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More False Dawns in Africa?

Everybody wants to read good news from Africa, and Via Meadia is no exception. Any signs that democracy and prosperity are making progress are welcome. To find some optimism for Africa amid the many ominous signs, a recent article in The Atlantic is a good start, and The Economist a good next stop.

As both point out, growth on the continent, led by savvy technocrats and market-oriented economies, has been significant in many countries—they point to Angola, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Chad, Mozambique, Rwanda and others as fast-growing success stories. Countries are using their rich natural resources well and exporting vast amounts of copper, gold, platinum, fruit, coffee and of course oil. Even ones without much of these resources are finding success by cashing in on growth in technology and communications.

The development in many countries is certainly something to be optimistic about, but it’s worth remembering sometimes that press coverage on Africa tends toward the over-optimistic.  Those of us who’ve been around for several decades can remember wave after wave of gee-whiz reporting about reforms, elections and investments in Africa that somehow never quite pan out. There is a standard journalistic formula at work here: new hope for Africa stories regularly appear. The list of hopeful countries changes over time, but these hopeful signs never quite turn into the next South Korea or Chile.

Africa’s problems are real and deep, and happy clappy reporting that conceals the stubborn nature of the continent’s problems is ultimately both patronizing and unhelpful. Just over a month ago Via Meadia revisited global trends to monitor in the coming decade, one being the problem of uneven development, and more specifically the dysfunctional growth and governance across Africa. To provide some examples of that dysfunction, one need only revisit recent blog posts outlining rampant South African corruption, the rough road ahead for both Sudans and the difficulty of bringing aid to the neediest.  The failed states Somalia and the “Democratic” Republic of the Congo, Senegal’s elections that suggest democracy there is not the pride of Africa as it was once thought to be, and of course Nigeria’s many ethnic, regional, economic, political and Boko Haram-related problems all suggest that Africa is not going to turn into Singapore or Taiwan anytime soon.

Even Africa’s brightest success stories — and countries like South Africa and Rwanda come to mind — remain complicated places. Those who know Africa best and love it most tend to be the least complacent about where things stand.

The record of development agencies and economic theorists in helping Africa has been a mostly dismal record of one failed nostrum after another going back to the late colonial era after World War Two.  During all this time journalists kept writing stories about how turning points had been reached and how the latest new whiz bang development theories were leading to smart policy choices that were going to kick start sustained development in this country or that. Via Meadia hates to be the skunk at the garden party, but if we are serious about helping Africa we have to be honest about how difficult and intractable some of its problems really are.

There are reasons to hope that the latest round of growth will prove more sustained than some of the other ‘turning points’ that somehow faded away. It’s clear that rising educational levels in a number of country are producing more African experts who may understand what needs to be done better than the non-Africans who have so misjudged the continent for so long. And the fading influence of European countries in much of Africa is also a good thing; Europeans are fond of bragging about their humanitarianism but it’s hard to see many good results from European influence and aid over the last sixty years.  The World Bank actually seems to have gotten a little smarter than it used to be, and more and more Africans seem to believe that the market is the friend of the poor rather than their enemy.

All of this is good, but the road ahead is still very long, and in many countries we are likely to see more than one wrong turn before things finally start to go right.


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  • Charles Crawford

    The point missed here is that thanks to IT and cheap mobile telephony millions of Africans can start to mobilise their individual creativity without relying on hopeless/corrupt state processes or (worse) ‘development’ experts.

    This creates a completely new set of options – in effect pure market mechanisms emerge, helping people do things and trade on their own terms and setting up informalised but effective dispute resolution arrangements (private legal systems).

    All of which points to the fact that ‘reforms’ may be mainly irrelevant – Africans increasingly have gone beyond having to wait for them. Add relentless Chinese investment which gets things done on a large if not ruthless scale without waiting for Western-funded gender diversity coordinators to give their views, and you have quite a potent mix for dynamic change.

    Will it all be perfect? No. Is this a massively positive trend for Africa (at least compared to the ruinous developmentalism of the past 60 years)? Yes.

