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Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression

Some years back, I gave a talk at O’Reilly’s ETech conference that urged the audience to spend less time thinking up clever ways dissidents could blog secretly from inside repressive regimes and more time thinking about the importance of ordinary participatory media tools, like blogs, Facebook and YouTube, for activism. I argued that the tools we use for sharing cute pictures of cats are often more effective for activism than those custom-designed to be used by activists.

Others have been kind enough to share the talk, referring to “the Cute Cat theory”. An Xiao Mina, in particular, has extended the idea to explain the importance of viral, humorous political content on the Chinese internet.

I’ve meant to write up a proper academic article on the ideas I expressed at ETech for years now, and finally got the chance as part of a project organized by Danielle Allen and Jennifer Light at the Institute for Advanced Studies. They invited a terrific crew of scholars to collaborate on a book titled “Youth, New Media and Political Participation”, now in review for publication by MIT Press. The volume is excellent – several of my students at MIT have used Tommie Shelby’s “Impure Dissent: Hip Hop & the Political Ethics of Marginalized Black Urban Youth“, which will appear in the volume, as a key source in their work on online dissent and protest.

I’m posting a pre-press version of my chapter both so there’s an open access version available online and because a few friends have asked me to expand on comments I made on social media and the “Arab Spring” at the University of British Columbia and in Foreign Policy. (I also thought it would be a nice tie-in to the Gawkerization of Foreign Policy, with their posting today of 14 Hairless Cats that look like Vladimir Putin.)

So – Cute Cats to the Rescue? Participatory Media and Political Expression.

Abstract: Participatory media technologies like weblogs and Facebook provide a new space for political discourse, which leads some governments to seek controls over online speech. Activists who use the Internet for dissenting speech may reach larger audiences by publishing on widely-used consumer platforms than on their own standalone webservers, because they may provoke government countermeasures that call attention to their cause. While commercial participatory media platforms are often resilient in the face of government censorship, the constraints of participatory media are shaping online political discourse, suggesting that limits to activist speech may come from corporate terms of service as much as from government censorship.

Look for the Allen and Light book on MIT Press next Spring – it’s an awesome volume and one I’m proud to be part of.

Who let all those Ghanaians on the Internet? Jenna Burrell on internet exclusion

Jenna Burrell, assistant professor at the School of Information at UC Berkeley, is speaking today at the Berkman Center on her research on internet usage in Ghana, the subject of her (excellent) book Invisible Users: Youth in the Internet Cafes of Urban Ghana. Burrell is an ethnographer and sociologist, and her examination of Ghanaian internet cafes is one of the best portraits of contemporary internet use in the developing world.

Jenna doing fieldwork in Ghana

Her talk today covers some of the work she began in 2004 and published last year, but expands in some new directions, including questions about network security and preserving access in the margins of the Global Internet. Burrell’s understanding of Ghana has been built up through six years of fieldwork, both on how non-elite Ghanaians use the internet, and on how Ghana’s internet has literally been built, from recycled and repurposed computer equipment. She notes that ethnographers are famous for their microfocus. When she published her book, a Facebook friend joked, “How odd, I just finished my book on youth in the internet cafes of suburban Ghana!” Burrell is now interested in some of the broader questions we might examine raised by specific cases like the dynamics of Ghana’s cybercafes.

Burrell notes that early conversations about the internet often featured the idea that in online spaces, we transcend our physical limits and are able to talk to people anywhere in the world. Our race and gender might become irrelevant or invisible. She suggests that just at the point where real cross-cultural connection was starting to unfold online, discourse about a borderless internet became unfashionable. We might benefit from returning to some of these ideas of borderlessness and encounter in places where these encounters are really taking place.

Ghana’s internet cafes are an excellent space to explore how this connect works in practice, as much of what takes place in these cafes is centered on international connect. Ghana’s “non-elite” net youth culture – i.e., the young people accessing the internet via cybercafes, not the digerati who are accessing the net through computers in their homes – centers around the idea of the “pen pal”, an analog concept adapted for a digital age. Many Ghanaian students have interacted with pen pals via paper letters, and their encounters in online space often focused on finding a digital pen pal. Most participating in this culture were English-literate, had at least a high school education and had probably stopped going to school when they ran out of funds. They sought out pen pals for a variety of reasons: as friends, as potential romantic partners, as patrons or sponsors, business partners, or as philanthropists who might fund their future education or emigration.

Much of Burrell’s work has focused on talking to cybercafe users about their stories and motivations. Understanding the gaps between their understandings of the people they are talking with on Yahoo chat or other tools helps illuminate the challenge of cultural encounter. One group of cybercafe youth were collectors. They had applied for British Airways Executive Club membership – the airline’s frequent flyer program – and called themselves “The Executive Club”, reveling in the membership cards the airline had sent. They collected religious CDs and bibles from the people they encountered online. Another Ghanaian participant in Christian chat rooms on Yahoo! complained that his conversation partners didn’t understand his needs and motivations – he was looking for contacts and potential business partners and figured that Christians would be trustworthy people to work with, but was frustrated that they only wanted to talk about the bible. A third person she observed explained, “I take pen pals just for the exchange of items and actually I don’t take my size. I take sugar mommies and sugar daddies…” In other words, he was looking specifically for conversations that led to people giving gifts.

