Since I’m presently travelling, I haven’t felt sufficiently up with the commentariat to offer any new thoughts on Lebanon,Â the Costello dummy spit, or why Casey Donovan has been dropped by her recording label.
However, I just finished one of the best nonfiction books Iâ€™ve read in ages. The Shackled Continent, by Robert Guest, is about why Africa is poor, and how it can get richer. Written by an Economist correspondent, you get the pithy writing and punchy analysis for which the mag is famous. A few of my favourite quotes.
On agricultural protection:
Bigger grocery bills particularly hurt the poor in rich countries because they spend a large chunk of their disposable income on food. Lawyers and lobbyists may not bother to read the price tags in the grocery store, but the jobless do.
On the Internet in Africa:
While surfing in Tanzania, I’ve overheard locals using Internet telephony to bypass the price-gouging state phone company, call Hong Kong, and sell hand-carved elephants for hard currency. In Niger, weather forecasts are downloaded from the Internet, relayed to local radio stations, and broadcast to cattle herders with wind-up radios. This tells the herders where to herd their cows for the best grazing, crucial information in a country that is mostly desert.
After the Black Death wiped out a third of the population of medieval Europe, many of the survivors were better off. Because so many died there was a sudden labor shortage, and land-owners were forced to pay their workers better.
Africans who survive AIDS will not be so lucky. AIDS takes longer to kill than the plague did, so the cost of caring for the sick will be much greater. Modern governments, unlike medieval ones, tax the healthy to look after the ailing, so the burden of AIDS will fall on everyone. And because AIDS is sexually transmitted, it tends to hit people in their most productive years.
What happens when Africans cannot use their homes as collateral to borrow:
Zimba sensed there was little future in farming. His ambition, he said, was to be a hawker. He envisaged buying soap and paraffin in the nearest town and selling it in the village. It would be wonderful, he supposed, if he could one day earn enough to buy a bicycle. But, he said: “I haven’t got the money to get started.”
On administering foreign aid in a war zone:
Somalia has no government, unless you count a “transitional” one that controls a few streets in the capital, Mogadishu, and a short stretch of coastline. The rest of the country is divided into warring fiefdoms. Warlords extract protection money from anyone who has money to extract. Clans, sub-clans, and sub-sub-clans pursue bloody vendettas against each other, often fighting over grudges that pre-date the colonial period. Few children learn to read, but practically all self-respecting young men carry submachine-guns.
I was at one of the country’s countless road blocks, one a sandy road outside Baidoa, a southern town of shell-blasted stone walls and sandy streets. The local warlord’s men were waving their Kalishnikovs at approaching trucks, forcing them to stop. Many of the trucks carried passengers perched atop the cargoes of logs or oil drums. The men with guns then ordered all the children under five to dismount and herded them into the shade of a nearby tree. There, they handed them over to strangers with clipboards, who squeezed open their mouths and fed each one a single drop of polio vaccine.