Between 2002 and 2008, sub-Saharan Africa started growing again, buoyed like much of the rest of the world by the global commodity boom and Chinese investment. Thus ended one of the most dismaying periods in the continent’s recent history, a generationlong stretch during which most countries in the region saw per capita incomes fall, sometimes to levels not experienced since the end of colonialism.
The turnaround signals the possibility of new opportunities for Africans, yet the past year’s astonishing drop in commodity prices as a result of the global recession suggests how fragile that upswing is. Nor is it clear that a political corner has been turned. The growth years have seen the outbreak of a horrific war in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has claimed more than 5 million lives, another smaller but equally devastating conflict in northern Uganda, a humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, and the continuing tragedy of Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe.
In the West, the causes of and remedies for Africa’s development failure have mostly been debated by white men like Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly, who have argued for and against massive outside assistance, respectively. Sachs has gotten help from celebrity advocates like Bob Geldorf, Bono, and Angelina Jolie. So it is refreshing to have some fresh analysis from two African women, Kenyan Wangari Maathai and Zambian Dambisa Moyo.
They are not cut from similar cloth at all. Maathai, a legislator who lost her seat in the 2007 parliamentary election, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her opposition to the regime of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, and for her environmental advocacy in founding the grassroots Greenbelt Movement. She is obviously courageous: Though of Kikuyu descent herself, she called for a vote recount when fellow Kikuyu Mwai Kibaki attempted to steal the 2007 presidential election and triggered a deadly escalation of ethnic violence. Moyo, by contrast, left Zambia to attend college in the United States, and after receiving degrees from Oxford and Harvard, went on to work at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs.
Their books would seem to bear little resemblance as well. In The Challenge for Africa, Maathai offers a diffuse array of conclusions. She argues that there is no inherent trade-off between economic growth and environmental protection and that African governments should pursue both. She blames Western colonialism for devaluing African identity and culture but blames Africans as well for their bloody attachment to fractured “micro-nations.” She criticizes aid dependency and yet has no strong objections to the Sachs-Bono agenda of ramping up Western development assistance. She believes that change will have to come through grassroots activism and that Africans must embrace their own traditions.
Moyo’s book, Dead Aid, by contrast, has a very simple message: that outside development assistance is at the root of Africa’s underdevelopment and ought to be stopped quickly and totally if the continent is to progress. She is in favor of private-sector development, even if it comes from China, and inveighs against agricultural protectionism in the North that prevents trade from becoming an engine of growth. Not surprisingly, her book will appeal to a crowd very different from those who awarded Maathai the Nobel Peace Prize. Maathai and Moyo might indeed seem to be headed for a polarized Sachs-Easterly style shootout over approaches to development.
But the truth is that these books have more in common than their authors may admit. Both women see sub-Saharan Africa’s fundamental problem not as one of resources, human or natural, or as a matter of geography, but, rather, as one of bad government. Far too many regimes in Africa have become patronage machines in which political power is sought by “big men” for the sole purpose of acquiring resources—resources that are funneled either back to the networks of supporters who helped a particular leader come to power or else into the proverbial Swiss bank account. There is no concept of public good; politics has devolved instead into a zero-sum struggle to appropriate the state and whatever assets it can control.
All of the region’s other problems derive from this destructive dynamic. Natural resources, whether diamonds or oil or timber, have quickly turned into a curse, because they greatly raise the stakes of the political struggle. Ethnicity and tribe, social constructs of often dubious historical provenance, have been exploited by political leaders in their quests for power. The advent of democracy has not changed the aims of politics but simply shifted the method of struggle. Only thus can we explain a phenomenon like Nigeria, which took in some $300 billion in oil revenues over a generation and yet saw declining per capita income during that same period.
So the question is: If bad politics is at the heart of Africa’s development problem, how did it come to be that way, and how can the region evolve in a different direction? Here the two authors, obviously, differ markedly. Dambisa Moyo is ready with evidence to back up her lengthy indictment of foreign aid as the source of bad government. She notes that during the Cold War, aid was given out indiscriminately to rulers like Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire, who flew his daughter to a wedding on a Concorde the moment Western donors agreed to reschedule a loan. Were it not for the continued availability of concessional loans, she argues, African countries would be forced to get their acts together and meet international governance standards so as to be able to access global bond markets.
There is a lot to this argument. Foreign assistance in the past has simply fueled the patronage machine and helped keep corrupt rulers in power in places like Somalia and Equatorial Guinea. African governments, many of which receive upward of 50 percent of their national budgets from international donors, find themselves accountable not to their people but to overlapping and contradictory echelons of foreigners. Even seemingly benign interventions like humanitarian food aid can undercut local farmers or be used as a means of strengthening the ethnic base of particular politicians.
But Moyo’s case that Africa would have good government if it weren’t for the influx of aid stretches credulity. The roots of Africa’s political malaise go far deeper than the post-independence foreign-aid regime. Unlike East Asia before its encounter with colonialism, more than half of sub-Saharan Africa was not governed by a state structure at the time of the European scramble for Africa that began in the 1870s. The Europeans built colonial institutions on the cheap, seeking to govern vast tracts of territory with skeleton administrations. The big man of contemporary African politics is in many ways a colonial creation, since Europeans sought to rule indirectly by empowering a series of local dictators to carry out their purposes. And, finally, colonialism imposed a set of irrational borders on their colonies. South Sudan fought a 30-year civil war with the regime in Khartoum only because a long-dead British administrator in Cairo didn’t want to offend Egypt by giving it to Uganda, where it more naturally belonged.
Moyo’s blanket condemnation of foreign aid also fails to discriminate between, say, military assistance given to Zaire during the Cold War, and anti-retroviral treatments dispensed by the Global Fund or PEPFARS (the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, initiated by the Bush administration), which get virtually no mention in her book. The fact is that the aid business has learned something, particularly since the end of the Cold War. Fewer blank checks are given to dictators and more relief is targeted at areas like public health, which have produced measurable results. Were aid to stop as she suggests, a whole lot of Africans would die prematurely. Other programs, like the Millennium Challenge Account, created by the Bush administration in 2004, are targeted at better governance and anti-corruption. They may not be sufficient to fix African politics, but they hardly contribute to the underlying problem.
If ending foreign aid will not cure Africa, does Maathai’s Challenge for Africa present a better alternative? Grassroots activism can galvanize local solutions and put pressure on governments to perform better. But civil society is ultimately a complement to strong institutions and not a substitute for them. Toward the end of her book, Maathai points to the need for visionary leadership and nation-building from the center, as Julius Nyerere did when he knit Tanzania’s multiple linguistic and ethnic groups together through the use of Kiswahili as a national language. But historical nation-building projects have often required much stronger medicine than she or most other contemporary Africans are willing to contemplate, including changes of borders and the sometimes forceful incorporation of “micro-nations” into larger wholes.
If neither of these books provides wholly satisfactory solutions, both at least focus on the real core of the problem, which is the region’s level of political development. In this realm, solutions are going to have to come from within the region itself. It is a positive first step for the discussion to shift away from what the outside world owes Africa and toward what Africans owe themselves.