The past decade or so has witnessed the most comprehensive and sustained period of economic growth in Africa since the 1950s. Various factors help explain this, but pride of place probably goes to the much more favorable international prices that have recently prevailed for most of Africa’s commodity exports, thanks in part to the surge in Asia’s purchasing power. In turn, high commodity prices have encouraged foreign direct investment in Africa, particularly in the oil and mining sectors. (Particularly noteworthy is China’s rapidly increasing investment in the region.) These two books try to make sense of all these developments. Carmody’s argues forcefully that the current trends evoke the late-nineteenth-century scramble for Africa, during which a handful of European powers carved up the continent in pursuit of its natural resources, and his book is full of arresting anecdotes and provocative claims about the nature of the competition. Carmody tends to view international economic relations as a zero-sum game, and as a result, he sees the competition for resources by outsiders as bad news for the region.
Ellis’ carefully argued book is both more nuanced and more challenging. Ellis is attentive to the changes that have marked Africa in recent years, and he concedes that meaningful economic growth has resulted in higher standards of living. He puts Africans at the heart of his view of the continent, a group that is strangely absent from Carmody’s account. In Ellis’ telling, Africans have become masters at making the most out of their subaltern position in the global economy, manipulating and benefiting from investment and foreign aid for decades. Still, he argues, many of the structural constraints on African growth remain ensconced today. For instance, political elites in the region are too self-regarding and state structures too weak for the current boom to result in sustainable economic growth and alleviate poverty. He is deeply suspicious of the idea of progress, castigating those in the development business who believe that Africa will ineluctably follow in the footsteps of the West and soon turn toward democracy or capitalism. Ellis’ book will not please readers looking for a simple takeaway or straightforward policy recommendations, but his in-depth knowledge makes it essential reading for anyone seeking to understand Africa’s evolution.
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