“The rest of the world can now do very little for Africa…”
I rather enjoyed Calderisi’s short, readable and stimulating book about aid and development in Africa. Written by an ex-World Bank high-flyer, it deals with the post-1970 years: a period of almost unmitigated failure for Africa. Calderisi vividly illustrates the scale of African economic underperformance: of all the sub-Saharan countries, only Ghana and Uganda have now regained the same real income levels they had in 1970 – the rest have become poorer; and South Korea, poorer than Ghana in 1960, has now become an aid donor to Africa.[151, 156] Calderisi also addresses the political controversy surrounding the remedial economic liberalisation policies of the World Bank and IMF: he argues that this was not the cause of economic woes but a reaction to a more profound economic trend.
For the general reader, a reassessment of the cause and effects of structural adjustment is the most useful – and underdeveloped – aspect of the book. Calderisi argues that internationally directed liberalisation was primarily the result of a massive evaporation of African export markets from the 1970s onwards. In the face of growing international competition from other developing countries, Africa lost $70bn a year: “there was not enough money in the world – let alone in the World Bank – to fill this gap”.  He is right to emphasise this missing half of the debate on late-twentieth century Africa: but it is a shame there isn’t more detail on the affected products and sectors, and a detailed analysis of where the lost business went. What, if anything, could Africa have done to staunch the bleeding?
The idea that World Bank and IMF reforms are the cause of African poverty is, however, firmly entrenched in the left/liberal-ish mindset: SAPs were once memorably described to me as a “rolling clusterfuck” across the Ghanaian economy, a metaphor that I have stolen and applied ever since. If Calderisi is to be more persuasive then his argument needs to be more empirically detailed and anecdotally powerful: a counterweight to the emotive personal tales of neglect, suffering and privatisation that currently dominate public perception.
Calderisi is very strong on the unrealities and inefficiencies of many African economies, often caused by the absurdity of subsidising (modern, prestigious) industry at the expense of (dull, backward) agriculture. Forcing farmers in Cote d’Ivoire to use locally produced sacks and state-owned shipping services, for example, protects hundreds of industrial jobs, but imposes a ruinous cost on hundreds of thousands of agricultural producers. He is also strong on corruption. I’ve often thought that elite African politics attracts the same type of people as privatized utilities/monopolies do in the West: why do something well, when you can do something badly and still make a great deal of money? Calderisi’s anecdotal style confirms this view.
The solution, or part of it, is to drastically cut back aid, and make it strictly conditional on good governance and human rights. But is it all doom and gloom? Well, no. His description of new accountability practices in the Chad-Cameroon pipeline project is interesting, although the jury is still out on their effectiveness.[177-95] Calderisi also praises the actions of five “serious” African governments: Ghana, Uganda, Mozambique, Tanzania and Mali. These countries should be given an unconditional blank cheque, and allowed to get on with it.[209-10] Sadly, in the rush to condemn the rest of Africa, Calderisi rather ignores what these governments have done right.
This review has focused on the ideas behind the book, but much of the enjoyment comes from the anecdotal style, and the accounts of everyday life as a World Bank-er in Africa. Many of Calderisi’s stories are eye-opening and optimistic, if partial. He is an engaging writer, and I rattled through the book in one sitting. The one big weakness is an ill-advised attempt to pinpoint an “African” culture that encourages and embeds corruption and bad governance: ideologies are important, but this continent-wide dismissal was pretty unconvincing. That reservation aside, the book is well worth a read, and may alter a few opinions.
Robert Calderisi, The Trouble with Africa:
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