My Own Personal Ramadan

11 Aug

After all this time I’ve spent writing more academically-toned articles for other things, I figured that my blog was long overdue for a post that was about cultural musings and experiences… the main reason I became a blogger and started writing here in the first place.

 

So, with out further ado, here is an original post *gasp!* about my second Ramadan experience.

 

8/8/2013

As I sit here, waiting for the sun to set on the day Senegal has decided to end Ramadan, I’m filled with a lot of things: emotions… food… I decided this morning, after most of a month of solidarity, I was going to politely bow out of what has inadvertently become one of the longest months of my life, by agreeing with the places of the world that did in fact see the moon last night.

The final count rests at 24 days of fasting: 3 days I missed were legitimate travel exceptions, and a fourth was a self-declared mental/physical health day that rested between two of the travel days. I must also add the caveat that I did drink a small amount of water during the daylight hours, knowing that as much as I wanted to show solidarity, I needed to respect my work commitments and therefore needed to keep as clear a head as possible.

I’m going to take a brief pause in the story here to say a few things about the Muslim holy month, as I realize that some people reading this may not be very familiar with it. Ramadan is a month in the lunar calendar that Muslims believe to be holy. To show their devotion to god, they fast: no water or food from the time the sun rises until it sets. Because it is a lunar month it is shorter than most Gregorian months, and therefore shifts forward in the calendar each year, meaning it changes seasons as the years pass. Just like in every other religion everywhere in the world, there are all shapes and sizes of Muslims: those who fast devoutly, those who get exemption for health reasons, those who try when it’s convenient and those who couldn’t care less. It’s kind of like lent or no meat on Fridays for Catholics: some follow the book to a T, others try but have moments of weakness, and some just… couldn’t care less.

I can’t stress how little difference there is between the vast majority of Muslims and Christians… but I guess by this point in this blog you understand that point or refuse to, so let’s get back to the story.

Months ago, I had initially decided that I was going to fast just on Fridays as a show of solidarity with my Senegalese host family and work partners. For some reason, however, when the time came for me to start fasting, I just never stopped. I figured that this was probably going to be the one and only time I ever fasted for the holy month, so I might as well go big or go home. The first few days I fasted my host family seemed genuinely shocked that I was doing it, and that mix of disbelief and respect cemented my decision: fasting for the entire month it was.

I worked out my system to fast but still get work done. Skip the pre-dawn meal, sleep in late, get up, hydrate, and power through the 8-10 hours that were still left in the day. The first few days were tough, but after a while my body went into starvation mode and the hunger stayed away so long as I was able to avoid photos of food.

I considered keeping a daily log for Ramadan, but it never happened. To be honest, a few days in, the days just all started to blend into one, and I felt as though I was walking through life in a haze. I never really felt energetic, because by the time break-fast hit, my body had already forgotten that it craved food. My cycle had been so thrown off that, although I was able to complete the fast, I just was never quite able to recover from the day before… and my fatigue began to compound. I felt mentally disconnected and a little irritable, but I figured that as long as I had company, I could just put my head down and get through the month.

Thankfully a short trip away from site provided a momentary reprieve in week three, and my body sprung back. I came back and powered through the final week and a half, and here I sit. Even though I stopped the fast today, my body looks as though it’s going to need to take the weekend to recalibrate. I’m glad that I made the attempt and I’m happy I succeeded, but also convinced I never want to do this again.

I’m not Muslim. My decision to fast (like the decision of most of my contemporaries) was not for religious reasons but instead came out of a respect and a desire to stand with the Senegalese community. It provided me with a way to connect with them that I never thought possible. For the first time since I got here, I felt like I was on the exact same page as the people I sat around. Ramadan was rough, I just wanted to be left alone, and put off any non-necessary work until I could have the clarity and energy necessary to tackle it. Thankfully, most of the people around me were on the same page. When people would say “let’s have that meeting after Ramadan ends,” I was all too happy to comply.

This isn’t to say that I wasn’t productive… just that when you only have a limited amount of effective work hours in a day, you learn real quick how to prioritize your time. Wake up, work until your nerves are frayed, nap, get up and eat until you sleep, repeat.  With my normal energy levels shot, I had to be much more careful about how I conducted myself. That bike ride across town to pick up groceries for later may mean that I would run out of steam too early in the day to write that report I needed to finish.

