Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Fear and Loathing in Africa

What is it about vacuums, editors/publishers in the US, and Africa?

Altitude sickness.

As soon as its 'African' they lose all their critical faculties and instincts of inquiry. They get so high on their moral pedestal, the air thins out.

If the Ishmael Beah hoax (at the very least he was fast and loose with his factotums) was not enough, they are prone to the dumbest of assertions. Seriously, it's altitude sickness or lack of oxygen or something.

Case in point: Dambisa Moyo's contribution to the body of work that is Self-Loathing Ex-World Bank Employees Seek Redemption in Print.

The introduction/foreword by Niall Ferguson says of Dambisa; "an African view of Africa's Problems".

By her own account, this is a woman born in Zambia, whose father has a PhD from University of California, and a mum who is a leading banker. Dambisa spent big chunks of her formative years in the U.S. Her CV amongst other things reads;

- MBA in Finance and Bachelors degree in Chemistry from American University;
- Harvard for her Masters in Public Administration;
- PhD from Oxford;
- Two years working with the World Bank; and
- A stint with Goldman Sachs.

That's an African View?

It's the view of an exceptionally privileged Zambian-born woman who trawls through contemporary American thinking on Africa and comes up with a different point of view. It’s a pretty long bow to draw when one describes this rarefied viewpoint – however well-meaning the compliment is intended – as somehow representative of a homogenous ‘African view’.

At worst, Dambisa’s book entitled Dead Aid is 154 pages of circular corroboration. At best, it’s a thorough desk review of all the most prominent thinkers; another way of looking at it, is that it is an instructive example of how to schmooze and tip one's hat to all the Big Thinkers in the Faculty of Aid and Development.

Being that as it may, some people will find this slim volume controversial because it is openly critical of aid by advocating a 'tough love' approach to causing development and stability in Africa. Again, this is not in and of itself ground-breaking when one considers the genre; Self-Loathing Ex-World Bank Employees Seek Redemption in Print.

The main thrust of her argument is that aid to Africa in all its forms negatively reinforces corrupt/conflict-fractured/poor African states so 'we' in the West should impose stricter conditions and make more time-critical demands upon these regimes/states. Wean Africa off the big bosom of the West, so to speak.

As I flicked pages restlessly - and with a trace of exasperation I will admit – through Dead Aid, I couldn't help but imagine the ambience in which the book was written;

- The soft tap-tappa noise of perfectly manicured fingers on the soft keys of laptops, singing in syncopated chorus with all the other laptops in the sort of cafe that serves drinks called "grande" "frappacino" and "doppio". Everyone greets one another and the Barista named William with "Hi-ee!" and cute little wash-on, wash off hand waving. William, probably a carrot top (never set foot in Italy), says his obligatory 'ciao';
- The swatch and rustle of patent leather cases, belts, clasps, satchels, handbags, and clutches. Embossed with names like Prada and Hermes;
- Entering into atriums and climate-controlled rooms; the sterile whooshing drone of electric doors, lifts, and elevators;
- The twinkle-clinkle and steady murmur of the kind of restaurant where the wine and the water comes from France or Italy (or some other thinning glacial spring in Europe);
- Lunch consists of Ligurian olives, rich fetta, Sicilian parma and swino nero, bread with names like ciabatta or baguette or panini, bufala mozzarella, marinated peppers and aubergine, washed down with coffee that came from a machine named Gaggia;
- Meat with citations like loin, rump, and fillet (as opposed to 'goat' or 'beef');
- Chuckling friends, colleagues, irony, and private humour.

Here are some ambient noises and dynamics I don't hear when I read Dead Aid:

- The dull roar of a diesel engine as you clock up 750km per week;
- Papa Wemba or Mama Afrika on squealing cassettes;
- The soft thud of stool hitting the latrine's hand-dug pit;
- The whine and ratta-tatta of heavy rain hitting corrugated iron sheeting;
- The stiff clicks and taps of a manual typewriter while you wait two-three-hours-maybe-all-day to meet yet another incompetent senior bureaucrat;
- Chickens, chicks, turkeys, and all manner of fowl jabbering in a constant background cacophony;
- Lunch, if you're lucky;
- Dinner is upland rice, a sloppy broth, and a long slender rooster thigh so taut you need elbow room to break it apart;
- Mzungu! Omuzungu! Mono! (For obvious reasons, mind)
- Eh! Ah-ah! Percussive exclamations in stereo with the poultry
- People hold hands when they greet, and fix you in the eyes;
- Guffawing, full body laughing, probably at someone making a gaffe.

What is it about self-loathing and the former World Bankers? So many of the big names she cites all too frequently are all dyed in the wool self-loathing ex-World Bankers - Collier, Easterly, Sachs...and now, Moyo. At least one of them is African, I suppose!

There's a willful quality to the Bank's recruitment practices. I often wonder if they consciously hire to self-loath. Their keen sense of hubris can only be described as compulsive. Do they persist in funding the woeful programmes around the world in order to feed their self-loathing?

Dead Aid is to self-loathing ex-World Bankers and their acolytes like the tantalizing Ninth Most Highly Effective Habit (is it the Ninth or is Stephen Covey already in double digits?) is for grasping middle managers with personality disorders.

Are editors and publishers at all aware of how over-represented former World Bank self-loathers are amongst their bare-all 'woe Africa' stable of writers?

It would be funny if their ideas weren't so deprived of oxygen. I get dizzy just reading the titles and dizzier still when reading how earnest and seriously they take themselves.

Although, I must say Dambisa is seriously good at sub-headings. You can see the argument unfold by just reading the table of contents.

To be fair, the book should be judged, not on the background, attractiveness (maybe I'm shallow, but it counts; Dambisa is a hotty – somehow it makes the text fly off the page!), or the good living of its author; rather it should be judged on its standalone merits.

And here it is. Dead Aid is a Big Name literature review of Africa's liaisons with the West’s donors and the vicissitudes of executing our na├»ve intentions in Africa. There is no significant primary or secondary analysis in amongst the 154 pages. Even the anecdotes are, for the most part, dry and passionless. That said, it's easy to read and mercifully short.

Links again:

1 comment:

  1. There is another view of this. The whole enterprise is a child-like tantrum because nobody would listen to her at the World Bank. With a CV like this:

    - MBA in Finance and Bachelors degree in Chemistry from American University;
    - Harvard for her Masters in Public Administration;
    - PhD from Oxford;
    - Two years working with the World Bank; and
    - A stint with Goldman Sachs.

    It is easy to imagine the mounting frustration encountered at the WB with the realisation that logic/good sense/accountability have little to do with the decisions; it's about politics and power!

    The book is simply a cry to "give me all the power to do as I think best". The usual reaction of a new-comer to the disfunctionality of the aid architecture.

    If the author got her wish and all the decision making power, I think it would be about a week before ‘the best thing to do’ required people being rounded-up in a football stadium.