Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Curious Bank of Julius Wainwright Jr.

I've decided to post my first foray, in many years, into short fiction writing. It's a bit of a weird one-- a satire both of international development and the financial crisis--but I hope it works. 

The Curious Bank of Julius Wainwright Jr.

Julius Wainwright Jr., esteemed industrialist and financier, was bored. He had long ago been universally acknowledged as the foremost businessman of his age, and his professional life no longer offered him any challenge. In the press he was alternatively referred to as a ‘titan of industry’ or a ‘modern robber baron,’ depending on the political inclinations of the journalist. He had a reputation, the accuracy of which was uncertain, for never having taken a loss in any of his business dealings. Even those who blamed him and his ilk for all the ills of the world viewed Julius Wainwright with begrudging respect, and—though they would have been loath to admit it—a concealed streak of envy.

Friday, May 31, 2013

The Wild West in East Africa

The Puntland Marine Police Force
My latest article, "The Wild West in East Africa," appeared Foreign Policy today, co-authored with maritime security analyst James Bridger. In it we detail the transition of northern Somalia's mercenary-trained Puntland Marine Police Force (PMPF) from counter-piracy force to al-Shabaab hunters:

It's not easy to be a mercenary these days. The once-booming markets in Iraq and Afghanistan have shrunk, while lingering controversy surrounding the mercenary poster-boy company Blackwater (or whatever they're called these days) has served to paint private security contractors as reckless and unaccountable war junkies. A good gig as a soldier of fortune is harder and harder to come by.

Yet there's one war-torn country where demand for guns-for-hire is still high. A contingent of mercenaries has managed to carve out a niche for itself in the failed state of Somalia. Initially brought on in an internationally controversial mission to combat pirates terrorizing Somalia's coastal waters, the mostly South African corps have now turned to fighting Somalia's al Qaeda-linked terrorist menace, al-Shabab. In the anarchic world of failed states, private contractors are often able to accomplish what goverments are not. But the consequences are hard to predict.

To read the full article, click here.

Monday, April 15, 2013

The World Bank on Piracy

Last Friday, I appeared on Monocle 24 Radio in London to discuss the World Bank's recently released report on piracy, exhaustively compiled by some of the most qualified experts in the field.

While I believe that two-thirds of what I said during the interview was accurate, I must apologize to the report's authors for misrepresenting their methodology. In the interview, I refer to the difficulties of calculating the cost of piracy to the world economy, in particular because data from the global shipping industry is scarce and unreliable. Specifically, I referenced the obstacles to arriving at an accurate figure for total industry costs for insurance premiums, fuel, and armed guard detachments. I further suggested that many of these costs are lumped together as zero sum losses to the global economy, ignoring the fact that such "costs" fuel other sectors of the economy. In other words, acting as if the pirates were, metaphorically speaking, removing nuggets of gold from a giant pot marked "Global Economy."

While this was the methodology employed in two similar previous reports by the think tank Oceans Beyond Piracy, the World Bank report uses a different tack: estimating piracy's downward effect on world trade, and extrapolating backwards from there to calculate the degree to which costs must have risen. In essence, the report conceptualizes piracy as an ad valorem tax on global trade.

While I still hold that the model is ultimately not so helpful, due to its large number of assumptions (the report itself gives a margin of error of $18b +/- $6b), I regret not fully understanding the report's methodology before discussing it on national radio. My sincere apologies to each of its authors.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

The IEBC Has Some Explaining to Do

Yesterday, Raila Odinga launched his Supreme Court petition to challenge the results of the March 4th Kenyan general election. Topping Raila's list of grievances is his allegation that the voter registry, sometime between the December 18th final registration deadline and election day, was manipulated to favour his opponent, president-elect Uhuru Kenyatta.

He has a point.

From March 4-9, as I was tracking the progress of the election on Excel spreadsheets, inconsistencies between the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission's (IEBC) December 18th registered voters list and whatever the organization had used on election day were already apparent. Indeed, there was no publicly accessible voter registry on election day; whatever changes were made to the rolls from December 18th to March 4th (during the IEBC's "cleaning up" of the registry on February 23rd, for instance) weren't posted to the IEBC's website, as pointed out in a brilliant article in yesterday's Daily Nation.

The official post-election IEBC voter registry, finally published in last Friday's Nation, was significantly different than the December 18th rolls, both in absolute numbers of registered voters and in their distribution across the 47 counties. In 11 counties, voter registration numbers shifted by 3 per cent or more; in one case, the figure was as high as 12.13 per cent.

My latest Excel spreadsheet shows that the changes almost universally benefitted Uhuru, and probably denied Raila a chance at a run-off.