October 30, 2007

HARRISONBURG— In a special review for National Interest online, the web edition of the foreign policy journal The National Interest, of Paul Collier’s recent book, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It (Oxford University Press) Dr. J. Peter Pham, Director of the Nelson Institute for International and Public Affairs at James Madison University, examines the lack of economic development in Africa.

Noting that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the independence of the former British colony of the Gold Coast as the new state of Ghana, “the firstborn of what would soon be a veritable wave of nearly four dozen Sub-Saharan African nations which would achieve political independence,” Dr. Pham contrasts the economic promise of the West African nation with what came subsequently:

Were one to have examined Ghana’s economic indicators in comparison with those of, say, South Korea, the African nation evinced better prospects hands down. While the departing British governor, Sir Charles Arden-Clarke, bequeathed Ghana’s Kwame Nkrumah an unprecedented $481 million in foreign reserves, South Korea’s Syngman Rhee was presiding over a nearly bankrupt country eking out an existence on U.S. aid having not only endured the thirty-five years of brutal Japanese occupation, but subsequently suffered a devastating conventional war fought in its cities and countryside which concluded in a stalemate and armistice just four years earlier. In both aggregate and per capita terms, the gross domestic product of the Republic of Korea was lower than that of Ghana in 1957. Yet half a century later, South Korea boasts the world’s 13 th largest economy and is considered “highly developed,” ranking 26 th on the Human Development Index of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), while Ghana barely made the cut to qualify as a “medium developed” nation, ranking 136 th out of 177 countries surveyed. And even with its underwhelming economic performance, Ghana is far from the worst off among African nations.

According to Dr. Pham, a part of the answer to the question of “Why?” can be found in the book by Dr. Collier, Director of the Center for the Study of African Economies at Oxford University, whose work the review finds “intellectually independent” and “a very engaging read, one rendered all the more pleasant because Collier is a scholar whose enviably deft prose is coupled refreshingly frank judgments.” The review concludes that:

Fifty years after the beginning of the great period of African independence with the birth of Ghana in 1957, Sub-Saharan Africa remains sadly underdeveloped. While optimists assert that things have changed for the better and that the right conditions are present for new infusions of aid to be effective, there is little hard evidence that enough has changed by way of democratic governance, effective administration, sound economics, and transparent institutions that the increased transfers would achieve sustainable development. Of course, there have been some remarkable signs of progress and these certainly need to be recognized. In any event, it is improbable that, however disgusted they may be with the stolen, wasted, or simply ineffective aid given in the past, donor nations of the West and their voters would countenance significant reductions in aid, even if grandiose promises like those made by Tony Blair’s heavily hyped Commission for Africa will also likely go unfulfilled.

For the foreseeable future, expectations for Africa will need to be modest, enthusiasm tempered by realism. Over time, the continent—aptly described by two scholars recently as “too long…a theater for Western ideologues’ pet panaceas, with disastrous results for long-suffering Africans”—will require time to break free from its cycle of underdevelopment and poverty by unleashing the energy, talent, and enterprise long repressed by the regimes which are ultimately doomed to collapse under their own weight. Outsiders can only arm themselves with patience and seize such small opportunities as may arise in order to reward progress and punish regress, recognizing, as Collier wises does, that dragging the nations of “Africa+” out of the development doldrums is more than a generational undertaking for both the citizens of the countries involved and their international partners.

The full text of Dr. Pham’s review essay, “Bono and the Bottom Billion,” can be accessed by clicking here.