This book should be mandatory reading to all the Tibetophiles in the West. It punctures so many myths about Tibet, its history and politics. It is cri...moreThis book should be mandatory reading to all the Tibetophiles in the West. It punctures so many myths about Tibet, its history and politics. It is critical of the Dalai Lama, while being sympathetic to him. It is by no means apologetic of China's brutal rule in the land, but it helps to understand how things are not black and white.(less)
This is a superb book. Very clearly written and well organized. It is factual and very balanced in its presentation. Only in the final chapter, 'So Wh...moreThis is a superb book. Very clearly written and well organized. It is factual and very balanced in its presentation. Only in the final chapter, 'So What?', does the author let in his own views.(less)
This is a brilliant book. I've been involved in Japan for close to 20 years and lived most of the 1990s in Tokyo. This book spanning from the late-Edo...moreThis is a brilliant book. I've been involved in Japan for close to 20 years and lived most of the 1990s in Tokyo. This book spanning from the late-Edo period to 1964 truly helped me to better understand the country and put the contemporary politics and culture into a perspective. Buruma shows a continuum of interrelated things that explains why and how Japan is what it is today. This critical and innovative book is a veritable tour de force.(less)
This book is 'literary reportage,' i.e. the author reports on real-life events through literary means. It does not mean that she has invented the stor...moreThis book is 'literary reportage,' i.e. the author reports on real-life events through literary means. It does not mean that she has invented the story -- on the contrary, this tragic history is very true -- but that she tells it through a narrative of characters that she has met and at times fills in gaps in their lives and thoughts from her own imagination. The book tells the story of a rebel from eastern Congo and his rise from a 'Tutsi' villager to a leadership position through the First War (1996) and the Second War (1998) ending in the signing of the fragile peace accords (2002) and the transitional government. Although I regularly follow events in Africa, I have never been able to fully keep track of the complex conflicts and their intricate roots in Congo and the wider Great Lakes region -- until I read Lieve Joris' masterful work!(less)
This book covers almost thirty stories from Africa by the legendary Polish correspondent and writer starting when he first arrived on the continent in...moreThis book covers almost thirty stories from Africa by the legendary Polish correspondent and writer starting when he first arrived on the continent in 1958 almost until his death in 2007. He was around during the defining moments when many of the countries gained their independence and through the numerous coups and upheavals that ensued. Some of the most interesting stories include the ones when during the 1963 revolution in Zanzibar he first struggles to get to--and then off--the island ('Zanzibar') and when he describes the 1966 coup in Nigeria ('The Anatomy of a Coup d'Etat'). I also very much appreciated the more straightforward history pieces, like the masterful 'A Lecture on Rwanda' and 'The Cooling Hell' which combines travel notes to Liberia with an expose on the depressing history of the country. Also, many of the essays that recount his own experiences in Africa, especially in the early years are very insightful. The reason why I have dropped one star from my rating is that I found some of his musings on African cultural issues to be somewhat tedious. His descriptions of the life in the villages, the animistic tenets and so forth tend to be verbose and too flowery for my taste. I also found his frequent use of rhetorical questions quite annoying at times. Nevertheless, this is a book definitely worth reading for anyone interested in Africa.(less)
This brief book has received a lot of attention since it was published just a few months ago earlier this year. The author attacks development aid to...moreThis brief book has received a lot of attention since it was published just a few months ago earlier this year. The author attacks development aid to Africa with a vengeance, calling it the “silent killer of growth.” Despite the billions of dollars worth of development aid to Africa provided by Western governments over the past four decades, poverty and inequality have in fact increased on the continent. This is not the first book to criticize aid, but the fact that the author is an African woman (instead of the usual white males) has struck a chord with many reviewers and the audience. Dambisa Moyo is livid about what she sees as not only wasted money but as an active hindrance to economic development. All the well-meaning but naïve celebrities campaigning for more aid to Africa get an earful from Dr. Moyo, an academic economist who has made her career in the financial sector in the West.
