Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Taxonomy Of African Cliches

I found another creative piece that satirizes the streotyping of Africa in the Western world. This is a "Taxonomy of African Cliches" from a blog I'm delighted to have discovered called Economic Geographies by Rachel Strohm. Which one are you?

Africanus stereotypicus: The most common type of cliche, the Africanus stereotypicus typicus feeds off of broad generalizations of African history. It is characterized by its Manichean coloring, varying between the black of moral depravity and ancient ethnic hatreds, and the snowy white of peaceful farmers who live “as nature intended.” Other subspecies include the Africanus stereotypicus puerilis, known for its grating proclamations that Africans are too childlike to make decisions about their own lives, and the Africanus stereotypicus type-419, which exhibits severe distrust of Africans in the belief that they are all corrupt, dishonest, and/or Nigerian scam artists.

Africanus journalisticus: Cliches of the the journalisticus group are most often found lurking in the mediocre Africa coverage of otherwise well-respected news publications. The Africanus journalisticus natura is frequently sighted in Madagascar, where international coverage of recent coup attempts uniformly begins with glowing descriptions of the country’s vibrant plant and animal life, in the belief that they must suck readers in with images of lush vegetation before seguing into actual African politics. The Africanus journalisticus spillover, on the other hand, is more often found in Congo and Somalia, where articles on the real suffering of millions of human beings justify the space they take up in Western newspapers either by A) referring to the current conflict as the spillover of a more interesting conflict (e.g. the Rwandese genocide), or B) explaining that the conflict is important because it could create terrorist threats that might spill over into the readers’ comfortable lives. A final subspecies, the Africanus journalisticus darfurensis, has seen a dramatic fall in its numbers after the population explosion of 2003-2004. However, the darfurensis still retains its unique ability to reduce the interwoven political, economic, environmental, and social roots of the genocide in Darfur into a simple morality tale of evil Arabs and innocent Africans.

Africanus occidentalis: This cliche is at home in a broad variety of habitats, be it among development practitioners or wide-eyed teenagers visiting Africa for the first time. It can be distinguished by its prominent belief that concerted Western action can solve all of Africa’s problems. The Africanus occidentalis studentia lives a peaceful life in the dorm rooms of university students, who often react to its presence by talking at length about the spiritual connection and cultural vitality that they experienced while visiting one country in a very large continent for two weeks last summer. (The tragedy of receiving a university education whilst children in Africa are dying is an alternate topic, although this should not be confused with actual discussions of Rawlsian justice.) The Africanus occidentalis interventionis, on the other hand, prefers to settle among career development workers who really should know better. These include advocates of poorly thought-out boycotts that don’t address the roots of the labor issue in question, World Bank officials who support oil pipelines in Chad, and bloggers who duly repeat that the West must pay more attention to Africa’s suffering, as though the Western gaze has always been the missing ingredient for African development.

Africanus impecunius: The Africanus impecunius is a specialized breed, whose natural habitats include NGO websites, blogs written by economics professors, and the Twitter streams of thousands of people with a passing interest in African poverty. Many subspecies in the impecunius group appear outwardly similar, but the practiced African Cliche-ist can easily spot their differences. For instance, the Africanus impecunius donatio is usually spotted at fundraisers in major Western cities, wooing potential donors with pictures of malnourished African children and practicing its “you have the power to save a life” call. The donatio’s primary competitor is the Africanus impecunius entrepreneurius. The entrepreneurius prefers a stealth attack, often sneaking up behind the donatio at conferences and beating it over the head with large sets of panel data on import substitution policies. (Meanwhile, the Africanus impecunius polisci avoids these territorial clashes in favor of migrating from think tank to think tank, seeking a credible way to actually implement all of its theoretical insights about the importance of good governance.)

This is one of those clever pieces that I wish I wrote.

Review of Dead Aid

Here is my review of the book "Dead Aid" by Zambian economist Dambisa Moyo. The book is no longer hot off the press and I've been sitting on this review for a couple of months, but I still want to add my take to the fray.

Conventional wisdom often assumes that foreign aid to Africa is an unassailable necessity. Trumpeted by popstars and politicians alike, foreign aid is usually offered as the essential tool to lift the neediest out of poverty.

The 2008 presidential election brought aid to the table as a salient foreign policy issue. Activists lobbied for increased aid to Africa while the democratic and republican presidential candidates competed with each other to make the grandest promises. There was talk of doubling, even tripling the amount of aid given to Africa. Meanwhile, little or no debate occurred in the mainstream media about what type of aid should be provided or even how to ensure that the money had a positive impact on the lives of those it was intended to reach. All that mattered was the scale of the figures. The more aid, it seemed, the better.

