Jun
19

How to Rig an Election

"The greatest political paradox of our time is this: there are more elections than ever before, and yet the world is becoming less democratic" (p. 1). This paradox is explained in How to Rig an Election (2018) by Cheeseman and Klaas (published by Yale). In sum: "How is it possible that the flourishing of elections has coincided with a decade of democratic decline? The answer is that dictators, despots and counterfeit democrats have figured out how to rig elections and get away with it." (p. 3) The book is an excellent read for undergraduate students, it is clear and accessible. The chapters cover gerrymandering (Ch 1), vote buying (Ch 2), repression (Ch 3), hacking the election (Ch 4), stuffing the ballot box (Ch 5), playing the international community (Ch 6). Each chapter provides a range of examples of each issue, from a set of countries the authors have more experience with (which are global in nature). The focus of the book is on contexts where democracy does not have deep roots (they say the emphasis of cases is more on how to "strengthen or build democracy, rather than rescue or defend it").

The chapter on hacking the election is fascinating in that it sheds light on new directions of rigging, particularly the use of technology. The authors state that there is "a clear risk that we are heading towards a future, previously imagined only in science fiction movies, in which our actions and beliefs are recorded and manipulated at a level of detail that was hitherto unthinkable. And whether we like it or not, such methods are being increasingly deployed in an ever-larger number of elections, with important consequences. When elections are decided by small margins, big data can be decisive." (p. 148)

Conclusion? "In the twenty-first century, elections will be rigged with strategies both old and new, because autocrats have learnt a simple but sad truth: it is easier to stay in power by rigging elections than by not holding them at all. For that reason, we must learn an even more uncomfortable truth: right now, those who rig elections are outfoxing not only their own people but also the international community. Unless we learn how to identify these strategies and address them, then election quality will continue to decline. Over time, this is likely to call the basic legitimacy of democracy into question, as people grow frustrated with elections that fail to usher in change." (p. 239) 

Jun
14

How to Avoid a Climate Disaster by Bill Gates

Gates' How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (2021) is well written. The book seems to aim for an audience that has had minimal engagement with climate change conversations. The first chapter sets the scene for the author's positionality, followed by a few chapters on climate science 101. For those moderately versed in the climate conversation, these might be skimmed. Chapters 4 to 9 present the crux of the subtitle, available solutions and needed breakthroughs. Unsurprisingly, the book takes a technological focus on mitigation, and admittedly it offers little on politics, economics, values or societal transformation.

This book was not on my reading list, but I picked it up after a guest lecturer made mention of it positively. I was most interested in the proposals (Chapters 4-9). In Ch 4 we get nuclear, offshore wind, hydrogen, carbon capture, amongst a few others. The chapter raises some interesting points that infrequently come up in transition conversations, such as all the infrastructure requirements - from massive transmission systems to housing electrical services (we tend to focus on supply infrastructure and use, not distribution). Gates does not much engage with all the metals required for the proposals to occur. Ch 5 reiterates the point as an enabler for changing how we produce products and raises the challenge of cement as a GHG producer with no simple replacement. Ch 6 grapples with agriculture and land use, calling for changing foods (artificial and lab meat) and reducing food waste; it points to the challenges of fertilizer and deforestation. Ch 7 covers transportation and calls for electrofuels, advanced biofuels and electrification all around, but does not really contest how the system works nor where all those metals are to be sourced (nor the injustices in the extractives sector). Ch 8 deals with heating and cooling; proposals are clean electricity and efficiency. Ch 9 delves into adaptation, which includes a pitch for CGIAR and agricultural research, with an emphasis on tech solutions; calls for climate smart city planning, restoring ecosystems, desalination, climate financing and a cautious bit on geoengineering. Ch 10 touches on "smart energy policies"; some recap from previous chapters, a call for research, and a wide range of brief points. Ch 11 has "the plan": research (more, high risk/high reward, prioritized); market shifts (governments lead via incentives, regulation / standards, price carbon). Ch 12 concludes with what "we" do, citizens, which include advocacy and personal adjustments.

