August 1, 2007

Book club: The Trouble with Africa

That Robert Calderisi’s “contrarian essay” was the first book I read in Zambia was more a matter of duty rather than preference; I figured I’d slog through the dense non-fiction on “why foreign aid isn’t working” before moving to lighter subject matter.

But I must admit I was hungry for something contradictory. Promises of political incorrectness and “making things painful for the aid establishment” whet my appetite for a Bono-Geldof skewering.

Too soon?

Long overdue, says Calderisi, a Canadian with over 30 years on the ground in Africa with leading international organizations, foremost the World Bank. His depth of experience on the continent adds weight to his thesis, that the proverbial ‘trouble with Africa’ is the West’s incessant guilt over its decrepit state.

“Poverty is more of a Western issue than an African one,” Calderisi says, “most Africans consider poverty to be as natural as the wind or rain, rather than something they can actually do anything about.”

His message is two-fold: it’s not really our fault, and we have stop aid, not poverty, now. If we don’t, we make it too easy for self-interested African leaders to continue to blame the West for their predicament while they stifle the natural enterprise of their people and maintain the political and economic status quo.

Yes, slaveryimperialismstructuraladjustmentprograms have been psychologically and economically damaging, but they don’t explain why Africa has been going backwards since independence.

Calderisi uses the comparison that in the 1960s, South Korea was poorer, less endowed with natural resources and more brutally colonized than most newfound African nations. But sturdy leadership encouraged foreign investment, not aid, which was managed somewhat responsibly in the national, not personal, interest.

Contrast this with the Central African Republic, more of a geographical description than a state, where French aid was converted into ceremonial pomp for the crowning of its ridiculous self-imposed emperor Jean Bedel Bokassa. The difference with this all-too-common tale is that he used his newly minted sceptre to “bludgeon student protestors to death and serve their flesh to foreign dignitaries.”

This sort of anecdotal evidence is typical of Calderisi’s style, using his personal experience with African aid to counter the armchair critic whose knees jerk to the sound of cutting off aid and enforcing debt repayment. And it’s hard to dispute. When you’ve seen Nigerian ministers using oil money to buy champagne “merely for bathing,” you can’t help but scoff at celebrities groveling to the G8 for greater aid commitments.

In the works: Ishmael Beah’s Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy a Soldier, the first book I’ve bought purely on a Daily Show author appearance. So much for lighter subject matter, I know.

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