The problem with Ayittey

December 20, 2007

I had a lightbulb moment when I read this:

“if political elites spent less time criticizing government and more time setting debates within the context of the institutional structure and demands of the lawmaking process, citizens might not be so critical of the political process”

The sentence is totally unrelated to anything african. It’s from a political science study examining american citizen’s relation to the belief that government should be run like a business. But yet it applies.

Since the first time I’ve stumbled upon George Ayyitey‘s work something that I couldn’t quite put my finger on had disturbed me. After reading more articles, watching more speeches, listenning to more interviews, I started to think it was small factual mistakes or suspect little rhetorical figures or his nativist libertarianism. But I just realized it’s somehow bigger.

Ayyitey is one of the rare african voices heard in the “why is Africa so bad ?” big debate. Of course, him being African and all that, he wouldn’t touch the racial-cultural-iq-savages-nigger angle with the ten feet pole. And he’s definetly not part of the “save them by sending billions” advocacy group. He starts by tautologically stating that Africans are poor because Africa (as an economy) is poor. That statement is more brave than it seems to be. A lot of us have a hard time wrapping our minds around the simple idea that oil, diamonds, timber or cocoa are already part of that low GDP. But the real fun is into looking for explanations.

Basically, when facing an economic failure, one has few options: it could be a government failure, an institutional failure, a market failure. Ayittey goes for the government failure but not in the sense that would include the failure of governments to prevent market failures, instead we’re talking about the narrow sense, failure caused by governments and their policies. And when talking about bad policies, one can wonder if they were badly planned, unplanned or if something else went wrong, Ayittey goes for badly planned from the start. But then, where they badly planned because of incompetence or malevolence ? Ayittey focuses on malevolence. But malevolence can take many forms and have many motives, is it self-serving ? Is the benefit political or personnal ? Here Ayittey seems to say personally self-serving, namely, corruption. But even corruption includes a large array of practices from the custom officer taking a bribe for looking the other way to the minister receiving a kickback on a government contract to pure looting of the national coffers. Ayittey’s articles mainly mention the latter.

In short, Ayittey again and again states that Africa is poor because it’s ruled by kleptocratic dictators. It’s not exactly a dissenting opinion. The majority of the population anywhere in Africa agrees and the minority that doesn’t agree would about a past leader or someone they don’t have a (political, financial, ethnic) tie to. Yet, it’s not a new or interesting opinion either. Sure you can spend days discussing the Mobutu-Abacha-Mugabe-Idi Amin axis of evil or the Babangida-Bongo-Moi school of corrupt political trickery but how it won’t show you there’s a way out, let alone showing you the way out.

My problem with Ayittey is that he’s distracting. As a scholar, an economist, I somehow expect him to properly analyze problems and carefully propose solutions. Yet I don’t even see the beginning of an attempt. And no, motivational talks about the existence of “cheetahs” who are about to take on “hippos” have no other effect than to make a few geeks important about themselves. Likewise, pessimistic predictions about prospects for undescribed “reforms” that end up with suggesting a reduction of the political offer (you have to read it) are not a way to start finding solutions anymore than an eulogy that quickly mentions misguided policies but really focuses on corruption, democracy and corruption (did i mention corruption ?).

There is a real urgency, people. With commodities prices going up, governments in Africa are engaging in yet another round of underfunded mamouth infrastructure projects, multi-billion ambitious industrial plants, renegotiations on mineral ressources royalties or city beautification and there’s no one to explain why it didn’t work before. Nor there’s really anyone to explain and discuss which ideas from Asia would really make a difference and which wouldn’t. And the discussions about the IMF and World Bank recommandation remain emotional because no informed african voice is evaluating the policies themselves and their effects.

So yes, it may be fun to think of new ways to use the word “vampire” or it may be challenging to stuff every editorial with examples of corruption in 5 different countries and 5 different decades or it may make sense to scream “small government, now !” while praising Botswana (one of the higher rate of public investments in the world) and it may be lucrative to recycle the same speech for myriad of organizations. But it’s all a waste of time, as constructive and relevant as blaming the West / Colonialism / IMF / Multinationals / Slavery / Racism like so many of his fellows do. May be that’s the real issue, not a failure of leadership but a failure of the intellectual sphere.