Given that Gates has been involved in some experimental blue skies work, one surprise is how inside-the-box much of this book is. Keep driving (electric), keep flying (advanced biofuels), keep your diet (lab grown meat), make minor adjustments (reduce food waste, energy efficient heating/cooling); whether it was intended or not, the message is not all that demanding nor urgent. There is no talk of serious redistribution (beyond the charity model). There is no talk of climate justice. Quite comfortable. Even so, if Gates is keen on this messaging spreading, why not make the book open access? It does not appear that Gates is in need of book sales revenue, why not make it accessible to more people? That would align with the Gates Foundation position on open research... 

Jun
10

Another Now

What would the world look like is the 2008 financial crisis inspired a radical transformation of society as we know it (rather than bailing out the banks to continue the status quo)? Yanis Varoufakis has ventured some answers in his Another Now (2020). The book is fictional, which the author uses to present a range of viewpoints and perspectives. In this regard, the characters provide a unique opportunity to have a discussion. For those interested in alternatives, this will be of interest. I won't spoil the story, but as a preview, the author writes:

"Costa's long-standing assessment of the crash of 2008 was that it had been too good a crisis to waste, and yet waste it we did. It could have been used to transform society radically. Instead, we not only rebuilt the world as it had been before but, by bailing out the banks and making the working people pay off the debt, we had doubled down on it, instituting a global regime in which, effectively, political and economic power had been handed over wholesale to the most bankrupt of bankers. Costa had always believed that an alternative had been available to us. A road we never took. Now, it seemed, he had Kosti's dispatches to prove it." (p. 39) 

Jun
04

The Data Detective

Harford has written a pile of books on economics and ran a show decoding the world of statistics. I picked up The Data Detective: Ten Easy Rules to Make Sense of Statistics (2021) to see if it might be useful for undergraduates in the social sciences. Harford is a good storyteller, hence the pile of books, but the ten commandments and the golden role (be curious) are quite vague (essentially: avoid bias, use different data types, put data in context, know the source, question big data and algorithms, be open to change your mind). Useful, but not specific. At times the author speaks to fellow data nerds, however the majority of the content is introductory (too generic for university students). Well suited for a mass market book.

The book is in response to the "statistics lie" narrative, but a cautionary tale of how to engage them carefully and cautiously. The pitch: "I want to convince you that statistics can be used to illuminate reality with clarity and honesty. To do that, I need to show you that you can use statistical reasoning for yourself, sizing up the claims that surround you in the media, on social media, and in everyday conversation. I want to help you evaluate statistics from scratch, and just as important, to figure out where to find help that you can trust." (p. 9)

A few notes:

"The counterintuitive result is that presenting people with a detailed and balanced account of both sides of the argument may actually push people away from the center rather than pull them in. If we already have strong opinions, then we'll seize upon welcome evidence, but we'll find opposing data or arguments irritating. This biased assimilation of new evidence means that the more we know, the more partisan we're able to be on a fraught issue." (p. 36)

"A randomized controlled trial (RCT) is often described as the gold standard for medical evidence. In an RCT, some people receive the treatment being tested while others, chosen at random, are given either a placebo or the best known treatment. An RCT is indeed the fairest one-shot test of a new medical treatment, but if RCTs are subject to publication bias, we won't see the full picture of all the tests that have been done, and our conclusions are likely to be badly skewed." (p. 125-6)

"Modern data analytics can produce some miraculous results, but big data is often less trustworthy than small data. Small data can typically be scrutinized; big data tends to be locked away in the vaults of Silicon Valley. The simple statistical tools used to analyze small datasets are usually easy to check; pattern-recognizing algorithms can all too easily by mysterious and commercially sensitive black boxes." (p. 183).

