New blogpost on the LSE ID Blog

To coincide with our upcoming workshop on Industrial Policy in Africa, I have written a new blogpost on the LSE Blogroll:

At the Intersection of Digital Economy and Industrial Policy in Africa

Take a look and send me your comments!





Podcasts about Technology, Markets and Political Economy

A year and a half ago, I got a migraine and my friend Marie told me to lie in a dark room. I can be an impatient person and don’t like the idea of doing nothing in a dark room, so she told me to listen to the podcast, Serial.

And I got hooked.

My podcast list has grown and is now firmly intertwined with my academic life as a researcher of technology, development, and markets. I love listening to podcasts when I travel to and fro, when I cook, when I go for walks in the park, etc. I love the medium, the way it lends itself to thinking on a walk once the podcast ends and the idea of having more public, less academic discussions about important issues.

Over the past few weeks, I have been thinking about my teaching next year and about which podcasts might complement readings for students and I have made a list of my favourite podcasts. It’s getting long!

As there are probably others out there interested in the impact of new information and communication technologies on markets and political economy more broadly, I thought I would share my list via google docs. Please feel free to add your own suggestions, comment and share.



Karl Polanyi, the refugee in need of a visa

At various points in my life, I have come up face to face with the bureaucracy that prevents refugees from coming to Britain and other rich countries. In Cairo, I used to copy edit and check refugee testimonies but a few years ago, I had a more personal experience. 

I had a friend in trouble who needed to flee her country. An official at the British embassy told me there was nothing I could do to help her get to Britain. The official said if my friend was really in trouble, she would probably have to spend the next few years of her life in a refugee camp. Fortunately, through an American friend, I also visited the US embassy. There, a very kind official told me “Tell her to lie on her forms. Make no mention of her political trouble and instead apply as a student or a visitor. Once she is in the US, she should claim asylum”. In other words, it seemed that the only way to navigate the system was to lie.

This week, I was listening to a podcast about Karl Polanyi, the author of The Great Transformation, one of the most profound books I have ever read. In an interview with his daughter, she revealed that had it not been for the intervention of a British Labour politician, Josiah Wedgwood, during WWII, it is unlikely we would have ever gotten The Great Transformation. This is the interview:

KPL: You mentioned the British naturalisation that we received at a crucial time in May of 1940. I believe my family owed this largely to Sir Josiah Wedgwood, and there is correspondence in the archives with Sir Josiah Wedgwood.… I know that because we had a family relationship with the Wedgwoods. In addition Sir Josiah Wedgwood was a Labour Peer and a very decent fellow who did an awful lot for people to help them to get out of Austria, Germany, and elsewhere. In this case he helped my father obtain British naturalisation probably two or three weeks before he would otherwise have been interned. And given my father’s advanced age (I mean advanced in terms of other young people), I don’t really know what would have happened to him, but he certainly would never have had the chance to write his most famous book. It gave him his entrée late in life into [the] academic world…

DS: So the critical thing you said a moment ago was that the naturalisation came through just a few weeks before he would have been interned.

KPL: Really and truly at the most critical moment, about a week after the war started in May 1940.

DS: Well, that was one of the missing links because the correspondence that I found runs more or less up to that point but it wasn’t 100% clear to me that it came through in time, so you’ve answered one of the key questions.

KPL: … Fortunately. There would be no Karl Polanyi that anybody would have heard of if it had not been for that!

(The full text of the interview)

It just makes you think what visas can do, not just for human life, but for intellectual production and creativity. Is the next Karl Polanyi stuck in a refugee camp somewhere in Turkey or Iraq right now? Makes you wish we lived in a more humane world, doesn’t it?


