Richard Dowden has high praise for Mathew Lockwood's book on Africa The State They're In:
"Is there something that works in every other developing country but not - apparently - in Africa? Lockwood has come up with the missing piece of the jigsaw. It is African politics. The reason that - South Africa apart - sub-Saharan Africa has not developed is that it has not been in the interests of the controlling elites to develop it.
...Of all the other books on the state of Africa this year, none has come close to confronting this fundamental truth. Jeffrey Sachs, for example, seems blissfully unware of the realities of African politics. The Commission for Africa report comes close but still makes too much use of that neutral word 'governance' to evade the brutal core of Africa's political problem.
...only Africans can develop Africa. 'The international community can play only a minor, supporting role in this drama' says Lockwood.
...what is to be done? The dilemma is that the majority of poor people in Africa live in badly run - though often rich - countries that are held back by their political structures. Aid to these countries helps to preserve the status quo. It is a dilemma that no one has the answer to, not even Lockwood. He recommends setting an aid safety net for Africans and basing more aid on incentives: give aid to governments that hit targets for health, education and economic performance."
There are at least three issues here which in my view need further sustained and focussed debate, supported with proper resources and commitment of expertise in such a way that non-specialists can play a part as citizens. (I may sound excessively idealistic, but I do think that if we don't try, we and a lot of other people are fxxxxd)
First, that "minor role" of the international community. Dowden concludes his review of Lockwood's book with a reference to the first-do-less-harm principle - not least, ending unnecessary arms sales and tackling corruption by western-based companies in Africa. This is something he and colleagues have scrutinised in their RAS report "What about the damage we do to Africa?" (see my 18 July post). More, please.
Second, conditionality in aid. Richard Dowden, Matthew Lockwood and others are of course well aware of/know much more than me about the challenges surrounding various efforts in this regard. (When Matthew Lockwood wrote an article outlining his case for The Guardian back on 24 June, I wrote to ask him what he thought of the US government's Millennium Challenge Account and an analysis of it that had quite recently appeared in The Economist. His response was informative. Matthew is now moving on to other issues such as practical work relating to climate change, but others of his calibre are needed to engage the wider public on this matter).
Third, politics as Africa's fundamental problem. This generalisation looks more useful than some others, and I'm not saying it's not right enough, but I do think it needs to be tested more against specifics. Dowden says Sachs is blissfully unware of the realities of African politics. But I'm not sure that's completely fair. Sachs is not a political ignoramus, and his case as to why Africa is so poor takes account of levels of corruption (a reasonable first order proxy for bad politics). Sachs points out that Bangladesh has higher levels of corruption than Ghana (on the TI index) but has achieved higher rates of growth. His thesis is that corruption is a problem but that health and geography are more fundamental, and can only be tackled with increased outside aid (child immunisation, roads etc).