Bell Curve The Law Talking Guy Raised by Republicans U.S. West
Well, he's kind of had it in for me ever since I accidentally ran over his dog. Actually, replace "accidentally" with "repeatedly," and replace "dog" with "son."

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Some Notes About Africa

I'm watching Obama give a speech to the parliament of Ghana right now. Why is Obama in Africa? Why does Africa matter? As even George W. Bush recognized, Africa is, along with South-Central Asia, the most likely region to see failed states emerge. It is also a region that many know little about. I remember once that Bell Curve and I wrote a trivia quiz for our favorite pub and we had a hand out of map of Africa with the countries' names left blank. We knew it would be challenging for most Americans to fill in those names (of course our friends at the pub did fine for the most part) but the fact that we could reasonably assume people would struggle is telling. Consider the famous report that Sarah Palin thought Africa was a country. She's not the only person who thinks this, although she may be the only one who thought that thought she was qualified to hold high public office despite that level of ignorance. So here are some factoids about Africa.

Of the 229 countries that the CIA World Fact Book has profiles for, 18 of the 20 poorest countries in the world are in sub-saharan Africa. One of the others is Afghanistan and the other is a semi-sovereign territory of New Zealand. Many of the countries in Sub-saharan Africa have economies that depend on the export of a single commodity or natural resource (oil, gold, diamonds, coffee, peanuts, etc). Many of the countries in Sub-saharan Africa have experienced violent ethnic conflict or civil wars recently. Millions of people have been killed or displaced in wars that are either going on now or only recently finished. Basic infrastructure that we take for granted (like roads, a power grid and clean water) are absent in much of the continent. The internet is slow to take root in this region. Decent access to the internet is critical not only for communication but investment too. Capital transactions these days are all computerized. Many of these countries languish under massive debt problems. There are also problems with establishing a consistent legal structure in many of these countries. As if this wasn't enough, there is also a widespread problem with malaria and HIV-AIDS.

But there are success stories too. And Ghana is one of them. Despite not being particularly rich, Ghana has established itself as a relatively stable democracy with a bright future. Botswana is doing even better.

Obama's speech focussed on how Africans need to and can solve their own problems. One of best lines in the speech (one that got a lot of applause) was "Africa doesn't strong men, it needs strong institutions." To help that, Obama promised directly western aid to help build the institutions that a stable democracy and economy need. Let's hope it works out for Africa.


Dr. Strangelove said...

(Side note: I thought the 229 number was strangely high, so I glanced at the list... I had not realized that the Falkland Islands, Puerto Rico, and the European Union were considered "countries" by anyone. I presume they are using "country" as shorthand for a form of political division.)

The "failed state" argument that RbR makes is very important. The Bush administration showed some recognition of that in part by standing up AFRICOM, a new major command of the US military devoted to Africa. Uniquely, a number of key roles in the organization are to be filled by State Department officials. It is also the only major command without a headquarters in the region. (Apparently, no African nation is willing to host a US military base. Can't think of why.)

Dr. Strangelove said...

Just to add to my previous comment... In discussions with AFRICOM officials I learned that we lack detailed geographical maps of all of Africa. Seriously. Where exactly are all the airfields, the water towers, or the power lines in every village? Do we have detailed demographic maps of state and province? Do we have a good idea of where the local trade routes are? We don't actually have all those answers yet--and what we do have is not yet accessible in some "Google Earth" type database. (Don't get me wrong: we have a lot... But nowhere near what we have on other parts of the world.)

Africa remains the dark continent... For US military intelligence. The assets devoted to that region are pitiful, and barely deserve the plural form, despite warnings from military intelligence analysts. It is hard to know if you are detecting unusual patterns of behavior if you do not yet have a baseline. These days though, virtually all resources are going to fight our current wars. I understand why: Americans are dying there. But we still need to think a little more long-term, a little more strategically. (I have indicated before my dissatisfaction with Secretary of Defense Gates for not addressing--and probably exacerbating--this myopia.)

The Law Talking Guy said...

Africa's geographic, climactic, and other natural disadvantages are unbelievable. Despite a long coastline, deep water ports are very very few and far between. The Tsetse fly severely hampers agriculture and spreads horrific disease. Uninhabitable desert and unbearable tropical rainforest blanket much of the continent. Even without 500 years of colonial exploitation, it Africa was a miserable place.

Politically, Africa is even worse off. The process of state formation there was sudden and almost a complete failure everywhere. In the Americas, the separation of colonies into states worked (somewhat) well because of large creole populations that formed the nucleus of national identities. Africa's divisions were ad hoc, driven by European realities, not local ones, and involved the superimposition of totally artificial state structures on and across tribal kingdoms and ethnic groups. Almost nowhere in AFrica has it proven possible to govern these areas without some sort of tribal-based military dictatorship that replaced the colonial dictatorship before it.