Occasionally, a brave soul or two in the foreign policy world speaks up and questions the manner and scale with which aid is being distributed to Africa. It's usually not long however, before those dissenting voices are forgotten and it's back to business as usual; aid's place in international politics safely secured. The public conscience rests easily then, with the thought of simply throwing money in the general direction of the poor. Recently however, a new voice has emerged on the scene that has been hard to ignore. With the publication of her book Dead Aid, Dambisa Moyo, has reignited the foreign aid debate and this time it appears, the aid supporters are on the defensive. Ms. Moyo, an economist and trenchant critic of aid, lays a new round of criticisms on the aid establishment and behind her impressive resumé, which includes stints at the World Bank and the firm Goldman Sachs, she has a secret weapon, she's an African.

Dead Aid begins by taking a brief sojourn through the history of foreign aid to Africa, it moves from the early days of white elephant infrastructure projects to the ill-fated “structural adjustment” of economic policy, all the way up to the current focus on agricultural development, good governance and large aid packages heralded by celebrities in dark sunglasses. In the heart of the book, Moyo points out some of the many flaws of aid, followed by what she considers to be the more favorable options African governments have if they want to attract investment, create jobs and raise income levels. In Moyo's view, aid agencies delivering financial assistance to Africa have had plenty of time to produce auspicious results, yet have consistently failed to deliver. It's time, says Moyo, to close the aid tap.

Corruption, conflict, aid dependence and bad policy have prevented many African states from solidly establishing the legal institutions that are essential for the realization of economic growth and sustainable development, writes Moyo. Her prescription for economic development is a cocktail of microfinance, economic policy reform, superior aid evaluation, Eastern investment, remittances, utilization of mobile and information technology and bond issuing. All this, coupled with a reduction, not an increase in aid, is what Moyo predicts will brighten Africa's economic future. She even goes as far as proposing a scenario that would encourage African governments to be more self-sufficient. Her scenario is radical, yet simple. Suppose African governments are informed that in five years they will no longer receive any aid. Moyo argues fervently that those circumstances would necessarily bring about a climate of reform that would influence governments to budget more efficiently, root out corruption and alter their policies to be more accommodating to domestic and foreign business. Through this policy of tough love, Moyo claims, Africa just might be able to abandon its aid addiction.

Moyo's suggestions about how to achieve greater economic growth are a mixed bag, not everything seems to hit the mark. The allure of Asian investors is tricky. China, especially, is pouring barrels of dollars into raw natural resource extraction. Those types of deals sound good at first and often result in improved infrastructure, yet they can discourage the local production of value added products, retard policy reform and cause serious environmental harm. Corporate social responsibility by Asian firms often leaves something to be desired. China in particular has made it clear that it will invest wherever it wants in order to maintain its breakneck pace of growth, even in places with oppressive, undemocratic regimes. Asian investments without social responsibility, while attractive, seem then to undermine good governance and discourage local innovation. Policy changes aimed at making African economies more liberal and competitive are a good idea in theory, but unfavorable deals and tax breaks encouraged by foreign firms must be avoided because of their plundering neo-colonial nature. Moyo also touts remittances as a beneficial way access foreign capital. Unfortunately, she overly simplifies the issue of international migration, by looking at it through a strictly economic lens. The social implications of remittances, especially the negative ones, are quite apparent in The Gambia and can been observed in the form of dependent families and a lack of interest by the youth in developing their nation, among others. It's difficult to be convinced as well, that upon the removal of aid, essential development sectors like health and education would be able to maintain the range and quality of their services in every African country, even if they did away with corruption and inefficiency. The costs just seem too high. While shedding light on some salient development concepts, clearly Moyo has not concocted the perfect aid cure.

The book has its shortcomings for sure, yet the life that Moyo breathes into the aid debate is refreshing. The topic of aid effectiveness was one that desperately needed resuscitation. At a time when developed countries regularly gather at meetings like the G8 to make grandiose financial promises, more energy certainly must be focused on how to achieve results. Moyo is correct in asserting the importance of solid accountable institutions in the development process. The epidemic of corruption must be confronted seriously. Mobile technology could be used effectively as well, as an information gathering and communication tool that can bring market data and people together. Improvement of credit ratings by countries would indeed improve investor confidence. Finally, microfinance, as Moyo mentions, is another valuable tool for small businesses, but only if it is administered in a way that encourages loan takers to stick to business plans.

While many of the concepts are not new, the book is still worth a read to understand the scale of the aid establishment in its current form. Getting a sense of the sentiment behind the anti-aid movement presented by Moyo in Dead Aid will be valuable for those interested in development.