10 April 2014

Africa: Review - 'Betrayed' By Seth Kaplan - a New Approach to Solving Global Poverty or a Naïve Paean of Praise for Growth?

book review

Seth D. Kaplan, Betrayed: Politics, Power and Prosperity, Basingstoke: Palgrave/Macmillan, 2013

The description of this book on the back cover, below the hearty endorsement from Jerry Rawlings and a rather lukewarm one from Andrew Natsios, is that it will offer a new approach to global poverty that doesn't blame the West or seek solutions from it.

Instead, it will show how removing the shackles from the poor will release their entrepreneurial energies to drive wealth creation. By the time I ground my way through the 245 pages I, like the title, had been betrayed.

What I had expected to be a serious academic analysis of poverty and the obstacles to the empowerment of the poor, turned out to be a naïve, at times unbelievably banal, and incredibly simplistic motivational exhortation to the poor to have 'self-belief'.

It read rather like the endless books you can find about self-empowerment and how to make your first million. The naivety was exemplified by the use of a brief and rather hypocritical foreword by Jerry Rawlings, in which he exhorted elites and leaders to govern for all citizens and fulfil their moral obligations; what, like the obligation not to use repressive laws to stay in power and enact structural adjustment programmes that caused massive deprivation to the poor but not the political elite, Jerry?

There have been many works in the past that have looked at the problem of poverty, the failures of foreign aid, the marginalization and disempowerment of the poor, and so I was hoping for something new. I didn't get it.

Instead, I got a lot of "I've been there and seen poor people," which showed that the author knows the poor exist and have a damn tough time, but did not bring anything knew to the subject other than protestations of the writer's concern and empathy.

Too often the reader is bombarded with the blindingly obvious - one particularly irritating section deals with the contents of people's houses in wealthy areas. I think we all know what wealthy people own without Kaplan having to list the likely contents of a rich person's house.

Throughout the book China is held up as a great example, because of its staggering economic growth and developing elite prosperity, though nowhere is there a meaningful discussion of who benefits, how political repression and a muzzling of free speech has gone along with this growth and how there are still 128 million Chinese in rural areas living in dire poverty with little chance of better living standards because they are marginal to the wealth creation project.

Similarly, the country picked out (perhaps because of the foreword by Rawlings) as the African success story, Ghana, is treated very superficially and the descriptions of it read rather like those special sections of newspapers on particular countries that are produced and paid for by companies or ministries in the countries themselves.

Ghana's economy is growing, but that growth has not brought prosperity to all, a narrowing of the poverty gap and, at the time of writing, there is a run on the cedi as growing Western doubts about emerging economies hits the poster boys of African growth. In dealing with Ghana, there is a lack of critical analysis and a level of superficiality that renders the use of the country as an exemplar somewhat redundant.

Similarly, the references to Felix Houphouët-Boigny as an inclusive leader need backing up with evidence.

He was, undoubtedly, very good at portraying himself as inclusive, but his policies marginalized and deprived of agency the bulk of Ivorians at the expense of the carefully constructed client networks that underpinned his rule and which crumbled on his demise, breaking up into warring factions.

Throughout the book, especially when it comes to Africa, one feels the author has an ideological zeal about lauding the benefits of growth above all but hasn't done enough homework to provide arguments to support this.

So we get glowing references to the estimable Wangari Maathai and to the less estimable Meles Zenawi, as though they are still alive and contributing to the development of approaches to African advancement. We also get a blithe acceptance of corruption, as long as it oils the wheels of business and enables the rich to continue to accumulate wealth.

So we are told (p.105) that corruption isn't all bad and may have a positive role "as a lubricant to circumvent stifling regulations and smooth the establishment of the trust necessary for business people to have enough confidence in officials to want to invest".

So corruption creates trust, at least I learned something new from the book. It seems also that lots of people view corruption as a positive force - well perhaps they do, if they are benefitting from that corruption as part of a patronage network, but the poor and those marginalized through being outside such networks rarely have this rosy view of graft.

Working my way through the rest of the book I found out that people with little or no stable income behave differently from those with a minimum level of guaranteed income (p.157) - how long did it take you to work that one out, Sherlock? I also found that some countries use aid well and some don't - that explains a lot.

In his final paean to growth and capitalism - which can't of course be blamed for any of Africa's or the developing world's structural economic or development problems - we find that growth will be better if it is inclusive. But we never really find out how this can be achieved, other than, of course, through the belief that it can.

Keith Somerville is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, University of London; teaches in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent; and runs the Africa - News and Analysis website (www.africajournalismtheworld.com).

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