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Sean Michael
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I write on markets from time to time. Bachelor of Science, Master of Science, professional background in front office at leading investment banks.
  • Book Review: The New Scramble For Africa 0 comments
    Aug 10, 2012 4:41 PM

    The New Scramble for Africa is a short book about recent economic development and business activity across Africa. Author Pádraig Carmody, senior lecturer at Trinity College Dublin, provides some good descriptions and detail on recent developments on the continent, and generally does a thorough job of referencing claims and figures.

    Unfortunately, the author cannot seem to decide who his audience is. He provides plenty of detail on aid agreements, international relations history and history of aid policy in the United States and Europe. Surely anyone reading a book about such things would have some idea of what the word globalization means. Yet there it is on page 147, a one sentence "reminder" that globalization is a fancy word for "the increased interconnectedness of places around the world." Perhaps it was an editor trying to make the book as widely accessible as possible, making this unfortunate addition without the author's consent. At least I'd like to think that's what happened...

    The book is densely descriptive, but unfortunately the author scarcely takes a normative position on future trends for the economies with which he is supposedly very familiar. The prescriptive and predictive portion of the book barely amounts to a dozen pages at the very end, and the author's opinions are, particularly when juxtaposed with the rest of the book's commendable detail and specificity, maddeningly vague.

    Since this book was not yet available at bookstores when I ordered it, I did not have the luxury of flipping through it to check the level of referencing, statistical evidence, tables and graphs. Had I done so, I wouldn't have picked up this book. I was expecting this work to present an evidence-based assessment of the recent history and future trends of economic development in the 54 countries which make up the continent of Africa. Yet there are a total of 2 tables and 2 graphs in the whole thing, and they aren't even detailed. Furthermore, the figures cited throughout the rest of the book read more like Malcolm Gladwell-esque "sound bite statistics" ("2 dollars a day", "top 500 earn more than the bottom 416 million", etc) than actual cross-sectional or summary statistics which can be of use for an analytical person with an interest in learning rather than edutainment. These types of sound bites are useful for propaganda materials and time-constrained television interviews, but in a serious book about the complexity of modern development economics and African political economy platitudes add little to the reader's understanding. With a title like "The New Scramble for Africa" a treatment shorter of than 200 pages doesn't have room for catchy platitudes.

    The New Scramble for Africa is noticeably lacking any reference to economic realities, growth theory, national accounts, trade data, key macro data and growth statistics. On the few occasions that these things are mentioned it is in passing, in isolation and without context or comparison with other African countries or other years. Figures are too often presented as nominal amounts, without any reference to the percentage of trade, FDI, or GDP a given figure represents in the year or decade in question, or what that amount is equivalent to in either today's or a base year's currency. This makes it difficult for the reader to effectively relate these figures to the broader context of trends in growth and trade.

    The disjointed presentation of each country is also frustrating. Perhaps the real problem is that the topic is simply too broad for a 200 page book. One could easily write 200 pages on the role of any one of Africa's 54 countries in the scramble, and this could be far more effective. Or if it was organized along former colonial relationships this would also be a reasonable organizing principle. In its current form, details seem to be randomly sprinkled throughout the text, with only occasional connectedness with the line of reasoning of a section or chapter.. The author relies heavily on quotes from random politicians, diplomats and business people in Africa, colloquial sayings, and precious few references to active researchers. A handful of academics are repeatedly quoted, referenced, and praised as "renowned" scholars, and their affiliations are repeated over and over again.

    For someone who is already very familiar with the vital statistics of each of the countries involved Carmody's work might serve as an interesting starting point for further reading, a sort narrated list of interesting factoids and writers who discuss topics related to African development.

    Themes: Book review, Africa
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