I think a lot of us take food for granted. It’s something we merely have to remember to eat, and we’re burdened with having to choose to eat healthy and nutritious food. I heard someone mention randomly one day that fasting was a means of putting yourself in the shoes of a hungry person. It did. I was irritable, found myself unable to perform at 100% physically or intellectually, and when I finally did get to eat I couldn’t really enjoy it much, knowing that the day ahead just held more of the same suffering.

Although my hunger was a personal accomplishment, for so many people in this world it’s a daily struggle. That pain and stress I felt was the result of a personal decision (not even based on my religion), but that same pain and stress is something that so many people in this world live with day to day because they can’t escape it.

Although I can safely say I’ll probably never fast for the whole month of Ramadan again, it provided me with an experience that I won’t soon forget. In hunger there is irritability, pain, suffering, but also camaraderie, vision and understanding. Through those mutual difficulties you are able to connect, and when you’re doing so purposefully it allows you to see just how lucky you truly are to have the things that you have, especially the things you most take for granted.

Muslim, Christian, Agnostic or Atheist: regardless of if you normally fast, take a day and do so. And when you’re done at the end of the day, and stuffing your face with everything you can grab, take a second and reflect upon how lucky you are, regardless of whether or not you want to thank god for it. In the end I’ve realized that as a non-Muslim, my not eating was never about anything inherently religious, but instead only about understanding… something we could all use a little bit more of.

Advertisements

Monetary Manipulation: The History of the CFA Zone

6 Aug

Another post so soon? Well, work and Ramadan have been preventing me from sitting down and writing any original material for this blog the past month, even though I know it is long overdue. But never fear, I will write a nice post about my first full-on experience with the Muslim Holy Month once I am allowed to start eating when the sun is up.

But for now, let me share with you a piece I wrote for the CED newest edition of the CED Newsletter, the newly rechristened Le Mandat. It fits thematically with the Euro piece, but focuses instead on more specific West African issues. While you can read the whole article here on my blog, I’m also going to use this time to shamelessly plug our newsletter, because I and the people I work with are quite pleased with the new layout and style of the Newsletter. It’s one of the most well layed-out newsletters I’ve seen all thanks to our Layout Editor, so once you’re done giving this article a read, make sure to give the newsletter a glance. Even if you don’t actually read anything and just look at the pictures, you’ll be glad you did.

So, without further ado, here is my most recent contribution.

 

Monetary Manipulation: The History of the CFA Zone

In a world of “soft power,” one tends to focus on the subtle subterfuge that countries engage in to get ahead in this rapidly globalizing world. The anachronous days of colonialism and the client states are giving way to an increasingly multi-polar world where influence takes a larger level of finesse. Gone are the days of western countries using paternalistic and heavy-handed economic controls over their less powerful neighbors.

Or are they?

A relatively recent op-ed in Al-Jazeera by Julie Owono stated that “no decision can be taken today by central banks of the CFA franc zone without the endorsement of French representatives serving on their boards of directors.” In addition to this, half of all currency reserves held by the countries of the CFA zone are managed by the French treasury in order to ensure euro-FCFA convertibility.

These antiquated monetary controls are troubling for a number of reasons, and with the current state of the European economy they are only becoming more worrisome. France, and by association Europe, still has its hand quite firmly wedged in the West and Central African cookie jar, a hand that could cause a whole world of problems for the recovering economies of the CFA zone.

But, before examining the current situation, we need a little background on how Europe tied most of West and Central Africa to its back long before it decided to jump off the economic cliff.

The Formation of the CFA Zone

The “CFA zone” consists of fourteen countries and two currencies: the Central African CFA franc and the West African CFA franc. Although in theory two separate currencies, they are pegged to the euro at an identical fixed rate, meaning that despite two different central banks and printing presses, the exchange rates of the 14 countries are identical.

