Why Africa is Poor: And What Africans Can Do About It. By Greg Mills. – A Review.

Why Africa is Poor: And What Africans Can Do About It. By Greg Mills. – A Review.

By Ifeoluwa Adedeji, Ohio University.

Acacias in the late afternoon light, Serengeti, Africa

“The main reason why Africa’s people are poor is because their leaders have made this choice.”  Mill’s first sentence in the ‘introduction’ of the book succinctly lays out his central message. With a per capita income 50 percent less than that of the next poorest region (South Asia), sub-Saharan Africa’s growth has lagged since independence. Many reasons have been put forward for the region’s slow development – a lack of human and government capacity, poor infrastructure and trade access, the effects of too little (or too much) foreign aid, the legacy of arbitrary colonial boundaries, low productivity or laziness or culture, climate, and geography. Many African leaders blame the rest of the world for African poverty. Yet, as Mills contends, African leaders – not a lack of capital, access to world markets, or technical expertise – are to blame for the continent’s underdevelopment.

Before going ahead to lay out his points, he admits possible limitations in the reception of his work – being a white South African and representing a foundation backed by the private sector. However, he more or less condemns any understanding of his work from these positions, arguing that that is in fact the reason why Africa has not developed: the perfection of the art of externalizing blames.

His experience working in and out of the field and across different geographies is quite impressive. First, he brings a private sector perspective: prosperity is built by business. Second, he has a remarkably wide international experience. He uses relevant examples from across East and South Asia, from Latin America, from the new societies of the former Soviet Bloc and from post-conflict situations such as in Afghanistan, Kosovo, Rwanda and Liberia. Third, he has worked on both sides of the fence. He has hands-on experience of African policy-making and its underlying politics. Finally, and crucially, he faces reality. This is not a book preoccupied by political correctness and a bias to optimism: the debilitating curse of all official analyses of Africa. Chapter by chapter, he examines the African situation, the misdirection of government responses, and challenges the role of external actors.

For Mills, the ‘flat’ world of globalization should have been a leverage for Africa’s ascendancy; this should have been Africa’s time. The paradox is also sharp and jabbing: what should be Africa’s strength and comparative advantages – the youth population, oil wealth, and agricultural potential – are unfortunately weaknesses and the clog in the wheel of progress. Resources have become curses and irresponsibility has become institutionalized by government.

The rhetoric of government analysis of the problem with Africa demonstrates its alienation from the society and suggest the need for help. For some leaders, capacity has broken down and discipline is a distant desirable. When this is viewed with the knowledge that African leaders/intellectuals are no less intelligent or smart than their counterparts in other parts of the world (where sound policies have worked and sheer political will has driven the state in the direction of development), suspicion molds. Then again, lack of (financial) resources. The response of the international community has also been embracing: there is a need to give more and more to Africa.

There is also a withering critique of the latest official fad for “fixing fragile states”. What Mills proposes in its place is an emphasis upon the responsibility of local leadership. Africa’s leaders have not been trapped in stagnation – they have chosen it. They have done this because stagnation has often been to their advantage: the retention of power is easier and the rewards of personal plunder have exceeded those of generalized growth. As Mills argues, the most amazing thing is that Africa’s leaders have been allowed by their citizens to get away with such choices. They have been able to do so, he suggests, by the tradition of “big man” rule and by the lazy ideology of victimhood that has enabled the externalization of responsibility for problems.

MillsAfricaPoorMills believes that the key to development is opening up trade and markets, rather than tightening government control and regulation. He cites Kaunda’s legacy of government intervention: a civil service geared to protectionism and regulation at all costs; a private sector that rewards insiders and discourages independent entrepreneurship; socialism. Pointing out lessons to be learned in Japan’s decline, a decline of investment against savings, and debates toward Keynesian economics that followed the 2008 global economic crisis, he shows that there is no straightforward, clear path, that markets are irrational and indeed can ‘boom and bust’. Nevertheless, they have been much more efficient than government in creating wealth and achieving growth and development.

Mills’ book is essentially a wake-up call to Africans to break free from the neo-Marxist conceptual framework that has protected the plundering state from reform. Profit for business is not intrinsically exploitative; the big state is not the ally of the poor; the global economy is not a threat to be opposed, but a market to be entered. The opportunities created by globalization and technology are immense and within the reach of countries should they align the local environment to be receptive and actively participatory.

Without any doubt, Mills has offered a valid counter-position to the explanation and analyses of African leaders and the evaluations and policy focus of the international community of donors and ‘development experts’. This position, however, is not new. It is the same view that Claude Ake expressed in his 1996 book ‘Democracy and Development in Africa’: development has not failed, it has just never really been on the agenda, and political conditions are the greatest impediment. Mills’ arrival at this same conclusion more than a decade later shows how deeply important the situation is, and how urgent the call. There is nothing more compelling than to see two people from two different methodological thrusts – induction from experience and analytic and statistical deduction – arrive at similar conclusions.

Mills’ argument for market liberalism is well presented and supported. Governments have done a poor job of stirring the economy toward growth; almost everything has been ‘officialized’. In any way, one does not wish away rain just because floods may occur and properties damaged (even these can be contained). The market succeeds better than the state in rewarding innovation, creativity, and excellence. The state’s proper role should be to ensure institutions that guarantee access and equal play, and eliminate entry barriers.

African leaders are not unaware of the problems of their societies. They are not less educated, to the extent that education is a standard for knowledge and problem-solving. They are not conservative – in fact, they travel far and wide to countries where policies work and benefit immensely from globalization, technology, and trade. It seems they fear that they may be overrun if conditions change, and so maintain the status quo.

On the other hand, Africa’s people are locked into positions more complex than the perception that they allow their government to get away with their self-aggrandizing actions. They oppose the government’s politics, but have no real electoral power. They are skeptical of market liberalism, since that’s the cause of their poverty (or so the government has made them believe). Their situation is similar to the prisoners in Plato’s allegory of the cave. They battle appearances, not reality.

The message to African leaders is clear: Seek not what the international community can do for you, rather focus on what you can do for yourselves. Development will not start from China, Europe, America, or any other place; it begins from home.

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