Voice

The African Century

The unlucky continent finally seems to be on a real path to growth, but is democracy essential to sustain Africa’s rise?

Call me a cynic, but I've been skeptical of the African economic miracle story. We keep hearing that "six of the world's ten fastest growing economies" over the last decade are in sub-Saharan Africa, but rarely that three of those six -- Angola, Chad, and Nigeria -- depend on oil, and thus could fall to earth as prices decline. But the Economist has convinced me that growth is broader and deeper than I thought. Its recent special report, "A Hopeful Continent," notes that across Africa income per capita has grown 30 percent over the last decade, after having shrunk 10 percent over the previous 20 years. Projected growth over the next decade is 6 percent annually.

That leaves me with a few questions: What does that tell us about development policy? Is this a story about aid? Democracy? Economic policy? The commodities markets?

First of all, is the boom even real? Is Africa itself hopeful, or just little bits of it? Todd Moss, head of the Emerging Africa Project at the Center for Global Development, says that he views the changes in Africa as "big and important and historically different from the past," but he adds that "the dominant trend is divergence among countries." For every Ghana or Ethiopia that is making durable progress, there is a Chad that is "stuck in the past and free-riding on the commodities boom." Nigeria, the most populous country in Africa, is somewhere in the middle, its banking sector set to dominate the continent while the mighty torrent of oil money corrupts politics and barely reaches the poor.

But there's no question about what distinguishes the success stories from the failures -- governance. Moss points out that about half of African contrives have improved on indicators of good governance, and half haven't. Oliver August, author of the Economist report (yes, the famously anonymous "newspaper" now seems to award bylines for its most ambitious efforts), noted that he traveled 15,800 miles over Africa's roads without once being asked for a bribe.

I was astonished at the description of West Africa, a region I've visited three times over the last decade and viewed as a sinkhole of ethnic violence, big-man government, and drug money corruption. In Senegal, August notes, the apparently ageless President Abdoulaye Wade was ridiculed when he tried to stand for a third term despite a constitutional prohibition; in Guinea, a virtual narco-state five years ago, a civilian leader has put the generals in their place; Sierra Leone is at peace; and Ivory Coast is coming back to life after a civil war. On the other hand, Mali, which in 2007 hosted the biennial meeting of the Community of Democracies, is now a barely governed mess.

So good governance is the key. Is that news? To some people, yes. In The End of Poverty, Jeffrey Sachs argued that "Africa's governance is poor because Africa is poor" -- not the other way around. The real reason Africa was poor was the unlucky accident of geography -- bad soil, disease, lack of access to ports and navigable rivers -- and the self-perpetuating nature of poverty. The only solution was thus to kick-start development with foreign aid. Sachs described poor countries as desperately sick patients who needed the care of Western donors, and lamented that the practice of "clinical economics" had not reached the subtlety of clinical medicine. Once it did, governance would take care of itself.

Foreign aid has clearly played an important role in reducing infant and maternal mortality in Africa, decreasing the incidence of malaria and AIDS, and raising the fraction of children who attend school -- all immensely important advances. But it is almost certainly not responsible for economic growth, as the economist William Easterly showed in his polemic, White Man's Burden. And it is economic growth, far more than aid, that has provided the resources which have made social advances possible. Over the last decade, as Jamie Drummond, executive director of DATA, the organization co-founded by Bono in 2002, points out, foreign assistance to African has tripled to $50 billion, but domestic resources have risen almost six-fold to $400 billion. 

Sachs's argument was appealing to African political and intellectual elites because he blamed persistent poverty on geography and a callous West. But his metaphor of a "poverty trap" also denied the agency of Africans themselves, since there was no escape absent Western intervention. If the real issue is governance, however, the opposite narrative applies: Both the problem and the solution are essentially African. Good governance requires political leaders who are prepared to threaten the interests of their own class. In fact, for that very reason, scholars who ascribe persistent poverty to bad political institutions rather than geography or history, like Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, the authors of Why Nations Fail, assume that weak states will stay weak, since elites benefit from those bad institutions. The achievement of sustained growth in countries like Ghana or Mozambique, despite decades of past mismanagement -- and civil war, in the latter case -- is thus all the more admirable.

But what, exactly, does "good governance" mean? Is it democracy? The Economist points out that the number of more or less democratic countries in Africa has gone from 3 to 53 over the last two decades. And both Easterly and Acemoglu/Robinson argue that democratic accountability is the only sure means of preventing elites from arranging things to their own benefit. And yet Ethiopia and Rwanda, which made it into the list of fastest-growing economies despite having no real natural resources to speak of, offer very little political freedom. Ethiopia has a Chinese-style command economy, while Rwanda is the closest thing in Africa to an East Asian-style liberal autocracy, with a free market and a very un-free polity. The non-African countries on the list of fastest-growing economies, by the way, were China, Myanmar, Kazakhstan, and Cambodia. This implies either that the list doesn't mean very much, or that the democratic effect on growth is overrated.