While the CFA Franc is a relatively recent invention, the story of African currencies being pegged to French currency is nothing new. Long before the CFA franc existed as a concept, all French colonies were utilizing currency that traded at 1 to 1 with the French franc. This continued until the end of WWII, when a broken and beaten France established a series of monetary reforms that included the creation of a separate currency zone (still fixed to the French franc) for its African colonies: the “CFA zone.”

Not long after the CFA zone was formed, two CFA zone central banks were established: the banque centrale des États de l’Afrique de l’Ouest (BCEAO) which still exists today, and banque centrale des États de l’Afrique équatoriale et du Cameroun (BCEAEC) which would later become the banque des États de l’Afrique Central (BEAC). All the former French colonial holdings in Africa became part of one of these two monetary unions, save for a few exceptions. Guinea and Mali, as well as all of France’s holdings in North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria) struck out on their own, while Madagascar was given its own currency, the Malagasy franc, which it would eventually drop in 1973. Mali would later rejoin the monetary union in 1984, followed by Equatorial Guinea joining the BEAC in 1985. Equatorial Guinea, a former Spanish colony, is one of only two members of the CFA zone that aren’t former French colonies. The other non-Francophone member, former Portuguese colony Guinea-Bissau, joined the BCEAO in 1997. This final admission was more charity than sound economic judgment: the move was made to help stabilize Guinea-Bissau’s floundering economy and continued monetary instability. Two years later, in 1999, France adopted the euro and the CFA became pegged to France’s new currency, with no real change occurring to the CFA zone directly.

(Ironic side note: the CFA used to stand for “Colonies françaises d’Afrique,” then “Communauté française d’Afrique” and now finally “Communauté financière africaine”… they didn’t even have to change the acronym when they gained independence).

Post-Independence Dependence

When it came to economics, however, “independence” was not quite “independent.” The main managing force behind both the BCEAO and the BEAC remained in France until the late 1970s and, according to the Bank of France’s very own communications department, seems to be the moment that “a large number of managerial posts in each bank’s head office and national branches were assigned to African executives.” So, just in case there’s any confusion, the central banks that governed the monetary controls of most of West and Central Africa weren’t even based in, let alone managed by, Africa until nearly 1980.

Despite this paternalistic monetary structure, the argument has always run that France’s economic strength and wise guidance prop up investor confidence in a region that may otherwise have more difficulty attracting investment. It’s kind of like parents co-signing your student loans. Their financial strength allows you to operate in the financial market beyond where you would be able to do so without their support. The only difference is, in the case of the CFA zone, your parents also link your checking account with theirs.

The economies of West Africa struggled significantly after independence, and the fixed exchange rate to the French franc (pre-euro) started to cause problems. The overvalued currency was making it difficult for the CFA zone countries to compete in a rapidly globalizing economy, and the situation was only getting worse. In order to relieve the pressure, the CFA franc was devalued by 50% in early 1994.

Imagine that you are living your life in the quaint countryside of Senegal. Your government has been having some economic issues, and they’ve just announced that they will be devaluing your country’s currency by 50%. Overnight, every 100 FCFA coin in your purse is worth only 50 FCFA. It’s still 100 FCFA; it’s just that all the products you’re used to buying that are of foreign origin have suddenly doubled in price.

In practice, the 50% price devaluation didn’t decimate local markets entirely. A medical study from the World Health Organization published in 1996 showed that while the prices for imported porridge mix, powdered milk and oil in the Dakar region of Senegal did double in the year following the devaluation, the prices of other staple goods (peanuts and imported rice) rose in price only marginally (one exception being millet, which rose significantly in price, but not quite double). That said, the impact on local consumers of the 1994 devaluation of the FCFA is not to be taken lightly.

New Millennium, Same Old Problems

A similar devaluation could prove to be significantly more disastrous if it were to happen today, in a CFA zone that is much more reliant on inexpensive imports from China and other countries than it was in 1994. But why, would you ask, is currency devaluation a concern now, in a CFA zone that is experiencing relatively robust growth in relation to its 1994 self? Well, the answer to that lies back on the other side of the Mediterranean.