Making the Most of Your Internet Connection: the View from a Rwandan Cooperative

Last week, my friend David posted a story about Isano, an HIV/Aids cooperative in Rwanda run by twelve women in the Niboye sector, Kicuikro District. They sell handmade products such as scarves, bags and wallets. In the past week, they have been given a free computer and an internet connection so that they may sell their goods overseas. Congratulations Isano! The story about them reads:

“The computer and Internet connection will help us market our products to Rwandans and the outside world to expand market reach and enhance the group’s earnings,” … Gatesi noted that the group had for long wanted to tap into the opportunities presented by the Internet, but were curtailed by lack of computers and Internet connectivity.”

I have read a lot of similar stories about the power of the internet to scale business. Thanks to books like Friedman’s “The World is Flat”, there is common belief that having an internet connection makes it easy for people to forge new connections across vast geographical distance. However, having done a great number of interviews with small businesses in Kenya and Rwanda, I think it is important to stress that the internet does not make the world flat, face-to-face contact is still important and cultural and social barriers remain. People have to be strategic if they want to use their internet connectivity effectively. I thought I would provide some simple tips about how Isano (and other cooperatives) might use its new connection to its full potential.

  • Maintaining Old Contacts vs. Making New Contacts

I want to start by stating loud and clear that the internet is in some ways more helpful at allowing people to maintain contact with existing clients than it is at allowing people to establish contact with new clients. The Internet speeds up communication and transactions, making long distance business easier to conduct. For this reason, it is often bigger and more established businesses that benefit the most, not the little guys. If the cooperative wants to exploit its connection, it has to think strategically about using its existing relationships to forge new ones. Establishing new contacts is all about trust; making oneself seem trustworthy in the eyes of the client. Part of this process is about image- appearing attractive, organized and reliable- but it is also about situating oneself in a shared social and cultural network with the client. In short, we are more likely to trust a friend of a friend or someone who shares a similar culture than we are to trust a complete stranger.

  • Social Media > Websites

For this reason, the cooperative might start not with a website (which also entails an immediate cost and a certain level of technical expertise) but a blog, a twitter handle and a facebook page. These things are all free and are also more ‘social’ allowing people to easily situate you in their social networks. This is something that my former colleague Chris Foster thought I should stress, that having a website is becoming less useful as more and more people just use social media.

  • Make the Most of Existing Contacts

Being effective online means mobilizing one’s connections offline. This cooperative has people rooting for it to succeed. Its members also benefit from living in a country with a very proactive government, which routinely helps local businesses make contact with overseas clients. Rwanda also has a lot of connections with American pro-entrepreneurship and evangelical groups. Many churches (at least in the UK) have fair trade shops that sell handicrafts. It should use these connections as much as it can. Once the cooperative has designed its ‘shop window’: i.e. an attractive catalogue and an attractive online presence (facebook, blogs, an Etsy shop, an Ebay shop, a paypal account, etc), it should ask these contacts to put them in touch with shops and buyers overseas working in the fair trade world. Using these face-to-face contacts helps build a bridge to faceless strangers overseas.

  • Make the Most of Tourist Word of Mouth

Rwanda is a tourist destination. People come to see its gorillas, its beautiful green hills and the “success story” that many businesspeople and journalists like to rave about. The cooperative should make the most of these tourists. Most of them will be on facebook. Many of them will be on twitter. Some may even have blogs. The cooperative should establish itself on the tourist trail, finding ways to bring these tourists into its workshop and asking them, sweetly and politely, to rave about their cooperative on social media. Perhaps tourists can share details about the cooperative’s website on facebook. Perhaps they can tweet. Perhaps they can blog. In interviews with businesses in the tourism sector, this social media strategy was incredibly important for small businesses struggling to make themselves visible up against the big established tour companies. In case the members of the cooperative don’t already know, tourists LOVE to share photos and other evidence about their holidays online.

