Skip to main content

Book review: The Shackled Continent

Summary: this work from Economist writer Robert Guest contains a lot of the kind of free trade leg-humping one would expect. However his diagnosis of the current problems and the best probable solutions (drawn in very broad strokes) are fairly convincing.

This book purports to answer three separate but related questions: what are the problems facing Sub-Saharan Africa (hereafter referred to as Africa)? why does this area have so many problems? and what are the best solutions?

The answer to the second question is totally inadequate. Guest insists that colonialism is not the issue. He points to South Korea, which went from a post-colonial basketcase to a first-rank power in about fifty years, while most of Africa continued to languish in the dumps. He instead proposes that Africa has terrible leadership: inefficient, statist, corrupt, cronyist governments that provide an almost insurmountable barrier for anyone looking to start a business. Well, yeah. But why is the leadership so bad? It's just a coincidence that the most backward continent is also the one that was stomped into the dirt for 500 years? Guest mostly glosses over the fact of the Soviet Union providing real support for colonial victims, thus planting a few of the seeds of the statism he bemoans today, and doesn't adequately discuss racism or slavery.

But if you set those complaints aside, the rest of the book is pretty good. His account of riding around with a truckload of Guiness in Cameroon is particularly good. His proposal for solving these problems, basic free market sorts of solutions, are mostly reasonable. I've read a few critiques of this book (tracking with similar attacks on neoliberal economics generally) saying that "free trade" is just an thinly veiled program for convincing poor countries to liberalize their markets so heavily subsidized western companies can flood those markets with underpriced products. As far as neoliberalism goes, think that's largely true, but shouldn't be read as a problem with free trade itself. In theory, it should cut both ways, and USA corn subsidies are just as indefensible (or more so) than African tariffs. But Guest mostly avoids this problem, as he does go both ways—in addition to mentioning poor countries' tariffs, he also mentions the ridiculous subsidies rich countries tend to give their agricultural industries, which actively suppress those industries in poor countries.

One last thing: awhile back in a post on aid, I rather glibly said:
I think international aid is an area where well-intentioned people can do a lot of nothing (or even harm) by poorly thought-out donations. Obviously aid to governments is the worst offender, often skimmed by corrupt bureaucrats or warlords. I think aid to underdeveloped governments could stop tomorrow and there would be no great loss.
I learned from this book that the economy of Botswana, the most developed in Africa, was kick-started by international loans. So clearly such loans are not always bad; one just has to be careful who is getting the money and what uses it is going towards.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Why Did Reality Winner Leak to the Intercept?

So Reality Winner, former NSA contractor, is in federal prison for leaking classified information — for five years and three months, the longest sentence of any whistleblower in history. She gave documents on how Russia had attempted to hack vendors of election machinery and software to The Intercept , which completely bungled basic security procedures (according to a recent New York Times piece from Ben Smith, the main fault lay with Matthew Cole and Richard Esposito ), leading to her capture within hours. Winner recently contracted COVID-19 in prison, and is reportedly suffering some lingering aftereffects. Glenn Greenwald has been furiously denying that he had anything at all to do with the Winner clusterfuck, and I recently got in an argument with him about it on Twitter. I read a New York story about Winner, which clearly implies that she was listening to the Intercepted podcast of March 22, 2017 , where Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill expressed skepticism about Russia actually b

On Refusing to Vote for Bloomberg

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg is attempting to buy the Democratic nomination. With something like $400 million in personal spending so far, that much is clear — and it appears to be working at least somewhat well, as he is nearing second place in national polls. I would guess that he will quickly into diminishing returns, but on the other hand spending on this level is totally unprecedented. At this burn rate he could easily spend more than the entire 2016 presidential election cost both parties before the primary is over. I published a piece today outlining why I would not vote for Bloomberg against Trump (I would vote for Sanders, Warren, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or Biden), even though I live in a swing state. This got a lot of "vote blue no matter who" people riled up . They scolded me and demanded that I pre-commit to voting for Bloomberg should he win the nomination. The argument as I understand it is to try to make it as likely as possible that whatever Democrat wins t

Varanus albigularis albigularis

That is the Latin name for the white-throated monitor lizard , a large reptile native to southern Africa that can grow up to two meters long (see pictures of one at the Oakland Zoo here ). In Setswana, it's called a "gopane." I saw one of these in my village yesterday on the way back from my run. Some kids from school found it in the riverbed and tortured it to death, stabbing out its eyes, cutting off its tail, and gutting it which finally killed it. It seemed to be a female as there were a bunch of round white things I can only imagine were eggs amongst the guts. I only arrived after it was already dead, but they described what had happened with much hilarity and re-enactment. When I asked why they killed it, they said it was because it would eat their chickens and eggs, which is probably true, and because it sucks blood from people, which is completely ridiculous. It might bite a person, but not unless threatened. It seems roughly the same as killing wolves tha