A rumor began to spread in 2011 that the CFA franc would be devalued by 35% in 2012. Senegalese economist Sanou Mbaye commented in Al-Jazeera later in 2011 that “the CFA franc does not profit African economies… To devalue the CFA Franc would allow France to resist the eurozone crisis.” By manipulating a currency that trades freely with the euro but has no direct effects on the nations of the eurozone, France would essentially be able to cushion the blow of the eurozone crisis by politically strong arming the CFA zone to devalue, something completely within its means due to the control it exercises over the BCEAO and BEAC.

How would devaluation be beneficial to France? The CFA zone is the source of many of the raw materials that are exported to France each year. A devaluation of 35% would provide France with a de facto 35% discount on all the raw materials it imports from the CFA zone. Nuclear power accounts for the lion’s share of domestic French electricity generation, and Niger is one of its main uranium trading partners. Based upon current data on French uranium imports from Niger and the current price data on uranium, France could stand to save over 67 million euro on uranium imports this year alone if a devaluation of that magnitude were to occur today.

And that’s just the start of it. In 2012 the European Union as a whole imported the equivalent of almost 4 billion US dollars of crude oil from Cameroon, Gabon and the Republic of the Congo alone (all members of the BEAC). Leaving out the other substantial CFA zone commodity markets (the gold in Mali, Senegal and Burkina Faso for example), the European Union could stand to save well over 1.5 billion US dollars a year with a CFA devaluation of 35%, transferring a significant portion of the current eurozone trade imbalances onto the backs of the slowly recovering economies of West and Central Africa.

Although the 2011 rumors came and went without devaluation, the scare revealed a frightening truth about the CFA zone. Even today, France (and by association the rest of the eurozone) still has enough overt control over the monetary unions of West and Central Africa that it could manipulate their economies to help cushion the blow of a bunch of Europeans spending beyond their means.

History casts a long shadow, but monetary policy is best conceived in the light.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

Here is the pdf of the Newsletter this article was featured in:

Le Mandat Summer 2013

The Rumblings of a Return: A Post On The Euro Crisis?

18 Jul

I know I’ve been super bad about keeping up with this blog in the past few months due to a combination of work and lack of inspiration. I shall return soon, but in the mean time I figure that I’ll at least keep this blog updated by posting a piece that I wrote for our Community Economic Development Newsletter here at PC Senegal. It’s on the Euro Crisis… not really Africa driven, but read and enjoy… this is only a prelude to a new post that will be coming out in about a week or two.

I apologize as the content is a touch dated, but it is still quite relevant to the goings on.

Although most Peace Corps volunteers enjoy struggling to keep up with the news, nothing can put you to sleep in your hut faster than the latest 15-page ”Analysis of the Euro Crisis” featured in the Economist. Let’s be honest, without a degree in economics or an economics term book at your bedside, those articles aren’t even decipherable half the time. But have no fear for this is a fun and easy read on how this whole crisis got started and where it’s been going for the past 3 and a half years…

The “European Project” is not a terribly new phenomenon. Starting with the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, Europe began to shed its internal antagonisms in favor of greater political and economic unity. Political unity took another giant step forward in 1993 with the formation of the European Union (EU). Since then, despite some internal squabbling, the EU has given Europe what its architects had always hoped for: a louder voice in world affairs. As the EU, the countries of Europe have more political influence collectively than they do individually. Economic unity, those same architects reasoned, would give the EU increased economic influence. But whereas politicians will agree to anything, economists generally won’t. Speaking with a unified political voice may have appealed to the politicians, but managing their respective economies from a joint-account had little appeal to central bankers.

Six years of arm-twisting ensued as the EU pursued its dream of a single currency. By 1999, the rules had been established, but unity was lost in the bargain. Not every country that was qualified to join wanted to join, and some of the countries that were most eager to join weren’t qualified. Nonetheless, 11 members of the EU adopted a single currency in 1999 to become what is now known as the Eurozone. Those countries that hadn’t met the requirements for membership were offered the opportunity to join at a later date, provided they got their fiscal houses in order.