This sounds like a path from conversation into internet scamming, but Burrell warns us not to jump to conclusions. Gift-giving is very common in Ghanaian culture, and while gifts are small, they are important and usually reciprocal. Some of her Ghanaian informants couldn’t understand why asking for a gift chased their conversation partners away. Fauzia, who had been chatting with a man on Yahoo! asked him to send her a mobile phone. Not only did he stop taking to her, he performed a complicated “dance of avoidance”, logging off when he saw her log on. Another informant, Kwaku, was talking with a Polish woman about seeking a travel visa and couldn’t understand why she wouldn’t let him stay in her home in Poland. Again, the cultural discontinuity is important – if you traveled to see a friend in their village, you would expect that they would share their home with you and provide a place for you to sleep.

Burrell suggests that there are basic misunderstandings between Ghanaian and North American/European culture around gender and communication norms, the moral economy of gifting and notions of obligation and hospitality. In addition, these cultural discontinuities are complicated by material asymmetries, simplistic perceptions of western wealth and African poverty, and the fact that Ghanaians are often paying for net connectivity by the minute, leading to rushed and high pressure encounters.

When cross-cultural encounters go badly, people seek to block further contact. Networks like Facebook make it very easy to block an individual from contacting you. But Burrell sees the internet moving from simple blocking and banning to “encoded exclusion”, the automatic exclusion of entire countries from being able to access certain servers and services. Dating websites, in particular, have taken to blocking and banning Ghanaians and Nigerians entirely, because they use the websites in ways that the site’s creators hadn’t expected or intended.

Working from Ghana for almost a decade, Burrell has found that it’s often difficult to engage in basic online tasks from that country because sites and services exclude based on geolocation. Based on her experiences and that of her informants, she posits two types of exclusion: failure to include, and purposeful exclusion.

Ecommerce is a space where failure to include is pretty common. Ecommerce is a credit-card based world. Many African economies, including Ghana’s, are largely cash based. Even for Ghanaians who have the money to buy online services, there’s often no easy way to make an online payment. This becomes a rationalization for credit card fraud. Ghanaians who want to participate on, which has a modest member fee, rationalize using a stolen credit card as a way of gaining access to a space that’s otherwise closed. There’s also an unfair stigma attached to cash-based transactions, she posits. Some media coverage of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the Nigerian underwear bomber, focused on the fact that he’d purchased his air ticket in Ghana, paying cash. US authorities suggested that paying cash was evidence of bad intent and some suggested waiting periods and extra scrutiny for cash payments – Burrell suggests that that’s simply how Ghana’s economy works at present, and that using cash payments as a signal for possible terrorist behavior is a form of failure to include.

Purposeful exclusion also comes into play in ecommerce. Burrell discovered that trying to purchase a product on Amazon from Ghana triggered a set of “forced detours” that made purchasing impossible. Once Amazon detected her login from Ghana, the site immediately reset her password and began sending her phishing warnings. Paypal uses similar techniques – when she tried to sign up for a sewing class in Oakland (to make something out of the beautiful batik she was buying in Ghana), PayPal told her that they didn’t serve customers in Ghana or Nigeria, and started a set of security checks that led to phone verification to her US phone, which didn’t work in Ghana. These extended loops of checks are a huge frustration to the Ghanaians who have the means and tools to participate in these economies. As Ghanaian-born blogger Koranteng noted in an excellent blog post, “If we take ecommerce as one component of modern global citizenship then we are illegal aliens of sorts, and our participation is marginal at best.”

Other blocks are more explicit., a popular, no-fee dating site, briefly ran a warning that stated that they block traffic from Africa, Romania, Turkey, India, Russia “like every other major site”. The warning was removed, but the site is still inaccessible from Ghana.

Search for “IP block Ghana” or “IP block Nigeria” and you’ll find posts on webmaster fora asking for advice on how to exclude whole nations from the internet. She offers three examples:

From Webmaster World: “I am so fed up with these darn African fraudsters, is it possible to block african traffic by IP”
From a Unix security discussion group: “Maybe we could just disconnect those countries from the Internet until they get their scam artists under control”
From a Linux admin tips site: “I admin an [ecommerce] website and a lot of bogus traffic comes from countries that do not offer much in commercial value.”

Legitimate frustration over fraud leads to overbroad attempts to crack down on this fraud. Burrell’s research involved working with a British woman who lost $100,000 to scams in Ghana – the woman came to Ghana to seek justice and Burrell attended court hearings with her. She suggests that while there’s likely corruption within the Ghana police service, the judges and lawyers she met were genuinely worried about scamming and looking for ways to crack down on the activity. But the perception remains that Ghana isn’t doing enough to protect the rest of the world from its least ethical internet users. This, in turn, has consequences for Ghana’s many legitimate users.

She leaves the group with a series of questions:
– How do we consider inclusiveness as one of the principals to strive for in network security best practices?
– How do we investigate and make visible the consequences of network security practices at the margins of the internet?
– When is country-level IP address blocking appropriate?

