Out of Africa

Two books reveal westerners’ distorted models of the continent.

Our fascination with Africa is matched by our ignorance. I say this from experience. When I was 19, I spent the summer of 1962 in Senegal, seduced by the excitement of the newly independent state, by the drums, by the colours, by the noise, by the markets, by the promise of an infinite future, by the magic. And yet, four years later, when it came time to pick a topic for a doctoral dissertation in development economics, I sadly decided to look elsewhere than Africa, because I knew so little about it and had no realistic chance of altering that unfortunate condition.

Half a century has passed, and much has changed. The decades have brought rapid political, economic and cultural developments in sub-Saharan Africa, including both fulfillment and betrayal of the promises inherent in the independence movements. Still, some things have not changed. Although we have access to much more data and scholarship than we did 50 years ago, we still struggle to understand the most basic facts of that continent.

In two new books, Canadian academics David R. Black of Dalhousie University and Morten Jerven of Simon Fraser have set themselves the task of casting new light on Africa and its place in the world. Black focuses on Canadian foreign policy in the continent, Jerven on the record of economic growth. Both make significant contributions to our understanding, while showing why it is so difficult to expand our understanding. One attribute they share—an attribute that makes their books come alive for the reader—is a transparent enthusiasm for and commitment to the varieties of the African experience.

Black has two goals in Canada and Africa in the New Millennium: The Politics of Consistent Inconsistency. The first is to establish a framework capable of explaining the inconsistent, fluctuating engagement of Canadian foreign policy toward Africa. The second is to predict whether the Harper government’s relative withdrawal from engagement with Africa represents a permanent change, or is instead just another oscillation in what Black calls a “consistently inconsistent” Canadian foreign policy.

They are important goals, and the fact that he is not totally successful in either is a consequence, I think, not of a weakness on his part but of the intractability of the issues.

Black proposes three possible perspectives: first, Canada and Canadians as “good international citizens,” accepting well-established norms of international behaviour and contributing appropriately to common, agreed-upon international projects; second, Canada as a participant in western hegemonic aspirations in Africa, taking its place as a middle power, without a history as a colonialist there, in support of a world order dominated by the United States; and third, Africa as a location for Canada to demonstrate its high moral standards and idealism.

The perspectives may seem distinct, but Black is too good a scholar to allow himself to be constrained by them. For example, from the very beginning of his book, the first category, Canada as a good international citizen, dissolves into two. The first he calls “pluralist,” and it consists largely of states respecting the sovereignty of each other and declining to intervene in their domestic affairs. The second he calls “solidarist,” which consists mostly of ignoring state boundaries and instead protecting the human rights of individuals wherever they are located. They are opposites, and it is hard to see them as comfortable joint occupants of a single category.

Moreover, he adds additional perspectives when compelled to do so by the stories he tells. The most obvious is “international realism,” a doctrine well established over centuries, according to which states act internationally in support of their economic and security interests. The main story here is that historically Canada has had only the weakest of material interests in Africa, until the most recent years when investments by Canadian-based mining companies have grown explosively.

Another added perspective, also as old as the study of international relations itself, is the idea that international politics is an extension of domestic politics, that states develop foreign policies largely in order to garner support and votes at home. With respect to this perspective, Black makes the astute observation that under Harper, “the Conservatives have paid a negligible political price at home for their diminished interest and engagement with sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed much of their political base likely sees this as good, hard-headed, prudent policy—a welcome corrective to the soft-minded moralism of its Liberal predecessors.”

In sum, there are at least six perspectives in the book, and a close reader might find more. Furthermore, it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to test one against another on the basis of evidence, of actual policy. Take, for example, foreign aid.

Black devotes a full chapter to Canadian foreign aid in Africa, demonstrating that it has fluctuated in both amount and focus, and that in sum it has come to less than has often been claimed for it. Although the commitment to African aid has been reduced by Harper’s government, one should not make the mistake of thinking this represents a huge break with the policies of previous Canadian governments. Does this record tell us anything about Black’s three principal theories? No, as it turns out, because the record can easily be made consistent with all three. First, aid is an indicator of good international citizenship, of either the pluralist or the solidarist variant, as the country joins in good will with international cooperative ventures. Second, it is consistent with a hegemonic view, as western countries seek to secure the support of potential allies. And finally, it is an obvious indicator of Canadian idealism, of the country’s commitment to help the least advantaged in a post-colonial world, even if, as Black points out, this narrative is often self-congratulatory, rather than focused on the usefulness of the aid for the recipients.

The same could be said of military peace operations on the continent, a subject to which Black devotes another full chapter. In each case, exactly the same military operations can be understood equally well as manifestations of international citizenship, hegemony or idealism.

The book’s subtitle is “The Politics of Consistent Inconsistency,” and Black succeeds in showing how Canadian engagement with Africa has fluctuated over time, seemingly randomly, accelerating, decelerating, changing in substance, changing in geographical concentration, changing in public relations. Whatever the reasons for the fluctuation, they do not seem to have much to do with shifts between the different explanatory theories. Black makes it clear, for example, that Harper’s de-emphasis on Africa was not a matter of shifting away from idealism and international cooperation and toward hegemony. To the contrary, it was marked by a turning away from all three.

