Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Midweek miscellany

The latest Foreign Policy Failed States Index is here (interactive, so may take a little while to load) and Kenya has made it to number 14. It seems a good time, then, to point out the methodological flaws, and Richard Just obliges at the TNR, even relying on Kenya as his counterexample.

This will inevitably come off as special pleading, but he does have a point.

State failure is said in many ways: Kenya is failing mostly because it has a murderously divided elite, Burma is failing because it has a murderously unified totalitarian elite. And his point about the different (unweighted!) criteria pulling in different directions is quite sound. But from the consumer side, so to speak, there's an even more serious difficulty. If you're reading the Index, you're wanting to find out how likely a given state is to fail in the medium term or you're looking for a rough guide to the distribution of some civil and personal freedoms across states. Burma and North Korea are relatively-efficient totalitarian regimes. While they'll eventually fall, their medium-term survival prospects are very good. By contrast, Kenya medium-term survival prospects aren't. The index is useless for that. Again, there's no useful ranking by political freedom which puts Kenya anywhere near Burma or North Korea: our state, while amazingly crap, leaves us relatively free. Either way, the ranking is basically useless.


Years ago, I discovered Alain de Botton's How Proust Can Change Your Life when I was looking for a second-hand book to read on a flight home, and I've been more or less a fan ever since -- not least because it proved that philosophy undergraduates can have love-lives.

Caleb Crain reviewed de Botton's latest in the New York Times, and de Botton's response in comments at Crain's blog has to be seen to be believed. The vehemence of the thing is completely unexpected, and a little admirable. Despite de Botton's contrition afterwards (see his twitter account) my sympathy is with him.


Via Aleksandra Gadzala - always sharp, always informative - Zimbabwe's Morgan Tsvangirai has managed to get a $950 million loan off China. Aleksandra also had a really interesting article about Chinese business networks in Kenya: one of her more dismaying findings is that Kenyans' ethnic divisions make it harder for them to compete against Chinese business.