  • Target Prominent Spokespeople Online

Ideally, the cooperative wants to target people who have a lot of contacts online. Remember the whole crazy KONY 2012 business? While you may not agree with the organization’s slightly neo-colonial message, we can all still learn a thing or two about their social media strategy. Their video went viral partly because the organizers targeted specific celebrities with a lot of followers (some of whom are also supporters of Rwanda). They were damn strategic about who they contacted and it worked. The celebrities might not have even watched the video; they just saw that it was something humanitarian and re-tweeted it. I have seen a similar strategy work for smaller campaigns; the organizers found a sympathetic celebrity on twitter and asked them to re-tweet a fundraising pledge or a call for people to join a demonstration. Again, the cooperative should target Rwanda’s high profile cheerleaders, people like Tony Blair, Bill Gates, Rick Warren, Howard Schultz, Josh Ruxin, among others. They could also try targeting celebrities that have professed a (quote on quote) “passion” for Africa and/or sustainable fashion such as Kate Spade, Vivienne Westwood, Livia Firth, Hannah Pool, Mia Farrow, Christina Aguilera, Ben Affleck, George Clooney, Samuel Eto’o, Angelina Jolie, David Beckham, Shakira, Oprah Winfrey, Alicia Keys, John Legend, Scarlett Johansson, Salma Hajeck among others. Again, you might not agree with all of these peoples’ politics, but you are using them and their networks to reach your audience!

  • Positive Messages

Another lesson from KONY 2012 (again, not supporting their ideology, just drawing lessons from their social media strategy) was the power of personal and positive messages. They did this incredibly effectively (see the link above from Forbes Magazine). The cooperative should think strategically about “the story” behind the cooperative and portray a positive (and simple) message about social change.

  • Constant Contact

On a more practical note, the cooperative must stay on top of daily communication. They should assign members the role of checking messages once or twice a day (at a minimum) and respond to all messages quickly and politely. They should also have a strategy that works if the key person gets sick or has to travel. A common mistake is letting messages build up and keeping clients waiting. If you don’t respond quickly, people will think that your business is not serious. The quicker you respond, the better feedback you will get. This tip cannot be over-emphasized.

  • Make Sure People Can Find You Online

Cold calling (that is calling complete strangers out of the blue) is risky when you don’t have a strong online presence. People may not trust you if they can’t find you online. It is really important to first establish an online presence (and perhaps get recommendations on your blog or facebook page) before making cold calls to clients abroad. Clients will probably ‘google you’ to see if you exist. Make sure they can find you. If you send them an email, include the url of your website or facebook page, your twitter handle, etc. so they can cross reference you easily and immediately.

  • What about a Name?

On that note, if you want to be found online, you have to come up with a good name! The name should be easy to remember and easy to find. You might consider putting “Rwanda”, “HIV” and “Handmade” in the name, as this will make it easier for people to find your site if they have forgetten your name. I would also google “arts and craft, Rwanda”, “arts and craft, Africa” and other similar searchers and see what you find. You don’t want a name too similar to your competitors.

  • Fresh Online Content to Improve Search Rankings

If the cooperative wants to appear high up on top of search results, it should update the content (photographs and stories) on its website frequently. This will help it to stay high on the search ranking. It could also approach one of the many aspiring software developers in k-lab (a tech hub in Kigali) to help it improve its ranking. The cooperative might ask if these developers if they could offer the service on a pro-bono basis to start with and if he/she brings in a lot of business, they could offer him/her a cut. It could also approach organisations like Digital Opportunity Trust, asking if they might have volunteers or interns that might help them build their website or set up a blog, facebook and twitter profile.

  • Discovering the Latest Trends

Being far away from your market means that you might not know what is hot and fresh. One way of overcoming this distance is to look at what other sellers are doing: what fashion or fair trade websites are doing, how do they present their stories about fair trade/social change, and what is selling like crazy. As Chris also noted, the web changes quickly and so the cooperative should be ready to change its approach and experiment from time to time. The cooperative could peruse websites like Indego Africa, Anthropologie, asos, StyleSaint, Etsy, Okay Africa, Same sky, Shopsoko, Little Blossom Project, Scarves for Hope, and other websites for inspiration.

If you have other tips for Isano and other small businesses using the internet to reach customers, please drop me an email at and I shall be happy to add them.  

