A diagnosis of the African predicament

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Stanley Uys reviews Greg Mills’s outstanding new book ‘Why Africa is Poor’

Greg Mills is nothing if not forthright. The first sentence of the introduction to his book reads: “The main reason why Africa’s people are poor is because their leaders have made this choice.” This sentence is repeated in the middle of the book. It is repeated again in at the end of Greg’s conclusions. Could this insistent message be plainer? Or will Africa just continue to ignore the lessons of international reform as it suits them?

The purpose of Mills’s book is “not to name and shame” (most of the continent’s 52 states would have to be inscribed in the book of shame), but to put forward “proposals for improving this situation, in getting African leader’s incentives straight.” Chapter 4 “shows why it is that African leaders have made these bad choices.”

It is worth observing that while Mills makes plain his dismay (I almost said despair) over the course most African leaders have taken, he admires the input of which African women are capable. “No one can tell me,” he says, “that anyone works harder for less than an African woman working in the fields.” Tactfully, Mills draws no comparisons with African men – a very touchy subject – but others for long have seen Africa as the home of the male chauvinist.

As various reviewers have urged, Mills’s book should be required reading for every South African cabinet minister, senior (and upcoming) government official, business leader – for everyone interested in the development of what the Economist some years ago called the “hopeless continent.” The book took three years to write. The effort was prodigious. Mills admits he tackled “an enormous and complex subject.”

The range of the prestigious offices Mills has occupied, his peregrinations, his research and comment – they are all are remarkable. For 10 years he was national director of the SA Institute of International Affairs; he published 25 books and lectured widely; in 2005 he became (and remains) head of the Brenthurst Foundation, founded by the Oppenheimer family; he has held other influential and unusual positions – in 2006, he was special adviser to the commander of NATO forces in Afghanistan, in 2008 Strategy Adviser to the President of Rwanda; he is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts (this is only the short list).

Mills explains: “The methodology of the Brenthurst Foundation…is to employ the policy examples of high-growth economies as diverse as Vietnam and Costa Rica, Morocco, India, China, Panama and Singapore”. Mill’s travel itinerary for the purposes of writing his book – East Africa to Kazakhstan to East Asia – is exhausting just to list. The chapter on aid (the charities at work in Africa) is a must-read section in itself. Mills says the bleeding hearts who surge into the continent under one or other auspice undermine the self-confidence of sovereign states to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. On this topic, Mills (usually measured and courteous) allows himself a caustic tongue.

Mills also discusses South Africa’s resistance to globalisation, and generally Africa’s eagerness to attend the myriad international events to which its leaders are invited, instead of submitting strategic and detailed execution plans that should attend these events.

“Africa has the biggest voting bloc in the UN, World Trade Organisation (WTO) and other such organisations,” Mills notes. “But what does it ‘trade’ its vote for? Help for Cuba and the Palestinians, blocking UN managerial reform, and manoeuvring around tougher action on Burma and Iran. None of this does one bit for Africa or for Africans outside of the New York diplomats, who revel in such posturing, or those leaders overwrought by their own anti-colonial complexes. Africa is often the subject of these meetings, but its leaders generally miss the point.

“As the collapse of the global trade talks in Geneva in 2008 showed, the WTO was perhaps the worst example. Led by South Africa, 40 African votes were locked together with China, India and Brazil, with the aim of resisting European and American demands for the South American and South Asian giants to open their markets.

“Fine for them, but those same countries had as high – or higher – tariffs on African goods as the EU and US did. If African votes in support of their positions had been exchanged for commitment from those countries to provide duty- and quota-free status to Africa (a small price for them to pay given the limited share Africa would gain in their markets), this position would have made sense Instead, Africa sold its votes for some form of ‘South-South’ solidarity, without any return to serve its own interests. India, China and Brazil must laugh all the way to Geneva for every WTO session…Until the Africans are prepared to use their voting power like every other multilateral bloc – to advance the interests of their own people – the posturing will continue and conferences, not commitments, will rule the day.”

