Latest Developments, April 30

In the latest news and analysis…

Land grab data
The Guardian reports on a new database of international land deals that indicates the rate at which investors are gobbling up Africa’s agricultural land.
“Researchers say 754 deals have been identified on the continent, covering 56.2m hectares – or roughly the size of Kenya.
Little evidence of job creation or other benefits to local communities could be found among the hundreds of largely export-oriented projects, said the report. In some cases, it adds, investors have secured hundreds of thousands of hectares of prime farmland at little to no cost. One deal in South Sudan, for example, has reportedly granted a Norwegian investor a 99-year lease for 179,000 hectares at an annual cost of just $0.07 a hectare.

But, so far, few large-scale projects have been established on the millions of hectares bought or leased for agricultural activities, according to the report, which says less than 30% of documented deals are thought to be in production. It suggests that some investors may have underestimated the challenges associated with their projects, while other deals are likely to be purely strategic and speculative investments.”

Suicidal tendencies
Reuters reports that workers at a Chinese factory owned by Apple supplier Foxconn have once again threatened mass suicide just weeks after the two companies came up with a “landmark agreement” to improve working conditions.
“The deal was agreed almost two years after a series of worker suicides at Foxconn plants focused attention on conditions at Chinese factories and sparked criticism Apple’s products were built on the backs of mistreated Chinese workers.
On Tuesday, Apple reported that its fiscal second-quarter net income almost doubled after a jump in iPhone sales, blowing past financial market expectations.”

Shell games
Amnesty International has slammed oil giant Shell for its response to allegations it has caused serious environmental damage in Nigeria’s Niger Delta.
“Shell says more than 70% of spills in the Niger Delta over the last five years were caused by sabotage or leaks caused by thieves. But such claims by Shell on the proportion of oil spilled as a result of illegal activity are not credible. Based on new evidence, more than half the oil spilled in the Niger Delta during 2008 – and possibly as much as 80 per cent – was due to operational failure, not sabotage.”

Defining crisis
The Globe and Mail’s Doug Saunders writes that “people with decent but ordinary employment” in places like London, Nairobi, Toronto and Mumbai can no longer afford housing.
“ ‘Every time house prices fall, the national newspapers say there is a housing crisis,’ says Alan Gilbert, a housing-policy specialist at the University College of London. ‘I would argue otherwise – the housing situation is better when house prices are stable or falling – because that means that demand is being outstripped by supply.’

If we really wanted housing to be profitable and plentiful, we’d tax owners on the annual rise in value of their property – a Land Value Tax.”

Who’s afraid of UNCTAD?
Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Jayati Ghosh analyzes last week’s contentious UN Conference on Trade and Development in Doha, which suggested the north-south divide is alive and well.
“The governments of the United States and other developed countries are keen to export what they see as democracy to different parts of the world, and to point out (with respect to countries that try to control information and freedom of speech) that it is impossible to control the spread of ideas. Clearly, they need to learn the same messages themselves, especially with respect to ideas and economic analysis.”

Power shift
OpenOil’s Johnny West calls on resource-rich countries to stand up to extractive industry multinationals.
“The IMF makes two surprising observations in its consultation document, albeit in carefully coded language. The first is that oil and mining companies might be ‘under-taxe’ relative to their profits and internal rates of return. The second is that ‘in some cases, governments might benefit from separating exploration from extraction – for example, by auctioning known deposits to the highest bidder’.
Behind these mundane words lies scope for a considerable shift in thinking.”

Post-neoclassical thinking
The Fung Global Institute’s Andrew Sheng argues that “sacrifice in the interest of unity” is the only path to a sustainable global economy.
“Meanwhile, existing political systems promise good jobs, sound governance, a sustainable environment, and social harmony without sacrifice – a paradise of self-interested free riders that can be sustained only by sacrificing the natural environment and the welfare of future generations.
We cannot postpone the pain of adjustment forever by printing money. Sustainability can be achieved only when the haves become willing to sacrifice for the have-nots.”

Economist accountability
Harvard University economist Dani Rodrik suggests his colleagues should take responsibility for the real-world damage their ideas can cause.
“In the aftermath of the financial crisis, it became fashionable for economists to decry the power of big banks. It is because politicians are in the pockets of financial interests, they said, that the regulatory environment allowed those interests to reap huge rewards at great social expense. But this argument conveniently overlooks the legitimizing role played by economists themselves. It was economists and their ideas that made it respectable for policymakers and regulators to believe that what is good for Wall Street is good for Main Street.
Economists love theories that place organized special interests at the root of all political evil. In the real world, they cannot wriggle so easily out of responsibility for the bad ideas that they have so often spawned. With influence must come accountability.”