These questions lead to a lively discussion around the Berkman table. Oliver Goodenough wonders whether the practices Burrell is describing parallel redlining, the illegal practice of denying certain services or overcharging for them in neighborhoods with high concentrations of citizens of color. But another participant wonders whether we’re being unfair and suggests that using concepts like “censorship” to discuss online exclusion is unfairly characterizing what might simply be wise business practice. “Should a company be compelled to do business in a country where there’s no legal infrastructure to adequately protect it?” Jerome Hergueux argues that global trade follows trust, and that the desire to exclude these countries may be seen as a vote that there’s no trust in how they do business. Burrell notes that there are patterns of media coverage that contribute to why we don’t trust Ghanaians, and that those perceptions might not be accurate.

I’m deeply interested in the topics Burrell brings up in this talk. I’ve experienced the purposeful exclusion Burrell talks about, both in trying to do business from west Africa, and in my travels back and forth – I routinely bring goods to Ghana and Nigeria that friends in those countries have ordered and sent to my office, because they can’t get them delivered to their homes. It’s very strange when people you’ve met only over Twitter send you iPads so you can bring them to Nigeria… but it is, as Hergeuex points out, an interesting commentary on who we trust and who we don’t.

I worry about another form of exclusion that’s mostly theoretical at this point, but possible: what if spaces that are acting as digital public spheres become closed to developing world users? That’s an idea put forward in a New York Times article by Brad Stone and Miguel Helft. Examining Facebook’s efforts to build sites “optimized” for the developing world, they wonder whether companies, desperate to become profitable, will stop serving, or badly underserve, users in countries where there’s little online advertising, like Nigeria and Ghana.

Talking with Burrell after her talk, I wondered whether there’s a hierarchy of needs at work: should we worry more about Facebook banning Nigerian users (no evidence that they will, to be clear) more than Amazon or OkCupid? Are we willing to argue for a global right to online speech, but no global right to online dating? Burrell argued that accessing OkCupid might be more significant in terms of life transformation for a Ghanaian user than accessing Facebook and suggested that any sort of tiering of access was challenging to think through.

It’s interesting to consider: the Internet Freedom agenda advocated by the US State Department focuses on countries that would block access to the internet to prevent certain types of political speech. But what if the real threat to global internet freedom starts with US companies that don’t see a profit in letting Ghanaian or Nigerian users onto their sites? Anyone want to bet on whether a Kerry State Department will be willing to tell US companies to stop excluding African users?

Good and bad reasons to be worried about WCIT

The World Conference on International Telecommunications (WCIT, pronounced “wicket”) opened Monday in Dubai. If you’re heard about the conference, it’s likely because many articulate and smart proponents of an open internet have been waving arms and warning of the potential dangers that may come from this meeting. Fight For the Future, an organization focused on mobilizing individuals to the defense of a free and open internet, have switched the Internet Defense League’s vaunted “cat signal“, urging supporters to stop an internet coup by the International Telecommunications Union, the UN agency responsible for communication technologies.

There are reasons to be concerned about WCIT and about the ITU asserting more control over Internet governance. But there’s also a great deal of exaggeration and fear-mongering that’s making it hard to see the issues clearly. And one of the reasons offered for defending against an ITU “takeover” is a disturbing one, the idea that the Internet works well enough as it is, and that we should be opposed to any changes that would alter how it functions and is governed.

It’s possible to oppose increased ITU involvement in internet governance without demonizing the organization. It’s possible to believe this is the wrong venue and wrong mechanism without concluding that the Internet works as well as it ever will and ever could. I’m interested in trying to pull some of these arguments apart because I worry some opponents of WCIT are accepting these arguments as a whole package, not considering their individual merits, and may be swallowing some unhealthy presumptions that hinder future debate about internet governance going forward.

I”m far from expert on the topic of WCIT, so I’m going to point to some of the better arguments I’ve heard in the past few weeks. (My friend Sunil Abraham tweeted many helpful links earlier today, and I recommend his Twitter feed for WCIT links from various perspectives.) For general background, I’d recommend Jack Goldsmith’s “opinionated primer” on the topic. To summarize, Goldsmith (who knows a thing or two about internet governance):

– Because WCIT is about amending international rules through a treaty process, it’s a slow, consensus-seeking process that nations can opt out of. In other words, we shouldn’t expect US net regulations to change because of it.

– It’s relevant not because lasting changes will come out of these meetings, but mostly because it gives us a window into what some nations would like in terms of internet governance, and may seek to accomplish through their own national telecoms laws.

In effect, Goldsmith argues that impact isn’t a good reason to pay attention to WCIT, as the gathering is likely to have little direct impact. In that spirit, I want to consider some better and worse reasons to be concerned about the ITU, the WCIT meeting and the broader question of how internet governance is and is not changing.

Good reasons to be concerned about WCIT include:

WCIT is open to member governments and to hundreds of corporate and organization members, but their proposals and deliberations are secret. This makes it very difficult for civil society and the general public to be aware of what’s going on in the meeting and to influence the process. As with other international policymaking organizations that work in secret, like the WTO, there’s a good case to be made that these organizations need to be pushed to greater transparency before they are given public trust. WCITleaks, a project from Jerry Brito and Eli Dourado, both researchers at George Mason University, is a laudable effort to increase transparency by inviting WCIT participants to share documents in a public repository.