  • Anthony

    I take away four indicators: 1) Africa’s problems are real and deep (also historical); 2) Uneven development and (in many cases) dysfunctional growth and government across Africa remain significant problem; 3) Africa’s success stories remain complicated places; 4) We have to be honest and serious about how difficult and intractable some of Africa’s problems really are.

    Perhaps, WRM, the African experts you allude to can right the continent going forward but it won’t happen quickly…

  • Luke Lea

    I wish I could be optimistic but I can’t. The barriers I’m afraid are biological (genetic) in nature: not just the wrong set of endowments but marriage customs that create family and tribal loyalties which are incompatible with liberal state formation. It’s all about kin selection also known as inclusive fitness. This is also the case in many other parts of the world.

    It turns out that Europeans really are different than other peoples around the world, and that the differences, while genetic, are rooted in culture (and vice versa; bio-cultural). This is a hard truth to swallow — I always assumed our liberal values were universal and would be universally embraced. That may turn out not to be true, and the genomic revolution is helping us to understand why.

    Realism is the first desideratum for moral responsibility in this world. There may be workarounds but until we recognize the problem we are not going to find them. Afghanistan is a perfect example.

    And I worry about China.

  • Andrew Allison

    I was glad to see WRM take a more pragmatic view on Africa that the two articles which he referenced. They both appear to me to fall into the wishful thinking category. The fact that GDP is going up doesn’t have much meaning for the man-in-the-street in the autocratic kleptocracies that rule most of sub-Saharan Africa. The quality of life for most of its inhabitants remains abysmal.

  • Luke Lea

    Incidentally, to anticipate criticism, let me acknowledge that one of the author’s of that study on iq and the wealth of nations, Richard Lynn, has been seriously and I think accurately criticized for manipulation of data. Unhappily, however, after making some very significant corrections in the data, especially for Africa, the broad picture remains.

    When America’s greatest living scientist made substantially the same point he was effectively drummed off the stage. So these are almost impossible issues to come to grips with in public. Better for foreign policy makers — and mainstream journalists! — to take the lessons silently to heart therefore (or at least keep an open mind) when shaping future policy in various parts of the world.

  • LenGarden

    Great post, yet it gets worse. What discourages me, an American living in Subsaharan Africa is that via the web we get a slightly better quality of reporting, but even quality rags like the NYTimes get it wrong with their regional correspondents doing the best they can. Local journalists with better sources are too often so aligned with a particular political party that they miss the opportunity to bring credible discourse to the citizenry. Thanks for a reality check, WRM! I’d rather a skunk than bunk.

  • vanderleun

    ” the road ahead is still very long….”

    Actually that road is not just very long it is virtually without end.

    In the coming century the world can probably afford to pull out South America or Africa. Not both. It will, being pragmatic, opt for South America. Africa will be triaged and go to the wall.

    Why? Because 1) South America has a better chance of gaining permanent first world status, and 2) the rest of the world just doesn’t like Africa all that much.

    And that’s the cold fact, Jack.

  • Jack Kalpakian

    Africa can pull itself up. There is a vast amount of land available and the population is relatively small. Africa is the second largest continent and has fewer people than India — which is about the same size as the horn and adjacent East African states. The problems are ultimately those of education, governance and market structuring. These are problems that can be solved, although with difficulty.

  • Luke Lea

    On the brighter side contributing factors such as iodine deficiency and disease burden can certainly be addressed, and a lot more easily than inbreeding depression, which is caused by the same deeply-rooted marriage customs that lead to intense clan and tribal loyalties.

    I’m trying to be constructive.

  • Luke Lea

    OK, here’s a wild idea for the development of Africa:

    I’ve long advocated factories in the countryside run on 4-hour shifts in this country. The same concept might be applied in Africa. In other words skip the urban phase of economic development altogether. Invest in local tribal areas instead. Sure, these factories may not be able to compete in international markets. (Nobody can compete with the Chinese right now.)

