Law firms won’t cure the woes of the Horn of Africa, but their presence suggests something is going right.

One of the odder jobs I’ve taken on in my career was helping equip a mortuary. It was at a relief camp in Ethiopia, at the height of the 1980s famine. The mortuary was a basic affair, just a hut where unclaimed corpses could be brought and families conducting funerals could collect a couple of metres of rough cotton cloth for a shroud. 

Shrouds were important because the refugees were burying their dead in scarce UN-issued woollen blankets, badly needed for the living in the bitter highland nights. I volunteered to procure some of the right material in Addis Ababa. Our group of volunteers had plenty of cash, donated by staff at an international research institute. The problem was that Ethiopia at the time was a command economy, run on Leninist principles. Wholesale goods could not simply be bought. Procuring half a dozen bolts of local cloth involved hours of shuttling between ministries and a government warehouse, rubber-stamping documents and painstakingly measuring stock. 

Everyone in the chain was terrified of breaking some rule. At the moment of triumph, just as we were loading half a dozen bolts onto our pickup, a rifle-toting soldier insisted on a final check. One bolt was a metre too long; scissors were produced and, with admonishment all round, the offending cloth was returned to stock. 

I remember the incident whenever I see news about the Horn of Africa’s painfully slow progress towards prosperity, as I did last week when I reported the welcome news that pan African firm Centurion Law Group is setting up shop in South Sudan.

Especially as parts of Africa's newest independent state, along with neighbouring Somalia, are suffering a similar scale of famine to the one I reported in the 1980s.

In such circumstances, why is a law firm welcome news? In my Ethiopia days, It would have been the last thing on my mind. I'd have called instead for the state to take control of food supplies.  Actually, this was roughly what the Ethiopian government was attempting at the time. Even draught oxen, the only form of tradeable wealth owned by many peasant families, were nationalised and any suspected surplus harvests seized.

The result was famine.

Of course drought and war played their part, but ‘natural’ disasters disproportionately killed poor people. Under a regime where private property is confiscated by decree, people stay poor, and die. 

The way out? Last month we celebrated the bicentenary of David Ricardo’s publication of Political Economy, in which he set out the principle of comparative advantage. (Which, famously and counter-intuitively, explains why trade rather than self-sufficiency generates wealth.) Most of the world, with the admittedly alarming exceptions of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and the Green Party of England and Wales, seems to have got the idea. 

Africa remains the outlier; you can blame colonialism or the EU’s common agricultural policy according to taste. A recent paper from  free-market thinktank Competitive Enterprise Institute sets out some ideas. Especially around property rights and the closely entwined rule of law. To paraphrase Friedrich Hayek, the rule of law is always a happier fit with a capitalist economy than a socialist one. Socialists write great constitutions, but their laws are always contingent on the over-riding drive for ‘social justice’. Capitalists need the law to make their systems work.

I know which one is the safer bet. 

A promising, though not perfect, indicator that law exists in a territory is the willingness of a hard-headed foreign legal business to set up shop. There is no mileage in operating in a jurisdication where confiscation is routine. Even of the right to a decent burial. 

What of my shrouds, anyway? In truth, I didn’t stick around long enough to find out and suspect much of the stock was pilfered. But one memory of the day we delivered them to the camp at Debre Berhan, along with half a tonne of sugar and salt rehydration treatment, still lives with me. With a couple of Nikons slung around my neck, I wandered alone among the refugees, the only white face amid thousands, in search of photogenic scenes. One such was a family which had received a hand-out of grain; children sitting around a fire watching a woman cooking a pathetic flat loaf of bread.

As I arrogantly composed my photo, the oldest man in the group leaped up, grabbed my arm, and with exaggerated gestures of eating, invited me to sit and join the meal. 

I don’t know what code of behaviour drove that display of hospitality and pride, but I’m pretty sure it wasn’t set out by the state.