Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Book review: Letters to a young lawyer by Alan Dershowitz

Harvard law professor and author Alan Dershowitz has acquired a reputation as a vigorous defence attorney so it is apt that he shares some reflections with aspiring lawyers. With his vast experience with high-profile cases, some of them involving the defence of unpopular criminals, he carefully dissects the learned profession from the perspective of a pragmatic advocate.

He took a good precaution at the beginning of the book by explicitly noting that his letters would be biased, reflecting his tendentious evaluation of the profession as well as proffering advice to the end that the advisee would become more like him. I appreciate his frankness in this regard because I disagree with some of his observations, especially the ones about the political calculations that some legal actors may have made in the past. I may say more about this in the future.

One often gets the advice to be skeptical of authority or established norms that don't prove their utility over time. For example, one sometimes gets the advice to pursue what interests them as opposed to what others might think they should pursue--one should live their own dreams and not that of others. Dershowitz has walked his talk, pursuing goals that he finds stimulating as opposed to ones that may endear him to others or make his life comfortable and "dignified."

Dershowitz also addresses ethical issues in a manner that betrays his obsession with them. In particular, in the conclusion of the book he addresses the question of morality and why one should be a good person. This discussion is laden with a personal reading of the book of Ecclesiastes as well as a peculiar understanding of his at-least-cultural Jewish faith--an interpretation with which I disagree. The book is enlightening, self-deprecating at times and suffused with pertinent personal anecdotes that aspiring lawyers should find germane to their goals.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ory Okolloh earns my respect

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/video/2011/jun/22/google-africa-technology-video

I was impressed by the video above not because the ideas expressed therein are new but because they are audacious and not exactly what I would have expected from a Google executive.

The sentiment Okolloh expresses is as annoying as it is true. Whenever Africa comes up for discussion, there seems to the suspension of reason under the excuse that there is something fundamentally different about the people that makes it impossible to consider the fact that they desire the same progress, freedom, and respect that other peoples enjoy without bargain.

I have wondered why Bill Gates chose to do the charity work he is doing in many parts of Africa rather than help entrepreneurs start innovative companies like he did in the US. That would definitely do more good than anything the Gates Foundation can (attempt to) do to eradicate malaria.

It is not clear to me if the opinions expressed are Okolloh's own or they are shared by Google, but if they are that would be a refreshingly sharp departure from the abiding orthodoxy that Africa is a peculiarly wretched disaster that needs special remedies outside of common sense.

Ghana: A serious education deficit

It is customary for Ghanaians to complain about falling educational standards in our schools. My father complained about my generation's falling standards. I am complaining about this generation's standards. I think this generation will complain about the next generation's standards.

Apart from the rubbish that is not even taught well, there seems to be a deliberate effort to not educate independent-minded citizens who can hold the government to account. I have talked about this extensively in a series of 5 articles entitled Why they don't teach history. The problem goes beyond that: How many Ghanaians have read the constitution? How many know their rights? Our ignorance is exposed whenever there is a serious national issue that has to be settled. There is no shortage of silly and illogical arguments based on nothing more than the arguer's whim. There also seems to be no tolerance for principled dissent even if it is reasonable given the (hopefully) unshakeable foundation of the constitution. It is because of this that Ghanaians are mum even when they disapprove of silly programmes by the government. Why are we so timid?

Monday, June 20, 2011

Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson spar over China exploiting Africa


The rise of economic powers other than the already established ones--USA, UK, EU, the so-called West--is bound to make the established ones feel threatened. Hence, it is not uncommon to hear them complain of China exploiting Africa even as China makes inroads into the continent.

Of course, there are legitimate concerns about the details of some of the contracts that China has made in some African countries, but not any that go beyond the typical issues associated with other contracts signed with the countries of the West. So why the panic?

For a long time, some critical observers and ordinary Africans have asked, even begged, the West to adopt a different aid model than the one that is currently in place. They have asked for an aid model that is not based on pity but one that is based on mutual self-interest--some have called this trade in the famous aid vs. trade debates, but the calls have not been heeded.

There seems to be an abiding notion among the countries of the West that African countries are not capable of pulling themselves by the bootstraps, as it were, and so they deserve charity. This nonsense has been refuted by the African people who have demonstrated their desire to be treated with respect. This is why despite the seeming inequity in the slew of contracts that some African countries have signed with China, the Africans seem to be content and willing to continue dealing with the Chinese. I think in so far as the African countries are not coerced into these agreements (they are not) they should be left alone to do what they want.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Fulani: Ghana's immigration problem

Human beings have always migrated; they are usually compelled by economic factors to do so. Until political boundaries became so rigid, migration was not as serious a problem as it is today. All over the world, human beings in search of prosperity and freedom take monumental risks to satisfy their needs, but this has not convinced us to relax the rules on immigration. Further, it is unclear whether it ever will.