11 Responses to “The problem with Ayittey”

  1. omodudu Says:

    I really do not think the flaw in his message is that difficult to root out. To gain mass appeal and make sense to a broad audience and be accepted by the media you need to simplify ideas into bullet points. That is the danger. A discussion that truly seek to attempt to address Africa’s problem is rather boring. But one that has players and events is easier to swallow by the public. I think he is aware of all these but his message at least serve the purpose of shining the light on that area. There are many like him but their message is lost in the many issues that plague Africa. I do not quite agree with him, but his views are quite easy to accept once you realize there isn’t a right or wrong.
    Let’s give it to him though. He has been a voice.

  2. omodudu Says:

    Correct me if I am wrong. Your writing strikes me as that of theorist?

  3. aflakete Says:

    I don’t know what you mean by theorist.

    Yes, he’s been a voice but a voice of what ? I mean, who doesn’t know that Mobutu or Abacha were crooks ? Or who is sitting there thinking any african government has a good economic record ?
    Sure a real discussion would be boring but how is grand-standing rhetoric different from what we got from the people he criticizes ?

    Replace imperialist/colonialist by government/elites/leaders and you have the same texts (and actually, sometimes you don’t even have to replace, adding is enough).

  4. Loomnie Says:

    I understand your frustrations, and believe me, I go through the same feelings myself. I think we need more sophisticated modes/ways for analysing problems. But the problem is that these old modes of analyses and forms of discourses are so catchy that they stick. We all know the penchant of development agencies for simplified/simplistic formulations. Therefore, it is arguments that are formulated in these ways that get their attention.

    But the, I think we need voices like his anyway. The fact that we know these things doesn’t mean that we don’t need to constantly be reminded of them.

  5. Joshua Says:

    Nice that you have written about this issue. On many a level I agree with what Ayittey does and says. While I don’t agree on all levels, I believe he has suggested policies and solutions to some of the problems facing Africa in African Unchained. While his speeches might not cover everything in terms of solutions, the books covers solutions from his perspective.

    More than that, I know he is working on methods to get funding to businesses in Africa that help in creating jobs in their local communities. That is nothing theoretical but rather practical solutions to Africa’s problems.

    BTW, could we publish this article on African Path to further this discussion? Send me an email with your thoughts. Thank you.

  6. aflakete Says:

    hmmm.. so what are solutions and policies he has suggested ?

    when you’re talking about methods to get funding, are you refering to the Cheetah Index ?

    (and email sent)

  7. Joshua Says:

    No, Cheetah Index is independent of what Ayittey is doing. I know he has a project he is working on with a number of people. When ready, they will then announce it.

  8. Benin Mwangi Says:


    Interesting discussion. But if i might echo what seems to be Omodudu’s sentiment in his second comment-you have criticized Ayittey as being too much of a theorist or maybe too academic. Now please don’t take me the wrong way, because what you are doing-questioning, is very healthy. But wouldnt you agree that your presentation in this article was very academic?

    Now Aflakete, I like your fervor and it is good, so again don’t get me the wrong way-my response is not an attack. But I believe that maybe Ayittey is sometimes just misunderstood. You see the thing that a good teacher does is not necessarily to tell their readers or pupils what to think or what to do, but the only thing a good teacher can do is encourage us to think at most they can train us on what questions to ask or how to think and then leave the rest up to the pupil. To me this is what Ayittey does.

    But as Joshua pointed out he is doing some very hands on work “on the ground” so to speak but he has chosen to not disclose it at this time, which is his choice. I guess what is more important is what some of the folk who listen to what he has to say are doing to improve economic situations on the continent. Take the TED 2007 fellows for instance, on the surface it may appear that their discourse is purely academic or utter geek talk.

    But when you look deeper one finds that each one of them are asking the tough questions and answering the questions themselves, then going out and doing something practical about it. Plus many are going a step further and engaging the communities that they are asking the questions about.

    In my humble opinion this is the value of Ayittey’s message. One doesn’t need to agree with everything that he says. But one can at the very least acknowledge that he has worked to be part of the solution and has done this without asking for anything in return. This is something that I am unable to readily say about anyone else. Me personally, I do not agree with everything that he says either. However, he has shown me that to a certain extent good solid development can occur without the politicians help or support and that while not the most desirable situation it is at least empowering to communities whose other alternative is to wait for election time to get things done. So there is a strong element of practicality in his argument, beneath the surface.

