Between 2002 and 2008, sub-Saharan Africa started growing again, buoyed like much of the rest of the world by the global commodity boom and Chinese investment. Thus ended one of the most dismaying periods in the continent's recent history, a generationlong stretch during which most countries in the region saw per capita incomes fall, sometimes to levels not experienced since the end of colonialism.
The turnaround signals the possibility of new opportunities for Africans, yet the past year's astonishing drop in commodity prices as a result of the global recession suggests how fragile that upswing is. Nor is it clear that a political corner has been turned. The growth years have seen the outbreak of a horrific war in the Democratic Republic of Congo that has claimed more than 5 million lives, another smaller but equally devastating conflict in northern Uganda, a humanitarian catastrophe in Darfur, and the continuing tragedy of Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe.
In the West, the causes of and remedies for Africa's development failure have mostly been debated by white men like Jeffrey Sachs and William Easterly, who have argued for and against massive outside assistance, respectively. Sachs has gotten help from celebrity advocates like Bob Geldorf, Bono, and Angelina Jolie. So it is refreshing to have some fresh analysis from two African women, Kenyan Wangari Maathai and Zambian Dambisa Moyo.
They are not cut from similar cloth at all. Maathai, a legislator who lost her seat in the 2007 parliamentary election, was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2004 for her opposition to the regime of former Kenyan President Daniel arap Moi, and for her environmental advocacy in founding the grassroots Greenbelt Movement. She is obviously courageous: Though of Kikuyu descent herself, she called for a vote recount when fellow Kikuyu Mwai Kibaki attempted to steal the 2007 presidential election and triggered a deadly escalation of ethnic violence. Moyo, by contrast, left Zambia to attend college in the United States, and after receiving degrees from Oxford and Harvard, went on to work at the World Bank and Goldman Sachs.
Their books would seem to bear little resemblance as well. 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.
All of the region's other problems derive from this destructive dynamic. Natural resources, whether diamonds or oil or timber, have quickly turned into a curse, because they greatly raise the stakes of the political struggle. Ethnicity and tribe, social constructs of often dubious historical provenance, have been exploited by political leaders in their quests for power. The advent of democracy has not changed the aims of politics but simply shifted the method of struggle. Only thus can we explain a phenomenon like Nigeria, which took in some $300 billion in oil revenues over a generation and yet saw declining per capita income during that same period.
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