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.