Most African autocrats are not, of course, liberal -- they are monsters like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe or thugs like Sudan's Omar al-Bashir. It is no coincidence that both those states are rich in natural resources. Countries with oil, gold, or diamonds offer an overwhelming temptation to capture the state and turn it into a private piggy bank. This is the underlying reason for the "resource curse." The development economist Paul Collier argues in The Plundered Planet that the single most important question for impoverished nations is whether their resources will turn out to be a curse or a boon. The answer is almost always the former -- which means, Collier says, that over time nations like Chad and Angola will actually experience a net economic loss from their windfall wealth.

It need not be so. Botswana has used its diamond wealth to create broad prosperity. The Economist reports that administrators in Ghana, which has recently made big oil finds, are being trained in transparent and accountable practices. Drummond directed me to a recent TED talk by Bono, who, after the usual appeal for increased aid, said that Africa's greatest disease was corruption, for which the only cure was transparency. This may prove to be the signal struggle of the next generation. (Of the 20 most corrupt countries, according to Transparency International, nine are in Africa.) Collier points out while in many states, elections "discipline governments into good economic performance," in resource-rich countries the incentive to capture the state turns elections into a free-for-all "unless offset by strong checks and balances." That is, Nigeria and Angola need better governance to succeed than do Rwanda and Ethiopia. That's got to be a discouraging thought, even for Bono.

The moral of the story is not, "There's nothing the West can do," but rather, "It's not what we thought." Virtually all African countries still need aid for both targeted social investments and infrastructure, where in general it lags far behind Asia. But more than aid, they need trade and investment. Bob Geldof, Bono's mentor in the aid-for-Africa line, is now a partner in 8 Miles, a private equity firm which invests in Africa. But states will attract foreign investors only if they improve the investment climate, strengthen the rule of law and reduce corruption -- where the West can help with policy advice, training, and technology. It's not very heroic. "We" -- the West -- cannot make poverty history; only "they" can do that. The good news is that they're doing it.

ALEXANDER JOE/AFP/Getty Images

Terms of Engagement

How to Pick a Secular Pope

Could the U.N. benefit from a little white smoke?

Last week, I was invited to discuss the United Nations with a group of students at Columbia's School of International Public Affairs. I began by saying, "Let's talk about the new pope."

Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio had just ascended to the Throne of St. Peter, becoming Francis, and I pointed out that while the pope and the U.N. secretary general are more or less the sacred and secular versions of one another, the processes by which they are selected are pretty much the opposite. The consequence is that Catholics get Pope Francis I, while the world gets Ban Ki-moon. Of course, Francis may ultimately disappoint, but right now he feels like exactly what the Church needs. Ban is disappointing-by-design.

Since then, I have begun to ponder something: Is this, perhaps, one of the rare problems in the world that the United States could do a good deal to mitigate, if not solve?

Let's start with my premise that the jobs are mirror images of one another. The U.N. secretary general is often called "the secular pope," because his position permits him, indeed compels him, to speak on behalf of all men and women. The world is his flock. Like the pope, he has none of the usual instruments of power, but he does have great moral authority -- if he possesses the gift of exercising it. And like the pope, the secretary general must also be a shrewd diplomat as well as the chief executive of an extremely refractory bureaucracy. Of course, scarcely anyone possess all these skills in equal measure, and those making the choice have to decide which attributes matter the most.

The jobs are similar, but the institutions, of course, couldn't be more different. The Vatican is a sovereign state, a non-hereditary monarchy in which the princes choose their king. The cardinals, of course, differ radically over what makes a good pope, but a good pope is what they all want. The U.N. is an organization of sovereign states which choose someone not to rule over them but to transact some of their collective business. The secretary general is formally appointed by the U.N. General Assembly on the recommendation of the Security Council. In practice, the choice is made by the five permanent members of the council, any one of whom can use their veto to block a candidate. The most powerful states want a secretary general who fully understands that he serves their interests, first and foremost. They want, not the best man or woman for the job, but the one least likely to get in their way.

Of course, conservative popes choose conservative cardinals who in turn choose conservative popes (think of it like Supreme Court justices electing U.S. presidents). And the cardinals do choose some lemons, like Benedict XVI. But if you look at the lineup since World War II, you come up with two majestic figures in John XXIII and John Paul II, and one seriously compromised one, in Pius XII, who has been accused of failing to stand up to pressure from the Nazis. During that period, the ranks of secretaries-general included an actual Nazi -- Kurt Waldheim, and quite a few lemons.