The best possible thing for Africa is for states to devolve power to provinces and regions that make more ethnic and geographic sense, and to put more transnational power into the African Union. What Africa needs is continent-wide development of infrastructure on a massive scale, plus a policy of eradicating the tsetse fly by any means necessary. It needs a continent-wide food policy and currency.

As with Ireland, Palestine, India, the Kashmir, Iraq, and Indochina,
Africa is still dealing with the horrendous after-effects of precipitous decolonization.

Raised By Republicans said...

Yes, the World Fact Book has profiles on semi-sovereign entities like Puerto Rico. It also includes the EU which is something like a country for regulatory and currency purposes.

It's appalling what you say, Dr. S., about the maps and such. Shocking. It's like the US military focussed exclusively on a potential European war with the USSR and hasn't yet adapted to the new globalized world - 20 years on.

Dr. Strangelove said...

Funny thing is, during the Cold War--well before the "global" war on terror(ism) snatched up all the resources--we probably had a more balanced view of the world. The Soviet Union/Communism was considered a truly global threat. And in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union, I think the US really did start reaching out and thinking more globally.

The current wars are what has changed all that. Iraq especially. Despite its name, GWOT was very middle-east focused. (I say "was" because believe that term is now deprecated by the Obama administration.) Resources have been drained from all other theaters to help the current wars. CENTCOM gets first dibs on pretty much everything. No doubt USWest now has even more stories of this than she has previously shared. Again, I understand that people are dying and so this takes precedence. No one is arguing that we should not put the vast majority of our effort into the current fight.

But to my mind, the central lesson of 9/11 is that we can no longer afford to ignore oppression and catastrophe in "unimportant" parts of the world (such as those without oil) because the violence that ensues has global reach. It threatens us. No place is unimportant anymore.

We cannot afford to apply "just-in-time" solutions to military intelligence. War is not a corporate enterprise, and intelligence is not a commodity. It needs to be pursued diligently over many years. As one analyst put it, "It's all about building the bricks. You have to build the bricks before you can make anything."

I think the Bush administration, for all their faults, at least came to understand that Africa deserved more focus than it had been receiving during the early 2000s and throughout the 1990s. I hope the Obama administration will build on that. May this trip to Ghana mark the beginning of even greater engagement with the Africa.

Dr. Strangelove said...

I smiled when I saw LTG blame the horrendous after-effects of, "precipitous decolonization," rather than blaming colonization itself, as many have done. I think the latter was the worse sin, but given that colonization happened, LTG is absolutely right that the ending was its own catastrophe.

It reminds me of the remark, attributed sometimes to Churchill, that Russia's greatest catastrophe was Lenin's birth, but its second greatest was his death.

Raised By Republicans said...

One of the many points Obama seemed to be making was that while colonization was a terrible blight on Africa there have been generations of home grown leaders in Africa who have not helped overcome the problems imposed on these newly independent states.

The current generation of leaders in sub-saharan Africa came of age entirely in the post-colonial age. Some, like those in Ghana and Botswana, seem to be doing well by their countries. Others, like those in Congo (Zaire) and Sudan have taken a bad situation left by colonialism and made it even worse.

Of course, these countries are not blighted by bad leaders by coincidence. The lack of stable institutions is a major contributing factor.

However, I think the final analysis must be that the "West" cannot swoop in with guns blazing (like the US did in Iraq recently or France does throughout it's former empire) and try to fix things. These problems must be addressed by the African people themselves. The role of the "West" is to help them. We can do what we can to get out of their way and make it a little easier here and there but we can't do it or force them to do it.

The Law Talking Guy said...

Thanks, Dr.S. By "precipitous decolonization" I didn't mean, of course, that colonization should have continued. However, I think France and Britain had a responsibility to draw workable state boundaries that took account of ethnic and geographic realities, and leave them with functioning democratic institutions. They also had a responsbility to intervene immediately after coups d'etat in the first few years after independence to re-establish democratic rule. Instead they just abandoned the place, and the USA made nice with various military dictators to keep out the communist dictators. The results have been catastrophic.

Of course, we did the same thing to African-Americans in 1865. It was pretty crappy to just say "okay, you're not slaves anymore," then do nothing whatsoever to help freedmen to gain education or avoid political persecution and economic exploitation.

Just sayin'.

Raised By Republicans said...

To be fair there is a lot of variation in post-colonial experiences. I've seen studies that show pretty consistently former French colonies are much more likely to have problems with political and economic development than are former British colonies.

It is pretty well established that the British colonial authorities did a relatively good job of leaving workable institutions behind when they left. It was still a rotten experience for a country, but being one of the "pink bits" in the British empire was significantly better than being a French colony. It's not a coincidence that the two biggest "success stories" in Sub-saharan Africa are former British colonies: Botswana and Ghana. It's telling perhaps that France has military forces deployed in six of their former colonies in the region (bases in Djibouti, Gabon and Senegal and deployments in Ivory Coast, Central African Republic, and southern Chad).