A slogan painted on trucks and taxicabs all over Africa, much beloved by metaphor-hunting authors, reads: NO CONDITION IS PERMANENT. This is true, but some are recurring. Tyranny in Zimbabwe, famine in Niger, a constitutional coup in Togo, rampant corruption in Kenya, protesters shot in Ethiopia, an epidemic in Angola, civil war in Sudan–those are this year’s headlines, but if you think you’ve heard it all before, you have. Martin Meredith, in his new book The Fate of Africa, writes that “what is so striking about the fifty-year period since independence is the extent to which African states have suffered so many of the same misfortunes.” Some countries, like Nigeria and Zambia, have gone through cycles of reform and decay. But Meredith’s subtitle–From the Hopes of Freedom to the Heart of Despair–sums up the overall trend. It’s hard to imagine now, but in the heady days of the 1960s, much of the continent was no less prosperous than South Korea or Malaysia. While those Asian nations have transformed themselves into economic “tigers,” however, gross domestic products across Africa shrank during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Africans are getting poorer, not richer. They are living shorter, hungrier lives.
The decline of an entire continent confounds our preconceptions about human advancement. The economist Jeffrey Sachs points out in his recent book The End of Poverty that our Hegelian notion of linear progress is relatively new. For most of history, humans lived miserable existences and couldn’t expect better before the afterlife. But since the Industrial Revolution the situation has improved, and not only in the rich countries of Europe and North America. Between 1981 and 2001, Sachs says, hundreds of millions of people, many of them in Asian nations like China and India, emerged from extreme poverty. But a billion have been left behind, most of them in Africa. “The greatest tragedy of our time,” Sachs writes, is that one-sixth of all humans still live a dollar-a-day existence, scraping by on the margins of starvation.
How can one continent be so out of step with humankind’s march of progress? Everyone agrees that Africans are desperately poor and typically endure governments that are, to varying degrees, corrupt and capricious. The dispute is about causes and consequences. One group–call it the poverty-first camp–believes African governments are so lousy precisely because their countries are so poor. The other group–the governance-first camp–holds that Africans are impoverished because their rulers keep them that way. The argument may seem pedantic, but there are billions of dollars at stake, and millions of lives. The fundamental question is whether those who are well-off can salve a continent’s suffering, or if, for all our good intentions, Africans are really on their own.
Recently, the poverty-first crowd has been making a lot of noise. The weekend before the July G-8 summit in Gleneagles, Scotland, millions of people watched as pop stars in cities around the world played concerts organized by Africa crusader Bob Geldof. The event’s platform–forgive Africa’s debts, increase its development aid, end trade policies that undermine its exports–echoed the recommendations of Sachs, the antipoverty movement’s house economist. A Columbia University professor and an adviser to Kofi Annan, Sachs has lately become a favorite brain of the US Weekly set: Bono wrote his book’s introduction, and he recently starred alongside Angelina Jolie in an MTV special about their travels in Kenya. The celebrity endorsements amplify Sachs’s serious argument that for too long, rich countries have done too little to help the poor. At the end of the Gleneagles summit, world leaders announced that they would increase global aid by about $50 billion by 2010. Sachs says the poor need much more, right away: about $75 billion a year, half of it for Africa. “I reject the plaintive cries of the doomsayers who say that ending poverty is impossible,” he writes.
The doomsayers, sadly, include many of those who know the continent best. Two other recent books–Meredith’s sweeping history of the post-independence era, and Robert Guest’s more tightly focused The Shackled Continent–have joined the immense corpus of literature arguing that, for all the continent’s geographical and historical handicaps, Africa’s main problems are political. Guest, an optimist, believes that with better leadership African countries could catch up. But Meredith reaches a dismal conclusion. Even “given greater Western efforts,” he writes, “the sum of Africa’s misfortunes–its wars, its despotisms, its corruption, its droughts, its everyday violence–presents a crisis of such magnitude that it goes beyond the reach of foreseeable solutions. At the core of the crisis is the failure of African leaders to provide effective government.”