For how much longer does Africa want to be known as the failed continent? Its reputation is appalling. Consider this comment in The (UK) Times by a former Conservative MP and influential columnist, Matthew Parris, responding to the constant squeals from African leaders that the West are trying to re-colonise them: “Great powers aren’t interested in administering wild places any more, still less in settling them; just raping them. Black gangster governments sponsored by self-interested Asian or Western powers could become the central story in 21st– century African history…The continent is in many places run by outfits that resemble gangs rather than governments…You hardly need visit the …the gang’s territory….You simply give it support, munitions, bribes and protection to keep the roads and airports open and it pays you with access to resources…It is when China, then America, , and perhaps even Russia or India follow, that the scramble for Africa will truly be resumed”. Parris wrote that comment in April 2008.

Yet it is within the power of African governments to make more civilised arrangements, as Mills spells out in his book. Why don’t they do it?

Surveying Africa’s record, Mills writes: “In a half-century of independence, Africa has not realised its potential. Instead, its greatest national assets have undermined its prosperity. Africa’s youth, far from being a huge source of talent and energy to be harnessed, are regarded as a destabilising force because they are largely unemployed and uneducated. This is not only a threat to Africa’s security. By 2025 one in four young people worldwide will be from sub-Saharan Africa. If they do not find jobs on the continent, they will seek them elsewhere.”

Drawing on his Rwandan experience, Mills says the reason why things do or don’t happen there is no different to most countries. Doing things the Rwandan way is understandable and indeed necessary for local ownership, “which invariably leads to a lot of frustrating reinventing-of-the-wheel and related delays.” It leads, too, to fixation on maintaining control, and it effectively crowds out the private sector. Rwanda is good at delivering the “donor patter,” but not as good at delivering development.

When African leaders read what further Mills has to say, they should squirm, because they know it applies to most of them: “Things are highly politicised in the small sense of the word – keeping matters in the party’s ambit, rather than true checks and balances on government…In the short term, Rwanda’s choices result in a failure to prioritise and get things done; a failure to follow up on projects; a failure to plan and deliver; a failure to concentrate on the private sector; and a lack of investment in productive economic sectors. This runs the risk of the calamitous societal upheaval that (President Paul) Kagame has been so determined to prevent.”

To return to Mills’s conclusions: “The principal problem with African economics is politics, and the choices that leaders make in the interests of their short-term expediency of staying in power and ensuring control. In trying to balance the urges of maintaining control with the realisation that, for sustained economic growth to occur they need to relax their grip, they invariably err on the side of control first – and not always for selfless financial reasons. Better balances and choices by the continent’s leadership, not those of donors and other outsiders, will realise the prospect of a more prosperous African future.”

“Each African country,” says Mills, “is a crowded stage of domestic players, bilateral aid agencies of widely differing approaches and abilities, self-assured if somewhat ham-fisted multilaterals, NGOs, consultants, development foundations and foreign governments. The cacophony can overwhelm and disorient, and often becomes a source of patronage of political power rather then being, as was intended, a source of development funding served by these various international organisations.”

Mills acknowledges: “Academics like to write books filled with obtuse theory. The former Taoiseach of Ireland (and previously university professor) Garret Fitzgerald is reputed, perhaps apocryphally, to have asked in a cabinet meeting: ‘That’s all right in practice, but how might it work in theory?’ I hope that this volume proves if nothing else to be that unusual academic combination of readable and analytical.”

It is impossible, in this review, to tap into all the riches of a book like Why Africa is Poor. We would still be here next week. But the book is hugely readable. Mills has the quality of waltzing into a country like a tourist guide, relating anecdotes, sketching the colour and the architecture, introducing the reader to the mix of players, strolling the boulevards, identifying the rich and the poor, and then explaining why the country ticks, or fails to tick, what the remedies are – and how close or far the governments are from applying them. It’s a tour de force if ever there was one.

Why Africa is Poor and what Africans can do about it, by Greg Mills. Penguin Books (South Africa), 2010
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