Africa — as seen by Richard Dowden

Informative and useful review by DianeC of Africa:altered states, ordinary miracles by Richard Dowden.

There are lots of things about this book that I liked. One was learning something new on every page. It’s a great read, combining vivid reportage with intelligent analysis. Another was the author’s refusal to generalize. Almost every chapter is about a specific country, or sub-national region, or ethnic group, or village. The stories are used to illustrate wider points, but no reader could emerge from this making bland generalizations. Any of the chapters makes a great, concise introduction to an individual country’s history and political landscape.

However, there are two quite powerful generalizations that emerge, not from being chapter subjects, but from the way they crop up in every specific example throughout the book. One is the utterly corrosive and pervasive corruption. Like Martin Meredith in The State of Africa, Dowden thinks this has its origins in colonialism, in the expectation formed by colonial rule that the state steals from the people. Between two and fourteen times the amount paid to African countries in official aid has been sent overseas to private bank accounts in London and Switzerland, he suggests. (And here’s another charge to lay at the door of the financial services industry, the bankers for whom all money is welcome, no matter what its provenance.) But unlike Meredith, he firmly blames current political leaders in Africa for betraying the hopes and promise of liberation with every bribe they take or profit they skim. In this he is in harmony with a growing chorus of critics of everyday politics in so many Africa countries – including, of course, Barack Obama.

A second theme which emerges unannounced is the damage being caused by the aid industry – and here too Dowden is adding his authoritative voice to other aid critics. This ranges from his critique of the way the agencies feed the image of helpless, starving Africa to ensure they can raise funds to pay themselves and ensure their activities continue (p7) to drawing attention to their perverse role in supporting those who committed the genocide in Rwanda in 1994 (p248)…