Meanwhile, Francis -- though his papacy is barely one week old -- looks like another winner. He has already thrilled Catholics and non-believers alike by virtue of his humility, his gentle humor -- who knew there were cardinal jokes? -- and by his gift for speaking directly to, and from, the heart. Evidence has even emerged that some combination of compassion and pragmatism once led him to relax doctrinal strictures on the burning issue of civil unions for gays. No one save the cardinals themselves can say why they chose Bergoglio (though he was on deck last time around) but they seem to have recognized in him personal qualities that would afford him the moral authority that Benedict never managed to establish.

It is safe to say that no secretary general has been chosen for this reason. The first, Trygve Lie, was simply ineffectual. Dag Hammarskjold, the Swedish lawyer who succeeded him, was an unknown figure who was mistakenly thought to be a cautious bureaucrat. Hammarskjold turned out to be a giant who commanded the world's attention and thus drew the ire of every member of the Security Council. He was replaced by a series of quiet gentlemen, some admirable and some not. Then, in 1992, came Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who was considered anti-American, fairly or not; Washington replaced him four years later with the reliably pro-American Kofi Annan, a career U.N. bureaucrat. But Annan, too, surprised everyone, in his case by preaching a passionate gospel of human rights that unnerved Third World dictators and provoked the anti-Western left. Annan did more than anyone to gain acceptance for the linked ideas of humanitarian intervention and "the responsibility to protect."

In 2006, Annan's successor was effectively selected by China and the United States during the tenure of President George W. Bush, no friend of the U.N.; they found they could agree on Ban as a sort of human incarnation of the lowest common denominator. I actually fell asleep once listening to Ban deliver a sort of campaign speech, and when I woke up I thought, "Yes, he'll do." The secretary general must, above all, speak, and Ban was uncomfortable in English as well as every bit as cautious as you would expect a Korean bureaucrat to be. He would never move public opinion, as Annan had. Of course, he cares very much about some issues, for example global warming, but it doesn't matter, because nobody knows.

Ban is more secretary than general, as they say in Turtle Bay. He has made a determined effort to reform his obstinate Curia; but during his tenure the U.N. itself has slipped into the shadows. There are some structural reasons for that: the conventional model for many of the things the U.N. does -- including peacekeeping and development assistance -- may have run its course, and need to be reinvented; other actors, including NGOs, regional organizations, and emerging nations, have absorbed some of the U.N.'s role in peace-making and diplomacy. A new secretary general will have to think anew about the organization's place in the 21st century. But nobody will listen unless the secretary general has something of Hammarskjold's flair for commanding public attention.

I am not, of course, suggesting that when Ban's term concludes at the end of 2016 all 194 U.N. ambassadors gather in the General Assembly until they can produce a puff of white smoke. The great powers, including the United States, would abandon the U.N. if they could be outvoted on important questions, including the choice of the organization's chief executive. But the United States, which drives the process more than any of the orther veto-wielding states, could for once seek someone whose chief qualification for the job is that they'd be good at it.

This would be one of the last decisions of Barack Obama, a president who prominently enshrined in his national security strategy a commitment to "focus American engagement on strengthening international institutions and galvanizing the collective action that can serve common interests...." In his first few years in office, Obama placed the U.N. at the center of both his nuclear nonproliferation agenda and his approach to Iran. Since then, though, he seems to have lost interest, or perhaps hope of change. That may have more to do with Russian intransigence than with Ban's ineffectiveness. No new secretary general can solve that problem.

Sometime this year, Obama's U.N. ambassador, Susan Rice, is expected to become his national security advisor; Samantha Power, who is probably at least in part responsible for Obama's faith in the U.N.(and in the responsibility to protect), is expected to take her place. If Obama really wants to strengthen international institutions, the stars will be aligned for him to do so. Power, Rice, Obama, and Secretary of State John Kerry can find someone with the voice and the vision to renew the institution and restore its relevance -- if they want to.

As it happens, Europe's "turn" comes up after Ban. Since the last European was Waldheim, the region has a lot to atone for. And of course nobody believes in the U.N. like the post-sovereign Europeans. As Richard Gowan, a U.N. expert at the Center for International Cooperation observes, "Rice, Kerry, and Power should tell the EU that they are head-hunting for a really good candidate to run the U.N., and send this signal soon. Otherwise a dozen over-the-hill European politicians will try to get in the running, and more impressive European figures will focus on EU jobs. It's a big question: Is secretary general of the U.N. a better job that EU Fisheries Commissioner?"

The U.N. already has a fisheries commissioner for a secretary general. The next one should be a secular pope. 

Michael Nagle/Getty Images