Why Is Africa Still Poor?
Guest spent years traveling the continent as an editor and writer for The Economist, and his fine book is filled with the kind of vivid details that come from spending too many nights in dingy, sweltering hotel rooms. (I should mention that he is a professional acquaintance; he edited several stories I wrote for his publication between 2002 and 2004.) Before being assigned to Africa he was stationed in booming East Asia, an experience that shapes his view of the continent's predicament. "Any country inhabited by human beings has the potential to grow rich. We know this because many countries have already done so," he writes. "If Africa is to succeed too, it is crucial to understand what has gone wrong in the past. Just why is Africa so poor?"
The answer, Guest believes, is misrule. In his view, corruption isn't just a symptom of Africa's deeper problems. It is the deeper problem. When government ministers loot social programs, it exacerbates poverty, disease and illiteracy. When customs agents demand bribes for allowing trucks to cross borders, it increases shipping costs, and hence the prices poor consumers pay. When rulers distribute jobs and contracts to their own tribal kin, it deepens ethnic divisions.
It's no accident, Guest writes, that "the poorest one sixth of humanity endures four fifths of the world's civil wars." In Africa, where so many have so little, it's easy to foment rebellion against Mercedes-driving kleptocrats. Because those who lose power are usually stripped of their ill-gotten wealth, rulers have an incentive to be paranoid and cruel. Perversely, Guest notes, countries that are blessed by nature tend to suffer the most. Nigeria has pumped $280 billion worth of oil since the 1970s, and has seen much of it siphoned off by a series of dictators. Angola endured a long, bloody conflict over its oil and diamonds. Congo is endowed with vast quantities of almost every precious mineral, and today it lies devastated by an interminable war of plunder.
Guest's book is at its best, however, when it abandons these big stories and focuses on the everyday, showing how corrupt governments plague the lives of normal Africans. In one chapter, he recounts his experiences riding along with a truck driver and his cargo of Guinness Stout on a ridiculously arduous four-day journey across Cameroon. The route is in terrible shape; Guest notes that since 1980 the government has allowed about two-thirds of Cameroon's roads to be reclaimed by the rainforest. But the worst holdups come at countless police roadblocks, where officers fabricate phantom offenses to generate bribes. "Do you have a gun?" a police officer asks when someone raises an objection. "No. I have a gun, so I know the rules."
Too often in Africa, Guest says, men with guns twist the rules to enrich themselves, further impoverishing their countrymen in the process. Still, he thinks countries can work their way out of the mess, particularly if they adopt the sort of free-market policies The Economist champions. Some of Guest's ideas are compelling, such as when he cites the work of Peruvian economist Hernando de Soto to suggest that African governments could unlock nearly $1 trillion in capital by recognizing the land rights of squatters, who might then be able to borrow money against the value of their property. Elsewhere, he is less convincing. Guest believes that a simple fear of bad publicity will prevent multinational corporations from mistreating African workers, a contention that is quite at odds with historical precedent.
When it comes to development aid, Guest believes that donor nations "should be both more generous and more selective," rewarding countries that are "trying to implement sensible policies" and cutting off those that aren't. Aid isn't the answer, he says. Rather, only Africans can save Africa, by building competitive economies. Right now, he writes, Africa possesses 10 percent of the world's population and accounts for only 2 percent of global trade; it "hardly produces anything that the rest of the world wants to buy." Until it does, Guest believes, the continent's shackles will stay locked.