Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Africa's Promise and Despair ; A Careful History of the Continent's Challenges - and a Wise Collection of Policy Prescriptions for Change

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Africa's Promise and Despair ; A Careful History of the Continent's Challenges - and a Wise Collection of Policy Prescriptions for Change

Article excerpt

In late June, Thabo Mbeki, South Africa's scholarly president, traveled to Kananaskis, Alberta, to sell G-8 heads of state on a new aid package for Africa. Asking for a handout for Africa was nothing new. But Mbeki's pitch differed dramatically from past aid requests. Under his proposed New Plan for Africa's Development (NEPAD), African states, in return for assistance from the West, will pledge themselves to enhancing democracy and good governance and reducing conflict, signing on to strict standards to be policed by their peers. In other words, under the new, self-imposed regime, they'll have to start reforming before they can expect any more help from the outside. This is a welcome sign, one of several recent positive developments in sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, as Robert Rotberg writes in "Ending Autocracy, Enabling Democracy," the region has entered an unusually promising period.

Both local behemoths, Nigeria and South Africa, have managed largely successful transitions to democracy. Democracy is also prevailing in Zambia, Namibia, Malawi, and valiant Botswana. Ghana, Senegal, and Tanzania have all recently managed free and fair polls. Fragile cease-fires are holding in Sierra Leone and Angola. Moreover, disastrous economic policies - such as state interference, price controls, and high import tariffs - that doomed much of postcolonial Africa to poverty have been repudiated.

Of course, one need only look at recent headlines to be reminded that critical problems persist: a number of still-smoldering wars (one of which, in Congo, has ensnared five other states), the AIDS pandemic, and raging unemployment (50 percent in some places). Most spectacularly, Zimbabwe, long a beacon of relative stability, has recently imploded, as the increasingly erratic Robert Mugabe desperately struggles to prop up his plummeting popularity.

As Rotberg shows, this pattern - a seesawing between promise and despair - has been an all-too-common feature of the region's 40- year postcolonial history. Since the heady years of 1960-1966, when 29 African states achieved their independence, the area's aspirations for effective self-rule have consistently been dashed by an epic series of natural and manmade disasters. "Africa in the second half of the 20th century," he writes, "is a tale of great hope and expectation, followed by disappointment," as the continent has struggled to turn what had been an arbitrary colonial patchwork into modern, functioning nation-states.

Few are better equipped to tell this story than Rotberg, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and one of the United States's leading Africa experts. He has traveled through and reported on the continent for four decades. (He was even banned at one point from white-ruled South Africa and Rhodesia.)

In "Ending Autocracy," he has compiled 229 of his pieces from The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor, the New Republic, and other journals. He has added summaries and some new analysis in order to educate an American public woefully ignorant of Africa's recent history and to offer policy solutions to experts on how to "achieve justice, peace, and improving standards of living" for the region. …

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