*Thanks to Chris Foster, Marie Berry, Louise Hart, Laura Stebbing, Isabel Mena-Berlin, Ramsey Nasser, Angela Koh and Margarita Dimova for their suggestions on this post.

New Publication: Understanding the Political Motivations That Shape Rwanda’s Emergent Developmental State


Along with my wonderful co-author, Marie Berry, I am pleased to announce that our article ‘Understanding the Political Motivations that Shape Rwanda’s Emergent Developmental State’ has been now pre-published in the journal, New Political Economy.

Abstract: Twenty years after its horrific genocide, Rwanda has become a model for economic development. At the same time, its government has been criticised for authoritarian tactics and the use of violence. Missing from the often polarised debate are the connections between these two perspectives. Synthesising existing literature on Rwanda in light of a combined year of fieldwork, we argue that the Government of Rwanda is using the developmental infrastructure to deepen state power and expand political control. We first identify the historical pressures that have motivated the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) to reimagine the political landscape. Sectarian unrest, political rivalry, wider regional insecurity and aid withdrawal have all pressured the RPF to identify growth as strategic. However, the political transformation extends beyond a prioritisation of growth and encompasses the articulation of ideologies and new mindsets, the provision of social services and infrastructure and the reordering of the social and physical layout of the territory. Growth and social control go hand in hand. As such, this paper’s main contribution is to bring together the two sides of the Rwandan debate and place the country in a broader sociological literature about the parallel development of capitalist relations and transformations in state power.

“At least you didn’t elect the Muslim Brotherhood”: My Reflections on the GB Election

Like most of my friends, I am utterly disappointed. The polls were so far off the mark. Why? There are two mysteries: why did so many people vote Tory? And why did voters disguise their intentions in the polls leading up to the election? I don’t think we have a clear understanding of what has happened yet and I look forward to some concrete explanations from people who have better information in the coming weeks. In the meantime, these are my hopeful thoughts. daily-cartoon20150319

I watched the news from my laptop in Cairo. I stayed up all night waiting for the exit poll to be proved wrong. I am too full of hope. Egyptians were not very sympathetic. At least we have enough security to have an election. At least we didn’t elect the Muslim Brotherhood. At least, there was no wide scale fraud (said my dearest Iranian friend). I get what they are saying but it was still painful to be far away from other angry British voters. A couple days later, I am feeling more optimistic.

Because they are right, this election isn’t the end of the world.

First, we live in interesting times. Will British voters realise the importance of having Scots in Westminster to protect the NHS and other foundations of the welfare state? For Labour voters and for those who voted Tories because they wanted security (but might have underestimated the radicalism of the Tories’ plans), this is our last chance to see why Scotland matters to the rest of the UK and why we should fight very hard to keep them in the union. As someone who went door to door for the Labour party in Edinburgh, I am happy that the SNP is on the centre stage of British politics. Let the English and the Welsh know how the Scots feel!

Second, this ISN’T the end of the world, more like the tremor before the quake. Please let this election serve as a wake-up call to the Labour party- not to lurch back to some Blair-like centrist position but to find out what British voters actually think and believe, and make a strong, crystal clear case for a modern progressive politics that appeals to them. The Labour party failed to win support because it lacked a coherent message about economic growth and prosperity. I am not so naïve to think British voters are particularly radical. I also know that the structure of the economy has changed. We need a progressive politics that accounts for the shape of today’s economy and explains why austerity and tax avoidance are very bad for our country’s long-term economic prospects. It is not just about wealth distribution (although this is very important!) but about long-term economic competitiveness and social mobility. In short, Labour can’t just oppose Tory plans. It has to suggest an alternative ideology about economic growth and communicate it effectively and aggressively. We need a combination of clever economists (and political economists), effective communicators and well-organized social movements to actually agree on a strong platform and make the case to the electorate. We need policy coherence! daily-cartoon20140202

Third, this election has made people aware of the dangers of disinterest in politics. People have made fun of Russell Brand’s flip-flopping but it also signals the dilemma of people who dislike Labour but are unhappy with a Tory majority. I think the next few years will be exciting because anger can be productive.