Censorious governments:
Many of the anti-WCIT arguments begin by asserting that China and Russia would like to take over internet governance and manage the global internet in ways that would restrict speech. Those are valid concerns, and both countries will likely negotiate for an internet governance structure that increases state control over net content. That nations attempt to control the internet isn’t new, nor is the argument that states should have more influence over net governance – as Milton Mueller points out in this helpful piece, states have been seeking increased roles in internet governance since 1996 and have been thwarted. Their response has been to restrict internet usage within their own countries.

Yes, it would be dreadful if China’s internet regulations applied to the whole world. But the current situation isn’t great either: countries create their own regulations to control the internet in part because they can’t get what they want in international fora. The battle over “internet freedom” has devolved into building expensive and unwieldy tools to invite a small set of Chinese and Iranian users to use the American and European internets, instead of the Chinese internet… a solution that won’t and can’t scale. The challenge of Chinese censorship is a helpful reminder that we don’t have binding international internet regulation, and probably never will. WCIT is worrisome because proposals to control the internet through widespread filtering and corporate regulation (China’s approach) or through legal and extralegal intimidation (Russia’s approach) may gain adherents and allies, and because nations that haven’t taken major steps to regulate the internet may look at these nations as examples to follow. But this is an argument for the US to engage in multinational processes like the ITU, to influence nations still on the fence, not to contest the legitimacy of the process.

The substance of proposals Even if we discount Jack Goldsmith’s suggestion that little is likely to come out of WCIT, it’s worth considering what potential impact proposals that have been put forth might have on Internet governance, if only to see what rival visions are competing with the status quo. Michael Geist argues that the most significant proposals on the table are not about who controls the internet, but who pays for it. He references a proposal from ETNO, an organization of European telecoms, that would start charging large content providers a carriage fee for delivering content – i.e., YouTube would pay a European network operator to reach European viewers. (Large internet content providers, predictably, hate this proposal. The one defender I’ve found of the proposal is Jean-Christope Nohias, who offers this stem-winder of a piece, accusing Google and other internet giants of hypocrisy in advocating for a system in which the poor pay money to access wealthy country’s networks.)

Dwayne Winseck sees concerns about the ETNO proposal, and other attempts to change internet billing, as overblown, but offers a long list of proposals to worry about, affecting the militarization of the internet, threats to privacy, anonymity and government control. In some cases, the proposals try to solve legitimate threats (like spam) and over-reach in terms of implementation, while at other times, they are simply trying to assert more government control, and bear opposition on principal. But we’d have a more intelligent debate about the future of the internet if we could address proposals individually, rather than attacking the process and the institution of the ITU as a whole.

Here are three reasons I’ve seen for opposing WCIT and the ITU that I think are unjustified, and may cause long-term harm to our conversations about internet governance.

Fear of multilateralism:
Steven Strauss argues we should oppose WCIT because it has UN sponsorship, and pulls out a laundry list of anti-UN complaints to justify his opposition. He offers faint praise to distinguish the ITU from the UN’s “standard meaningless international boondoggles”, suggesting that it has real power and might lead to substantial rule changes. But his argument centers on the strong representation of repressive governments on the UN’s Human Rights Council.

Yes, the presence of the UAE, Pakistan and Ethiopia on the UNHRC is an embarrassment. But the ITU and the UNHRC are two of dozens of institutions within the UN, and even most critics of the UN don’t want to see institutions like UNICEF, the World Food Program or the High Commission on Refugees disappear. Defenders of human rights on the internet often point to Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, a UN document, as a broadly adopted document that protects freedom of expression. Frank LaRue, UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, has been a powerful advocate for protecting online speech. It would be a shame to disrespect the work a figure like LaRue is trying to do by dismissing UN institutions as a whole.

The reason so many controversial issues are being brought up in multilateral venues like the ITU is that existing “multisectoral” internet institutions like ICANN, IANA, IETF and others have had a hard time ensuring broad international representation. Some of the frustration other countries feel about internet governance comes from the slow pace these institutions have taken towards supporting global concerns, like providing full support for non-English domain names and suffixes. My friend Rebecca MacKinnon has an excellent essay on this topic in Foreign Policy, pointing out that there’s very little developing world participation in these groups and that they are very slowly finding ways to change their culture to be more welcoming to participants who don’t have years of experience in the internet engineering community.

The solution to these problems is not a retreat from multilateralism – it’s to find ways that existing internet institutions can better represent voices and perspectives from around the world. The good news is that many of the folks within the IETF, ICANN and other institutions understand this challenge, even if some people attacking the ITU don’t.

Because governments should never regulate
FCC commissioner Robert McDowell attributes the success of the Internet to the ITU’s failure to oversee it in 1988: “This insulated the Internet from economic and technical regulation and quickly became the greatest deregulatory success story of all time.” Only a regulator for an agency as broken and corrupted by corporate influence as the FCC would dare to suggest that the role of a regulator is not to regulate.

How’s the FCC’s lassez faire policy working out in the US? We’ve got internet access that’s almost four times as expensive as it is in France and roughly one tenth the speed. Why? Largely because the FCC has failed to ensure that markets remain competitive, that open access policies allow small players to build competitive businesses, and that broadband services reach rural areas. Yes, it’s fantastic that the internet now reaches over 2 billion people. But we’ve got more than five billion more people who can’t access the internet, which is becoming increasingly important as a space for political discussions, a channel for delivery of government services and a pathway towards education. If regulators want to take seriously the challenge of ensuring universal access, as American regulators did with telephony and electricity in generations past, that’s something to be lauded, not dismissed.