Black’s second purpose is to determine whether the changes in policy toward Africa under Harper “portend a decisive long-term shift in, and diminution of, Canada’s involvement with the continent.” Of course, he admits immediately, there is no way to know with certainty; only the future will tell—but he speculates intelligently.

The following is not quite the way he puts it, but it is consistent with his presentation. The future of Canadian policy toward Africa depends at least partly on which party is in power. With one exception, Black can find no sign in the views of the current Conservative party that would suggest a more intense engagement, even to the inconsistent levels seen under predecessor governments. The attractions of good international citizenship, participation in the global hegemonic project and moral idealism all are weak within the party. The one possible exception is the pull of international realism, as Canadian mining companies establish stronger positions in Africa. It is an open question, however, whether support of those mining companies will redound to the benefit of ordinary African workers and citizens. If and when the Conservatives lose power, however, all bets are off. We might well see a change in rhetoric, and even possibly a change in policy, a re-engagement in terms of aid and other forms of partnership with Africa. Not necessarily, however. The facts on the ground have changed since the pre-Harper years, most dramatically in the growth of mining. It is hard to imagine any Canadian government being indifferent to the welfare of Canadian mining companies in Africa, and this could lead to reduced concern for, say, environmental values, sustainability and workers’ rights.

Morten Jerven’s self-appointed task in Africa: Why Economists Get It Wrong is to understand the record of economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa. He takes an iconoclastic position—a position that makes his book entertaining reading, even for a non-specialist—trying to show that both foreign economics researchers and African statisticians have gotten the story wrong. The standard narrative is that Africa is an economic disaster, that it has remained mired in poverty since the days of independence while much of the rest of the world has emerged into self-sustaining growth. Not so, says Jerven. From the 1960s through the early 1970s, African economic growth was quite respectable, roughly comparable to world economic growth. However, the oil price increases of 1973 and 1979 hit Africa particularly hard, and the continent regressed economically for the next two decades. In the new millennium, economic growth resumed.

Why is this record not obvious? Jerven puts much of the blame on quantitative economic methodology, particularly what he calls the “growth regression literature.” Economists use regression equations to compare, statistically, the experience of as many countries as possible. Each year is a separate observation, and the equations will likely have a stronger fit, that is to say, better explanatory power, the more observations are used. Moreover, the equations are usually linear, presuming steady, unchanging growth over the full period. In other words, asserts Jerven, the methodology uses data going back as early as the 1960s, if possible, and then presumes that the experience over the full period is uniform.

It is, of course, true that over the 50-year period, average African economic growth has been weaker than world economic growth. It is an artifact of the methodology, however, says Jerven, that economic researchers fail to understand that African growth falls into three distinct periods, two of which have been relatively successful. Instead, they speculate that unchanging factors inherent to Africa (factors such as failed states, lack of property rights, weak infrastructure, etc.) necessarily handicap African growth.

The problem is economic methodology, says Jerven, not the actual African economic performance. To understand that performance, he recommends abandoning the shortcut of regression models that assume that the process of economic growth is essentially the same in all countries and turning instead to the hard, detailed work of economic history, country by country. The experience of economic growth is decidedly different in different places, and needs to be understood on its own terms.

This is a fundamental insight, and I think Jerven is right. It was one of the intellectual privileges of my life to study for a few years with a man who was at the time the developing world’s greatest living economist, Sir W. Arthur Lewis of St. Lucia and Jamaica. A decade earlier, in the mid 1950s, he had proposed a “two-sector” or “labour-surplus” model for understanding the growth of low-income economies. The model’s details do not much matter now; they have been largely superseded. What still matters is his insight that the process of economic change in low-income countries may be quite different from the process in already-developed countries. If one uses methodology invented for the rich countries, Lewis showed, one may systematically misunderstand the process of economic change in the poor countries.

This is not to say that Lewis abandoned economic theory; to the contrary, he was a well-trained neoclassical economic theorist. He insisted, however, that the structure of low-income economies differed from that of the rich, and that therefore explanatory models had to be adjusted accordingly.

This is the essence of Jerven’s critique. The use of methodologies developed for a different purpose run the risk of distorting the understanding of African economies. One would think we had learned that lesson a long time ago from thinkers such as Lewis, but evidently not. The attraction of high-powered econometric models developed in the universities of Europe and North America is hard to resist.

Jerven is appropriately modest, however, about how well he, or anyone, understands the true record of African economic growth. In his last substantive chapter he summarizes the findings of his previous book, showing basic and perhaps fatal weaknesses in the national income accounting systems of most African countries. In Canada and most developed countries, we take it for granted that we know the levels of gross domestic product, unemployment, inflation, money supply, exports, imports and all the rest, within a narrow margin of error. Not so in Africa, and as a consequence we remain uncertain about the facts on the ground.

Taken together, the two books give one optimism for the state of African studies in Canada. The authors are deeply engaged with the continent and its place in the world, they believe in its importance, and they are part of a scholarly movement that is successfully blowing away the fog of ­ignorance.