Obama’s Tough Love for Africa

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"Obama’s Tough Love for Africa"

I’m always reading on the Corner that Barack Obama is a far-left radical driven by anti-American and anti-Western impulses. Under the circumstances, it’s weird that he keeps giving speeches that are so at odds with his world view:

President Barack Obama addresses the parliament of Ghana (White House photo)

President Barack Obama addresses the parliament of Ghana (White House photo)

But despite the progress that has been made — and there has been considerable progress in many parts of Africa — we also know that much of that promise has yet to be fulfilled. Countries like Kenya had a per capita economy larger than South Korea’s when I was born. They have badly been outpaced. Disease and conflict have ravaged parts of the African continent.

In many places, the hope of my father’s generation gave way to cynicism, even despair. Now, it’s easy to point fingers and to pin the blame of these problems on others. Yes, a colonial map that made little sense helped to breed conflict. The West has often approached Africa as a patron or a source of resources rather than a partner. But the West is not responsible for the destruction of the Zimbabwean economy over the last decade, or wars in which children are enlisted as combatants. In my father’s life, it was partly tribalism and patronage and nepotism in an independent Kenya that for a long stretch derailed his career, and we know that this kind of corruption is still a daily fact of life for far too many.

One sociological finding I’m fascinated with is the fact that the extent to which one overestimates one’s personal degree of control over one’s fortunes is an important predictor of success. In other words, success in life is partly a result of circumstances and luck and partly a result of individual effort. And people who overestimate the importance of effort at more likely to succeed. It makes sense when you think about it, but it’s also a bit paradoxical.

In that light, I think this is a useful kind of message to spread. It’s not helpful to a country to have its politics dominated by post-colonial grievances and attempted blame-shifting. But particularly amidst a global economic crisis, I think it’s striking the extent to which few countries really are masters of their own destiny. And it’s not just Africa. The Canadian banking system, for example, is very strong and the Canadians don’t seem to have made any important errors in macroeconomic policy. But they’re going to have a painful recession just like everyone else, because Canada’s economy is very intertwined with America’s. And you see tons and tons of this sort of thing in poor countries where the prices of commodities they export can collapse for reasons that are far outside their control. And, again, the Ghanas of the world are very seriously impacted by the nature of the global trading regime and by rich countries’ immigration policies, but Ghana has no real ability to influence either of those things.

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