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October 25, 2005

A Lost Teachable Moment...

When the Fifteen-Year-Old asked, "Why is so much of Africa so poor?" he was not expecting--and did not react well to--a dramatic reading of parts of James Ferguson (1999), Expectations of Modernity: Myths and Meanings of Urban Life on the Zambian Copperbelt (Berkeley: University of California: 0520217020).

The sociology and the ground-level description in the book are both quite good. But I am unwilling to recommend the book to anyone. From my perspective, it suffers very badly from its impoundment inside one of those grand sociological hall-of-mirrors metanarratives that are totally disconnected from reality. In this case, the grand metanarrative is that the Zambian part of this fallen world is helpless in the grip of Satan--Jeffrey Sachs--and all his minions:

But now the high priests of economics may be changing their message yet again. No less a figure than Jeffrey Sachs... has recently suggested that... an agriculture-led development strategy for African economies may have been a mistake. With the same cavalier disregard for economic history displayed by his predecessors, Sachs reduces the variation in global patterns of economic growth to four "factors": initial conditions, physical geography, government policy, and demographic change.... [I]t is physical geography, he suggests, that turns out to be decisively important for tropical regions like sub-Saharan Africa. Permanently "penalized" by the disadvantages of its tropical climate.... "Nowhere has tropical agriculture led the escape from poverty," he declares....

[I]t is not clear that there is any place for Africa at all in the new global economy being designed by Sachs and his associates, beyond its historical role as an open field for pillaging mineral wealth.... Effectively "redlined" in global financial financial markets... sub-Saharan Africa today functions as... a zone of economic abjection that also makes a convenient object lesson for third-world governments in other regions that might, without the specter of "Africanization" hanging over them, be tempted to challenge capital's regime of "economic correctness"...

The Lord knows that I am no acolyte of Jeffrey Sachs's. But he does not have "a cavalier disregard for economic history": he has always paid close attention to and thinks a lot about economic history. He has not switched sides from "Back to the Land" to "Back to the Factory": he has always noted the force of both (a) the Prebisch-Singer-Lewis point that (except in exceptional periods) the terms-of-trade the world offers tropical primary-product exporters are lousy, and (b) the Bauer-Krueger point that tariffs that cut off foreign competition create politically-protected monopolies that can be equally poisonous to development. He is not "designing" a global economy in which Africa has "no place": he tries to raise consciousness in the rich industrial core of what is going on in the rest of the world, and has--I think--been remarkably effective.

Posted by DeLong at October 25, 2005 08:59 PM