    But Africa is big enough to support a high division of labor. Remember Adam Smith: the division of labor is governed by the extent of the market. Behind a wall of tariffs on foreign manufactured goods investments in manufacturing might earn a good rate of return on investment — making the things Africans need.

    As an inducement Western governments might insist that African sovereign wealth funds and oil millionaires invest in these ventures. Don’t let them invest in U.S. Treasuries or on Wall St. That way these kleptocratic elites will have an incentive to encourage the industrial development of their own country, or at least their own continent.

    In other words work with these tribal structures instead of pretending they don’t really matter much. Because they do, do, do!

  • EvilBuzzard

    “And the fading influence of European countries in much of Africa is also a good thing; Europeans are fond of bragging about their humanitarianism but it’s hard to see many good results from European influence and aid over the last sixty years. ”

    At least reality dawned. Africa will get a decent and humane result when Africans figure out how organically and through the implicitly understood pathways of their own cultures.

  • Tom Kinney

    I hitchhiked into South Africa in spring 1966, having come in from Mozambique after leaving Europe about a year earlier and winding down through Turkey, the Mideast, Egypt and on down to the bottom of the continent.

    Nasser was prez of Egypt, Salassie was king of Ethiopia, East Africa had only been independent for several years, UDI was in effect in Southern Rhodesia, Tanzania was practicing Chinese agrarian communism, and apartheid was at its zenith.

    Upon independence by UN Mandate, countries then had to choose between western capitalism or eastern communism, neither of which they were capable of implementing. Nonetheless, they tried mightily but it was a disaster. Read Blood River about the Congo, where there were fewer than 12 college graduates when Belgium honored its mandate. It’s a tale of horrors unbounded that have occurred there in the years since its independence in 1960 and a population in which only its oldest members remember civilization. Where the hotel Kathryn Hepburn and Bogie lived in when filming African Queen lies in ruins in a town that no longer has running water or electicity.

    The reason South Africa has been relatively successful was clear to me even then at age 18 (20 when I left). It had more time to adjust to this deadly transition and it found a way to work together with its European populations (the white natives). SA didn’t have to make one of the two deadly choices other African countries had to make to either be subsidized by wealthier western or eastern nations when they declared independence. If we know too little about nation-building now, we knew less than nothing about it then and fought our proxy cold war through these nations who were unready for independence. And it was and remains a disaster as a result.

    One of the things I remember most clearly about the time I was there was the fear white South Africans had for the civil rights movement in America. While Europe was ridiculing the US for its “race problems,” we were in fact dealing with them–something Europe has yet to do. (Any guesses when the first European country will have its first black president? Right, not this century!) South Africans could already sense the US was going in the direction they someday had to go in, but it terrified them.

    At that time, SA was so insular television was banned for fear of its seditious impact, and there was exactly one hour of rock radio allowed per day. For funzies, we’d get stoned and listen to The Goon Show on radio, which was still hot there and played on a regular schedule. (It featured Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers and a third fellow whose name I can never recall mugging and improvising their way through hilariously ridiculous scenarios.) And many US rock albums were banned, though kids there–who were going through their own version of hippiedom–always found a way to get them, despite they fact that they lived at one of the ends of the earth.

    More than anything else, even our civil rights push, US pop culture helped pave the way, much like it did in the Soviet satellites.

    It was the most beautiful country I saw on my travels, and next only to America.

    We in the first world pushed too hard too soon for independence in Africa, but like colonization itself, that’s in the past. Can’t do anything about it now.

    Africa will righten its ship someday, but it will continue to be a long and grueling process. You can’t take back history’s mistakes and too often we seem unable to even learn from them. Our problem is mortality; we die and our hard-learned lessons die with us.

    If there’s one thing we could do, it would be to help Africans debrief from the once benign but now toxic spell of tribalism, but that’s not in our tool kit, or anyone else’s anyway. It will just have to happen over time like in the Mideast.

    There’s no magic bullet for our gross violations of the “prime directive.”

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