TCS Daily

Unshackling a Continent

By Marian Tupy - February 7, 2005 12:00 AM

Robert Guest, the Africa editor of The Economist magazine, has written a useful and easy-to-read book. The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption, and African Lives is both descriptive in presenting the extent of Africa's political and economic predicaments and normative in offering concrete measures that African governments can and ought to undertake if they are serious about improving the lives of their people. It ought to be a required reading for students in Africa studies, not least because The Shackled Continent provides a much-needed anti-dote to the usual Marxism-tainted literature that undergraduates encounter in western universities.

Though he has written about Africa for a number of years, it was Robert Guest's inspired article on distribution of Guinness beer in Cameroon that caused the storm of interest and won him the 2003 Foreign Press Association's award for Best Economic Story of the Year. As Guest writes,

        "I once hitched a ride on a beer truck in Cameroon. We started on the coast 
        and set off, with 30,000 bottles of Guinness strapped to the back, for 
        a town in the middle of the rainforest. The journey was no further than from 
        Edinburgh to London, but it took us four days. The unpaved roads were 
        passable so long as they were dry, but we were in a rainforest, where, 
        as the name suggests, it rains often and hard. We had to stop three times 
        when the road turned to swamp, and once for a bridge that collapsed 
        after too many floods and not enough repair work. But the worst delays 
        were caused by 47 police roadblocks. Cameroon is not at war, so there is 
        no reason for these roadblocks, other than to give the police an opportunity 
        to fleece motorists. Every few miles, we would see a pile of tyres or a couple 
        of oil drums in the middle of the road, and a plump gendarme relaxing 
        in the shade of a palm tree. Some would make a show of checking to see 
        if our tail-lights worked. Others would go through our papers looking 
        for faults, so they could demand bribes not to arrest us. This sort of thing 
        is sadly quite common in Africa. The gendarme at the 31st roadblock 
        shared with me a pithy explanation as to why Africans put up with it. He had 
        invented a new law about not carrying passengers in beer trucks, and 
        charged us with breaking it. When I suggested to him that the law he 
        was citing did not, in fact, exist, he patted his holster and asked me if I 
        had a gun. 'I have a gun,' he pointed out, 'so I know the rules.'"

There, in a nutshell, is the story of much of contemporary Africa; African people and businessmen struggling against the lack of the rule of law, insecure private property rights and rapacious governments. Those are considerable and some say insurmountable obstacles. On the up side, there is also an emerging consensus on the reforms needed to bring prosperity and stability to the African continent. Paradoxically, much of today's consensus echoes remedies offered by Adam Smith two centuries ago, who believed that "Little else is requisite to carry a state to the highest degree of opulence from the lowest barbarism but peace, easy taxes, and a tolerable administration of justice: all the rest being brought about by the natural course of things."

Robert Guest does an excellent job in explaining the benefits of a small but efficient government, the rule of law, private property rights and free trade. What a pity that over the past four decades most African governments embraced a different and very damaging approach to economic development: socialism. Socialism's allure to the post-independence leaders in Africa is often explained as their reaction against colonialism, which is ironic, because socialism too was a concept invented in the West.

One of the most important features of The Shackled Continent is its courage and honesty when dealing with contemporary African politics. We often hear African politicians blame African poverty on matters beyond their control. Many of them are all too quick to blame colonialism and neo-colonialism. Their vision of Africans is that of spectators, who are unable to do anything to change a world that is somehow set against them. Guest sets the record straight, placing most of Africa's problems at the door of predatory African governments.

African governments, Guest tells us, must recognize their own shortcomings and reform. This recognition is crucial. Many African leaders pay lip service to democracy and economic freedom. To promote those two goals, they recently came up with the New Economic Plan for African Development (NEPAD) and the African Union (AU). Progress, however, remains elusive. Zimbabwe, for example, enjoyed 20 years of relative stability. Then in 2000, Robert Mugabe took the country on a road to destruction that was marked by murder, torture, theft, hyperinflation and 80 percent unemployment. African leaders pointedly refused to deal with, let alone condemn, human rights abuses perpetrated by Mugabe's dictatorship.

The Shackled Continent has only two mild shortcomings. First, Guest is absolutely correct to point out the failure of foreign aid in Africa. To quote, "For half a century now, the continent has been deluged with aid, but this has failed to make Africans any less poor. The problem is that donors have opened their wallets with scant regard as to whether the money will be sensibly spent." But, Guest also believes that better targeted aid should be given a try. But better "targeting" has been a part of the IMF and WB vocabulary for decades. Why should anyone believe that this time the two Bretton Woods institution will make a better job of it?

To be sure, research done by Craig Burnside and David Dollar of the World Bank maintain that developing countries, which follow good fiscal, monetary, and trade policies, can benefit from foreign aid. But the World Bank data have not been independently corroborated. William Easterly, Ross Levine, and David Rodman of NBER, who updated the World Bank data, found no positive correlation between "targeted" foreign aid and economic growth. Harold Brumm of the United States General Accounting Office concluded that foreign aid retards growth even in countries that follow sensible policies, because foreign aid, even under the best of circumstances, can serve as a disincentive to continued economic reform.

Second, we need to see all African commentators devote more time to discussing the "modus operandi" of taking Africa from where it is today to where it ought to be tomorrow. When looking at major reforms around the world, one cannot help but see that they tend to follow major economic or political crises. Not so in Africa, a continent that seems to be mired in perpetual crisis, yet is unable to make a decisive break with the past. Zambia may serve as an example. Following democratic elections of 1991, Kenneth Kaunda was, after 27 years, forced out of office and replaced by Frederick Chiluba. Chiluba promised economic reform and greater government accountability. Not much happened and Chiluba himself became mired in a set of corruption scandals. A similar story can be told of Kenya and President Mwai Kibaki, whose early determination to clean up the "Augean stables" left behind by the authoritarian rule of Daniel Arap Moi, seems to be waning.

Here one can only speculate that the constituency for reform in Africa does not yet exist. The lack of civil society, or paucity of independent centres of power that would check the worst excesses of African governments, is clearly a major problem. Unfortunately, the rise of independently wealthy middle classes and the concomitant growth of civil society, which historically accompanied economic progress, are hindered by sluggish economic growth on the African continent. Whether and how this vicious circle can be broken provides an excellent opportunity for Robert Guest's future research.



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