Making Africa Work: A Handbook (Book Review)

Marking Africa Work: A Handbook is written by four authors: Greg Mills, Jeffrey Herbst, Olusegun Obasanjo and Dickie Davis. Each author brings unique experience and insight, not least Olusegun Obasanjo, the former President of Nigeria, who lends the book particular gravitas.

In light of the impending population boom in Africa, the authors’ mission is to produce a practical guide to the political, economic and technological changes needed to ensure that Africa can not only survive, but thrive.

The book’s urgency is clear from the first sentence:

Africa faces a difficult, possibly disastrous future unless it acts quickly to consolidate democracy, liberalise its economies, invest in people and infrastructure, and ensure the rule of law.

Nothing that I can say on this book competes with the prominent figures who have already reviewed it. Mmusi Maimane, leader of South Africa’s Democratic Alliance party wrote, ‘At last, a book on ‘how’ rather than ‘what’ to do to improve the fortunes of Africa’s people’, while economist and author of The Bottom Billion Paul Collier called it ‘a timely and important book’.

What I can share, though, are my thoughts on this book from the point of view of an average layperson. One might expect such a book to be dry or dull, but in fact it is surprisingly accessible.

The authors bring fresh, practical ideas to old problems on the African continent. By using examples of other countries’ problems and successes, they show that sub-Saharan Africa’s obstacles are not so insurmountable after all.

The example of Medellín is given in the chapter on security. During the peak of Pablo Escobar’s reign in the 1990s, they note, the death toll in the Colombian city reached 7,000. By 2015, the homicide rates were on par with those of Washington DC. This success story was possible thanks to political will and effective policing.

The chapter on technology is perhaps the most exciting, not least because technological innovation is a cause for excitement (and, at times, fear) in any context. What was so encouraging in this section was that the authors were able to draw on significant advances on the African continent itself. While noting the numerous problems still rife in Kenya, the authors explain that the country has effectively positioned itself as a hub for innovation and entrepreneurialism in technology. Morocco, meanwhile, owes part of its economic success to its good use of technology.

Although the authors strive to find practical and widely applicable solutions to common problems, they also recognise the distinctions between each African country—something which so many outside observers fail to do for Africa. The final chapter before the conclusion, for example, looks at the challenges, successes and failures of four distinct states: Ethiopia, Botswana, Mauritania and Côte d’Ivoire.

If I have one criticism, it is that the book spends slightly too much time on South Africa. This isn’t particularly surprising given South Africa’s size and importance on the continent, but—to me—South Africa’s economic and political situation seems so vastly different from elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa. Thus, devoting a little less time to South Africa and adding a little extra coverage of other African countries might have produced a better balance.

This is really a small criticism, though, in an otherwise well-detailed, well-informed and pragmatic book.



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