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Calderisi on The Trouble with Africa, Why Foreign Aid isn’t Working

The Trouble with Africa is Robert Calderisi’s personal account of the problems and prospects of sub-Saharan Africa. It is has been variously described as hard-hitting and challenging and, on the opposite side, as self-indulgent and even , 'old hat'. What are its major themes? Who is it written for? How valid are its conclusions?


Calderisi’s book is difficult to classify and that will have an impact on the expectations that people bring to reading it. It is not a book for academic experts. It is about aid and the World Bank and about Africa’s poor economic performance (Ghana on independence was much richer than Malaysia). It is packed with a huge range of interesting examples and yet uses very few figures. It is intended for a popular audience both in Europe and the United States as well as in sub-Saharan Africa. It is also autobiographical, essentially one man’s attempt to come to terms with a huge range of experiences, gathered over many years working either in sub-Saharan Africa, or on its problems. It deals with both a personal and a public agenda and with their interrelations. Raising awareness of HIV/AIDS and the development of appropriate policies towards the epidemic, are topics to which Calderisi seems to have made a personal commitment as well as to micro-developmental projects. The book asks people in Africa to take stock of the assets and liabilities that they have and for African politicians to face up to the fact that country after country has squandered resources that should have helped further economic and social development. His aim is to move the popular conversation about African economic development into new territory rather than around the old anti-colonial and neo-colonial circle that he sees as unhelpful in the context of current resource allocation. He acknowledges that aid is demeaning and that it can encourage dependency. He also acknowledges, but perhaps this needs to be stressed more, that the World Bank and development agencies also made mistakes. It is not simply a question, in my view, of corrupt politicians (though he illustrates corrupt practices at some length) and inwardly oriented growth paths than many countries chose to the detriment of the further development of export crops and new agricultural exports.

The whole set of questions around aid, trade and the colonial legacy is fraught and Calderisi is intent on making direct challenges to established views. So too is, in my view, the idea of ‘development’ as a deliberate act of national government. In the modern world we are very impatient about the slow progress of economic growth in some parts of ‘the global south’. We tend to forget that the idea of deliberately seeking out economic development is a relatively recent phenomenon. The notion did not properly exist before the Second World War though there were glimmerings of understanding at that time of the extent of hunger in the world and of the absolute shortage of industrial capacity in much of the world beyond Western Europe and the United States. Development economics as a subject of intellectual discussion, analysis and research grew out of the activities of a small group of academics and planners in London during the Second World War. Development agencies, such as the World Bank, and development Research Institutes, did not exist to the extent that they developed in the later part of the post-war world. Calderisi illustrates a range of bad practices by African governments. Mistakes were inevitable, I feel, whether on the part of inexperienced national governments seeking to do the best they could under pressing problems and constraints or on the part of the World Bank and other agencies. Governments everywhere may not be able to promote economic growth by their own policy efforts—though some like Botswana and Mauritius in Africa and several governments in Asia have become good at doing just that— but they can very easily frustrate it by the rules that they adopt and the behaviors that they encourage. Some of these behaviors arose out of misguided developmental thinking pushed by external agencies of one sort or another, and not simply from policy development and corruption on the African continent.

This book helps humanize the World Bank, an institution easily demonized by those opposed to the sorts of development projects that it tends to get involved with. It portrays heroic African figures— the portrait of Julius Nyerere and of his visit to the World Bank in his retirement is very moving— as well as of a range of fallen heroes and outright dictators. It insists that sub-Saharan Africa is capable of determining its own destiny provided it gets its values right, avoids corruption, shows concern for the poor and embraces democratic standards. It holds that aid should be concentrated on the relatively small range of countries that have adopted just such a position. Uganda, Ghana, Mozambique, Tanzania and Mali are mentioned in Calderisi’s list of preferred countries. The rest of the aid budget should be used only for projects that will benefit groups of countries rather than simply one country, provided that the poor in the other countries are not completely abandoned. Those with a commitment would then move forward and the West would not be engaged in the counter-productive activity of constantly lecturing such other governments that have no intention of changing.

This book and its conclusions are not likely to be to everyone’s taste: some of the generalizations made can feel over-simplified; the structure is not always helpful; examples have a ‘parable like’ quality needing interpretation and some of the very personal material is simply intrusive. There are few ideas that would fundamentally challenge the existence of multilateral aid (though he feels that the World Bank ought to be merged with the IMF and UNDP in a bid to eliminate duplication). The idea of citizen review groups capable of developing independent views on national decisions is both interesting and useful. The case for more supervision (Schools and HIV/AIDS policies and programs) contradicts the notion that sub-Saharan Africa is up to the challenge of change. However if ithe book helps to promote an informed popular debate, rather than emotionalism, in Western countries and in sub-Saharan Africa, then this ought to be for the good. It may however be overtaken by events as China’s interest in raw materials will once again pull the continent into export led growth. This will not change the issues to be faced: mineral growth can lead to an economic dead-end and an increasing gap between rich and poor, if there are no careful polices with respect to investment planning and wind-fall gains management. With such growth, the issue of democracy and good government will not go away, nor will questions of poverty elimination. The issue in practical terms will be whether or not sub-Saharan African economies, politicians and electorates can learn from past mistakes.