For those of you, like me, who missed Kofi Annan’s visit to Oxford a few months ago to celebrate Exeter College’s 700th birthday, Dr. Christine Cheng, a Fellow in Politics and International Relations at Exeter, has done a nice write-up on his talk at the Sheldonian Theatre for Exon, the college’s alumni magazine. Dr. Cheng, an expert in Africa and post conflict states in particular, has a new book forthcoming, Corruption and Peacebuilding: Selling the Peace?, co-edited by Dominick Zaum (Reading) and set for release by Routledge this August.
You can read the article in full on Dr. Cheng’s website. Here’s and excerpt.
When most Westerners think of Africa, the images most likely to spring to mind are those of child soldiers, malnourished children, blood diamonds, pirates, and dictators who have been unwilling to give up power. From colonialism to the Rwandan genocide to the spread of AIDS to the exploitation of the continent’s vast mineral resources, the story of Africa that has been told in the West has usually been one of victimization and despair.
This is a narrative that Kofi Annan, a native of Ghana, has long been familiar with. In his speech at Oxford’s Sheldonian theatre, Annan presented a different Africa: one of economic success and optimism. He made a convincing case that Africa should be seen as “a continent of opportunity— the last emerging investment frontier”.
In the speech (listen here), Mr. Annan touched on a familiar tale of two Africa’s – one a continent crippled by colonialism, civil war and corruption, and the other, a place for groundbreaking development initiatives and humanitarian successes. Changing the narrative to one of economic growth is important; Chinese firms, for example, are more concerned with the bottom line than the bottom billion. Both can be propped up. Indeed, in most countries, the prospects for rapid economic growth are vast (better than most European countries), but as Dr. Cheng points out, corruption and inequality can mean economic growth does little for the majority of the population.
This is a dose of reality ignored by some in vogue ‘experts’, like Dambisa Moyo, an author and investment banker, who extol capital markets over targeted aid by foreign governments and multilateral institutions. As Moyo rightly argues, aid has its problems with corruption, but Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) and private sector growth can, and does, suffer from the same problems.
And as Dr. Cheng mentions, inequality has political consequences.
Even as the continent has benefited from huge gains in GDP, the distribution of that wealth has accrued disproportionately to African political elites. In many (but not all) cases, these elites abused their political power and made themselves and their family members very rich.
It is these kinds of abuses of power that sow the seeds of future discontent among the young men (and some women) who might consider taking up arms against the government. The utter failure of the state to care for its citizens even while others have grown obscenely wealthy has only perpetuated political instability and insecurity in some cases.
Africa’s two tales are, in truth, wrapped into one.