Last week a Fulani herdsman was beheaded in Agogo in the Ashanti Region. This was probably an attack by some disgruntled indigenes who were angry at the herdsman for using their land. The details of this attack are not central to my argument. The point is there are cattle rearers in Ghana whose cattle graze just like the cattle of the Fulani, but nobody hears of Ghanaian herdsmen being beheaded because their cattle grazed in the wrong place. So, fundamentally, this is appears to be an us versus them battle in which the Fulani are seen as a threatening economic force in the area.

Because the Fulani are primarily a nomadic people it is hard to tell what their nationality is. Most of them are West African though. That is, they are citizens of an ECOWAS country so they cannot be classified as illegal immigrants because by ECOWAS convention, they should be able to move freely across borders (i.e. without extensive documentation eg. visas, permits, etc). This reduces the Fulani problem to one of contracts.

One reason why the Fulani are despised is because they make their cattle graze on other people's farms. That is what makes them a nuisance. I don't know what the penalties for destroying somebody's farm are but some of these Fulani herdsmen are contracted by Ghanaian cattle owners to cater for their cattle as well so the indigenes themselves may not be free from complicity. Whatever the case may be, it is clear that murder is not the best solution to the problem as there is bound to be retaliation from the aggrieved parties.

A good number of Ghanaians are always looking for a way to escape Ghana for greener pastures in Europe, America, and even Libya. Why won't they let the Fulani herdsman graze on the greener pastures they have found here?

Friday, June 17, 2011

Who says homosexuals will be lynched?

Every once in a long while the issue of homosexuality comes up in Ghana. Many people find it abominable so they think it should be illegal. Since when did an act being abominable also qualify it to be illegal?

Many of those who say homosexuality is abominable also say gambling is abominable. They also say drunkenness is abominable. They say gluttony is abominable. They also say fornication is abominable. They also say divorce is abominable. Yet, none of these acts is illegal. The lack of philosophical and intellectual clarity is irritating.

David Assuming (MP, Shai Osudoku, NDC) says that since the "mob" finds homosexuality abominable, it may have no choice but to resort to vigilantism if the stipulated authorities don't take action. Even though he wishes for such a severe reaction from idle youth, he does not offer any sound basis for such action except the tired "it is unghanaian." He sounded like a fool as he could not put a cogent argument together. This is grave cause for concern as he is one of the few people who can actually repeal the law that makes "unnatural carnal knowledge" illegal.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Sanitary pads for school girls?

This cause sounds laudable but it is not.

Mrs. Elizabeth Agyeman (MP, Oforikrom, NPP) is arguing for the supply of sanitary pads to school girls so they don't have to miss several days of school every month during their menses. It is unfortunate that some school girls have to miss several days of school every month for such a reason, hence, this should be a cause for concern because of the potential effects on the future of these pupils. This, however, should not lead us to permit government to encroach on domains that have always been and should remain private.

As the MP graphically describes, it is not uncommon to spot girls with soiled school uniforms walking in the street, but that should raise different questions than the ones that seem obvious. The issues that immediately come to mind are the following:

1. Why do we have so many school buildings that do not have sanitary facilities?
2. Girls have always menstruated. Why is this becoming an issue now?
3. Should it be the job of government to intervene in such a manner in the lives of the young girls?

Many classroom blocks or school buildings in Ghana do not come with the necessary accompanying sanitary facilities. This leaves one to wonder what school teachers and their pupils do when nature calls. Whatever the girls use to take care of themselves during their menses, they may have to attend to it during the course of the day. Why isn't anybody asking about the availability of sanitary facilities in the schools? Even if girls had the sanitary pads for which the MP is advocating, they may have to change them during the course of the day. Where in the school building would this take place?

91% of homes in the capital city do not have sanitary facilities. The statistics for other cities are worse. The prevailing culture of negligence encourages contractors who construct school buildings to leave out essential sanitary facilities. Given that most of these schools are public, it is not clear if the government could possibly be serious about tackling such a problem, having perpetrated its root cause for years. The absence of such basic facilities in the vast majority of public schools should suggest to us that the lack of sanitary pads may not be the problem after all.

Also, given that girls have always menstruated it is not clear why this is suddenly becoming an issue. I don't think the MP wants to argue that the sanitary pads she was referring to (ie the ones you can buy in a pharmacy) are the only products one can use to keep themselves hygienic during their periods. Before sanitary pads became commonplace, women and girls were taking care of themselves by other means without any problems. Most of them still take care of themselves without special sanitary pads. The aggregate cost of supplying the special sanitary pads to the girls will far exceed the price of getting responsible inspectors to do their job, ensuring that the contractors who build the schools build the sanitary facilities as well. Maintaining the status quo will lead to a mess in these schools where girls will not be able to find places to properly dispose of their pads, worsening the already appalling sanitary conditions that persists in the schools.

