Africa: Know the Beginning Well - an Inside Journey Through Five Decades of African Development

book review

In 1977, a thirty-three-year-old Ghanaian economist with the World Bank was diagnosed with a rare blood disorder that confounded doctors in a hospital in Alexandria, Virginia, United States. One day, his heart almost stopped as he passed out. He was later transferred to the National Institute of Health (NIH) in Washington, D.C. where another team of doctors successfully treated him.

That economist is K.Y. Amoako; the medical team at NIH was led by a doctor called Anthony Fauci. Dr. Fauci is currently on the frontline of the COVID-19 battle in the United States.

The anecdote is one of several sprinkled throughout the 526-page book which details the life journey of one of Africa's foremost development experts, interrogates the continent's development progress and missteps, and recommends ways to achieve transformation.

The author bagged a Ph.D. in economics from the University of California at Berkeley, spent three decades working with the World Bank and later the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) where he served as Executive Secretary. He is the founder and current president of the African Centre for Economic Transformation, a policy think tank based in Ghana's capital, Accra.

The book was published in early 2020. The late Secretary-General of the United Nations Kofi Annan signed off on its foreword in May 2018, just three months before his death in August 2018.

Mr. Annan, who was only the second African (after Egypt's Boutros Boutros-Ghali) to head the UN, wrote that the book "offers great benefits to anyone with a role in Africa's economic transformation and thus to anyone with a hand in realizing Africa's sustainable and more prosperous future."

The book is organized in four parts, each part with a distinct theme and several chapters. Part 1, Inside the Bank, discusses the evolution of the role of the World Bank; Part 2, In Africa, drills down on issues such as gender equality and the role of ECA in advancing the continent's development.

Part 3, Around the World, focuses on the raison d'être for establishing the New Partnership for Africa's Development (NEPAD), financing development projects, among other issues. Part 4, Toward the Future, reflects on Africa's aspirations and how visionary leadership can drive economic transformation.

In explaining the paradox of a continent rich in natural resources yet poor, the author lists hurdles in Africa's way, including vestiges of colonialism such as arbitrary borders that continue to stoke civil unrest, high indebtedness of countries, a misdirection of development assistance, short-sighted policies and the absence of visionary leadership.

Amoako was with the World Bank in the early 1980s when many African countries implemented Structural Adjustment Programme (SAP), a conditional lending initiative that experts believe stagnated development. In fact, he was a member of the SAP research team, although he highlights his disagreement with aspects of the programme such as forcing policies on countries that did not have implementation capacity.

He makes a forceful case for gender equality, his passion traceable to his mother who was poor and did not go to school (See interview). He was just two years old when his parents divorced, and saw the difficulties brought about by those circumstances as he grew older.

"In Africa... women have long been deprived of land and inheritance and forced to contend with deeply ingrained traditions, customs, and belief systems," he maintains, noting an "evolution of Africa's women, from a state of illiteracy and repression to expanding opportunities and awareness."

To transform economies, Amoako recommends regional integration, public private partnership, transformative leadership, among other key steps.

Transformative leadership is a recurring theme in the book--reflecting his impatience with the status quo. While transformational leadership's foundation is a moral purpose larger than self, transformative leadership goes a step further to disrupt the status quo, challenging inequity and injustice.

Acknowledging his encounter with "plenty of bad leaders," he praises those he describes as "exceptional." Examples are Joaquim Chissano who "helped turn Mozambique around after more than 15 years of civil war"; South Africa's Thabo Mbeki who was a driving force behind NEPAD; Liberia's Ellen Johnson Sirleaf who resuscitated Liberia's economy; Ethiopia's Meles Zenawi and Rwanda's Paul Kagame who "were able to put their countries on a steady path to transformation."

The joy of this absorbing book is its readability: the personal melts into policy discussion and vice versa. Its easy breezy narration sheds it--thank goodness! --of wonkiness.

The book enriches the scholarship on Africa's development. Political leaders, policymakers, managers of multilateral financial institutions, pan-African institutions, and students of international affairs are among those who will find the book worthwhile.

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