Featured Essay
Featured Link

Full Collections
Essays (425)
Quotations (6095)
Links (715)
Books (232)

Other Pages
About Us
Bookseller Affiliations
Contact Us
Editorial Board
Excellent Essays
Excellent Sites
Liberal Magic
Mush Quotations
Our New Look
Privacy Policy
Sign Up!
Amazon.com online bookstore


Why the African Renaissance is Failing


Successful democracy is as much about individual entrepreneurship and enterprise as it is about the freedom to vote. Poor nations need democracy. But they also need the cultural habits that sustain both democracy and entrepreneurship.

Originally published in The Fraser Forum.


John Robson

 Author Notes

Senior writer and deputy editorial pages editor at the Ottawa Citizen. Dr. Robson holds a Ph.D. in American history from the University of Texas. He has his own web site at which contact information and some of his works can be found.

 Essay - 6/1/2000

The view from the left is surprisingly often clearer than from the muddled middle, though its prescriptions are generally worse than useless. Certainly two older works from that perspective, Why Lenin? Why Stalin? by Theodore von Laue (1964) and L'Afrique etranglee by Rene Dumont and Marie-France Mottin (1980), cast very useful light on the growing appreciation of the role culture plays in development.

For many years, economic development was regarded as essentially linear. Impoverished countries were characterised by low levels of both human and physical capital, and the process of development consisted of a mutually reinforcing accumulation of both. Factories got built; their profits furnished taxes that built roads and schools that made the next generation more productive, so more factories got built and so on in a virtuous circle. Some attempt was made to identify particularly critical bottlenecks, so that the process could be accelerated by aid that focused on, say, clean water or women's education. But everyone including Karl Marx, with his orderly progression from feudalism to capitalism to socialism, saw development as proceeding smoothly along a one-dimensional axis from one pole with very low levels of everything to another with very high levels of everything.

It was always clear that some nations made the transition more easily than others; as early as 1958 Walt Rostow, in his best-selling The Stages of Growth, contrasted the smoothness with which Japan industrialized after the shock of Commodore Perry with the difficulties Russia encountered responding to the similar shock of defeat in the Crimean War. And economists were always willing to accord some role to residual, exogenous factors.

But the difference between economic development in, say East Asia and Africa, or for that matter North and South America, increasingly suggested that the residuals were actually central. Rostow himself, though his five stages of growth were as orderly as Marx's (his subtitle was "A Non-Communist Manifesto"), had noted that the "Preconditions" phase, in which people began to regard problems of scarcity as susceptible to solutions based on incorporating technical innovations into production, was the most important but least susceptible to linear analysis.

I should note here that writing about culture requires tact (I learned this the hard way, with a column that was spectacularly offensive and for which I have apologized in print). So two points have to be made with absolute clarity: First, cultural generalizations do not apply to everyone in a culture; and second, culture is a matter of behaviour not genetics.

That said, the requirement to discuss it tactfully by no means amounts to a requirement not to discuss it. Indeed, any such prohibition would increasingly have inhibited the work of economists. By 1987 James Buchanan was calling for a theory of entrepreneurship, while Douglass North won the 1993 Nobel Prize in Economics for work on institutions. By 1985 Lawrence Harrison's Underdevelopment is a State of Mind: The Latin American Case was favourably received, as was his 1992 Who Prospers: How Cultural Values Shape Economic and Political Success. And now Robert Putnam has directed our attention to the central importance in all societies of the capacity (or lack of capacity) for spontaneous voluntary association stressed by de Tocqueville.

It is on this point that both von Laue and Dumont are so helpful. Both see clearly that what makes the West so strong, and so terrifying to the rest of the world, isn't its front-line carrier groups or, in an earlier age, battleships. It is the astounding vitality of its civil society, the amazing reserves of energy, inventiveness and ability to improvise cooperatively that allowed the West, for instance, to overwhelm Japan despite its initial advantage after Pearl Harbor and despite its having met the challenges of modernization better than, say, China. The vastly superior quality of Western armies' NCOs and junior officers was but one reflection of this capacity.

