First Mondays: Final Thoughts – January 2016 Policy Salon

Thank you to everyone who attended Franklin Street’s first policy salon of 2016! We kicked off this year on a positive note and focused our discussion on Sub-Saharan Africa’s past successes and potential for 2016. We chose three particularly exciting opportunity areas: the solar power revolution, tech-enabled development, and the rise of sustainable tourism in the region.

Below are key distillations from the evening’s discussion. We’ve also tacked on a few extra reading recommendations for those interested in exploring these topics further. 

Sub-Saharan Africa: Past Successes and Potential for 2016 with the Solar Energy Revolution, Tech-Enabled Development, and Sustainable Tourism

Tech is King, but is IT Enough? 
Much of the innovation driving development these days is thanks to a synergistic alignment of new technology finally able to meet customer demand and not-so-new technology whose infrastructure was previously too expensive to expand to every market. Now, like mobile technology did for telecommunications and mobile payments, energy technology is helping an otherwise infrastructure-heavy sector leapfrog those costly hardware installations and micro-deliver alternative energy to individuals, households, and communities. 

Yet with such tech-centered (and therefore energy-dependent) development, do these solutions truly extend all the way to that last mile and its bottom billion? What kind of scale can you really achieve with a few LED lights and some cell phone chargers? The answer is, a lot... but maybe it’s not enough.  

You Say You Want a (Solar) Revolution
Energy needs are at the core of many challenges and their solutions in Sub-Saharan Africa, and solar energy is poised to help the region skip over fossil fuel-based development with its “quiet solar revolution.” Technological advances in solar power have made extending energy utility to the last mile not only financially feasible but potentially lucrative as social and conventional enterprises, development and commercial banks, and utilities eye the untapped market at the bottom of the pyramid. Private companies are competing to provide low-cost energy to potentially millions of people who currently make up the 70-80% of the world’s poorest who live without electrification or consistent access to electricity for basic necessities like lights and charging sources for cell phones and computers.

Long-Game or Short Gain?
Though the energy buzz in Sub-Saharan Africa is all about renewable and alternative energy, the truth is that most of the region (and the world) is still powered by fossil fuels. The struggle between the ability to develop right now versus long-term environmental concerns heated up our conversation. At the center of the debate is that money from extracted natural resources often does not translate into catalytic investment in local economies. Rather, it tends to favor moneyed investors and elites. Despite the overwhelmingly clear opportunity in the region (and the rest of the developing world), two obstacles that continue to stand in the way of sustainable development are corruption and security. These make sustainably taking advantage of the continent’s abundance of natural resources more precarious. 

As long as the potential for substantial profits from oil exploration exceeds the potential from sustainable development, there will be continued threats to the environment and national parks, such as Congo’s Virunga, just as sustainable tourism is taking off as an industry. There is a US$1.1 billion potential for Virunga National Park to be used for hydropower, ecotourism, and sustainable agriculture. But to meet that potential, the country must settle the security, infrastructure, and governance hurdles that keep the park at its current valuation of about US$50 million annually. Most recently, grassroots activism compelled UK oil company SOCO to halt its oil exploration plans in Virunga and relinquish its exploration rights, though it is likely only a matter of time until another company takes its place. 

We asked whether there is a way to work with oil companies to determine new technologies that would enable exploration and are less damaging to the environment – that is, the most efficient use of fossil fuel with the least detrimental environmental and social footprint – while collaborating on developing sustainable energy sources and development in the areas around extraction sites. Is there a way to change the calculus so that energy development is not a zero-sum game? It would be necessary for the government to support such a program, establish and enforce a regulatory system to prevent excesses, and create a profit incentive that is aligned with community needs. 

It’s Not Always Sunny...
Again, corruption continues to be an obstacle to security, stability, and sustainable economic growth. Our members’ collective experience prompted a lengthy dive into the Rwanda-Singapore comparison that is frequently made. In Rwanda, for example, a zero-tolerance policy for corruption comes with the price of quasi-authoritarian governance “tendencies” that may lead to civil unrest in the future when a political transition is imminent. As the country continues to bill itself as the “Singapore of Africa,” some of the same criticisms that marred Singapore’s own development under authoritarian rule and continue to provoke civic debate among its citizenry also plague Africa’s darling of the development and foreign direct investment communities. Regardless, Rwanda has focused on investments in technology to move ahead of the curve and become one of the continent’s most business-friendly countries. It has an electronic business registration that enables businesses to set up within three days, and the country just announced it’s building the world’s first “drone port” for civilian and commercial use. This will enable the “Land of a Thousand Hills” to literally overcome obstacles in the road to its development. Given the 2015 coup and ongoing crisis in neighboring Burundi as well as the continued conflict in eastern Congo (in which Rwanda has been implicated), the group pondered whether even a commercial drone port might not pose risks for the Great Lakes region. 

All in all, an excellent, thought provoking discussion with lots of successes to celebrate and still some challenges to overcome… leaving us plenty of fodder upcoming salons and scrums, where we hope you will join us.

For further reading ...
If you’re looking for a deeper dive on these issues, we recommend these three reports:
Brighter Africa: The Growth Potential of the Sub-Saharan Electricity Sector
Africa Progress Panel Report 2015
The Economic Value of Virunga National Park

Also, check out the award-winning documentary on Virunga, the true story of a group of people who risked their lives to build a better future in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Our discussion and final thoughts drew from the following readings:
Africa's quiet solar revolution
Leapfrogging infrastructure development in Africa? 
Oil exploration threatens Africa's billion dollar World Heritage Site

Please feel free to share any additional thoughts or feedback by emailing us at ideas(at)franklinstreetpolicygrp(dot)nyc.