Moyo states the goal of the book in the Introduction: “This book is about the aid-free solution to development: why it is right, why it has worked, why it is the only way forward for the world’s poorest countries” (p. xx). The book is divided into two parts. The first third, ‘The World of Aid,’ provides an history and critique of development aid to Africa and more broadly. Unfortunately, her training in economics—and this being her first book to a general audience—comes through as overuse of numbers and statistics, resulting in numbing and sometimes impenetrable sentences:
“Local debt returned investors 15 per cent in 2006, and 18 per cent in 2007. In the last five years average African credit spreads have collapsed by 250 basis points. What this means is that if a country issues US$100 million in debt, it is saving itself US$2.5 million per year relative to where it was five years ago.” (p. 4)
“Among the top five aid recipients from the Marshall Plan were Great Britain, which received the lion’s share of 24 percent, and France, Italy and Germany, which receive 20, 11 and 10 per cent, respectively. In per capita terms smaller European countries received more support: Norway received US$136 per person, Austria US$131, Greece US$128 and the Netherlands US$111.” (p. 12)
Also her indignation about aid is so rabid that her writing often turns to hyperbole or in other places is painfully simplified:
“This is the vicious cycle of aid. The cycle that chokes off desperately needed investment, instils a culture of dependency, and facilitates rampant and systematic corruption, all with deleterious consequences for growth. The cycle that, in fact, perpetuates underdevelopment, and guarantees economic failure in the poorest aid-dependent countries.” (p. 49)
“In an aid-dependent environment, the talented—the better-educated and more-principled, who should be building the foundations of economic prosperity—become unprincipled and are drawn from productive work towards nefarious activities that undermine the country’s growth prospects.” (p. 50)
All of this makes especially the first part of the book rather tedious. She definitely is no match to more established aid critics, such as New York University professor and former World Banker Bill Easterly whose books 'The Elusive Quest for Growth' and 'The White Man’s Burden' make for thoughtful and entertaining reading.
The second part, ‘A World without Aid,’ luckily lifts the book to a higher level, as Ms. Moyo focuses on the positive rather than bashing what she sees as a crime against Africa. She definitely does not lack in ambition, stating that:
“This book provides a blueprint, a road map, for Africa to wean itself off aid. … What follows is a menu of alternatives to fund economic development across poor countries. If implemented in the most efficient way, each of these solutions will help to dramatically reduce Africa’s dependency on aid.” (p. 75) and “The Dead Aid proposal envisages a gradual (but uncompromising) reduction in systematic aid over a five- to ten-year period.” (p. 76)
Here she launches her ‘Dead Aid strategies’ that, “if embraced wholeheartedly, will not only turn the economic tide in the short term, but also promise longer-term growth” (p. 143). Her blueprint for indigenous economic development in Africa focuses on a set of solutions, notably the development of capital markets, foreign direct investment, trade, and various forms of microfinance. She does also recognize the role of remittances from the overseas diaspora that are so important to many developing countries. Although the remittances are a type of aid—an influx of unearned money into the country from abroad—Ms. Moyo believes this to be less harmful than government to government aid.
Although the solutions presented are basically free-market oriented, the author is principally concerned about how to finance development, rather than the development model itself. She even suggests that it matters little whether the country in question has a capitalist or socialist development strategy. Quoting the Scandinavian experience, she recognizes that governments can raise money on the free markets while using it on a “socialist agenda” of free education and health care (pp. 72-73). In fact, she considers that for such governments using free-market tools to finance development is particularly important.
Furthermore, despite her call for “uncompromising” reduction of aid, she shows certain flexibility in allowing that “more-modest aid programmes that are actually designed to address the critical problems faced by African countries can deliver some economic value” may have some room to be part of Africa’s development financing strategy (p. 76).
And all of her ire is not directed towards aid and the Western nations that provide it, more for their own interest than in Africa’s, in her opinion. She frequently chastises African policymakers for corruption and red tape, reminding us that it is not accidental that FDI avoids Africa.
Dambisa Moyo dedicates an entire chapter, entitled ‘The Chinese are Our Friends,’ to the role of China in Africa. With poorly disguised excitement she describes China’s rapidly emerging engagement on the continent and goes as far as claiming that “in the last sixty years, no country has made as big an impact on the political, economic and social fabric of Africa as China has since the turn of the millennium” (p. 103). She is particularly enthusiastic about the fact that the Chinese involvement is all for commercial purposes—whether FDI or trade—unlike that of the West, which has for long given Africa “something for nothing.” In earlier parts of the book she has fashioned China and other East Asian countries that have developed through their own efforts as role models for Africa. She is well aware of the risks of the relationship with China: that the Chinese companies might underbid local firms or would not hire Africans or that they would have lax safety standards—all the standard issues that worry concerned Westerners when they think of China’s growing influence in Africa. However, Moyo correctly points out that, while Westerners are outraged by Chinese support for Africa’s corrupt and rogue leaders, these same “notorious plunderers and despots” have risen and thrived “under the auspices of Western aid, goodwill and transparency” (p. 108). Furthermore, to her, the pros of Chinese involvement far outweigh the cons:
“Bartering infrastructure for energy reserves is well understood by the Chinese and Africans alike. It’s a trade-off, and there are no illusions as to who does what, to whom and why…To continue to grow at its extraordinarily rapid rate China needs fuel, and Africa has it. But for Africa it’s about survival. In the immediate term, Africa is getting what it needs—quality capital that actually funds investment, jobs for its people and that elusive growth. These are the things that aid promised, but has consistently failed to deliver.” (p. 111)
In the case of trade, Dambisa Moyo is equally harsh on the West as on Africa itself. She rightly reminds us the “elected Western politicians have remained keen to protect their agricultural markets, and win the backing of the powerful farming lobby. The net result is a protective world of trade restrictions and barriers up around the West, to keep African (and other developing regions’) produce out” (p. 115). Yet at the same time she finds that the “most egregious examples come from Africa itself. African countries impose an average tariff of 34 per cent on agricultural products from other African nations, and 21 per cent on their own products” (p. 117).