The euro as a currency quickly became a global competitor in currency markets alongside the dollar and the pound sterling. Things were going swimmingly. Greece qualified in 2000 and was admitted in 2001. By 2012, another five countries had joined (Slovenia in 2007, Cyprus and Malta in 2008, Slovakia in 2009 and Estonia in 2011), giving the Eurozone its 17 current members. These new members were mostly Eastern European countries—themselves new members of the EU—and an EU old-timer who’d failed the fiscal tests the first time around. But not all the lifeguards had been in favor of allowing more people into the pool. Some critics suggested the expansion had less to do with economics than with politics. Was Cyprus admitted to the Eurozone because of financial firepower, or because it was a convenient way for Islamophobic politicians in places like Greece and Germany (with a large Turkish immigrant population) to thumb their noses at Turkey? (Turkey has wanted to join the EU for years, but has been continually rebuffed.) Were the countries admitted in proper fiscal order, or was the EU just trying to keep them from looking east for economic assistance?

The cynics of expansion didn’t have long to wait for their “I-told you-so” moment. The financial crisis and ensuing global recession that hit in late 2007 soon exposed the divisions hiding under the surface of the EU. Since then, inter-European relations have started to resemble an episode of “Arrested Development.”

(Cue intro music)

This is the story of a wealthy continent that lost everything, and the few people who are trying to keep it all together.

(End intro music)

At the end of 2009, Greece (better known by his nickname George Sr.) revealed that he was in much more personal debt than he had led people to believe. After an assessment, the credit agencies decided to downgrade his bond rating. In danger of losing everything, the family agreed to help him if he’d try to tighten his fiscal belt. Unfortunately, he’d been living far beyond his means for far too long, and his attempts to roll it back fell almost comically short. By April 2010, Standard & Poor’s (S&P) decided to downgrade his bond rating to “junk” status.

Fitch, S&P and Moody’s are the three big global credit-rating agencies. When assessing the credit rating of government bonds, these companies look at a country’s GDP, current and capital account balances, and debt levels as a percentage of GDP. Based upon these and other things, they rate the bonds on a scale. The highest rated bonds generally have lower interest rates, due to the fact that the bonds will more than likely be paid back in full when they mature, so the bondholder is assuming less risk. The worse the bond rating, the higher the interest rates and the more squeamish banks get when you walk through the door. A downgrade usually means that a country is far down the hole, but also means that the country will now have to struggle even harder than it would have before the downgrade to get out of that hole. By downgrading George Sr., the rating agencies were saying there was a very high likelihood that people holding George Sr.’s bonds would never actually be paid back. In essence, a country’s bond rating is just like a personal credit score – and in the case of George Sr., it’s going to be real hard to find a preferential rate (or for that matter even a lender) for the loan he’s going to need to avoid filing bankruptcy.

Although the family continued to try and pull him out of insolvency, George Sr.’s efforts to reform continued to fall short, and the family began to worry that he might have to leave in order to save the rest of the family from utter collapse.

As these fears began to surface, other members of the family started to reveal that they, too, had been risking and spending far beyond their means. Ireland (also known as George Michael) was the next to get a bond rating downgrade in July 2010. The family was forced to bail him out, finally agreeing on terms in November. Being one of the more responsible family members, George Michael was able to shore himself back up in the coming years with prudent belt tightening measures.

But, as is the way with such comic disasters, the downward spiral had only just begun. By the latter half of 2011, Italy (spelled Gob, pronounced “Jobe”), who had been acting pretty quiet up until this point, started to struggle to hide the fact that he’s been having a few too many bunga-bunga parties. He was actually in just as much, if not more, danger than some of his fellow family members due to years of gross fiscal mismanagement (never mind the gallivanting with underage girls). Finally, after years of debacles, Gob agreed to seek counsel and gave the reigns over to a prudent lawyer friend (let’s call him Mario Monti).

2011 came and went, but the euro debacle just kept on going. Greece was still languishing under its belt tightening, but not much closer to full recovery (and still in danger of needing to exit), and the whole family was starting to resemble a financial sick ward. The euro was still in big trouble, and so far the solutions they had tried to implement were ineffectual. By 2012 the family—led by the responsible and financially prudent Germany (Michael) and helped by the semi-responsible France (Buster)—looked to be slowly falling apart. During the first half of 2012 alone, new bailouts were given to the still unstable George Sr. and George Michael. To make matters even worse, Spain (Tobias) began showing warning signs of failing, and Portugal (Lindsey) asked for a bailout herself before being downgraded to “junk” bond status.

