Monday, July 11, 2011

Africa Doesn't Matter by Giles Bolton - Book Review

Africa Doesn't Matter: How the West Has Failed the Poorest Continent and What We Can Do About It.
Giles Bolton 2007
Arcade Publishing, NY

A long time ago I was introduced to Chomsky. His scholarship is impressive, his arguments are strong, but after reading a couple of his texts I thought to myself, "What do I gain from reading more of the same sad story about the influence of power in human affairs?" Chomsky left me frustrated because while he can powerfully articulate an argument and raise many important issues, he does not seem to proffer any real solutions to the problems he raises. Perhaps I am wrong about that, perhaps I have forgotten his prescriptions for action, but I am pleased to report that Giles Bolton does make a genuine and fruitful effort to put forward solutions and attitudes we can adopt to help recover the cradle of humanity.

About the Author:

Giles Bolton is an economist with extensive experience in helping African nations. He writes with clarity and calmness. His book is not a rant against the West but an impassioned plea for a recognition of what truly ails African nations and what we can do to help.

Here are some of his key points:
  1. Government remains a big problem for many African nations, democracy is struggling but is slowly gaining strength and we see further signs of improvement.
  2. Trade and agricultural policies by developed nations represent a severe handicap for Africa's economic potential. Many developed nations are subsidizing agriculture in their own countries and in so doing are depriving Africa of valuable export income.
  3. Charities and NGOs do good work, or at least some of them do. A major problem here is that ironically there are too many aid organisations leading to excessive duplication of effort, an undue focus on "projects" rather than addressing long term issues, and the multiple aid organisations are a bureaucratic nightmare for some African nations. 
1. Government

There is the common perception that Africa's principle problem is corrupt governments. We need some historical perspective here and Bolton provides it with this simple observation:

The developed nations march towards democracy, and even after democracy, was marked by periods of intense conflict if not civil war, democracy was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the then ruling classes who considered the "great unwashed" unworthy of democracy, and it often took many decades for a newly emerged democratic nation to get its act together.

Yet we look upon Africa and bemoan the poor governance. Democracy, to work well, is not something that can simply be imposed upon people. It works best when the State is sufficiently strong to provide safety nets, when the populace is at least well on the road to literacy, where property rights are enshrined in law, and when trade is allowed through the marketplace but with appropriate legislation so the markets don't run amok.

Given our own history should we be so surprised that many African nations are struggling with democracy? Bolton observes that in some African countries we are seeing the emergence of viable democracies and the albeit slow elimination of corruption. We should be more patient. We need to recognise that for African nations to have viable democracies it is not enough to hold elections there needs to be a raft of pre-conditions that make democracy possible.

2. Trade policy

Bolton goes to considerable length to argue that a major impediment to African nations developing sufficient wealth is the agricultural trade policies of the developed world. The single best thing we can do for many African nations is to reduce our agricultural subsidies and tariffs so allowing African nations a fair chance on a level playing field. This is sad reading because it betrays our hypocrisy. This in particular is quite shocking:
"An astonishing 70 percent of U.S. aid is "tied" to U.S. consultants and materials(Italy is even worse at 92%) and fully 47% of U.S. aid spending in one recent year went to consultants(other major culprits are Australia at 46 percent and Germany at 34 percent.)
Equally as depressing is the reality that most of our foreign aid budgets does not go to the poorest nations but the middle to lower middle income nations. (p. 116)

Africa is losing the trade game(one touted lofty hope for globalization was that it would help poor countries develop their economies).
It has been famously been observed that if Africa had done nothing more than maintain the share of world exports it possessed in 1980, average income across the continent would be around double what it is today.
If these figures are true it is disgraceful:
European cows are effectively subsidized at $803 per cow, American cows at $1057, and Japanese cows at $2,555.
And so on it goes, one example after another where our trade policies are not helping developing nations but rather hindering them. That has to change.

3. Charities and NGOs

We like to think that when we donate our hard earned cash it will be put to good use. This is not always the case but the claim by some that charities and NGOs are a waste is completely wrong. Some charities and NGOs have done a great deal of good for Africans and will continue to do so.

One point Bolton makes which I found very interesting was that too much aid is project focused whereas we might be better, if the relevant government is sound, to simply pour the aid money into the government coffers and let that government determine the best way to use the funds. I'm not entirely convinced by this argument and Bolton certainly isn't suggesting that all aid should be in this form but rather that over the long term that has to be the goal.

On page 93 he proffers this general advice for those who wish to give:

Who Should We Give Our Money too:
  • Charity must be registered.
  • Do they give credible information about their track record.
  • Are they open about how much is spent on administration and operational costs?
  • Look for charities that provide services that poor people want.
  • Large established charities are generally good.
  • If the charity receives funding from large donor agencies it is probably a good charity.
  • Give money, not stuff.
At the start of the chapter where he prescribes what can be done he includes this wonderful little quote:
"No one could make a greater mistake than he who did he who did nothing because he could only do a little."
Edmund Burke
So don't be overwhelmed by the enormity of this issue(or any issue for that matter!). Rather focus on what you can do to help. A million crumbs can be molded into a beautiful cake so start providing those crumbs!

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