Launching From Poverty to Power in East Africa

December 10, 2008

     By Duncan Green     

I recently returned from a whirlwind launch trip to Uganda (where Fountain Publishers are the publishers), Kenya (where the distributor is Legacy Books) and Addis Ababa. Crucially, from my point of view, this was the first systematic presentation of the book to audiences in developing countries, so I was fairly nervous!

Fortunately, and even allowing for people’s good manners, the book was well-received and triggered some fascinating discussions. Admittedly, in Kenya I was asked if I was a servant of British imperialism – I said yes – but I’m pretty sure it was tongue in cheek (the guy turned out to work for the UN).

People particularly liked the title, the optimism, and the core message on citizens and states. A series of high quality debates mainly zeroed in on the thorny questions of the nature of the African state and its troubled relationship to active citizens.

On active citizenship students and academics stressed that ‘poverty is more serious in people’s heads than in their pockets’ and lamented that ‘we don’t protest’, ‘we live in fear of the big men’. But then several went on to demand a more benevolent generation of leaders – I was reduced to protesting that there’s a serious weakness in saying our problem is excessive reliance on leaders, and then that we need new leaders to end that!

One of the most challenging issues was on whether Westminster-style parliamentary democracy is really the right system for Africa, or whether a degree of Asian style authoritarianism is acceptable – China’s growing economic role in Africa is also influencing the political debate, it seems. Academics asked whether power-sharing in Kenya and Zimbabwe is a step forward to a more African style of democratic structure, or a step back? And what does this mean for our default position on rights and democracy – as one AU delegate asked ‘are NGOs part of the game in keeping governments ineffective because you attack as undemocratic every effort we make to become effective?’ It left me wanting to find out more about cases of successful state building in Africa (can’t keep relying on Asian and European examples like South Korea and Sweden) – Tanzania? Ghana? Rwanda? Time to go back and reread Matthew Lockwood’s excellent book on this theme ‘The State They’re In’.

Other topics:
· Aid dependence: according to one minister, halving his country’s dependence on aid (by increasing tax collection) means ‘we no longer have to go on our knees to the World Bank.’
· Migration: a passionate debate in Addis Ababa on the pros and cons of migration, raising the impact of the brain drain of Africa’s most qualified people, and the psychological cost of migration, put against the economic benefits for poor families.
· Bottlenecks v comprehensive plans: one Ugandan expert on the use of ‘Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers’ (PRSPs) urged us to learn from success in countries like Mauritius, which took off by ‘doing one thing at a time’, rather than pursuing long laundry lists of objectives. I’ve mainly come across this in relation to Dani Rodrik’s work on ‘growth diagnostics’, which tries to identify and focus on the ‘binding constraints’ or economic bottlenecks at any given point in a country’s development. In ‘Fixing Failed States’, Clare Lockhart and Ashraf Ghani argue for a similar approach on institution-building. Interesting.

Finally, the quote of the trip, from a nameless minister (Chatham House rules, sorry): ‘It is difficult for someone in power to redistribute it – that would be dismembering myself!


December 10, 2008
Duncan Green