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Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Challenge for Africa, By Wangari Maathai (A Review)

The Challenge for Africa, By Wangari Maathai (A Review)

A Zambian Economist Review

It is probably fair to say that I come to this as the most reluctant of The Challenge for Africa reviewers. Largely due to the natural nervousness of charting into the unknown territory of reviewing a book penned by a non-economist with the standard of critique very unclear. The flipside is that this is yet another book penned by a fellow African with the pedigree to match any. Wangari Maathai needs no introduction to many watchers of our continent. A Nobel laureate, civil society activist, environmentalist and ex-Kenyan Minister, she is part of a broader transformational generation of current African thinkers that are now beginning to assert themselves. It is this wide expertise and real life experience that makes The Challenge for Africa compulsory reading for those grappling with the difficult questions facing the current African generation.

The central narrative of the book is that Africa is on the wrong bus headed in the wrong direction. Instead of driving the continent towards meaningful development, the drivers (political leaders) appear to have taken the wrong turn ever since the journey began (at independence). They have accomplished this through a series of dysfunctional navigational aids (policies) and general incompetence. If Africans are to arrive at a better destination they need to pump some sense into their leaders. In short, the answer to Africa’s fundamental problems is more inspirational and selfless leadership with a clear intellectual view of where Africa should be headed. At its heart The Challenge for Africa essentially espouses a leadership solution mixed with a whole range of policies. Maathi does not explain how we get such “visionary leadership”, but assuming we can, the book has a ready made menu of policy proposals built around the metaphor of the African three legged stool – democratic space; cultures of peaces; and, sustainable development. The book effectively focuses on explaining which policies reinforce this stool, building from a mixture of personal experience and historical examples.

Much of the discussion under the legs of “democratic space” and “sustainable development” is not new. There are familiar arguments for strong rights for women, children and the African Diaspora. Unsurprisingly, Maathi puts strong emphasis on the role of Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) as the bedrock for stronger democratic societies. No surprise therefore that when we come to the issue of aid and fair trade, The Challenge for Africa is extremely hopeful of the role CSOs can play in providing sufficient incentives for good governance provided aid was filtered through CSOs that have a strong anchor to the local communities they serve. Similarly, whilst the discussion on the environment is undoubtedly the strongest area of the book, the central idea that economic development cannot be divorced from good stewardship of the planet is not new. What is missing in the book is clear exposition of how incentives can be realigned to enforce the basic message. Unfortunately, for many readers who are not deep environmentalists, larger sections of the narrative may well turn out not just arduous but also as a piece written for herself rather than the audience.

In stark contrast, the discussion on “cultures of peace” provides fascinating insights into an often ignored area of development. Maathi’s argument is that there’s much to be gleaned from harnessing indigenous systems of knowledge that have been built over many generations, but now appears to be in danger of extinction thanks to the relentless charge of modernity and our current crop of “bus drivers”. Fundamentally, Maathi argues, “what Africans need to do, as much as they can, is recapture a feeling for their pasts that is not solely filtered through the prism of the colonialists”. A critical part of this “reimagining” is for African countries to embrace the concept of “micro-national identity”. Africans need to develop nation states that are built on shared vision of the future but also fully recognize and accept differences across regions and tribes. Rather than force citizens people to ditch their identity (as some post conflict countries have done), the path towards remaking Africa lies in accepting their differences and formulating a system where any differences in perspectives among tribes can be shared and debated. It is true that we have heard calls for such “cultural models” before, but where Maathi appears to add value is linking this to various strands of development. In this vein she proposes short and long term changes.
In the short term, there’s need for an institutional shift in how culture is integrated in national development. The Maathi proposal is for a forum of traditional leaders from each tribe regardless of their population, a sort of House of Chiefs meets the national indaba. Under this framework chiefs would have no legislative power, but would appear to provide a useful talking shop that makes everyone feel important.