Because the Internet is perfect.
This argument is rarely stated outright, though this piece by Mike Masnick in TechDirt does us the favor of making it explicit: “The internet works just fine. The only reason to ‘fix’ it, is to ‘break’ it in exactly the way the ITU wants, which is to favor a few players who have done nothing innovative to actually deserve it.”

I can think of several ways in which the internet doesn’t work just fine. It’s too expensive for too many people. In the developing world, it’s largely spreading through mobile operators whose pricing makes it unlikely that citizens of these nations will become content creators. The process of peering and interconnection creates a great competitive advantage for large network operators and leaves developing nations with very high charges for access. The current configuration of the Internet neither does a great job of protecting anonymity for those who want and need it, or authenticating identity when it’s critical. It’s surprisingly fragile to malicious attack like DDoS or accidental misconfiguration.

Do I think the ITU is likely to propose helpful solutions to these problems? No. Do I have good solutions to these complex problems? Not especially. But we have no hope of solving these problems if we declare that the Internet functions perfectly and needs no improvement.

There’s a tendency for people who love the Internet to become conservative, almost reactionary, about its governance. We’ve seen so many good intentioned attempts to improve the Internet fail and know of so many ill-intentioned plans to break the Internet that we may have raised the ad-hoc and improvisational methods of governance that have worked well into natural laws. Breaking the Internet – as some proposals in front of the ITU might well do – would be a bad thing. Concluding that we can never change the Internet for the better would be almost as bad.

The lobbyist and the quilt

I try to keep an eye on stories about PR and lobbying firms that work on behalf of dictatorial governments, like our oil-rich friends in Equatorial Guinea and the ever-complicated nation of Rwanda. (See this recent piece by Geoffrey York for more on Rwanda’s use of PR firms and lobbyists.) So this piece by Vijaya Ramachandran on the Center for Global Development blog caught my attention. It discusses the complexity of obtaining information on lobbyists working on behalf of foreign governments and points to a tool developed by the Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica, the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker.

Like many of the tools from the Sunlight Foundation, it’s both very exciting, and a couple of steps away from what I’d hope it could be. You can poke through and find the six different entities connected to Equatorial Guinea that have hired lobbyists… but it would take some serious legwork to compare how much money different nations are spending on lobbying, and who they’re trying to influence.

I got distracted looking at which countries had sought lobbyists in Washington. The answer: pretty much every nation you’ve ever heard of, and a few you’ve probably never heard of. Alongside established, UN-recognized nation-states, there are unrecognized states, like Abkhazia, the Sahwari Democratic Arab Republic, Puntland, Nagorno-Karabagh. Most of those are long-standing proto-states that I can place on a map. But I’d never heard of “The People’s Republic of Nagalim”.

Nagalim is an aspirational state for the Naga people, who are chiefly located in Nagaland, a state in north-eastern India, one of the seven states connected to the rest of the nation by a narrow land bridge (the Siliguri corridor) above Bangladesh. Some of these states are seeking partial or total independence from India, and there’s ongoing violence in the region connected with insurgencies. The organizers of see the Indian state of Nagaland as insufficient, and are seeking an independent Nagalim including parts of India and Burma.

It’s unclear what form of governance the Nagalim movement is seeking, beyond independence from India. The National Socialist Council of Nagalim – which maintains – wants to avoid misconceptions about their identity:

To clarify misconceptions: “national socialist” should not be confused with national socialism, or Nazism. “National” refers to the Naga nation. “Socialist” should not be confused with Communism, Eastern European or Chinese-style socialism. Although modern socialist principles have influenced the Nagas – as they have Western democracies (e.g. social security and medicare in the United States), traditional Naga society emphasized certain collective social principles – sharing, cooperation, lack of a class structure, etc. It is these ideals which the Nagas wish to retain and reinvigorate as they build a modern nation.

Some of the supporters of the Naga people’s aspirations would add an additional term to “national” and “socialist”: “Christian”. American Baptist missionaries were highly active in Nagaland in the late 19th and early 20th century. As a result of their efforts, the Naga people are roughly 90% Christian, and the vast majority (75% of the population of Nagaland State) are Baptist, making Nagaland the most Baptist state in the world, well ahead of strongholds like Alabama or Mississippi. Evangelist and former Watergate conspirator Chuck Colson wonders whether we should refer to Nagalim as “The Baptist Tibet”. The plight of the Naga is a popular topic for ASSIST news services, a service that strives to document persecution of Christians around the world.

The lobbyist representing The People’s Republic of Nagalim in Washington is Grace Collins, who is referred to on some Nagalim websites as Honorary Ambassador from Nagalim to the US. She doesn’t seem shy about using Baptist-influenced language to offer her blessings to Nagalim on the occasion of the nation’s 62nd independence day in 2008 (I’m assuming this is independence from the British…) A profile on explains that Ms. Collins began her cultural diplomacy for Nagalim in 1997, and was asked by the National Socialist Council of Nagalim to represent the nation, full-time, in 2003.

And according to her lobbying records, she’s been busy. Lobbying disclosures are usually pretty formulaic. Here’s an example, from McDermott, Will and Emery, lobbying on behalf of Equatorial Guinea: “to gather information in order to better advise the Foreign Principal on ongoing reforms. Registrant did not advance a specific policy position.” That same text is cut and pasted several times into the database – most lobbying disclosures are carefully constructed lawyerspeak, designed to ensure compliance.