May
30

Epistemic Freedom in Africa

For students looking for an introduction to decolonization, or faculty looking to catch up on conversations they have been missing (or conversations they have avoided or actively sought not take part in), Sabelo Ndlovu-Gatsheni has brought it together for you in Epistemic Freedom in Africa: Deprovincialization and Decolonization (2018). As the title implies, this book is rooted in the African perspective of decolonization, which makes it somewhat unique that books written from other vantage points (e.g. Mignolo). For those deeply embedded into these conversations, Sabelo's other work presents more of his own contributions, whereas this book summarizes much of what the major leaders have contributed (the book includes a lot of quoted content from these leading thinkers, which is a resource for those not familiar with those works). Two chapters are Open Access here.

Some notes:

"This affirmation and validation take the form of publication in the so-called international, high-impact and peer-reviewed journals. Europe and North America constitute the 'international' and the rest of the world is 'local'. Consequently, international, high-impact, and peer-reviewed journals and internationally respected publishing houses and presses are those located in Europe and North America. Highly ranked universities are located in Europe and North America. Taken together, these realities confirm the existence of epistemic hegemony. The signature of epistemic hegemony is the idea of 'knowledge' rather than 'knowledges'" (p. 8)

"Hountondji (1990: 10) distilled 13 "indices of scientific dependence". The first is dependence on technical apparatuses made in Europe and North America. The second is dependence on foreign libraries and documentation centres for up-to-date scientific information. The third is what he termed "institutional nomadism, a restless going to and fro" European and North American universities. The fourth dependence manifests itself as 'brain-drain'. The fifth is importation of theory from the North to enlighten the data gathered in the South. The sixth dependence is aversion to basic research and sticking to the colonial ideology of instrumentality of knowledge. The seventh problem is in choice of research topics that is determined by interests of the North where knowledge is validated (Hountondji 1990: 12). The eighth dependence is confinement to territorial specialisations in which African scholars are often reduced to native informants. The ninth form of dependence is that African scholars are engaged in scientific research that is of direct service to coloniality. The tenth issue relates to research into indigenous knowledge which eventually is disciplined to fit into the modes of Western science. The eleventh challenge is that of linguistic dependence on six European languages (English, French, German, Spanish, Italian and Portuguese) in teaching and research. The twelfth index of scientific dependence is a lack of communication among African scholars as most prefer "a vertical exchange and dialogue with scientists from the North than horizontal exchange with fellow scholars from the South" (Hountondji 1990: 13)." (p. 25-26)

"What emerges from these questions is the importance of the material to which students are exposed and the consciousness of the teachers in the delivery of the material. Most often one gets the impression that it is the quality of students that is discussed and very little is said about the quality of the teachers and their consciousness. There is a lot that is wrong with the academics produced by Western-style universities... If indeed the key problem with the African academics is that of consciousness caused by miseducation, then the focus on changing the very idea of the university as the factory that produced the academics and intellectuals should be accompanied by re-education of its products." (p. 84)

"It is not surprising that, as an institution, the Westernized university in Africa is today the key site of struggles for decolonization. In the first place, it is the universities that promised freedom of thought only to stifle it through religiously adhering to a Eurocentric epistemology and Western-centric cultures and practices. In the second place, the university has the highest concentration of young people who are eager to understand why the institution is still maintaining alienating Eurocentric cultures and is not resolving and question of cultural and practical relevance of what it delivers. In the third place, despite the institutional constraints, the university is still the space where ideas are explored endlessly. Finally, it is within the confines of the Westernized university located in Africa that the youth encounter face-to-face epistemic and pedagogical brutalities that provoke them to rebel." (p. 163) 

May
25

Native Colonialism

The people of Ethiopia defeated European attempts to colonize it. However, Dr Yirga argues that in embracing western education and erasing local history and tradition, the institutions and laws put in place colonizing processes, what he calls 'native colonialism'. This is one of the most interesting books I have read of recent, highly recommended to anyone interested in what (de)colonization means, and specifically for readers looking for critical works on education and Ethiopian history. Native Colonialism: Education and the Economy of Violence Against Traditions in Ethiopia (2017) by Yirga Gelaw Woldeyes (Res Sea Press) is a unique book and offers (what many will see as) a provocative take on education in Ethiopia. In so doing, Dr Yirga also offers rich insight into the traditional education system, particularly of his home Lalibela. This is recommended reading. The Introduction and Conclusion appear onlineA few quotes:

"This book attempts to show that beneath the good name of education, there is a constant violence against local traditions that perpetuates the degradation of the lives of the majority whose survival depend on those traditions. The belief in the redemptive power of western education is informed by a colonialist worldview that local traditions and people are primitive. It is also an indictment that privileges westernized elites to speak and act for the rural majority without the latter's consent." (p. 2-3)

"Ethiopia has never been colonized by an alien political power, but a political system similar to colonialism has been institutionalized in the country by native colonizers. The western political ideology of the lite class has become the source of economic, political and social policy. Political parties determine development processes, and modernization is seen as a government-sponsored project rather than an evolutionary process that emerges from people's local experiences. Education has played a central role for the emergence and expansion of native colonialism. It promotes a worldview and culture that produces colonial consciousness. This book critically articulates the historical emergence, ideology and effect of native colonialism." (p. 3)

"The best way to show the violence of this empire is not to reason based on its own rationalities. This is what most commentators did when they criticize the quality or relevance of the education system. They often start from the education system, not from the meaning of education." (p. 4)

"Imitation, not interpretation, was the principal mechanism by which the new laws were adopted. Following the constitution of 1955, six codes were issued. These include a civil code, a penal code, a commercial code, a maritime code, a civil procedure code, and a criminal procedure code. "These codes were all either drafted by foreign lawyers or inspired by foreign sources" (Vanderlinden, 1966-1967, p. 255)." (p. 107)

"The adoption of western laws had the effect of creating institutions that are violent to tradition. The most significant manifestation of this violence is the silencing of local histories, knowledges and experiences, while reinventing the state as a sole source of authority using instruments of power that are alien to the people." (p. 109)

"...the combined effect of the two senses of alienation creates centeredlessness. First, the education system isolates students from their traditional roots. It declares tradition backward and barbaric; it initiates a sense of mission and a promise of power to students. Alienated from their place of tradition, students make efforts to seize the promises of western knowledge through the formal channels of the state. Although knowledge is presented as a stepping stone or a promise of power, Elitdom has strong barriers that make it difficult for many students to succeed. Consequently, students fall into the condition of powerlessness and meaninglessness." (p. 190)

"...the majority of the rural people are served by young graduates or school leavers who are indoctrinated by the superiority of science and western knowledge over Ethiopian tradition and history. This denies the possibility of developing local wisdom and experience into policy making." (p. 200) 

May
20

Ethiopian Discourse

Teodros Kiros is a public philosopher, demonstrated by his commitment to making philosophy accessible and bringing philosophy into the public spaces. Ethiopian Discourse (2011) is a kind of companion book to Teodros Kiros' Philosophical Essays (2011). Both are published by Red Sea and both are collections of articles written in the Ethiopian Reporter newspaper, amongst other platforms (some of which no longer active, which makes this collection a unique repository of writing). The articles were penned during the 2000s. While Philosophical Essays was about broader (more eurocentric) political philosophy, this collection focuses on African philosophy and Ethiopian affairs (interestingly, with a thread of ancient Egyptian morality waved throughout).

The book contains 81 short entries. Like the other book, many essays focus on political philosophy, albeit with an orientation to Ethiopia. I found the articles on African novels and Ethiopian philosophers the most interesting (the author also wrote a book on Ethiopian philosopher Zera Yacob), of which there are multiple contributions. These also better stand the test of time, compared to the more situated-in-time pieces. We are indebted to Kiros for bringing forth the work of Zera Yacob (along with Claude Sumner), particularly Kiros in the public realm (as Sumner's works remain difficult to find, and in long philosophical books).

For those interested, Kiros has a 2021 book with Cornel West, which they discuss in this online event. 

