Books: The Shackled Continent

Just occasionally you come across an argument that is so cogent, so clever and so thoroughly convincing that it's a great disappointment to return to the real world and find that the argument is ignored by policy makers. For me, that argument was put by Robert Guest in his treatise on Africa, The Shackled Continent.

Guest is the Africa correspondent for The Economist, and sadly that publication's bizarre aversion to using bylines has meant that Guest is not nearly as well known as he ought to be. Guest injects new ideas and a new perspective on the problems that afflict Africa, and by extention most of the developing world.

The discussion thus far has been a rather simplistic one, with a chorus of bleeding hearts in the first world wringing their hands at simplistic representations of the wealth disparity between the first and third worlds whilst simultaneously chiding western governments for lot offering even more aid than is presently on offer.

Finally, in The Shackled Continent, we get a very different perspective. Rather than taking the 'I'm poor because you're rich' approach, Guest explains that much of the poverty is caused by internal factors in the governance of Africa, and consequently can be altered internally. Whilst Guest argues that there is some place for aid in correcting Africa's woes, much more can be achieved through less costly but more significant reforms.

There are a few examples worth hearing. Take property rights. The first world takes property rights for granted, and has done so for so long that we no longer recognise it for the achievement that it is. Easily verified, non-contested, uniquely held ownership of a property is a significant part of economic growth, and yet in most of Africa it is largely non-existant. Once clear title over property is established, there is an immediate incentive to improve that property. There is the potential for transfer through generations. And best of all, the owned property can be used as collateral in obtaining loans to start and grow businesses. An institutional change like this can do an incredible amount to improve the wealth-creating capacity of the continent.

Another example is the relationship between government and business. Governments in the developed world have recognised (mostly) that their own interests and the interests of the business sector are in harmony rather than conflict. Business grows, therefore the economy grows, therefore employment grows and ultimately living standards improve. In Africa, governments exist in a permanent state of suspicion, and so surround businesses in red tape, restrictions and disincentives. Young entrepreneurs in Africa are confronted with such negativity that they are likely to either seek their fortunes overseas or simply not bother. Either way, the continent is much the poorer. Governments with the vision to overcome tribalism and ingrained suspicion and corruption will do more than aid dollars ever will.

One of the biggest barriers for Africa is its health problems, and this is where the west can help. Many western government and companies are in a position to provide low cost drugs for diseases such as AIDS and malaria and ought to do so. There are, however, public education and awareness campaigns that can do plenty to combat these diseases. A safe-sex campaign is so much more effective than expensive HIV drugs at combatting AIDS.

It's greatly depressing that Guest's arguments have so little traction on policy-makers. Many African leaders have made an artform of blaming the west, and in particular colonialism, for their ills. It is sad but noteworthy that living standards in most of Africa have declines since the exit of the colonising power. Even if the anti-colonial argument is accepted, its hard to believe that the solution lies in western philanthropy rather than interal change. As to the approach of western governments, many are locked into a mindset that measures its achievements exclusively in terms of the number of aid dollars spent and face a significant outcry whenever they attempt to cut aid or impose conditions on its spending. Look at the well-meaning but ultimately misguided efforts last year by the Live 8 movement, which didn't address democratic reforms, improvements in bureaucracy or changes in the law, but instead sought yet more aid.

Read Guests's book - it'll anger and frustrate you, but ultimately it's a book of hope. If only anyone would listen.

The Shackled Continent


Anonymous said…
Sounds like what I think. I'm gonna read it.

I now only read from people I agree with. I can't be bothered feeling pissed off anymore!

boy_fromOz said…
these aren't revolutionary arguments. Various 3rd world (or ex-3rd world) thinkers have been promoting them for some time: see e.g. Hernando de Soto's 'Mystery of Capital' three years ago or Kishore Mahbubani's 'Can Asians Think'.

Kudos to Guest though for highlighting Africa's health problems. AIDS gets the attention but people forget that malaria remains the world's biggest pathogenic killer. And it sits atop a list of debilitating ailments like sleeping sickness and schistosomiasis (the latter took an huge effort to bring under control in China, by a regime far stronger than any African state, and is now making a comeback).

Some argue the biological restraints are of such magnitude that it's doubtful Africa will ever overcome them, at least without massive external assistance - see e.g. the first chapter in Landes' 'Wealth and Poverty of Nations').
Sammo said…
Property rights are all well and good so long as people trust the government, something oppressed Africans have no reason to do. International backing means nothing. The US backed Iraqi protestors in Iraq 1 then backed off and watched them slaughtered.

I may be jumping the gun but this seems like the free marketeers misguided solution to development. The simple fact is structural do not alleviate the extreme poverty that is ravaging Africa. Once the huge numbers that are suffering from disease and hunger can get back on the wagon, then structural reform will do wonders. But for now, it's difficult to take advantage of the market when you don't have enough food to feed your AIDS and Malaria ravaged family because your crop yield is decreasing every year.

Why so anti-aid Ari? The reason it hasn't worked in the past is because it has been ridiculously managed. A well-structured aid program is the only means to effectively combat extreme poverty. Unfortunetly that may only be a fantasy.

Your Live 8 criticisms are well off the mark too Ari. Geldof explicitly stated the purpose of Live 8 was not to raise money, but awareness. In order to force developed governments to support reforms such as debt-relief.

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