Ambassador Collins seems less concerned about compliance, which makes her disclosures a far more interesting read:

On behalf of GPRN/NSCN I attended networking functions that exposed me to a high level of professional. I also hosted the President and his cabinet, talked with congressmens offices, met NGO leaders, and churches. I attended many inauguration parties and committee functions. I am constinuing to raise awareness for the Naga orphans through the Malcolm Project. I went Ramstein, Germany and met with some US army people in order to tie in the Wounded Warriors of our government with the Nagas army. Tha Nagas are creating a goodwill guilt as a way of showing support and honoring our troops as the Naga fought side by side in WI and WII against the Japanese occupation.

The “goodwill guilt” appears to be a quilt, made from remnants of Naga shawls: “Sent Nancy Shinder $100 plus shawl remnants to make a quilt from the Naga government to our US Army in Ramstein, Germany”. Cultural diplomacy also involves attempts to make a film:

I decided to break out of lobbying on the Hill and start branching out to Hollywood celebrities to help me. I have been searching for the right script writer and publicists to find a celebrity to champion the Naga cause. I have spoken at the International Society of the Arts Salon in Los Angeles and hosted a Nagalim Discovered Event in Hollywood. Because I was planning to go to Nagaland in February and initially the Indian government gave me a visa, I purchased four tickets and then the Indian government, with no explanation, revoked my visa. I decided to take the Film documentation and Continental Airlines to Small Claims court in Los Angeles for not reimbursing me the cost of my air tickets. The Judge Judy Show found my story and asked me to appear on the show. I did this in order to back door the Nagalim story to 10 million audience.

Collins did appear on the Judge Judy Show, according to a transcript from December 29, 2009, though it’s not clear whether the dispute over a canceled airline ticket forwarded the Naga people’s cause.

It’s easy to poke fun at Collins’s disclosures, particularly when they include her cat: “Clarence is my cat. We are putting him in the Wounded Warrior program.” But her accounts read like the work of someone trying very, very hard to figure out how best to gain recognition for a country no one has ever heard of.

It’s not an easy problem to figure out – state recognition, ultimately, is up to the decisions of other states. Sometimes it’s pretty easy for states to make up their mind – Sudan holds a referendum, the majority of people in Southern Sudan vote for independence, and other states recognize the new state. Sometimes, it’s much, much messier – Abkhazia is recognized by Russia and by other Russian-aligned self-declared states, including South Ossetia and Transnistria, but not by many other nations. Nagalim is evidently seeking recognition from the US as a main strategy for independence, both because religious ties make recognition more likely and because US recognition might well lead to pressure on India to offer a path to independence.

For those less inclined to improvise, there are firms that focus on helping unrecognized states get recognized. Independent Diplomat specializes in representing states like Somaliland and Western Sahara, as well as the now-recognized Southern Sudan. A profile in the New York Times offers some background on the founder of the organization, and the reasons nations might need to hire a non-profit diplomatic corps.

I have no doubt there are more important stories contained within the data contained within the Foreign Lobbyist Influence Tracker, and that most of them are less quirky and more depressing than this story. But sometimes the beauty of data is the snippet that catches your eye, the American Baptists seeking recognition for a state in South Asia through films, cats and quilts.

Book review: Improvisational economies and a globalized building

Robert Neuwirth is bringing new insights to familiar (for him, unfamiliar for most of us) territory in his book, “Stealth of Nations“. His previous work, “Shadow Cities” was a plea to take squatter cities and informal settlements seriously, rather than dismissing them as slums. (My review of Shadow Cities is here.) His mission in this new book is for us to reconsider the “informal economy”, which he rebrands “System D”.

“System D” is an abbreviation for “l’economie de la débrouillardise”, a tern coined in French-speaking Africa to refer to a system of “resourceful and ingenious” people who make their livings outside the formal, taxed and regulated economy. Neuwirth rejects the term “informal” because the coiner of that phrase, British anthropologist Keith Hart, included the criminal underground in his term, “the informal economy”. Neuwirth wants to celebrate the energy and ingenuity of people who make their living outside formal economic structure, but distinguish those he celebrates from those who are selling drugs or running prostitution rings. The heroes of System D may avoid taxes, smuggle goods or operate without permits, but Neuwirth sees them not as criminals but as hardworking people trying to make a living in systems that are broken and corrupt.

Neuwirth’s great strength is as a traveler and storyteller. Like “Shadow Cities”, “Stealth of Nation” is packed chock full with stories from the communities he’s visited in Brazil, Paraguay, Nigeria, China and the United States. We meet street merchants selling pens and cakes in São Paolo, a handbag manufacturer in Guangzhou and the baker of high-end (if unlicensed) olive oil cake in New York City. He takes a particularly deep dive in Lagos, a megalopolis he describes as “a System D city”, where virtually no infrastructures are provided by the state, and where basic services like power, drinking water and public transit are provided by private industry and workers’ collectives, who build systems that function with limited licensing, taxation or oversight.