May
15

Policy-Making in a Transformative State

Edited collections are challenging to write about and review, with the chapters covering diverse areas / topics and each offering unique data and perspectives. One unique edited collection on Qatar is Policy-Making in a Transformative State: The Case of Qatar, edited by M. E. Tok, L. R. M. Alkhater and L. Pal (2016). The book is over 400 pages and has 14 chapters, beyond the scope of a quick summary. However, there are some valuable contributions that I will point readers toward, which will be of interest from the perspective of understanding policy making as well as unique contributions to understand the Qatari context.

One of the gems in this book is Khalid Rashid Alkhater's Macroeconomic Stabilization Policies and Sustainable Growth in Qatar (Ch 12). While the title is generic, this is an excellent contribution on financial and monetary policy, which I will continue to use in my teaching. The chapter by Lolwah Alkhater on educational reform (Ch 4) provides much more detail than Vora's book. For anyone interested in the education system (and its transformations), this is a critical reflection of decisions made and an important resource. This is followed by a chapter on higher education (Ch 5, by Ahmed Baghdady), which is more descriptive.

In the available English literature, there are few places where one can find nuance on constitutional and legal details of Qatar (while there are political books, like Kamara, these remain quite broad on these points). For this, Hassan Al-Sayed's chapter on Qatar's Constitutional and Legal System (Ch 2) is worth reading. Now the dean of CHSS at HBKU, Amal Mohammed Al-Malki, has a chapter on identity (Ch 9) and Hend Al Muftah has a chapter on labour (migration, Qatarization; Ch 10) with explicit policy recommendations.

Many of the books available on Qatar are written by outsider voices, sometimes following short stays in the country and often by scholars who do not have access to Arabic sources or conversations. This edited volume provides a broader range of content, not only with insider perspectives but also in many instances contributing original data and interviews. Although much has changed since 2016, this is still a useful book for those interested in understanding Qatar, and particularly useful understanding policy challenges and policy making. One downside to the book is the cost - this is an expensive academic book published by Palgrave, which reduces the accessibility of this collection for those without institutional subscriptions.

May
11

On the Genealogy of Morality

In looking for ideas about how to present the history and connectivity of ideas, I returned to Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morality, published in 1887. Sharing a few notes with that interest in reading (and only a periphery interest in the arguments of the book).

In the Introduction of the version I read (by Clark and Swensen), Clark offers the following on the historical method of the book: "The purpose served by a thing does not explain its origin; rather, the cause of its coming into being and 'its final usefulness, its actual employment and integration into a system of purposes,' lie worlds apart (GM II:12). Nietzsche's prime example of a violation of this principle is the assumption that the eye was made to see, the hand to grasp. This suggests that his principle of historical method is inspired by Darwin's theory of evolution, according to which the eye's usefulness does not explain why it originally came into existence, but only why, having somehow or other come into existence, it had a greater chance of surviving and being passed on to heirs. To explain how the eye came into existence would be to trace it back through a whole series of previous forms, and transformations of these forms by means of new variations, to something that lies 'worlds apart' from it, say a simple nerve that is particularly sensitive to light. Neitzsche's Genealogy applies the same principle to human history. Questions of origin and purpose are to be separated; the purpose served by a practice or custom does not explain how it came into existence." (p. xxiv)

From Neitzsche (lengthy, as reference for those interested in how this method was described and used):
"we need a critique of moral values, for once the value of these values must itself be called into question—and for this we need a knowledge of the conditions and circumstances out of which they have grown, under which they have developed and shifted" (p. 5)

