Why Africa is Poor, and What We Can Do About It

THE SHACKLED CONTINENT by Robert Guest

by Robert Guest, author of The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption, and African Lives (Smithsonian Books, 2010)

I once hitched a ride on a truck through a West African rain forest. The journey was supposed to take less than a day, but it took four. The dirt roads were fine so long as it didn’t rain. But we were in a rain forest, so it rained often and hard, turning our route into a swamp. A collapsed bridge slowed us down, too. The worst delays, however, were caused by police road blocks, of which we met 47.

Every few miles, we’d see a couple of rusty oil drums and some barbed wire in the middle of the road, and we’d have to stop. A plump gendarme would check our axles and tail-lights and pick over our papers, hoping to find a fault he could demand a bribe to overlook. Sometimes, this took hours.

The pithiest explanation of why travelers in Cameroon have to endure such mistreatment came from the policeman at road block number 31. He had invented a new rule about not carrying passengers in beer trucks. When I put it to him that the law he was citing did not, in fact, exist, he patted his holster and replied: “Do you have a gun? No. I have a gun, so I know the rules.”

Africa is poor today for many reasons, including the legacy of colonialism, the frequent outbreak of civil war and the high prevalence of energy-sapping diseases. But to my mind, the biggest obstacle to African prosperity is bad governance. Those road blocks are a good illustration of how power is too often wielded on the continent: the men with the guns make the rules, and those who work for a living have to pay tribute. What Africans need is not more aid, I argue, but less predatory government.

I’m always struck, when I give talks about Africa at American universities, how many young people seem to care so much about my subject. When I tell stories about war, disease and suffering, they are visibly moved. When I describe the courage and ingenuity of so many Africans I know, they are impressed. Yet what really animates them is the complex and incredibly difficult question that I try to address in my book: why is Africa so poor, and how can it become less so?

It is a question that links what they read in economics textbooks with what they see on the news. It spans several disciplines, from political science to environmental studies. It involves issues they are passionate about, from AIDS to global warming. And thinking about it helps them to understand the world we all live in a little better. At least, that is my hope.

Robert Guest is a Washington correspondent for The Economist and regularly appears on CNN and the BBC. Previously, he covered Africa for seven years, based in London and Johannesburg. He has also worked as a correspondent in Tokyo and a freelance writer in South Korea. He lives in Washington, DC.

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