This wealth of narratives helps make the case that System D is massive and pervasive. Working from numbers from the World Bank and using the insights of Austrian economist Friedrich Schneider, Neuwirth offers an estimate that System D is responsible for roughly $10 trillion in goods and services bought and sold annually. That makes “Bazaristan” the second largest economy in the world, behind the United States. He further argues that System D provides employment for a majority of adults in many developing nations. Whether or not we approve of the activities of System D, Neuwirth argues, we need to take it seriously because of the large number of individuals it impacts.

Neuwirth’s inquiry is extremely broad in scope, both in terms of the subjects he considers and the timescale he examines. Chapters look at phenomena like piracy and counterfeit goods, and smuggling across international borders, which Neuwirth examines primarily via Paraguay’s Ciudad del Este, a urban center that exists primarily so Brazilian citizens – and merchants – can avoid paying taxes. To provide a historical context for these sorts of trade, Neuwirth calls on classical economists, including Adam Smith, as well as histories from the 18th century to demonstrate the ongoing demonization and dismissal of System D merchants. For me, these excursions into the past are less enjoyable that the wealth of contemporary examples he provides, though they’re helpful in establishing that System D is a very old system as well as a new one.

The danger in both of Neuwirth’s books is that he loves his subject so much, he occasionally celebrates it uncritically. “Shadow Cities” occasionally read to me as a marketing brochure for Brazilian favelas, suggesting we abandon traditional urban planning and invite urban entrepreneurs to rewire the electrical grid to meet their needs. “Stealth of Nations” is more careful, and Neuwirth engages with the ways in which Lagos can be a nightmare for the people who live there, not just a creative laboratory for urban innovation. At the same time, he urges us to take seriously the miracle that Lagos works at all, a miracle that can be hard to see underneath the diesel smog, caught in an hours-long go-slow.

This appreciation for the complex systems that compose System D can push Neuwirth towards a sort of conservatism that’s familiar to readers of Jane Jacobs. Neuwirth’s Robert Moses is Lagos State governor Babatunde Fashola, who Neuwirth lambasts for clearing street merchants from busy intersections and setting up formalized markets in inconveniently located parts of the city. Neuwirth is right to point out that Fashola, and other urban planners, have a tendency to undervalue the contributions of street merchants, and tend to propose unworkable alternatives to current systems. But celebrating contemporary Lagos in the ways that Jacobs celebrated the Lower East Side seems to miss two critical points. First, to the extent that Lagos works right now, it just barely works – Neuwirth acknowledges as much when he points out that some of Lagos’s most impenetrable traffic jams are caused by the tendency of merchants to turn roadways into markets. Second, Lagos is growing at a ferocious pace, and Fashola seems to be taking seriously the challenge of allowing the city to continue functioning as a megalopolis, likely to soon be one of the world’s largest cities. One possible response to Neuwirth’s criticism is to point out that Fashola was just re-elected with 81% of the vote in a poll most observers saw as free and fair.

Neuwirth is a journalist and documentarian, not an economist or an urban planner, and it may be unreasonable to ask him to solve the thorny problem of bringing System D and the formal economy into closer partnership. Neuwirth examines Hernando de Soto’s work on formalizing System D through property rights. De Soto’s most helpful intervention is the observation that the poor have wealth – homes, businesses, assets – but few ways to access them. By creating a paper trail, establishing ownership over houses and other real estate, de Soto argues that the poor can access their wealth, borrowing against their homes and using the loans to start new businesses. Neuwirth looks at de Soto’s native Peru and concludes that formalization hasn’t done much to help System D. The problem is the banks, who are perfectly willing to accept deposits from System D entrepreneurs, but unwilling to lend to them. Neuwirth’s anger is rightly placed, and his solution – that communities and governments need to demand that banks serve the communities they are located in, not just their shareholders – is timely and correct, even if difficult to implement.

The solutions Neuwirth offers for strengthening and legitimating System D are, by his own admission, modest in scope. Merchants should work together to regulate their activities, settling disputes within mediation mechanisms. They should take responsibility for the physical spaces they inhabit and work to make them clean and safe. They should consider systems that review product safety and ensure the quality of goods sold. Neuwirth isn’t opposed to regulatory involvement in this space – he looks closely at the “pure water” industry in Nigeria, where entrepreneurs drill wells, pump water and purify it under government standards before selling it in single-use sachets to thirsty customers. The system could be a health nightmare if minimum health standards are not enforced. The Lagos government can’t provide clean drinking water to its citizens, so it has found a way to work with System D to ensure that people have water and the water doesn’t kill them – for System D advocates, there’s potential in that story and a model other governments might follow.

But the pure water story also reveals the apparent limits of System D. “Pure water” usually won’t kill you, but it’s an environmental nightmare, as millions of nylon bags clog the Lagos sewers. It’s a wonderful thing that Lagosians can drink safe water, but a system where thousands of school-age girls sell sachets of water because you can’t drink the water out of the pipes isn’t a system any sane planner would advocate for. System D can get Lagos’s citizens to work, but it’s never going to build affordable and environmentally sound public transportation. If merchants follow Neuwirth’s advice, they may collectively buy bigger diesel generators, but they’re unlikely to fix Nigeria’s laughably inadequate power grid.

