. . . 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. . .
. . .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. . .
. . . 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
. . . 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. . .
. . . 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 towardwhat Africans owe themselves. [Links to other posts by Okafor –Africa Unchained]