Author Archives: Alberto

Dambisa Moyo redux: is Ethiopia’s governance model mimicking China’s?

Since the rise of development economics in the 1960s, the prevailing discourse around development has maintained that liberal democracies tend to grow faster than centralized, authoritarian societies (and this, in turn, is an echo of Max Weber’s then-revolutionary thinking). So, if you want development, focus on giving people freedom: they will use their political rights to start companies, whip their leaders into serving the collective interest and so on. Result: fully developed economies.

This approach has recently become the target of piercing criticism by Zambian-born economist Dambisa Moyo. This model is failing, she says: economic activity seems rather to flourish on the back of economic stability and infrastructure provision. In an already sufficiently developed economy you might think of market forces providing infrastructure (well, that’s the theory – don’t get me started here); but when development needs yet to be bootstrapped – and in a context of low literacy and low standards of education – such provision needs to rely on some central authority – a government. What kind of government? A pragmatic, technocratic one, made up of engineers and scientists rather then lawyers and journalists. One that emphasizes “getting the job done” rather than rules and processes, and economic rights over political rights. In one sentence: China’s government. And sure enough, China’s achievements in fighting poverty are astonishing: this one country has single-handedly lifted some 300 million people out of poverty over the last decade. I recommend you watch the video above in its entirety – especially if you are a Westerner, like me and like most readers of this blog.

I am just back from Ethiopia. It is one of the poorest countries in the world (per capita income: 570$), and it has a fairly poor human rights record. And yet, everywhere we went we perceived a fairly upbeat mood. With robust growth (double-digit in 2013, 8% in 2014), a booming tourism industry and an expanding middle class, many Ethiopians see their lives improving year after year. Crime rates are very low, and the streets safe. Many tribes and religions live together in peace, and Ethiopians seem to think this is a more or less permanent arrangement. With concern to human rights, the mood seem to be ambivalent: while people do not expect much change from the upcoming elections, they seem to be completely unafraid to discuss politics and criticize their leaders.

More than that: many are ready to give their government their due: the Ethiopian government has had the vision to embark in large-scale infrastructural project. Three were most cited to me: the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam on the  Blue Nile; the new regional road network, connecting the country’s main cities across different regions (since regions were designed along linguistic/ethnic lines, this means “bringing Ethiopia’s tribes closer together”); and the new rail network, consisting of a planned national long-distance network, of the Addis Ababa light rail network (under construction – testing began the day after we left Ethiopia),  and of the Dire Dawa-Djibouti line (already in operation; construction work to prolong it to Addis is underway, with the first Addis-Djibouti run to take place in September 2015). These projects, and many more, were carefully planned and are available for public review in a document called the Growth and Transformation Plan (yes, it’s a 5-year plan).

Many Ethiopians take pride in the achievements of their country, and they seem to think yes, in principle you could fight to get different people in power, but why trouble? This crowd seems to be doing a competent job – whatever their ideology, they are quite good at technocracy and pragmatism – and by not having to get involved in politics we can concentrate on improving our own lives. This is similar to the mood I perceived in previous visits to China; another similarity with the Chinese leadership is the background of  Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn, by training a civil engineer who studied and taught in Finland and the USA.

So, I guess, score one for Dambisa Moyo. I am afraid that, if Western countries want to inspire Africans with its style of governance, it will have to do a better job of tangibly improving life for their people.

STFinER low

Masters of Networks 3: who is coming and practical info

Masters of Networks 3 (more info) kicks off in a month. We at Wikitalia are hard at work to prepare the data; what can we learn by looking at online communities as networks of interactions? Is there a “signature of collaboration”, some characteristic that you can measure, like you would take a person’s temperature to figure out if she is well? The question is very exciting; and we do not believe it can be addressed by a small cadre of specialist. Instead, we have designed MoN3 as a natively interdisciplinary event, where online community managers, networks scientists and collective intelligence researchers work together to generate and formalize intuitions. The first batch of people who answered the call is super interesting: they come from all over the world, and represent an incredible talent pool.