For the long term a more structural shift in inter tribal relations is suggested built on broader education, language and communication reforms. Education needs to embrace differences, but at the same time teach the new generation how to communicate and relate to one other. Compulsory languages of other tribal languages and cultural lessons are particularly vital. Indeed, such a move must come with erosion of single national language requirements. Maathi argues that in many African countries the adoption of a single national official language probably does more harm than good. Although these policies are predicated upon the desire to foster inter tribal unity, they do so at the expense of reinforcing the dominance of rich African elites. More worryingly, such measures also prevent Africans in many villages from communicating with their governments, effectively turning these requirements into “the strongest forms of discrimination, and indeed, means of oppression and exclusion”. A possible solution is to follow South Africa’s approach and adopt a suite of national official languages. Finally to bind this together, there’s a greater need to support initiatives towards greater promotion cheaper forms of communication e.g. development local language radio stations, which although they may have the capacity to inflame tensions, in an open dialogue framework system suggest, it is likely to give local people greater voice to be heard by the “bus drivers”.

Taken together the Maathi framework is an interesting approach and in many respects not too dissimilar to my own personal triangulation for development discussed at Bad Samaritans, By Ha-Joon Chang (A Review). Where The Challenge for Africa comes short is that it is predicated on having good leaders already and fails to recognise that our fundamental problem is how to have good leaders in the first place! Maathi fails to sufficiently recognize that there are significant problems with the “leadership model” largely because people respond to incentives before them (diamond minds, western friends, threat of force, etc) and that institutional reform is forged from complex interplay or personal and societal preferences. The result is that the book fails to offer new thoughts on just how this new breed of leaders is going to emerge and thereby missing the real “Challenge for Africa”. I put this fundamental flaw down to broader problems that characterises her critique.

As a general point, the book probably covers too many areas way beyond Maathi’s expertise. There are many examples where Maathi is often out of her depth as she grapples with the analysis.

Take the fundamental issue of “leadership”. It’s quite obvious Maathi fails to recognize the standard problem that we have come to coin as the “dedicated fellows paradox”. There’s a false illusion among many African thinkers (and would be saviours) that character and steadfastness is the answer to all our problems. But even if one was to entertain the illusion, it suffers from two practical problems. First, how do you find these 'selfless fellows' who will implement Maathi’s wonder policies? Secondly, and perhaps of crucial importance, how do you get them to be involved in development after investing personal fortunate to get into power? Without answering these two fundamental questions, the leadership model fails to sufficiently address how you get the best from the 'poor bunch'. Africa has many good selfless intelligent individuals, the question is how do we first get these individuals to be involved in national leadership, or to put it more starkly, how do we make the good emerge from a large pool of very bad politicians? The obvious answer is that you need good institutions or policies designed to attract them. But this assumption immediately creates a paradox or vicious cycle - you need some initial institutional policies that encourage these selfless individuals to be involved who'll then deliver other development related policies, but to have the initial institutional policies you must have some selfless individuals who make them happen! It is this problem that creates difficulties and one not acknowledged by The Challenge for Africa.

Similar problems emerge when Maathi’s puts forward ideas about fighting corruption. The argument is advanced that what Africa needs is for her people to “speak out” against these corrupt vices in order to signal to their leaders that change needs to happen. I am a proponent of citizen journalism, but I have never been deluded that simply calling on Africans to shout will necessarily work. One of the many reasons why people find it difficult to signal effectively their discontent is that “good governance” is a non-excludable (public) good. We all want to have a good government but we are simply not willing to sacrifice all to see it happen. This problem applies not just to corruption but fixing local drainage systems! The reason people don't get together and take forward positive local changes we desire is simply the "coordination" problem coupled with the "genovese effect" (we all know poor drainage is costly to our communities in the long term, but we would rather someone else took the pain of sorting it out, rather than bear the cross for the entire community). That’s why governments exist to eliminate these "market failures". Unfortunately Africa’s problem is one of too many "government failures"! So we are back to square one. What we need are solutions to these collective action problems. There many such examples littered around the book where Maathi simply fails to articulate the complex issues involved.

An equally worrying problem is the general lack of balance in many parts of the book. These are particularly evident with respect to the treatment of CSOs as a panacea, but we also see similar problems with discussions around culture and language. Whilst on average CSOs have been force for positive social and economic change, any analysis that ignores that they have sometimes been instruments of state oppression and corrupt plunder lacks credibility. Indeed the real problem many of us face is distinguishing a genuine CSO from a good one. Many governments have realized that where CSOs are against their political objectives, the logical approach is simply to create another CSO that is more favourable to its position (the so called Forum for Leadership, NGOOCC brigades). How often does one read of a so-called NGO backing a clearly foolish proposal by an African government?

