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Wars, Guns and Votes, By Paul Collier
It's Our Turn to Eat, By Michela Wrong

Gavin Kitching was a highly regarded academic who had spent most of his life studying African history and politics. So there was some surprise and disquiet when he published a short, bitter article entitled "Why I gave up African Studies". His reasons were still more unsettling. "In a word," he wrote, "I gave up African studies because I found it depressing."

The depression was caused "both by what was happening to African people and by my inability even to explain it adequately, let alone do anything about it". More, there were strong pressures against even trying to explain: admitting that most of independent Africa was a disastrous failure, and that much of the fault lay with the continent's own leaders, was professionally and personally unacceptable. Worst of all, he saw "no significant progress made in answering the question 'why?'"

Kitching's article, and the small flood of angry responses, were a prickly instance of a long-established contention: on one side "Afro-pessimists" who diagnosed comprehensive failure and doubted whether there was any escape; on the other, not so much "Afro-optimists" as analysts who believe that Africa's ills come mainly from outside, from colonial legacies and global forces. The antonym of "Afro-pessimist" is not optimist but "African nationalist". Pessimism, to its enemies, is no more than the cloak for a neo-colonialist if not racist disdain for African humanity.

Paul Collier does not so much enter this fire-scorched landscape as try to fly high above it, and thus bring a new perspective and maybe new hope. He does not only attempt to say "why?", but to tackle the ensuing, still tougher question, "what to do?" Collier, who heads Oxford's Centre for the Study of African Economies, is poles apart from Kitching in at least two key ways. Kitching finds much in Africa rationally inexplicable, while Collier is both an ultra- rationalist and insists on African behaviour as rationally understandable. Against Kitching's gloom, Collier adopts a generally upbeat, indeed breezy, style. Both the strength and the weakness of Collier's book lie in those two contrasts – for his model of rationality is arguably far too simple and, more trivially, the style can be downright irritating.

Wars, Guns and Votes is not ostensibly about Africa as such, but about poor and troubled countries more generally: the world's "bottom billion", in the title of his much-praised book. Actually, almost all its argument and evidence do relate to Africa, and Collier's few references to events elsewhere are sketchy. Its African core is nonetheless based on very substantial hard evidence: mostly left out of the book itself so as to keep it short and accessible, but copiously available online.

That evidence, Collier urges, points to several grim conclusions. Most of Africa is in developmental terms a catastrophe. There are multiple structural reasons: most African states are too small (in terms of economic scale), too dependent on monoculture, too lacking in basic infrastructure and human capital; above all, too violent, corrupt and unstable for economies to flourish. The most immediate obstacles to growth are political – and internal. Blaming "imperialism", whether old colonial policies or current superpower ones, gets us nowhere.

The main post-Cold War panaceas for these ills have been international aid and African democratisation. The first, though, has rarely had all the desired effects – albeit that Collier does not endorse the sweeping recent claims, like Dambisa Moyo's, that all aid is useless. And democracy may actually make things worse. In poor countries with "winner takes all" systems, where political power means both personal enrichment for rulers and spoils for their supporters, the incentives to rig or abort elections are immense.

Even at best, electoral competition usually means politicians mobilising ethnic (or "tribal") bloc support by promising benefits to flow from having "one of our own" in power. Hence the slogan which provides Michela Wrong's title in her book about Kenyan whistleblower John Githongo: it's our (our party, our district, our tribe) turn to eat the goodies which come with government.

That image of politics as consumption is pervasive throughout Africa – though not only there. It's a slight pity, though, that neither Collier nor Wrong properly credits writers like Jean-François Bayart and Achille Mbembe, who explore its implications.

Sometimes, the only apparent way out of the vicious circle may be military intervention. One of Collier's most contentious suggestions is that coups may not always be entirely a bad thing. At least, the threat of a coup might force governments to behave better. And here comes his central and rather startling proposal: the richer Western world can use that threat constructively to induce positive change in Africa.

They can offer African states the option of signing a contract for good behaviour: fair elections, honest government, human-rights observance (though Collier gives little space to the last). If they sign, and keep the contract, the international community will protect them against insurrection or takeover. If necessary, it will do so by armed intervention and peacekeeping. If they won't, they can be left to hang – and, he implies, serve them right.

Here's where the biggest problems with Collier's case start. For he supposes that faced with such threats and inducements, African rulers – and their subjects – will respond in ways he regards as rational. But nationalist pride, colonial memories, "racial" resentments, stand in the way. Maybe the arguments typical in Collier's discipline of economics reveal their flaws when a fairly simple model of rational choice in public affairs runs up against the observed reality that people – especially when bound by group identity – refuse to behave "rationally" in those terms.

The picture must be modified by giving more attention to culture, history and group psychology. Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz recently argued that, to understand African politics, one must recognise that chaotic, economically failing, seemingly irrational ways of doing things may "work" all too well for some key African actors.

There is a closely related, and truly fundamental problem. Collier and Gavin Kitching are both white men, born and living outside Africa. There is nowhere else, and no other major intellectual field, whose study is so dominated by outsiders. Africa's brain drain has only made that worse – even where the most important analysts are of African origin, they mostly work outside the continent. Resentment at and humiliation before that state of affairs suffuses African reactions to outsiders' diagnoses and proposed solutions.

The same might prove true for Michela Wrong's vivid, journalistic study of corruption in Kenya and the travails of her book's flawed hero, John Githongo. Not only is Wrong another "outsider", but the image of Githongo as lone anti-corruption crusader – a crusader who's now, in exile, ensconced in the same Oxford college where Collier works – will alienate at least as many as it attracts.

The point shouldn't be to argue for the economist's rational choice models or the more complex, murky findings from studying history and political culture. Nor should it be to privilege either insiders' or outsiders' perspectives, to blame Africa's ills on global forces or on local elites – least of all to opt for simple optimism or pessimism.

Refusing those false choices, we need a due measure of each side of their antitheses. Which is easy to say, but desperately hard to do...

Stephen Howe is professor of post-colonial history at Bristol University

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