Regretfully, the many good points that Moyo raises are again undermined by her style. The text is littered with cringe-inducing similes (“seduced by the siren call of aid, African governments sink their ships on the rocks of development demise” – p. 88).
Quite unnecessarily, in an apparent attempt to liven up the discussion, she invents and uses a fictitious country, the Republic of Dongo, as a dummy against which she places her proposals. Dongo is supposedly some sort of hybrid displaying many of the characteristics of various African countries. However, the decoy adds little more than an additional irritant to the book.
And in her fervour she again resorts to hyperbole:
“The West can choose to ignore all of this, but, like it or not, the Chinese are coming. And it is in Africa that their campaign for global dominance will be solidified. Economics comes first, and when they own the banks, the land and the resources across Africa, their crusade will be over. They will have won.” (p. 152)
All in all, I read 'Dead Aid' with mixed feelings. Early on, the angry prose and doctrinaire perspective really got to me. Having worked for most of my adult life on international development issues (unlike Dr. Moyo), I was also taken aback by the wholesale dismissal of virtually all development cooperation. Then later when focusing on the alternatives to aid, the book significantly lightened up and the solutions that were proposed started to be much more convincing. There is no denying that the East Asian countries, like China, Korea and Singapore, all experienced rapid development that was not based on aid, at least over an extended period. Surely there are lessons for Africa to be learned there. How countries develop is not straightforward or simple. Each place has its own dynamics and idiosyncrasies to which complex geographical, historical, political and economic factors contribute (see for example Paul Collier’s recent book 'The Bottom Billion'). It is very important that these issues are discussed, without taboos and prejudice. Dambisa Moyo has contributed to the debate with this opinionated and flawed, but still important book.(less)
Paul Theroux is grumpy, but I don’t mind. I like his laconic style and astute observations. He is generally very well informed and has done the backgr...morePaul Theroux is grumpy, but I don’t mind. I like his laconic style and astute observations. He is generally very well informed and has done the background research for his travel books. And he writes well. In Dark Star Safari he returns to Africa where he used to live as a Peace Corps volunteer and teacher four decades earlier. He travels overland—on bus, truck, matatu, train, boat—from Cairo to Cape Town taking numerous detours en route. He encounters hardships, although he tends to make a bit too much of them dramatizing the dangers to his own wellbeing. Along the way he observers and talks to a variety of people, both African and foreign, ranging from shopkeepers, ship engine men on Lake Victoria and evicted white farmers in Zimbabwe to missionaries and aid workers (‘agents of virtue,’ he calls them disparagingly). He meets old friends from the 1960s, some of whom have become powerful, like a minister in the Ugandan government. He spends time with Nadine Gordimer, the courageous South African writer, and her husband.