Further, it is not clear that the people the MP wants to help actually want her help. Suppose a sanitary pad costs 1 cedi (~66 cents) and a girl needs three of these per month (= 3 cedis or 2 dollars) then we have to figure out at what income a girl will be willing to buy sanitary pads at such a high cost. About 80% of Ghanaians live on less than 2 dollars a day. If I were a girl who was given 2 dollars a month to use for whatever I would, I definitely wouldn't be spending it on sanitary pads when I have other competing uses for the money: most importantly, food. I would rather stick to a more economical way of taking care of myself and use the money for something else. Since when did it become the job of government to give people products they don't even want?

Alas, all of these considerations will be lost on the policy makers because it is always convenient to be sloppy when spending other people's money. You will hear the mantra: Kenya is doing it so we must too. The government seems to have an infinite reservoir of resources when it comes to implementing policies that sound good on paper, so the usual pleas for compassion will trump any sound analysis of the gross implications.

ARLAP: The Akan R-L Allophony Problem

Dear Leader, I am suplised you don't know of this famous plobrem. The previous sentence was meant to read: Dear Reader, I am surprised you don't know of this famous problem. Why the insidious transpositions?

Listeners to Akan English speakers may have heard of an apparent slip of tongue which occurs when the speaker tries to pronounce words with the letters r or l in them. Contrary to popular belief, I contend that this is not a slip of tongue but in fact, a normal extension of Akan phonetics--a mere consequence of fluid bilingualism.

Akan refers to a collection of people who are mostly found in the Southern part of modern day Ghana. They form about 50% of the population. Thare are also some Akans in Cote d'Ivoire but they are a significantly smaller population. The Akans speak a collection of languages (some may argue, dialects) from the Kwa language family that are mostly mutually intelligible: Asante, Akuapem, Fante, Bono, to list a few. The speakers of Asante appear to be the ones who suffer the most from this "error," but it may not be an error due to ignorance of the correct pronunciation, but, rather, one resulting from an invalid extension of their Kwan articulatory instincts.

The framework that dictates the transcription of Twi was created by Johann Gottlieb Christaller, a German Basel missionary who started his missionary as well as philological work among the Akuapems at Akropong. His primary preoccupation was with formalising the language in order to translate the Bible into Twi. Christaller's legacy extends beyond his immense contributions to Twi transcription; his work sparked a chain of literary works, including several dictionaries, a book of Twi proverbs, and a magazine promoting the use of Ghanaian languages. It is noteworthy that even though all of these works are more than a century old, they are yet to be matched in scope and influence.

The Twi alphabet has 22 characters or letters and it inherits all of the English alphabet except the letters c, j, q, v, x and z. It then adds another two letters: ɛ and ɔ. Here, it is in order to acknowledge one difference between the dialects. In Fante, z is used in names like Dadzie or dzi (English: eat, deal, mind). The other differences result from the combination of letters to produce sounds as well as the differences in accenting patterns on syllables.

How does allophony interplay with all of these? Allophony is not peculiar to Twi. It occurs in a language when different pronunciations of a phoneme do not result in a distinction in meaning. For instance, those familiar with the differences between British and American English know that for a certain ubiquitous fluid that is essential to life, one group prefers to call it water (with an emphasis on the /t/) while the other group prefers to say wader or warer. In this case /t/, /d/ and /r/ are allophones in the English language. Similarly, in Twi, sometimes /r/ and /l/ are allophones. Bɔɔdedwo (English: roasted plantain) is sometimes pronounced bɔɔledwo or bɔɔredwo. Here, the allophony is with /r/, /l/ and /d/. The /r/ and /d/ allophony is just like the one in English. Linguists have a special name for that: consonant lenition. The /d/ stop is harder to pronounce than the rhodic /r/ which is in turn harder to pronounce than /l/. The lenition is revealed in a phrase like m'ani abede (English: I am serious, where the /d/ in abede is used for emphasis) instead of m'ani abere.

The above explanation would be perfect in English. That is, Twi speakers, especially those who know the language very well through experience, often fall into the ARLAP trap, forgetting the R-L allophony rule does not apply in English. However, historically, the letter /l/ was never used in Twi. Evidence of this is borne out by the fact that all words with /l/ are borrowed from a different language eg. lɔɔre (English: car. From lorry.) and bɔɔla (English: refuse dump. From English boiler.). So, transformation of /r/ to /l/ may have been the result of a natural tendency to ease speaking, but this is a hypothesis. It would imply that words with /r/ would be more susceptible to the ARLAP than, say, words with /l/. I don't not have the statistics on this, but that may be a litmus test for this theory.

