It was to be Africa’s turn. That was the promise and the hope. The great forces that converged in the last half of the 20th century to give the world the most remarkable surge into prosperity known to man would finally turn their indefatigable gaze upon the dark continent. The recipes developed patiently and over time and trial and error would be put to the task of solving that hardest of problems – poverty in Africa.
But it was not meant to be. When I myself began my work in the war-torn jungles it was assumed that the violence would come to pass. “These are the birthing pains of a new order for Africa,” we were told and faithfully repeated, plastic sheeting in hand as we faithfully counted bags of Corn Soy Blend stacked under the leaky roof of an ancient warehouse which once had stored barrels of vine-rubber on its way to Belgium. “These nations have only recently become free, they are going through their turbulent adolescence before they come into their own.”
But that was then. Africa’s moment has passed. No longer do people speak of Africa as the future – unless they are referring to instability and war and poverty the return of deadly diseases and the emergence of new ones (cue Ebola) which have entered the normal news cycle, to stay. If America is the apex of this cycle of civilizatory advance, is Africa its inverse? If America, which was the future and is now the present, will one day become the past – is the anarchy that came from Africa what our future will represent? Perhaps.
But why was Africa unable to make it? People ask themselves this question often – but it is a question polemical and fraught with political minefields in a world which has become saturated with Newspeak, which usually does not allow for free intellectual inquiry. Nevertheless I do read the literature, because there are some brave souls writing about what happened to Africa; and in courageous books like “Dead Aid” and “The Idealist” and “Why Nations Fail” and “The Tyranny of Experts” – and “The Bottom Billion” by Paul Collier.
I was extremely impressed with “The Bottom Billion”. As a practitioner myself I have become used to fending off the unexamined ideas of the utopians who believe development of Africa is right around the corner; just a matter of getting the loan terms right or selecting the proper community members for their ‘intervention’. Filling the spreadsheet with the right data, that is the planners’ answer to the arriving ordeal. So reading a clear-eyed review of why Africa did not make it, from an economist who is not a Keynsian (or any other type of Marxist) was refreshing. Collier identifies four traps into which have fallen the nations of Africa: the conflict trap, the natural resources trap, and the landlocked with bad neighbors and bad governance in countries which are too small traps. Collier introduces us to problems such as Dutch Disease (where extractive industry pushes up the value of currency thereby making other exports uncompetitive), the statistics of how much conflict costs ($60 billion per civil war) and the statistical difficulty of emerging from conflict. The main theory behind the book is that India and China advanced quickly due to their ability to use cheap labor to attract foreign exchange which was then used for domestic investment – and the idea that these industries would then move to Africa. But the economies of India and China (and Indonesia and Thailand) are not developing quickly enough to become consumer-based middle income countries; and might not be so for another forty years. For this reason (and the above traps, which are mutually self-fulfilling) investment has not come to Africa.
And now the moment has passed, for the tremendous growth of the 70s and 80s is gone, never to return and the world has entered a period of renewed turmoil and democratic decline which is heralding the return of empires.
So what to do? This is where this book falls down. Collier, thinking perhaps with his feet firmly dug into the sands of the 1980s has proposed several technocratic “fixes”; instruments and agendas which if faithfully implemented could solve some of the aforementioned traps. But alas, the world is not in a problem-solving mood these days. As Michael Anton wrote, “Conservatives spend at least several hundred million dollars a year on think-tanks, magazines, conferences, fellowships, and such, complaining about this, that, the other, and everything. And yet these same conservatives are, at root, keepers of the status quo. Oh, sure, they want some things to change. They want their pet ideas adopted—tax deductions for having more babies and the like. Many of them are even good ideas. But are any of them truly fundamental? Do they get to the heart of our problems?” The same can be said for the defenders of our tired world order.
Finally, the book is wholeheartedly agnostic about the aid industry. It is not as critical as “Dead Aid”, but neither does it say that it has actually helped anything. Collier suggest there are moments when the increase in capital is welcome; and technical expertise necessary for the turnaround of struggling nations. But on the whole Aid is irrelevant and often times detrimental. Incidentally, this is now “settled science”, but there are too many vested interests by utopians to allow this narrative to change – no matter the harm that aid continues to do to Africa.
So read this book if you’re interested in why Africa has never made it or if you are trying to understand what the future might look like. Lest we continue to advance our mistakes upon false assumptions and our legendary tolerance for failure.