The people Neuwirth celebrates are – rightly – frustrated by their governments. They avoid paying taxes both because those taxes can be arbitrary and unaffordable, and because they see very few government services in exchange bought with those revenues. But governments need revenues to build infrastructures. And, as economist Paul Collier argues, they need taxes – and need to put those taxes to use in productive ways – in order to have legitimacy. System D seems like a local maximum in an equation – when it works well, it’s amazing what entrepreneurial people can accomplish against impossible odds. But the solutions created are convoluted and incomplete, and it’s reasonable to worry that System D may prevent more formal systems from providing more complete solutions to societal problems.

I don’t actually disagree with Neuwirth on this point – I wrote an essay some years back about incremental infrastructure, an idea I’d had from studying African mobile phone markets, that suggested that systems like power grids and roadways might be built by the cooperation of entrepreneurs when governments failed. My proposal suffers from the same weaknesses I’m criticizing Neuwirth for: it’s hard to see how a collective of merchants builds a railroad, and sometimes a railroad is what’s really needed for economic development.

But that’s an awfully big problem to demand that Neuwirth tackle – if you want to understand precisely how complicated that problem is, try this thought piece from Collier, proposing a possible solution to railroad construction in sub-Saharan Africa. Neuwirth’s job isn’t to solve the problems of System D. What he does – compellingly, readably, engagingly, and frequently, brilliantly – is give the reader a picture of how the world’s economies actually work, and a convincing argument that we need to respect and understand these economic systems. It’s a good read and an important book.

When you pick up Neuwirth’s new book, also consider grabbing a copy of Gordon Mathews’s “Ghetto at the Center of the World”, a remarkable ethnography of a single building in Hong Kong, Chungking Mansions. Chungking Mansions is a nondescript and somewhat run-down tower block in one of the more crowded corners of Kowloon. Inside is a remarkable market, where Chinese, Pakistani and sub-Saharan African merchants interact with one another in a microcosm of global trade. Mathews refers to this economic phenomenon as “low-end globalization”, and his book unpacks the history, mechanics, personalities and motivations in a way that is absolutely fascinating.

Chungking Mansions exists because of a peculiarity of Hong Kong’s visa policies. Tourist visas to Hong Kong are easily obtained by citizens of many nations – residents of countries like Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya often have difficulty obtaining visas to Europe, the US or China, but are able to travel to Hong Kong for anywhere between 7 and 90 days, depending on the discretion of the immigration officer. As China became a major manufacturing power, Chungking Mansions became a critical interface between Chinese factories and developing world markets. The upper floors of the building feature low-cost guesthouses that cater primarily to traveling merchants, and restaurants that offer home cooking for the African and South Asian migrants who work out of the building.

On the ground floor, dozens of stalls feature Pakistani merchants selling Chinese-made mobile phones to African middlemen. Mathews documents the trade in intimate detail, explaining the ownership of the individual stalls (they are generally rented from Chinese owners who are rarely present in the building, but have a powerful owner’s association that governs the working on the market), the provenance of the phones sold (including the difference between original phones, 14-day phones – original phones returned to the vendor by dissatisfied customers, good fakes and bad fakes) and the economics of importing phones into sub-Saharan Africa. Mathews posits (without much data to back this claim) that up to half the mobile phones in Africa come through Chungking Market and enter African markets through the luggage of entrepreneurs.

I found Mathews’s account so compelling that Chungking Mansions was my first stop when visiting Hong Kong a few weeks ago. Based on his explanation of Chinese perceptions of the building (as a dangerous place filled with drug addicts and criminals), I expected a much shadier place than I actually found. Chungking Mansions is immediately familiar to anyone who’s bought electronics in the developing world – it’s cleaner and better organized than markets I’ve been to in Nairobi and New Delhi, but in some ways, functionally the same place. Walking through the stalls, I experienced a tesseract, a folding of space that let me move between Hong Kong, Pakistan and West Africa over the course of a few meters. I dropped into one of the few non-phone stores, a clothing store featuring street fashions, including a wide array of Yankee caps. I gave the merchant grief about not stocking Red Sox hats, quickly figured out that he was Ghanaian, greeted him in Twi, and was warmly embraced and invited upstairs for fufu and groundnut soup. It wasn’t at all hard to figure out why Mathews had fallen in love with the place – if you’re interested in how globalization is transforming economies, Chungking Mansions really is one of the centers of the world.

I had the chance to meet Mathews when we lectured together at the University of Hong Kong a few days later. He’s as wonderfully crazy as you’d imagine him to be, and told me that he’d written the book in a bar across the street from his research site. “The key is that the bar has roasted peanuts in the shell. I’d shell a peanut and think, then write a sentence, then sip my beer. That writing pace is just perfect as long as you remain under three beers.” Rarely have I learned so much from a single ethnographer – how to smuggle phones into Ghana in my luggage, the best strategies for overstaying my Hong Kong tourist visa, how to befriend Nepali heroin addicts, and how to pace my writing.

I’ve been pushing Mathews’s book on the ethnographers I know because it’s an amazing example of the power of the deep dive. It’s possible that no one on the planet understands Chungking Mansions as thoroughly as Mathews does based on his decade of research. But his insights are profoundly helpful not just for understanding this one wonderful and strange building, but for understanding globalization as it is actually practiced. Where Neuwirth takes a broad view, considering economies on four different continents, Mathews rarely leaves the confines of a single building and still manages to tell a story that’s global in scope and impact.

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