Shackled Continent

by Robert Guest
ISBN: 1405033886

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A Review of: The Shackled Continent
by Christopher Ondaatje

Anyone who wants to be reminded about the horrors of Africa, economic or otherwise, will be interested to read this intelligent but light treatise by Robert Guest, the Africa editor of The Economist. He has spent three years traveling and writing about wars, famines and crazy monetary policies in nearly all of Africa's sub-Saharan countries. What Guest sets out to do in The Shackled Continent is to pose and answer the riddle as to why Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer over the past three decades and to diagnose the sickness that continues to plague Africa's development. Why are so many of African nations at war? Why has AIDS affected Africa so much more than any other region? Why are so many African governments corrupt, inept and despotic? And why has foreign aid proved such a failure? Africa certainly is in a terrible state and this book is just one more brave effort to explain why. (Incidentally the book makes absolutely no attempt to deal with the complications affecting the Arab countries of North Africa.)
Why is Africa so poor? "The numbers are staggering: half of sub-Saharan Africa's 600 million people live on the equivalent of just sixty-five American cents a day the median African country has a gross domestic product of only $2 billion-roughly the output of a small town in Europe About 40 per cent of Africa's privately held wealth is offshore." Here are some of the factors Guest lists to answer the question:
Geography-most African countries are tropical. Rich nations tend to have temperate climates (93% of the people in the world's thirty richest nations live in temperate zones. Of the fourty-two countries listed by the World Bank as Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC), thirty-nine are situated either in the tropics or consist largely of desert.
Disease-hot countries are prone to all kinds of diseases that affect both people and livestock. Africa has the worst of them: Malaria, Yellow Fever, Ebola, AIDS, and energy sapping parasites.
History-Africans argue that the continent's current problems stem from European influence in Africa, i.e. slavery.
Not all of these arguments hold water, however, and it is illogical to blame all of Africa's modern problems on slavery-which was not introduced to Africa by Europeans but by Arab slavers. Nevertheless, it is true that long after slavery was abolished, most of Africa remained subject to European colonial rule and it is easy to find colonial roots for many of Africa's modern problems. Colonists did leave deep scars and colonial borders are still a source of trouble. Incidentally, it is interesting to note that all nations have endured some type of slavery at some point. Thirty or forty generations ago in Europe the vast majority of people were serfs-bonded labourers. Also South Korea, a country as poor as Ghana in 1953, is now twenty times richer despite originally being annexed by Japan in 1910 and surviving a brutal civil war that cost a million lives and split the country in two. "Taiwan, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore-all ex-colonies-are all now affluent and peaceful. So are Ireland, Australia and Massachusetts. Africa's colonial legacy, though influential, cannot explain all that is awry today."
Guest gives other examples of countries that have become successful by re-inventing themselves. "Japan grew rich in the twentieth century by adopting and improving manufacturing techniques invented elsewhere, in order to make better and cheaper cars, semiconductors and fax machines. America is the world's richest country today because so many people crave American movies, medicines, aeroplanes and banking services. Africa, by contrast, hardly produces anything that the rest of the world wants to buy." Thus the question is not so much why Africa is poor but why Africa is so unproductive. I agree with the author. Predatory governments usually make their countries poorer and Guest gives good examples of how authoritarian governments can stifle a nation's ability to create wealth. Of these Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe and Kwame Nkrumah's Ghana are obvious examples of failed programmes and exploitation.
AIDS is another severe obstacle to African prosperity. "Three quarters of the world's AIDS deaths occur in Africa: nearly five Africans die of the disease every minute." Poverty seems to speed the epidemic's spread. And then, too, because tribal loyalties are so strong, ethnic violence in Africa seems inevitable. Ethnic violence is common in Burundi, Nigeria, Cte d'Ivoire and other African countries, but in 1994 the Rwandan genocide was probably the worst tribal massacre since the Holocaust.
Guest admits that his proposed solution to this post-colonial hangover could be highly controversial. And indeed it might be. "If the examples of the most developed countries are anything to go by, Africa's future prosperity will depend in part on the speed with which it adopts and adapts to new technologies." And here the author advocates following the example of China and accepting genetically modified crops. He sees this technology to be vital if Africa is to make its farms more productive. He also sees improvements in modern medicine as another important development. Health care in the poorer African countries must be improved-even though to date technology has been woefully inadequate in arresting the spreading AIDS epidemic. Better communications through improved technology to make governments more efficient and accountable; and better education to take advantage of technology are two other important necessary advances. Here Guest feels a lesson can be learned from East Asian countries. Japan, for example, introduced compulsory education as long ago as 1872; and other East Asian countries achieved universal primary enrolment in the 1970s. Here it seems that it is less important how much you spend on education than on how you spend it. Guest also advocates that less should be spent on defence, and more on health and education.
The author is optimistic that Africa can grow rich, and he feels that "several African countries are trying to leapfrog from the pre-industrial present into the information age." I find his arguments less than convincing. Guest feels that the society most Africans want to build is an industrialised one. But, he reminds us, the process in Europe was excruciatingly slow. "After the sack of Rome in 410 Europeans almost entirely forgot how to read, write or lay bricks. For 1000 years they huddled in freezing huts of sticks and straw, terrified of wolves and evil spirits that lurked in the forests around them." In fact they did not haul themselves back up to the level of civilisation their ancestors enjoyed until the 15th and 16th centuries.
Whatever happens, progress, if it comes, will be painful. New technologies are bound to kill off old industries; and cost-cutting governments will inevitably need to dispense with thousands of unnecessary employees. A terrifying thought! The Japanese laboured for almost a century before catching up with the West-and suffered a gruesomely turbulent period in their history. Can Africa possibly follow in their footsteps? I am not so sure. The greatest potential hope may lie with South Africa- the most advanced industrial nation on the continent. "A prosperous South Africa could provide the engine for the whole continent's economic growth much as Japan did in East Asia."
"We can do it, too," one young South African post-Apartheid war veteran said to the author. "And besides, raising chickens is better than fighting." Certainly food for thought.

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