As a television episode this might be amusing. As one of the two largest economic zones in the world (discounting the EU itself as a zone), it’s frightening. Unfortunately, this is a story that has been repeated across the developed world for decades now: increasingly unsustainable fiscal budgets financed by larger and larger borrowing. Now, thechickens are finally coming home to roost for the most malfeasant individuals amongst the transgressors. This strikes right at the heart of public sector management, exposing the fatal flaws in the way that much of the Western world has been running its books.

Finally, in May of 2012, Germany and France started talking seriously about other possible solutions. France thought that, in the spirit of family and the danger that they were all in, they should collectivize their debts in the form of “Eurobonds.” France argued that part of the problem some members of the family were facing was high borrowing rates due to their poor bond/credit ratings, and that if debt was collectivized it could be paid back at a more preferential rate. Although the French raised good points, Germany rebuffed them, stating that the euro family has taken advantage and spent beyond their means for far too long, and in the end it boils down to a collective group of personal problems. Germany believed (with a degree of good reason) that if it acquiesced, it would lose out in the long run by fostering “moral hazard,” and none of the other members of the family would learn their lesson. Germany would end up taking the brunt of the blow from debt collectivization, and the irresponsible fiscal policies of states like Greece and Italy would continue unchanged, serving only to cause another meltdown further down the road. Without Germany’s consent, the deal fell through, and the escapades continued. In the following months, further hilarity ensued. Cyprus started to show signs of collapse, partially due to all the money it had given Greece, and France pissed off Gerard Depardieu by leveling higher taxes on him. (Buster and a Rasputin-costumed Depardieu have a bare-knuckled boxing match after Buster calls him “pathetic.” The fight is eventually ended by a jet-pack-wielding Putin, who rescues a badly beaten Depardieu who then escapes to Russia.) Finally, in July 2012, sick of the escapades and the constant “will he, won’t he” of a potential Greek exit (Grexit), the European Central Bank President finally stepped in and declared that the euro was “irreversible,” and that no members will be exiting. Not even a month later, Greece asked for yet more time to tighten its belt while still receiving its bailouts, but was turned down by both France and Germany. Ironically enough, as the family infighting and meltdown deepened, the extended family (the EU) was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in October 2012 for all of the wonderful philanthropic work they have done over the years…

As the strikes that have rocked Europe show, change will not come easily, and may hurt those who least deserve it, but regardless of what happens change must come. “Moral hazard” or not, this is not a television show, and these escapades won’t magically resolve themselves at the end of the half hour.

The discord of Europe may be fun to watch, but the implications for the global economy and our way of life as we know it are staggering. The crisis is three-and-a-half-years in, has already permanently altered the short-term outlook on the European economy, and has as of yet been unable to stop the dominoes from falling. Internal squabbles and local politics continue to trounce sound economic judgment, and those tasked with saving the world economy are often too busy pandering to local audiences to avoid losing an impending election. Sound judgment and solid footing still look a long way off for the Eurozone.

Now that we’re sufficiently worried, let’s turn the show back on.

2013 has arrived and Cyprus (Lucile) is on the brink of collapse. Not only has she been spending beyond her means, but she’s also been saving and storing up significant amounts of money that the Russian vodka oligarchs have been giving her for safekeeping (about eight times the size of her own GDP). Foolishly, she gave a large portion of that to George Sr., thinking he was going to invest it wisely for her. She had turned to the Russians for help back in 2012 but good sense finally got the better of her by the end of the year and she turned to the euro family and the IMF (Lucile #2). (Now look up pictures of Christine Lagarde, the actual IMF head. Striking.) After a bit of arguing, they finally agree on a deal in March and yet another member of the family narrowly averts collapse. Looks like the euro debacle will live on to humor and scare us another day.

Next time on the euro crisis:

Gob has thrown out Mario Monti in favor of a comedian (guest star Larry David) and himself, feeling that they can better manage the finances. Meanwhile, Tobias is mired in scandal and the whole family is yet again looking pretty tense… Let’s just hope the Eurozone members still have enough of an economy left that they can watch the upcoming season of “Arrested Development” on Netflix.