"How do the previous genealogists of morality carry on in this case? Naively, as they have always carried on-: they discover some "purpose" or other in punishment, for example revenge or deter­rence, then innocently place this purpose at the beginning as causa fiendi [cause of the coming into being] of punishment, and - are done. The "purpose in law," however, is the last thing that is usable for the history of the genesis of law: on the contrary, for history of every kind there is no more important proposition than that one which is gained with such effort but also really ought to be gained,­ namely, that the cause of the genesis of a thing and its final usefulness, its actual employment and integration into a system of purposes, lie toto caelo apart; that something extant, something that has somehow or other come into being, is again and again interpreted according to new views, monopolized in a new way, transformed and rearranged for a new use by a power superior to it; that all happening in the organic world is an over- ' powering, a becoming-lord-over; and that, in turn, all overpowering and becoming-lord-over is a new interpreting, an arranging by means of which the previous "meaning" and "purpose" must of necessity become obscured or entirely extinguished. However well one has grasped the utility of some physiological organ (or of a legal institution, a social custom, a political practice, a for m in the arts or in religious cult), one has still not comprehended anything regarding its genesis: as uncomfortable and unpleasant as this may sound to earlier ears, - for from time imme­morial one had thought that in comprehending the demonstrable purpose, the usefulness of a thing, a form, an arrangement, one also comprehended the reason for its coming into being - the eye as made to see, the hand as made to grasp. Thus one also imagined punishment as invented for punishing. But all purposes, all utilities, are only signs that a will to power has become lord over something less powerful and has stamped its own functional meaning onto it; and in this manner the entire history of a "thing," an organ, a practice can be a continuous signchain of ever new interpretations and arrangements, whose causes need not be connected even among themselves - on the contrary, in some cases only accidentally follow and replace one another." (p. 50-51) 

May
03

Qatar: A Modern History

Other than a short publication from 1979, there are few academic books on the history of Qatar. After spending a year in Qatar, at Qatar University, Allen Fromherz wrote 'Qatar: A Modern History'. The book was originally published in 2012, (Kamrava's book is 2013) however, the updated version (published in 2017) provides updates throughout the text (as additions, this also makes for some jumpy reading at parts). As a history, this book has the potential to remain relevant longer, however only about half of the book is history while the other half is better described as current affairs (a focus on the decade before publication). The book provides a lot of historical information, however at many points it is unclear where the historical information is coming from (not being referenced). Although at times repetitive, this is a useful text and worth reading for anyone interested in contemporary history. A serious limitation, however, is the reliance upon the colonial record and the absence of Arabic (or any other, such as Turkish) sources. This replicates the colonial gaze of history, which the author recognizes but does little to address.

A few notes:

"Qatar is not a place 'without a past' or 'without a culture' as it has been described in popular literature. Ironically, anxiety about a lack of historical roots appears to be felt more by visitors to Qatar than by Qataris themselves. Perhaps expecting exotica, adventure and orientalized Arabness, the expatriate is disappointed by the modernity, by places that look 'Western' or 'just like home'. Many Qataris, in contrast, rarely express the same level of postmodern angst." (p. 4)

"Qatar is one of the world's most unlikely political entities. Surrounded by powerful and expansionist neighbours and projecting into Gulf waters, waters rocked by centuries of conflict, Qatar has one of the more extraordinary stories of state formation in the Gulf." (p. 41)

"No longer did the most respected man in Doha need to base his power ultimately on the Islamic baya, the oath of allegiance and obligation between ruler and ruled, or the shura and majlis, the council of respected sheikhs in Arabic tribal and Islamic religious tradition, that power was now based on the full weight of the British navy. As Lisa Anderson aptly observed, before imperial interests created European-style monarchy in the Middle East, 'Political authority has been exercised and justified not as an aspect of family or property but on religious grounds.'" (p. 57)

"Both external powers were kept at bay by the resourcefulness of the Qataris under Muhammad bin Thani and his successors, especially Shiekh Jassim Al-Thani. Qatar, led by a successful line of tenacious and usually astute Al-Thani Emirs successfully resisted full external domination. They accomplished this not through technological superiority but through the deft use of diplomacy and negotiation. Only at the last resort, as at Wajbah against the Ottomans in 1892, would the Qataris use force to protect their position. The Qataris continually searched for rivals who would be partners." (p. 65)

"The fourth Article virtually hands over all of Qatar's foreign policy to the British government, even forbidding correspondence with 'any other power' without the consent of the 'High British Government'. Nor was Abdullah permitted to 'cede to any other Power or its subjects, land either on lease, sale, transfer, gift, or in any other way whatsoever'. A prohibition on selling land to non-Qataris, originally part of a British strategy to control Qatar's foreign commitments, continues to this day, with the exception of..." (p. 71) 

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