Monday, July 8, 2013

Do we need another book on what's wrong with Africa?

Robert Guest's book, The Shackled Continent: Africa's past, present and future, (2004) is another of the many books I have felt compelled to read in search of a word of hope for this place I have lived and come to love. And like the other authors, his prognosis is for a long, hard-won recovery: no quick fixes, no magic cures. 

Refreshingly, he does not place the entire blame for the conditions on colonialism or foreign aid. He recognizes that doing so is likely to be counter-productive: "Much of Africa is seized by the uniquely disempowering notion that foreigners are to blame for most past and present ills." If the blame falls outside it follows that the solution is also outside, but Guest warns: "Railing against outsiders may be cathartic, but it does not achieve much."

Guest's work feels like a compilation of good ideas piggy-backed on haunting stories. 
In ten pithy chapters, Guest summarizes the ills and causes of the African milieu. He plunges into "Vampire State" describing Mugabe's reign of terror over Zimbabwe. Although Mugabe began much as a "Man of the People" reminiscent of Chinua Achebe's book, his story has deteriorated more dramatically. The vampire chapter concludes with an explanation of the man-made famine, (quoting the organizing secretary of the ruling party): "We would be better off with only six million people, with our own people who support the liberation struggle. We don't want those extra people." (Zimbabwe's population was 12 million at that time.)

Mugabe is merely a representative of a cohort of despots who have pillaged their countries in the name of liberation and seem to have gotten away with it. From this low point of "freedom" stories, Guest moves on to "Digging Diamonds, Digging Graves". The gruesome blood diamond films and exposés are such a part of our awareness that the expression no longer needs explanation. That this chilling disregard for human life falls on the heels of not wanting "those extra people" should come as no surprise to us.

Then in three well-storied, hard-hitting chapters, Guest attacks communalism, fatalism and tribalism. "No Title," "Sex and Death" and "The Son of a Snake is a Snake" describe elements of African culture which, unbalanced, create precarious situations which can be manipulated by outsiders or clever insiders. Guest's genius is in capturing the ideas in memorable stories. "No Title" addresses the problem of lack of private property which John Hollaway addresses in "All Poor Together." While "Sex and Death" deals with the short term solution of prostitution to avoid starving at the risk of contracting AIDS. Such fatalism  is foreign to Westerners, thus it is confounding to anyone attempting to "help."

Many are the books condemning Western aid to Africa, and Guest's book is definitely in that category, though using a broader brush to paint a panorama. All African fail-stories are not the direct result of poorly implemented aid. But the tradition of Michael Maren (The Road to Hell) and Dambisa Moyo (Dead Aid) are upheld. While Maren's target is the insincerity of the aid business and their preoccupation with image, Guest points out the reality that even sincere attempts are fraught with danger. This kind of fix-it charity, throwing money at problems and not recognizing the brokenness out of which springs the "poverty" is toxic. His chapter "Fair Aid, Free Trade" addresses some possible solutions which donor countries have not considered, possibly because the price is too high, and charity is easier.

The final three chapters wrap up corruption, leap-frogging technology, and the hope of South Africa. Guest lays an array of success and failure illustrations designed to make us think. In pithy conclusions, he reminds us that we are not doomed to fail: "The lesson from Morogoro and Rufiji is that simple ideas rigorously applied, can yield dramatic results."

And this seems to be his "One Step at a Time" conclusion. There is plenty of hope for Africa, the richly endowed, colorful continent which at times is overshadowed by the pall of disparity and injustice. Keep it simple. Do it slowly.

Wise words--in simplicity is our strength. And haste is the enemy of perfection.

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