First Mondays: Final Thoughts – December 2015 Policy Salon

Thank you to everyone who attended our first member-facilitated policy salon in December. Special thanks to our member-host, Dana Watters, for leading us in an expansive review of the regional history of the Balkans (seriously, the year 1389 was briefly mentioned) and taking us through comparisons with the current situation in Syria.

Below we’ve extracted some of the key distillations from the evening’s discussion and tacked on Dana’s book and movie recommendations for those interested in exploring the topic further.

Lessons for Syria: What We Can – and Can't – Learn From the Balkans

1) Geography. Syria is about four times the size of Bosnia, which presents obvious differing demands in terms of materiel, ground troops, etc. Bosnian topography is mountainous around Sarajevo, which kept the fighting somewhat concentrated, whereas Syria’s topography is flat and expansive, allowing for fighters to move about more freely. Enforcing a no-fly zone in Bosnia was feasible in part due to its geopolitical location; while in Syria, the risk of repercussions for violating sovereign airspace is high, as recently demonstrated by Russia and Turkey.

2) We don’t know who we want to “win” in Syria. The Balkans conflict was primarily among nation-states with recognized leaders, an existing model of multi-ethnic governance, and relative adherence (or deliberate non-adherence) to conventional rules of engagement. Those who violated these dictums were identifiable, prosecutable, and aligned with a defined territory. Syria involves a multitude of state and non-state actors, including militias with varying degrees of competence and legitimacy with complicating meddling from external backers. 

3) Unlike Syria, Bosnia was not an international proxy war. Bosnian factions had backers from the Yugoslav diaspora and some unhelpful bankrolling from other nations, but nothing on the scale of Syria, whose powerful proxies don’t fit neatly into any geometrical analogy. International conflict mediators discuss a period of “ripeness” when conditions are such that players think the benefits of negotiation outweigh the costs of continued conflict – in Syria, even a snowball’s chance in hell (hey, it’s still a chance!) is uncertain given the contradictory interests of the many players and their backers. This Foreign Policy article explains more about Syria’s proxy war.

4) There’s no good model for the “long game” win. One of our readings suggested recent U.S.-led interventions as potential models for Syria – Bosnia among them – but ultimately these are poor analogies. In Bosnia, leaders of the various warring groups had end-game objectives that stopped well short of world domination; ISIS declared its global caliphate goal long ago. Regardless of how the civil war in Syria is resolved, ISIS’ reign of terror reaches beyond its physical base in Syria and Northern Iraq with its multi-continental affiliates and lone-wolf actors that make it an amorphous and complex foe that can present itself anywhere at any time.  

5) The Bosnian war unfolded at a unique time in modern global politics. While policymakers still suffered from “Vietnam Syndrome” in the early 1990s and had witnessed disaster in Somalia, their reluctance cannot compare to the situation now, in which the U.S. and its allies have Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya fresh in their minds. The war in the Balkans coincided with two major global power shifts: (1) the collapse of the Soviet Union, which put Russia in a drastically different position than it is in today under Putin’s leadership, and (2) in the case of Bosnia, the future of NATO relied on decisive action. 

If you’re looking for a deeper dive on the Balkans conflict, these are from Dana’s recommended reading list:

Yugoslavia: Death of a Nation, by Laura Silber and Allan Little
Bosnia: A Short History, by Noel Malcolm
To End a War, by Amb. Richard Holbrooke
This Was Not Our War, by Amb. Swanee Hunt

And if you’re looking for less time commitment and more Hollywood, Dana’s top picks are:
The Whistleblower (2011)
No Man’s Land (2001)
Welcome to Sarajevo (1997) 

Please feel free to share any additional thoughts or feedback by emailing us at ideas(at)franklinstreetpolicygrp(dot)nyc.

First Mondays: Final Thoughts – October 2015 Policy Salon

Thank you to everyone who attended October's policy salon and a special welcome to all our new participants.

Our discussion about migration and its effects on brain drain/gain for origin and destination countries’ economic development included perspectives from migration and humanitarian response and personal accounts of conflict-driven migration among many others. Below we’ve extracted some highlights from the evening’s discussion.

Brain Drain or Brain Gain? The Economic Development Cost of a 'Lost Generation' and the Impact on Destination Countries

  • Immigrants are economic drivers in destination countries – they are more likely to open businesses than native-born residents and to contribute more in taxes than they draw in public benefits in the United States.
  • Forced migration driven by conflict results in a “lost generation” of children and young people with missing or inadequate education as well as years of trauma that may compromise post-conflict reconstruction efforts in origin countries.
  • Refugees fleeing from crisis have very different motivations from economic migrants, and often prefer to return to their home countries, if possible.
  • U.S. companies argue to raise quotas of foreign nationals with science and technology skills in order to stay competitive in the global marketplace, but should recognize that current citizens need those opportunities as well.
  • Policies in both Europe and the U.S. are needed to ensure that countries are building human capital to the benefit of their countries in addition to the global community.
  • It will be useful to monitor how countries that take a more integrative approach to the current refugee crisis fare as compared to those that implement more isolationist policies.

Our discussion and final thoughts drew from both the outside expertise of our participants as well as the following readings that guided our talk:

  1. Hope: The Greatest Weapon Against the Dogs of War in Syria. Addresses missed education years and fleeing populations of skilled workers/professionals.
  2. Brain Drain and Fragile States. Includes practical policy options and discussion of "brain drain" versus "brain gain."
  3. Reverse Brain Drain: Economic Shifts Lure Migrants Home. Discusses human capital flows from developed to developing markets. 

Please feel free to share any thoughts or feedback by emailing us at ideas(at)franklinstreetpolicygrp(dot)nyc.