, which is projected to balloon from 60.5% of GDP in 2014 to 80% in 2017.” The article concludes by observing that despite its economic boom, Djibouti has a UN-estimated unemployment rate of 60% and that the political situation in the country is unsettled.
For more information on that political situation, read BBC.com’s “Djibouti’s Thin-Skinned Democracy.” Tomi Oladipo writes that Djibouti’s president, Ismail Omar Guelleh, has been in power for 16 years, and that the nation is “not generally considered a safe haven for dissent.” Djibouti is ranked 170 out of 180 on the 2015 World Press Freedom Index, and there are “reports that legal and illegal means have been used to stifle journalists.” Oladipo discovered first-hand that the country’s bad reputation in this area is justified. While on a visit to Djibouti to report on its April 8 presidential elections, he and two other BBC workers were detained, interrogated and expelled from the country after interviewing an opposition candidate.
Not surprisingly in this political climate, incumbent President Guelleh was reelected in a landslide victory on April 8. Three days later, the US State Department issued a brief statement commending the Djiboutian people for “peacefully exercising their right to vote.” It then encouraged the country’s government “to support the freedoms of peaceful assembly, association, and expression for all of Djibouti’s citizens.” The fact that the US has an important military base in Djibouti, alongside China’s first-ever international naval base, may have discouraged US authorities from issuing a harsher critique of the Djibouti government’s reported efforts to quell dissent.
Africa’s 2016 Economic Outlook
This month the World Bank Group released its Africa Pulse: An Analysis of Issues Facing Africa’s Economic Future. According to the 60-page report, the short-term economic outlook for the region is mostly bleak. Low prices for commodities (such as oil), sluggish global growth, political uncertainty in many African countries and other adverse factors led to a slowdown in Sub-Saharan Africa last year. Growth in that region decelerated in 2015 to about 3.0 percent, down from 4.5 percent in 2014. For 2016, the report indicates, the “average growth in the region is projected to remain subdued at 3.3 percent.”
The Africa Pulse report projects that growth in Sub-Saharan Africa in 2017-2018 will rebound and average 4.5 percent, but it cautions that “risks to the outlook remain tilted to the downside, including a sharper than expected slowdown in China, further decline in commodity prices, delays in implementing the necessary adjustment to the export price shock in affected countries, worsening drought conditions, and political and security uncertainties.”
In order to promote economic growth in the face of these challenges, the report argues that the region must diversify so that it is not overly dependent on oil and other commodities exports. This diversification can be facilitated by urbanization, the report adds while warning that any benefits can only be fully realized if African cities “become less costly for firms and hence more appealing to investors; in addition, cities must become kinder to their residents by offering services, amenities, and housing for the poor and the middle class.” The report urges African governments to improve policies related to city infrastructures and to reward compliance.
The report does mention some economic bright spots in Africa. For example, in 2015 the Ivory Coast “continued to experience robust, broad-based growth, supported by rising investment, and Kenya and Rwanda, where growth remained buoyant, helped by infrastructure spending, strong consumer demand, and a growing services sector.”
An article in Quartz this month examined the Africa Pulse report, noting that its economic numbers are “a far cry from when the continent averaged 6.8% growth between 2003 and 2008.” Quartz also notes that “African economic growth could fall behind the rest of the world this year for the first time in 16 years,” and that “the continent’s massive population growth may negate what little economic expansion Africa sees.”
For more context, check out The Wall Street Journal’s “World Bank Predicts ‘Lackluster’ Growth for Sub-Saharan Africa.” The Journal reports that many African countries, including Angola, Kenya and Ghana, have either received loans from the IMF or are in talks to secure loans. This IMF lending activity in Africa “highlights the higher borrowing costs these countries are facing in international capital markets” and “marks an about turn for many of these countries now rushing to get IMF expertise in economic policy-making, having in recent years concluded IMF programs and pledged never to look back.”