- Nepad: Toward Africa's Development or Another False Start?
The dramatic reappearance of famine in Niger is a painful reminder of how little has changed in Africa since the Sahel famines of the early 1970s. Today's images are eerily similar to the widely publicized images of thirty years ago. Heartbreaking pictures of failed crops and starving children are employed to pressure wealthy donor countries into the timely provision of food and financial assistance. The extent to which Africa's most visible realities remain unchanged is unnerving—widespread starvation, ethnic conflict, and pervasive elite corruption. The political discourse also has unnerving similarities: urgent cries for assistance are met with the same profound skepticism as aid critics ask what developmental benefits have been seen from the vast amounts of aid already pledged and delivered.
In accessible and careful prose, Ian Taylor's volume, NEPAD: Toward Africa's Development or Another False Start? argues that the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), founded in the fall of 2001, is unlikely to change things in any significant way. It shares the same fatal weakness as its long list of predecessors: an elitist, top-down approach, which fails to provide for popular participation. The rapidly proliferating organizations of African civil society are nowhere to be seen. Further, NEPAD depends upon a singularly dubious premise: that Africa's hopelessly corrupt political elites can be taken at their word, and this time, they truly intend to reform themselves. Readers who prefer a more optimistic scenario should immediately turn to pages 17 and 18 of the Taylor volume, where the author presents an extended inventory of the failed strategies of the past, beginning with the fabled Lagos Plan of Action of the early 1980s.
Taylor's volume is not theoretically original. He accepts the concept of neopatrimonial authority, which, for some time now has been widely shared by political scientists of Africa. The earliest pages of his volume, however, present a useful and highly readable bibliographic essay on that concept, omitting perhaps only Pierre Englebert's highly useful volume, State Legitimacy and Development in Africa (Lynne Rienner, 2000). The neopatrimonial idea has been so widely discussed in African political studies that it needs no further refinement here. In brief, it describes the all-pervasive political reality of Africa: unchallenged political elites, who entrench themselves in power in part by their unchecked ability to appropriate state resources as private wealth. Big-man political leaders maintain [End Page 144] their political control by spreading around just enough corrupt opportunity to create coalitions of corrupt followers. If scholarly consensus alone were sufficient to consecrate the scientific validity of an idea, surely the concept of neopatrimonial authority would enjoy that status.
Taylor does, however, raise an important question for advocates of the neopatrimonial approach: what is it about African economies that facilitates this form of authority? Regrettably, for an answer to this question, Taylor turns from the political-science conventional wisdom of the 1980s to the economic conventional wisdom of the 1960s: the problem is Africa's unusually great dependence on a small number of export crops, whose production is geographically concentrated in small export enclaves. Development in such enclaves, it was always said, does not spill over into other regions of the country, and the wealth of these regions therefore serves only to enrich and empower small elite groups—a process that only widens the socioeconomic disparity with the rest of society. The informed reader will undoubtedly experience "déjà vu all over again." It may be helpful at this point to remind the Africanist community that it was precisely this line of reasoning that was used to justify the disastrous statist and protectionist economic strategies of the 1960s and 1970s.
Taylor's book includes a useful but all-too-brief discussion of the Berg Report and its place in the history of African development efforts. Much more should have been done here. Indeed, our field of study is now ready for a book-length treatment of that report, which, with Robert Bates...