Book review: A personal odyssey by Thomas Sowell

Thomas Sowell is one of America's pre-eminent thinkers, economists, and authors. His autobiography chronicles the events of his life from his childhood in the American south through his checkered, Marxist youth, to his run-ins with bureaucracies both in government and academia, to his present state of reasoned libertarianism.

There are many reasons, from the author's perspective, to write an autobiography: to settle scores, to clarify issues in one's life that may have been mischaracterised or misunderstood by others, or to reminisce for the benefit of others and for one's own enjoyment. Sowell does all of these.

His remarkable story is one of grass to grace through hard work and self-determination. The seeds of Sowell's success were sown early in his life. He grew up with his aunt's family because his mother had four children to look after on her own (Sowell's father died before he was born). There was a sense in the family that he will have more opportunities than they so they were careful to ensure he had a good education. They also ensured he came into contact with good role models. This family ensured he had a safety net so he did not go astray.

Sowell faced a great number of difficulties but overcame them all with uncommon finesse. As a boy from the south (North Carolina) who moved to the north (New York) he was shocked to find that even though he was at the top of his class in NC, he was near the bottom at NY. This was due to a difference in educational standards in the two regions. With hard work, he was able to climb to the top again. Later on in life, he had to drop out of high school for lack of funds. He also had to move out his home because of a strained relationship between him and his aunt. This left him to fend for himself on the job market which was cruel to him because he had very few skills. There were other challenges he encountered that I will not delve into.

Sowell's ideological shift from Marxism to libertarianism is not surprising to me, having read his autobiography, even though it surprises others. His independent mind and strong emphasis on observable results as opposed to good intentions alone was bound to put him at odds with the left of American politics. Even though he studied under Milton Friedman at Chicago, he still held on to his beliefs until he took a job with the government and realised that his colleagues had no desire to help the poor people they were claiming to be looking out for. Hence, in the face of the failure of a programme they had proposed, they were unwilling to consider alternatives because it did not sound right. This was enough for Sowell to see the dangers of letting ideology trump reality hence his conversion.

The man comes through as a gritty fellow with a good dose of pragmatism and self-respect. I could say more about him but this should be sufficient to buy the book.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nigerian pastors are rich and so what?

I have been observing with disquiet the effusions of one journalist, Mfonobong Nsehe, decrying the wealth of Nigerian pastors. Nsehe writes for Forbes magazine so it is not surprising that he would care about fiscal issues, but it is not clear what his goal is in highlighting the wealth of some clergy in Nigeria.

The first article I saw was on May 17 (read here), noting the fact that the clergymen were joining the league of private jet owners, a fact Nsehe notes disparagingly. His tone in that article was derisive, both of the pastors and of their congregants.

Later on, on June 7, he penned another article (read here), listing the five richest pastors in Nigeria. It was not clear what the message was, but one could infer from the tone that he was disgusted either at their wealth, or at the means through which they obtained it.

As if that was not enough, there is now an article on BBC (read here) echoing Nsehe's disgust, comparing the preachers to oil barons and claiming they should probably not have as much wealth when there are poor and suffering people in Nigeria.

I find Nsehe's effusions irresponsible and out of place. On what grounds is he justified to suggest that pastors should not be wealthy because there are poor people in the world? In so far as the congregants voluntarily associate with these pastors and perhaps give them money, what is the big deal? It is irresponsible for a journalist to solicit sympathy by inciting public disaffection towards people who are lawfully making money, but, unfortunately, Nsehe will get away with this behaviour because nobody will call him out.

The contingent of people who like to impose a certain interpretation of Christian modesty on gullible people is growing because of the purveyance of sentiments like these. Yet, it may surprise these self-righteous pundits to note that the pastors they vilify create an invaluable service for which their congregants couldn't pay less. The congregants flock to these so-called con men on their own volition, often leaving the more established churches. Why?

It is a different matter for a person who criticizes such clergymen to himself be a clergyman or a Christian. In that case it would be clear that they are stating a disagreement on the basis of doctrine. To this end, some Christians think it is commendable--even holy--to deprive oneself of luxury and the pleasures of life for the sake of others. A criticism based on such theological or doctrinal differences would not be out of place and may be necessary to keep the faith in balance.

If one is not a Christian, one may as well consider these clergymen as good orators or skillful magicians whose audiences are spellbound by their antics. But that is not what journalists like Nsehe seek to do. In their incessant attacks on clergymen, it is not clear if they have a problem with rich people in general, or that they have problems with people they perceive as hypocrites. If they have a problem with rich people let them say so, otherwise, they should declare their personal interest in the matter so that we can understand their beef. They should stop hiding behind the cloak of disinterested, secular objectivity.