Good Reading : October 2004
general non-fiction word of mouth 36 goodreading Miles Roston: What’s your hope in writing this book? Robert Guest: It’s asking the big fundamental question about Africa, why is it so poor and what can be done about that? I’ve had this opportunity over the last six years to travel much more widely in Africa than most, to ring up the experts in pretty much any coun- try, quite often the politicians and mili- tary people, to find out what they think is going on. Because my job is as a jour- nalist, I’m trained to write in a way that people can understand. And there are a lot of concrete examples: I don’t just say that there’s a corruption problem and that makes countries poorer, I go and get on a beer truck in Cameroon and follow it through 47 police road blocks, watch it pay 47 bribes and see how much more expensive that makes the bottle of beer when it gets to the other end.That’s the kind of stuff that’s not there in any of the World Bank studies. MR: You speak of a vampire state.What do you mean by that? RG: Well, a government is supposed to create a framework in which people can pursue happiness or prosperity in whatever way they choose. And my contention is that African states have miserably failed to do this. Rather than seeking to create an environment in which people can prosper, they simply preyed on the people underneath them. MR: Haven’t a lot of these corrupt gov - ernments in Africa really been facilitated by developed nations? RG: The area in which the West is most culpable I think is firstly during the Cold War period.There was a tendency to prop up appalling dictators like Mobutu for strategic reasons.You know: if the guy says he’s not a communist, and that he hates communism, then you give him a load of money. And that was appalling. MR: A lot of the countries that have corrupt governments also have a lot of mineral wealth or oil wealth. RG: The source from which the government gets money is quite important. If you’re getting money from voluntary taxation of citizens, then the citizens will want a say in how that money is spent. And that’s why there is a measure of accountability in most democracies. But in most African coun- tries, the vast majority of people don’t pay taxes, because they’re peasants - and you shouldn’t be taxing peasants. But if you’re getting money from an oil well, then you’re totally unaccountable. And that’s places like Angola and Nigeria. MR: In terms of disease and poverty, the AIDS epidemic seems like it will undercut these states regardless of the corruption? RG: This is a colossal problem. And it’s also one that’s extremely hard to tackle because you’re dealing with the most secret and intimate thing that human beings do. It’s very hard to alter what people do in bed.We think that the Ugandan government’s anti-AIDS, pro- condom, pro-delaying your age of first having sex campaign probably works. But it’s very hard to know how well it works, because the measurements of what HIV prevalence were at the beginning are so dodgy. But if you have too many teachers and breadwinners and engineers dying, then you have this enormous generation of orphans growing up who haven’t been taught basic life skills by their parents, and they end up on the streets or sniffing glue by the traffic lights.There is a real pos- sibility in some countries of them being knocked right back down to bare subsist- ence for a generation. MR: What is it that nations outside the African continent can do to bring pressure to bear to help? RG: I would go first for the easiest and zero cost things like abolishing all trade barriers, tariffs, quotas, and subsidies which would be hugely beneficial to the West and also to Africa.The West sub- sidises agriculture to the tune of about a billion dollars a day, which is slightly more than the total GDP of sub-Saharan Africa.That makes it incredibly hard for African farmers to compete with West- ern producers. It’s handing a very large benefit to a tiny handful of European, Japanese and American farmers most of whom are rich already. It raises the price of food for Western consumers. It reduces the income that people in the Third World can make out of farming, and in Africa about three-quarters of the people are farmers. It would be legislatively simple for any given country just to say, right, we’re abolishing them all tomorrow.The only obstacle to doing it is political. Doing the right thing is not always good politics. Robert Guest’s The Shackled Continent is published by Macmillan, rrp $33.00 The African Enigma Africa is the only continent to have grown poorer over the last three decades. Two-fifths of African nations are at war, either with their neighbours or with themselves, new HIV infections in 2003 were 3.5 million and AIDS has lowered life expectancy to as young as 40 years old. Most shocking of all is the evidence that the billions of dollars of aid, given to Africa has had little perceptible effect on the poor. In his new book, The Shackled Continent, ROBERT GUEST, Africa editor for the Economist, investigates the problems con- fronting Africa today, but more importantly, he also explores solutions. MILES ROSTON recently spoke to him.