Dumont, for instance, notes that the first generation of African leaders, frequently from first-hand experience while attending Western universities, understood the gap between their own societies and the West, both in military power and in the industrial and technical basis of that power. They understood that in order not to be entirely at the mercy of the West geopolitically, and not to be submerged in McWorld culturally, their nations had to develop both military and industrial power. And they knew what these looked like: rows of tanks, air-conditioned government offices, cement factories and stadiums built with the cement.

But precisely because these things were not being produced through the spontaneous interaction of their citizens, they had to disrupt the established rhythms of their culture in order to divert resources to their production. They got the cement factories, but not the entrepreneurs who build cement factories. And so, however well or badly it worked in the short run (stadiums did get built, functionaries did ride in limousines to their offices and too many tanks were purchased), the long-run impact was to leave the society even weaker and less able to produce spontaneous vitality to cope with the long-run challenge. Von Laue makes a similar argument about the simultaneous necessity and futility of forced industrialization in Russia under Lenin and Stalin, subsequently expanded in geographical scope in The World Revolution of Westernization.

Their prescriptions are utterly useless: both want the West to become less terrifying and less vital (the same recommendation was made at Global Forum 2000 in April in New York City by the usual suspects, including Mikhail Gorbachev). But this recommendation suffers from two key drawbacks: it is not possible and it is not desirable. Why should part of the world (essentially, as I have argued elsewhere, the old Western Roman Empire, less those parts severed by the expansion of Islam, and particularly those parts of it invigorated by the Vikings) become less dynamic to avoid making others feel bad?

And even if we wanted to, how would we? True, various governmental measures including welfare either inhibit or undermine the need for informal social networks. And while optimists are likely to agree with Adam Smith that "There is a great deal of ruin in a nation" and that, in all likelihood, civil society will shrug this off, pessimists will fear that, as Rebecca West warned in a somewhat different context, "the whole world is a vast Kosovo, an abominable blood-logged plain, where people who love go out to fight people who hate, and betray their cause to their enemies, so that loving is persecuted for immense tracts of history, far longer than its little periods of victory."

Curiously, Robert Putnam's work supports both conclusions. In Making Democracy Work he found extraordinarily stable patterns of both high and low social capital in Italy, suggesting that change is neither to be feared in the West nor hoped for elsewhere. But in Bowling Alone he presents compelling evidence that the decay has been terrifyingly rapid in the United States (to be fair, when I put the argument to him, Putnam rejected the notion that the welfare state is to blame).

However difficult cultural change may be, Muammar Gaddafi was certainly very wrong in saying earlier this year that for development, "We do not need democracy, we need water pumps." Poor nations need democracy. But they also need the cultural habits that sustain both democracy and entrepreneurship. As Ronald Reagan was wont to say, this problem has a simple solution though not an easy one. It is that leaders in misdeveloping countries must talk about culture. It won't do to call this cultural imperialism or to say approvingly as Zambian president Kenneth Kaunda once did: "The Westerner has a problem-solving mind, while the African has a situation-experiencing mind." For one thing that smacks of racism. For another, it casts the problem, that Africans do too much experiencing of poverty and not enough solving of it, as though it were the solution.

Some, like Nelson Mandela, may urge Africans to concentrate on those aspects of their culture that do make for spontaneous order: in a frank interview about how wrong the "African renaissance" seems to have gone, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan recently argued that in West African political culture "the king can be removed for wrongdoing, incompetence or lack of leadership." And he went on to call for the growth of non-governmental institutions, warning that "Corruption is built on everything being in the hands of the government." Others might say frankly, as some Scots did in the 17th century, that their culture has serious flaws that must be corrected.

Either way, the topic must be addressed, and though encouraged from outside, it must be addressed primarily from within to be credible. And it must come from sources other than government, spontaneously. For while their solutions are of no value, von Laue and Dumont warn us with terrible clarity that political direction of culture cannot be the solution when it is already the central problem.

This article is the property of its author and/or copyright holder. Any use other than personal reading of the article may infringe legal rights.
Opinions expressed in this article are the opinions of the author, and are not necessarily shared by conservativeforum.org or the members of its Editorial Board.