Inshallah!* * Perhaps my hopefulness is getting the better of me.

Identification for Development: Reflections from the Hague Workshop

Last week, I was very lucky to attend a colloquium at the CRC4D in the Hague on ‘The Future of Legal Identity: Implications of New Technology for Civil Registration and Identification’. As someone researching the economies and value chains forming around data in Sub-Saharan Africa, I was particularly interested in understanding the business interests involved in the new biometric systems currently being rolled out across African countries but I ended up coming away with a much broader understanding of the role of identification in development. I thought I would share some of the highlights from the meeting:

1. The Problems of Illegibility

To me, the key weakness of James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State was his proposition that states necessarily want to see their subjects. Yes, surveillance and legibility are forms of state-craft, but so too can illegibility and indifference become part of a power accumulation strategy. To put it simply, if one does not count one’s subjects, one does not have to be accountable for their livelihood or security. If one does not document inequality or corruption, then such problems are less visible to ones people. States may therefore have a disincentive (or just a plain lack of incentive) to document the lives of their citizens. Most African states only register about 40-50% of their citizens at birth. From the point of view of the ordinary woman in the street, a lack of legal identity may make it hard for her to access social services like health or education. She may struggle to vote, get a formal job and or register her business. If she cannot register her business, then she may be subject to arbitrary harassment and informal taxation. She may even find herself stateless if circumstances change and she is forced to move across an international (or otherwise invisible domestic) boundary. From the point of view of power-holders, if 50-60% of your population lacks a legal identity, it becomes difficult to maintain security and to establish more representative forms of governments (in terms of both taxation and social democracy). Just as there are dangers associated with high modernist legibility, so too are there dangers associated with illegibility. In some ways, this problem was the main theme of my PhD thesis (in relation to educational qualifications) and so it was great to be in a workshop where illegibility was the main issue!

2. Parallel Systems

Because so many African states lack the resources and capacity to implement birth registration and vital statistic systems and donors are under pressure to more closely monitor their programs and subsidies, there has been a proliferation of individual functional identity systems, and much less support for establishing strong foundational systems. Donors and development organisations have launched separate initiatives aimed at protecting (and tracking) refugees, delivering (and tracking) social protection and social security and extending financial services to the unbanked. There is a danger that all of these non-state systems are leading to a kind of ‘hollowing out of the state’ and there are of course problems with inefficiency if efforts overlap.

3. Using Digital Traces as Proof of Identity

There were quite a few participants interested in statelessness: where no state recognizes an individual as a citizen and thus the person is left with no legal nationality. This is not my area of expertise but I found the issue of much interest. There is a big international effort to establish forms of ‘legal identity’ separate from citizenship. In fact, guaranteeing legal identity has become one of the SDG targets (16.9). Identity credential would allow vulnerable people to navigate bureaucratic systems in a more legal and transparent way. To some in the group, the proliferation of parallel systems might actually be a blessing in disguise if such systems allow individuals to begin to establish themselves as law-abiding persons with digital traces to prove it. Whether such functional systems could provide the basis for legal identity is an interesting question.

4. High Tech Solutions to Complicated Political Problems?

A very simple conclusion was that while there is a lot of money going into developing high tech ID programs, the real problems lie in solving complicated political and legal problems surrounding identity issues and state-building challenges. Unless you resolve these kinds of political problems, then it is unlikely technology can really help.

5. Understanding Incentives

The question of incentives came up as crucial. Power-holders need to be incentivized to introduce ID systems. Citizens need to be incentivized to register themselves. Private sector actors (apparently) need to be incentivized to provide the services. Therefore, understanding what makes a successful ID system means understanding how these incentives interact with one another.

