Is 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 African– his talks are geared to the style of those of his main audience.

I have doubts about such causality but most importantly I’m really not sure the West is his main audience. Ayittey does have an African audience, if not on the continent, at least within the immigrant communities. I do get the feeling that most of it is young, western-educated (if not living in the west), technology-friendly and rather prosperous but it’s not impossible that, in anglophone African countries, or at least in his native Ghana, a bigger (and less-priviledged) audience that I’m not directly aware of is reached by him through local newspapers or any other form of intervention public intellectuals use. And that’s not counting the fact that Ayittey has a certain stature among africanist scholars.

I would bet that both audiences validate each other. The African one viewing the western audience as proof of expertise and the western one viewing the African audience as a authenticity/legitimacy signal. Not that it really matters to what I’m trying to say.

If you really want to play the signal game and guess who is Ayittey targetting instead of assuming he says what he says because that’s what the hell he thinks, I’m still not sure the West is his main target.

Yes, his position on aid does look like part of the West would like it. But then again, the debates on aid to Africa in the West are always framed in a very particular way. Either one wants to save poor helpless Africans or one thinks it’s too expensive or useless or that Africa needs to save itself. Ayittey’s position somehow doesn’t exactly fit. He’s not asking for less aid, he’s asking for smarter aid, he’s not saying “Africans are hopeless” or “farewell to alms”, he’s arguing against “No Dictatorship (or mismanaged economy) Left behind”, he’s asking for a different sort of ties to the aid instead of arguing for or against tied aid. And on top of that, one shouldn’t ignore the fact that both aid itself, or the recent campaigns (form and content) aren’t as popular among Africans, especially middle-class Africans, as westerners usually think. It’s seen as humiliating and useless at best and racist and a-tool-of-neo-colonial-imperialism-domination (*breathes*) at worse.
Yes, Ayittey uses a lot of free-marketer/pro-capitalist/libertarian/economic right vocabulary and one could see how his ideas about the lack of economic freedom in Africa would be attractive to the IMF, the Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation but then he does something no self-respecting western right-wing or libertarian would do or like: he talks, a lot, about political freedom and ties to economic freedom. I suspect his african audience wouldn’t very receptive to Bryan Caplan-like arguments against democracy or to one that would replace Pinochet with Museveni or Ian Smith or Houphouet-Boigny and argue that a pro-market dictatorship is a good thing.
And then you have little details like Ayittey’s distrust of multinational corporations, foreign investment in natural ressources and other things one would expect western audiences to like a lot (and libertarians to find refreshlingly counter-intuitive). Honestly, who is really supposed to get excited by the idea of “small-scale indigeneous people-based market solutions” to Africa’s economic woes ? And what kind of non-african is supposed to be moved by his attacks on colonial, post-colonial, western (mostly french) and chinese economic involvement in Africa (good example) ? Had the western audiences been so important, he would probably have written something called “In Praise of De Beers (or UMHK or Zambia Mining Agreements)” with arguments parallel to those of Paul Krugman’s famous piece and mentions of the economic performance of Botswana or pre-independance Katanga.
And finally, Ayittey does argue again and again that contrary to what Nkrumah, Senghor or Nyerere have argued, pre-colonial African societies were not socialist but free-market and capitalist. Here too, I have a very hard time imagining anyone but Africans thinking that whatever pre-colonial societies were has any relevance on our societal choices. (and if you want my opinion, anyone who thinks that somehow all the economic or political systems in pre-colonial Africa perfectly fit into modern western categories like socialist/capitalist/freemarket/statist/democracy is at best wrong, at worse a crank. And Nyerere would have been the closest, had he added more market interactions, more voluntary settlement and more political decentralization to his villagization scheme.)

So in short, no matter I disagree with Ayittey, I don’t think his western audiences have much to do with it. Unless we decide that they really really love long detailed anecdotical tales of high-level corruption in Africa. But then, Hollywood would have produced more “King of Scotland”-like movies. Whatever happened to Oliver Stone’s project on Mobutu ?

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