Theroux paints a rather bleak picture of Africa. His general observation is that virtually everything has gotten worse in the decades since most of the countries became independent. Corruption is rampant virtually everywhere. Foreign aid has tended to make things worse, creating dependence on aid. Government to government aid supports the dictators and thieves in power. For charities and NGOs, aid is business and they do not even plan to exit. Theroux explains:
“It is for someone else, not me, to evaluate the success or failure of charitable efforts in Africa. Offhand, I would say the whole push has been misguided, because it has gone on for too long with negligible results. If anyone had asked me to explain, my reasoning would have been: Where are the Africans in all this?” (p. 272)
Christian missionaries get their share, too, and rightly so. Theroux doesn’t mince words, meeting a particularly dogmatic missionary on a train in Mozambique:
“Mozambicans were not sufficiently unhappy, not poor enough, not sick enough, not adequately deluded; they needed to feel worse, more blameworthy, more sinful, abused for merely having been born, for original sin was inescapable. And like other missionaries, Susanna was determined to bully Africans into abandoning their ancient pantheism, which had been inspired by the animals and flowers of the bush, by the seasons, and by their long-held hopes and fears.” (p. 433)
Theroux summarizes Africa as he sees it:
“It is so much worse for Africans. The most civilized ones I met never used the word ‘civilization.’ The wickedest believed themselves to be anointed leaders for life, and wouldn’t let go of their delusion. The worst of them stole from foreign donors and their own people, like the lowest thieves who rob the church’s poor boxes. The kindest Africans had not changed at all, and even after all these years the best of them are bare-assed.” (p. 472)
This edition of the book contains a postscript from when Paul Theroux returned to Africa in 2003, two years after his original trip. During the second trip he witnesses the brutal consequences of superstition in Malawi, the total collapse of rule of law and economy in Robert Mugabe’s Zimbabwe, and the corruption in relatively stable Zambia. He summarizes his relationship with Africa as follows:
“I love the African bush—I missed it; but I hate African cities. I swore I would never return to the stinking buses, the city streets reeking of piss, the lying politicians, the schemers, the twaddlers, the crooks, the moneychangers taking advantage of weak currency and gullible people, the American God-botherers and evangelists demanding baptisms and screaming ‘Sinners!’—and forty years of virtue-industry CEOs faffing around with other people’s money and getting no results, except Africans asking for more.” (p.473)
Theroux’ Africa is not an optimistic place. Yet the book is full of humanity and Paul Theroux meets many good people on his travels trying to make the best of a bad situation. (less)
The book tells two parallel stories, one taking place in 1980-1990 when the author spends time in Egypt as a graduate student of anthropology; the oth...moreThe book tells two parallel stories, one taking place in 1980-1990 when the author spends time in Egypt as a graduate student of anthropology; the other in the 12th century depicting the booming trade between the Middle East and India through the eyes of a North African trader based in Aden, Mangalore and Egypt. The latter, fascinating story has been reconstructed through painstaking archival research and study of surviving correspondence and documents from the time. Amitav Ghosh, a renowned Indian novelist, proves his skills as an Oxford-educated academic, as well as a keen observer of everyday life. He demonstrates how the peoples around the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean have long interacted in many ways. Ghosh brings out the big picture by focusing on the lives of individual people. This is an erudite book that brings past and present together in an intriguing manner. (less)
The New York University professor and former World Bank economist, Bill Easterly, provides a scathing critique of the grand plans to transform entire...moreThe New York University professor and former World Bank economist, Bill Easterly, provides a scathing critique of the grand plans to transform entire Third World societies through development aid, as promoted by academic and other luminaries such as Jeffrey Sachs and Bono, as well as by many bilateral and multilateral development agencies. Building on a thorough historical analysis and deep understanding of how the development business works, Easterly convincingly argues that such utopian plans have never worked—despite all the billions of dollars put into development aid, poverty is still rampant and many countries (especially in Africa) remain destitute and the Millennium Development Goals remain elusive. He divides the people and organizations working in development into ‘Planners’ who promote a vision of instant and complete transformations through a big bang; and ‘Searchers’ who seek solutions to concrete problems that actually can be solved.
Unlike Dambisa Moyo, whose much less sophisticated book ‘Dead Aid’ received wide attention for her extreme views, William Easterly does not condemn development aid as the cause of all evil in the poor countries. He sees a role for development aid, but is concerned about its effectiveness (or rather the lack of it). He advocates for focused aid that addresses concrete development problems facing the poor, such as health, education, roads or water. He also calls for innovative ways of approaching development, especially at the local level, arguing that local people know their own problems better than planners in some faraway capital (one of the last chapters is called ‘Your Ideas Are Crazy, but Are They Crazy Enough?’). One of the problems is that official development aid always goes through the government, no matter how inefficient or corrupt it is, with the result that the poor people who are intended to benefit from the aid never see any of it.
A Leitmotif in the book is accountability towards the intended beneficiaries, giving them what they want and need—and making sure that it is delivered to them. Therefore, he sees independent evaluation of aid programs as one of the most crucial solutions to ensure that aid is effective in helping those it is intended to help.
The book is written in a very lively manner drawing directly from the decades of experience in Africa, Asia and Latin America that Easterly has. He gives credit where credit is due, but does not spare anyone—left or right—from a piercing look into the motivations and results of their actions. His prose is at times outraged and irreverent, often laced with humour, always well argued. Everyone working in international development should read the White Man’s Burden. (less)