Incentives for States Elections have proved a powerful motivator for states to introduce biometric systems. Having a free and fair election strengthens state sovereignty and legitimacy of rule- If one wants to look like a modern state these days, one must really have a biometric voter registration! Donors too, apparently want to fund such systems as part of democratization efforts. However, election systems are usually one-offs. A company comes in, provides the service for the election and then leaves again (perhaps taking the personal data with them). In the workshop, there was some talk of how this election-imperative might be harnessed to deliver more long-term identity systems.

Incentives for Citizens South Africa has drastically expanded the registration of its citizens because its grant system is linked to registration at birth. In other countries, it is only when children reach school age that they feel the brunt of not having a legal identity. Anna Rader also talked about how in some countries like Somaliland, there is a deep antipathy to enumerative schemes like censuses. As one of the organizers, Keith Breckenridge said in the workshop, “We’re not going to capture people (into the system) unless they receive an immediate benefit”. There was some discussion about whether the South African ‘grant model’ might provide a template for other countries. However, others warned that raising the stakes of registration also raises the costs of not being registered, and this may be particularly harmful for more vulnerable communities like migrants or orphans.

Incentives for Implementing Parties Because of the high costs of providing such services (and due to the current preference in international development for public-private partnerships), many biometric systems are being delivered by commercial organisations. For example, Sanjay Dharwadker talked about how the Indian biometric system, Aadhaar was broken down into 18-19 different commercial packages in order to make it scalable across the country with numerous private companies delivering the system in different areas under different business models. There was the usual talk of finding ‘innovative financial mechanisms,’ ‘building commercial functionalities into registration systems’ and ‘leveraging’ the private sector to make ID systems ‘sustainable’ in the long run’. However, I think there are potential dangers in this narrow conceptualization of sustainability.

First of all, there may be a trade-off between getting an outside party to implement the system and thus keeping short-term costs down vs. building local capacities and thus potentially reducing costs in the long-term. While some may argue that African states lack the capacity or autonomy to implement and oversee biometric registration systems, state capacity can be built over time. I wondered if the example of autonomous and semi-autonomous Revenue Authorities emerging across African countries might provide an interesting institutional model. Additionally, I was really interested in the case of Aadhaar in India. While private sector companies are implementing the system (not the Indian state), most of these companies are Indian companies and therefore the local economy is presumably benefitting both from jobs and from technological learning and innovation around these systems. This further keeps the costs of implementing these systems down. As so many African governments are trying to build techno-parks and foster ICT innovation within their economies, there may be scope for schemes that mix biometric registration with targeted industrial policy-making.

Second of all, when it comes to the commercial value of ID systems, we need to pay closer attention to value chains around personal data. As was highlighted in the workshop, there are current debates happening in the UK over whether NHS data should be sold to commercial parties. Transport For London is already selling its data to private parties. In Africa, many biometric systems are being integrated into banking systems, potentially providing data about credit-worthiness. It may be very difficult for states to quantify the value of their citizens’ data and to appreciate the varied (and perhaps unexpected) ways that citizen data may be used in the future. In short, as I have been arguing in relation to big data systems, we need a far better understanding of the value chains around data! And as one workshop participant warned, these big ID companies have the power to ‘bully’ the state, further making it hard for African governments to manage the incentive calculation.

6. The South American Experience (States Standing Up?)

Present at the workshop was a wonderful woman called Mia Harbitz who has been advising South American governments about ID systems from within the Inter-American Development Bank. Many South American governments have raised their registration figures from 60% (ish) to almost full coverage. She talked about the importance of advising governments over the technical specifications to make sure that they do not become dependent on one vendor. If anyone is interested in Mia’s work, the IADB website has some useful material.

These are just a few highlights I picked up from the workshop. I noticed Mariana Dahan from the World Bank has also written an interesting blogpost about the event.

If you are fascinated by such issues, you should get in touch with Keith Breckenridge and Jaap van der Straaten as I am sure there will be future events on the issue.