Finally, the book suffers from the ironic problem of treating Africa as homogenous. On the one hand the message is that Africa needs to acknowledge its diversity, on the other hand we have a book on Africa with much of the narrative reinforcing the single entity treatment associated with the Sarah Palin mode of thought. Not only does The Challenge for Africa struggle deeply to reconcile unity with diversity, but many of the positive ideas that can be distilled from the Maathi thesis are overshadowed by “context” specific nature of Africa’s problems. Although many of the ideas are interesting, the reader often finds oneself questioning how they apply to their own context. It is time surely for African thinkers to move away from writing books about Africa and begin to focus on individual states. Let us leave those who have long abandoned writing books about “Europe” to such ventures.

With this in mind, it is difficult to reach any other conclusion other than that the book is best viewed not as a “new vision for Africa” advertised on its cover page, but rather a potential starting point for much more focused African thinkers to begin building a much stronger foundation. There are three areas I see flowing from this:
  1. The important of defining development. As Maathi notes part of our “development” problem is that as a people Africans have not sufficiently defined what development means for them. We can dispute the sufficiency of the “three legged stool” proposal but there’s much that African thinkers can do to help push the continent towards more sophisticated and durable approach to development. In the Zambian context this approach essentially needs to consider three specific questions: what kind of African development do we want to see in Zambia or what do we mean by development; what institutions do we want to put in place to deliver that development; and, how do we bring up this resilient institution change, in face of the “dedicated fellows paradox”?
  2. There’s a need for a holistic treatment of the triad of culture, education and language as a key part of national development. Fundamental questions here are essentially: what the nature and scope of traditional culture; and, where does it fit in within the broader pursuit of development? In particular there needs a better appreciation of the indigenous knowledge systems, education, language and new communication technologies.
  3. The importance of participatory approaches towards governance. In many of the discussions on this website, we have championed the need to devolve power to the local people through a holistic development model where they can prioritise spending and make their own decisions e.g. A cultural approach to Zambia’s development. Such devolutions of course come with its own pitfalls, but what is particularly interesting is that Maathi demonstrates an important area progress can be made. The discussion on how she introduced participatory mechanism for her local Constituent Development Fund as an MP is something that other Africans should emulate as a small but credible step towards better decentralized decision making, especially with the context of broader reforms under (1) and (2).
The Challenge for Africa is an imperfect but relevant start to the most important challenges facing the continent. Some parts are good, some parts are bad, but the issues raised are certainly worth discussing and focusing on as we strive to forge a better Africa out of the crumbled ruins of a continent for too long held in the grip of “strong men”.


  1. I actually found this book very insightful, and many of the problems she addresses are common to many African countries. The difference between this lady and many other authors is that she has actually gone out and achieved something, rather than just talking about it.
    I suspect the lukewarm reviews the book has received from many is due to her criticism of Christianity and it's role in the oppression of Africa. Many Africans still adhere blindly to the religion of their original oppressors, ignoring the sage advice of a high achieving scientist like Maathai.

    1. I do not know why Wangari over-cried on colonization in her book. The west is accountable for most of African problems according to her that includes issues of poor governance, loss of culture etc...

      We all know about the history of colonization and its negative impacts. This happened for most of the African countries some forty years back. It is history and we may remember it. What is expected from us now is to learn from it if we can-Sankofa(Ok let us remember the past but let us move forward. Let us not continue externalizing our problem).

      Still our leaders are exercising the same mistake and colonizing their people. Why African leaders in the past were doing this and why the current leaders are repeating the same mistake? Can we say that they because they learnt from their colonizers. We must move forward and not repeat some mistake again-We Africans are human beings and have the freedom to choose and do well.

      On the other hand, all done by our masters were not completely bad. What if Africa was not colonized? Could our situation will be better than today? Why the colonized India is better than Africa? Why the not colonized Ethiopia in Africa not developed?


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