    Thank you for the excellent discussion, keep asking questions my friend.

    Benin Mwangi
    Cheetah Index

  9. aflakete Says:

    Thank you for your comment, Benin.

    I don’t know how you got the impression I criticized Ayittey for being too academic or too much of a theorist. I really don’t. As a matter of fact, I think his weakness is the sloppyness of his theoric and academic work.

    I know he does real practical stuff on the ground, with ghanean farmers, fishermen and real communities and i applaud him for that. It’s really the other Ayittey I have issues with, the one who gives speeches at TED or the IMF, the one who writes papers for Cato or is interviewed in every documentary on Africa and who keeps repeating a sloppy message of self-empowerment, the same horror stories of political corruption and calls for “reform” without ever properly discussing what those reforms should be and how they should be implimented.

    And yeah, waiting for election time is not the only alternative. I mean communities have been getting forever. Sometimes they’ve done well, sometimes they haven’t. What is kinda scary in my personnal experience is how they’re few discussions in those communities about what could be done by politicians other than “stop stealing” or “build a road”. And commentators like Ayittey reinforce that lack of interest in policy. That’s dangerous.

  10. Kentke Says:

    The question that arises in my reading and contemplation of Ayittey’s book is in regard to his Cheetahs. From what I’ve read, I gather that Ayittey holds high hopes for this young generation, because of their emotional and cultural ‘distance’ from significant historical events and charismatic leaders of the post independance era. I gather that he sees their having no ‘attachment’ to this part of Africa’s past as liberating. I agree, that can definately be positive, to have clear open mental space to create, because one is not bogged down with alot of baggage from the past. Liberating for them, but I’m mainly wondering, what is enlightening them?
    Reviewing the political and social climate of the years that these 20-39 year old young men and women were born, raised and educated in, the question that arises for me is, What is the basis of their moral and ethical code? Surely it is not traditional, and I question if their beliefs are concepts that are even evolved from African rooted systems of cosmology and understanding.
    I also gather, that Ayittey wants to revert to African systems and ways of being as the foundation of problem-solving our way to wholeness and prosperity on the continent. A wonderful idea, and definately more promising, as it’s organic, as opposed to the synthesized solutions externally imposed on peoples and regions.
    However, this generation of Cheetahs, is so far removed from traditional ways, that I see a huge gap in these two parts of Ayittey’s thinking. Their world is framed by the technology of their generation. Their ‘pace’ is completely different. They are quite removed from village life, and the issues of agriculture, or transforming raw resources into products of industrial use.
    Unlke the Cheetahs, I’m no computer geek, so forgive me, if I’m off here, but indulge me this analogy. As I’m writing this, this is what has come to me: It’s almost as if the Cheetahs represent the software of a computer. Faster, new ways of applications to structural needs. But the structure, or the hardware, the actual way that people, and land and resources and nature are all organized to function….I don’t really see the Cheetahs possessing the depth, strength and power to do that. I also don’t see them possessing an understanding of the natural world and Life, that are necessary to not only correct Africa’s shortcomings, but to bring all of Life on the planet to a new level of harmony.
    The bigger picture, is that it’s about a lot more than an economy at stake here.
    The framework that that is all contained within, is the Motherboard. The mileau, the consciousness that both holds the hardware, and allows the software to be applied for ease of functioning. That Motherboard, again is what I’m calling the ethical, the moral values of this group. What feeds, forms and nurtures that for the Cheetahs? What is the basis of their sense of integrity? Is it quality or quantity? Is the greater value placed on functionality, or that which is economically feasible? How important is collective value, or competition in their psyche? What do they consider wholesome? Is that concept even a part of their consciousness?
    Is it possible that looking to the Cheetahs as Africa’s saviors, we will end up with societies symbolique of their ‘toys’ and interests…ipods, cell phones, and MTV videos?

    I too, hold high hopes from this generation of Africans, I just favor a more balanced approach, that is created by lots of multgenerational dialogue, synthesis and fusion.

    This, for me was a gap in the thinking of Prof. Ayittey.

  11. […] it the audience ? January 17, 2008 The Bayesian Heresy (approvingly) quotes my post on Ayittey and adds: I think another way to think about it is that his main audience is western not […]

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