Community managers:

  • Jean-Michel Cornu (Imagination4People – Canada)
  • Lee-Sean Huang (Purpose – USA)
  • Noemi Salantiu (Edgeryders – UK)
  • Jasminko Novak (EIPCM – Germany)
  • Rosa Strube (CCSCP – Germany)

Network/Data Scientists:

  • Guy Melançon (University of Bordeaux- France)
  • Benjamin Renoust (NII – Japan)
  • Raffaele Miniaci (University of Brescia – Italy)
  • Matteo Fortini (University of Bologna – Italy)
  • Giovanni Ponti (University of Alicante – Spain)
  • Alberto Cottica (Edgeryders – UK)

Collective Intelligence researchers:

  • Mark Klein (MIT – USA and University of Zurich – Switzerland)
  • Benoit Gregoire (Imagination4People – Canada)
  • Marc-Antoine Parent (Imagination4People – Canada)
  • Luca Mearelli (Wikitalia – Italy)
  • Marta Arniani (Sigma Orionis – France)
  • Fabrizio Gasparetto (Oxway – Italy)
  • Mathias Becker (EIPCM – Germany)

Practical info

MoN3 takes place in Rome, on March 10-11 2015. We will work out of the stunning location of Hotel Capo D’Africa, a stone’s throw from the Colosseum. The working language is English. Participation is free (and we throw in the lunch and as much coffee as you can drink), but we have to cap it at 20 attendees or so: this means we still have a few places. First come, first served: registration can be done here. If you think you absolutely need to attend, but cannot afford it, let us know and we will see if we can help.


Fear and loathing in Matera: the “unMonastery affair” on local media

A few weeks ago, the collaborator of a local TV station discovered some junk in a room of the Casale complex, in Matera. Among them, desks and office chairs; construction materials; empty bottles and cans; and conference materials, like flyers and posters. The complex hosted, for most of 2014, the world’s first unMonastery, a hacker residency project tied to the city’s victorious bid for the title of European capital of culture in 2019. The reporter decided this was an “affair”: the unMonastery affair. Foreigners come to Matera to dump their garbage! Shame on them!

I am a partner and co-director of Edgeryders, the social enterprise that helped mount the Matera unMonastery iteration. I know the project well, and I know the unMonasterians who were its life and soul. None would dream of just abandoning waste in an unappropriate place, and some are extreme recyclers and upcyclers. So I asked around, and, sure enough, it turned out that the room in question had been used as cellar since before we first inspected the complex in 2013 (see these pictures – the Dropbox timestamps show they have not been edited in over a year). It is likely that the derelict office furniture has been abandoned by the former occupant of the complex, a company called DataContact. With appropriate irony, DataContact’s owner also owns the local TV that mounted the “affair”.

During our tenure of the small part of the complex used for the unMonastery, the same room kept being used as a sort of cellar: a storage space for objects unMonasterians could not or would not recycle, generally with a view to later upcycling them. Like many cellars, it looks untidy, but that is hardly newsworthy. It is also worth noting that the unMonastery project devoted over 50% of its budget  (about 40K EUR) to renovating that part of the Casale complex, owned by the City of Matera and hence public property. This meant installing a kitchen; repairing the heating system; renovating the floors, damaged by humidity in the bottom floors; whitewashing the walls; reclaiming the space from some people who were occupying it illegally. The space was returned in way better conditions than we found it. What probably happened: somebody broke the door’s lock before the reporter wandered in, and that allowed him his “scoop”. Case closed.

Or is it? There is a lesson to learn here. Why did  the obvious scenario (“a windowless room at the bottom floor with junk in it? Must be the cellar”) escaped the local reporter? Why did he not check? Talking with some Materan friends, we made (partly for a laugh), three hypotheses.

  • The absent-minded journalist. Local media need local news, and “foreign hackers pollute Matera” is way sexier than “a cellar containing nothing of value is broken into”. Especially if you are selling ads to make a living, and therefore counting your page views is important.
  • The political conspiracy: Matera has local elections in the spring. The incumbent mayor is heavily associated with the European capital of culture candidacy  the “unMonastery affair” is an attempt to erode the consensus enjoyed by the current administration in the aftermath of the ECOC victory.
  • The nil-nil syndrome: Italians, according to my wise friend Annibale D’Elia, do not really care about winning, as long as your adversaries do not win either. In this culture, nil-nil is not a bad result; in fact it is desirable, because it allows the people in question to stage a fight without really fighting, to “change things so that things can stay as they are”, as in the supremely Italian novel The Leopard.

In the end, it is of no consequence why some local reporter decided to go for the “unMonastery affair”. What does matter, for this and the future iterations of the unMonastery, is this: the unMonastery wields considerable moral and intellectual authority. We might not want them, but we do not really get a vote in the matter. The smaller and more provincial the host city, the more the unMonastery and individual unMonasterians will be in the public eye. There will be awe; there will be jealousy; whatever its sign, there will be exaggeration. These things will simply happen; it would be wise to be ready for them. From a stewardship point of view, it would be good practice to take time-stamped photo- and video documentation of any public resource the unMonastery is entrusted with.