My essay from the February issue of the Milken Institute Review, “M&A for Africa,” is now available on-line (though readers must register with the Review in order to download the article). In his editor’s note to the issue, Peter Passel, the Review’s astonishingly fluent editorial architect, introduces my essay by saying that I think “out loud about an unthinkable approach to tackling Africa’s seemingly intractable economic problems.” He then quotes a pungent summary point in my own words: “Throughout history the notion of taking countries apart and reassembling them in the name of one utopian vision or another has been part of the vocabulary of tyrants. But suspend judgement for a moment. Could there be a practical way to allow the citizens of one country to express a preference to join another, and then do so? Could different parts of a failed state be parceled out among more viable neighbors?”
My essay of course provides no definitive answer or even a pretense towards one. But the thought-experiment I propose is worth mounting, even if only in the realm of ideas.
Back in February I gave a long talk at the University of Michigan on the roots of African poverty — and some ways of raising incomes of poor people. For nearly three years I’ve been researching and thinking about how farm incomes grow in Africa. That’s an obscure question in the abstract but in the annals of African polical economy there is perhaps no more important question. About two-thirds of all Africans depend chiefly on farming for their sustenance, so the quickest way to help the most AfricansÂ is to improve farm livelihoods — both through higher prices for cash crops and greater output of consumables. In a filmed interview with the university’s Davidson Institute, I concentrated on the importance of raising farm incomes, and under what conditions today in Africa farmers are succeeding beyond the wildest expectation of foreign “ag” experts. The Davidson Institute, housed in UM’s business school, has an active program on so-called “bottom of the Pyramid” approaches to raising incomes of poor people in developing countries. My Davidson interview can now be viewed online in its entirety.
Mozambique, which in the most recent year (tallied by the BBC) received a total of $2 billion in foreign assistance. Uganda was tenth on the list, with in-flows of $638 million. The complete list contains a few surprises, notably the inclusion of South Africa and the ranking of Tanzania (fourth-largest recipient).
“It seems that these days, wracked by guilt at the humanitarian crisis it has created in the Middle East, the West has turned to Africa for redemption.” — Uzodinma Iweala
One reaction from intellectual readers of my recent article in the Times on the Ismaili Imam, the Aga Khan, was to urge me to read thepost 9/11-essay by the Ugandan-born Mahmood Mamdani, whose writings on African history and society are widely admired. Islam in West Africa — I am thinking especially of Senegal, Mali and Burkina, three countries whose entire populations are virtually all Muslims (if not animists, or traditional believers — is of course the paradigmatic instance in the world of the “good muslim” in Mamdani’s mind. These are gentle, tolerant Muslims, and they are representative actually of an older, wider tradition of African tolerance that has been obscured by recent decades of disorder and state failure not to mention violence expressed under the rubric of enthnicity of tribal affiliation. Mamdani draws attention to the Cold War roots of violent political Islam (my terms) and offers some especially penetrating insights into the African experience. He writes of the seminal year 1975, when I turned 20 years old in New York, and he was a young professor in Tanzania:
“1975 was the year of the American defeat in Indochina, and of the collapse pf Portuguese rule in the colonies of Mozambique, Angola, and Portuguese Guinea, the last European empire in Africa. In retrospect, it was the year that the focal point of the Cold War shifted from southeast Asia to southern Africa.”
In Africa, as elsewhere, the long view of history continues to animate, distort and ultimately explain a great deal of current affairs. More broadly informed historical work that place African affairs in a global context are needed — partly as an antidote to the specialized and sometimes tendentious studies of African specialists and partly because developments in Africa often drove events in faraway places (and not the other way around, as often is presumed). See my recent writing on Ghana’s independence for an instance of this (the effect of Nkrumah’s achievement of power in 1957 on the flagging US civil rights movement was enormous). In “Good Muslim, Bad Muslim,” Mamdani provides other important examples of African-generated global trends of great significance.
“Independence means self-reliance. Independence cannot be real if a nation depends on gifts and loans from another for its development. How can we depend up foreign governments and companies for the major part of our development without giving to those governments and countries a great part of our freedom to act as we please? The truth is we cannot.”Â — Julius Nyerere
The U.S. dollar on Friday reached a new low against the Euro and a 26-year-low against the British pound. The dollar is pathetically worth only 50 pence. In the face of the dollar’s decided decline, African currencies have held their ground, with South Africa, Uganda, Zambia and some others posting impressive gains. With the dollar steadily dropping, a few African currencies are starting to look like “safe havens.” Why not by Ugandan shillings or South African rand as a hedge against further weakness in the dollar? If only I had done so on my last visit to Uganda, I would be sitting pretty in advance of my next trip. Who knew, amid talk of African economic marginalization and extreme poverty, that the soaring currencies of some countries in the region would make this American envious.
“Profit at all costs has made it difficult for Western investors to get involved in business in Sub-saharan Africa. Yet investors agree the highest returns are in Africa. What a painful contradiction?” — the perplexed African
“It is stupid to rely on money as the major instrument of development when we know only too well that our country is poor. It is equally stupid, indeed it is even more stupid, for us to imagine that we shall rid ourselves of our poverty through financial assistance rather than our own financial resources.” — Julius Nyerere
One old Africa hand writes me, on reading my Sunday profile of the Aga Khan, which described some of the activities of the Ismaili Muslims in Uganda:
“Actually, I knew nothing, but nothing, about him before reading your piece.Â All I had seen were a few hospitals and other projects that he has supported in Africa, and they have always seemed pretty good (as foreign aid projects go, that is–not a lot of competition.) I am also thrilled that he is trying to help with Uganda’s power shortages.Â There was some controversy over that dam, but I think it was overblown, and most people I know support it.Â As long as the Lake Victoria doesn’t disappear.”
On the future of Lake Victoria, the largest tropical lake on the planet: some critics of the planned dam at Bujagali Falls have said it will contribute to a dangerous lowering of the water levels in the Lake. My response: Power needs dire in Uganda and if the lake is going to disappear, it will be because of the overwhelming force of climate-change — and not whether a new dam is built or not.