Taking "Looking on the Bright Side" Too Far
By Bryan Caplan
I’m all for looking on the bright side of things, but I’m stunned that someone could be upbeat about post-colonial Africa. But someone is: Charles Kenny asks “Is Africa a Failure?,” and almost says No:
[C]omparative performance in economic growth is a very narrow indicator of ‘success’ and ‘failure’ for a state. After all, it is usually assumed that economic growth is a means to the end of a better quality of life for a country’s citizens. And independence leader Kwame Nkrumah’s boast that Ghana’s streets would soon be paved with gold notwithstanding, the generation of Africans that emerged from colonialism in the 1960s certainly had broader concerns than economic growth alone. They were concerned with celebrating the glories of pre-colonial African achievement, legitimacy and nation building and expanding access to health and education, for example. Former President of Tanzania Julius Nyerere sums up his country’s successes in elements of this broader agenda: “The British Empire left us a country with 85 percent illiterates, two engineers and twelve doctors. When I left office, we had nine per cent illiterates and thousands of engineers and doctors.” And this broader success has been repeated across the continent.
Frankly, I suspect that Africans would rather be illiterate but rich, but Kenny does make the fair point that African life expectancy has risen substantially despite AIDS.
One common response to my book is that, by historic standards, we’re doing fine. Kenny basically argues that by historic standards, Africa is doing fine too. Will you let me use this as a reductio ad absurdum?