Robert Guest – The Shackled Continent

Today I read The Shackled Continent by Robert Guest. It’s a non-technical book by the Africa editor of The Economist seeking to help answer the question: Why is Africa so poor?

Sub-Saharan Africa’s poverty has become the central focus of development discussions in the popular press and amongst NGOs over the last year or so. As someone not very familiar with development literature specific to the continent, I found the book to be an excellent primer on Africa.

Given my greater familiarity with development literature generally, I found Guest to be at his best when delivering detailed historical accounts (such as Robert Mugabe’s wrecking of Zimbabwe, the failure of ANC economic policy in South Africa, and disastrous civil wars), telling entrancing personal narratives (such as his journey on a truck delivering Guinness in Cameroon or troubles warding off prostitutes), or offering amusing asides (such as his use of a North Korean computer operating system). These gems aren’t found in the other books I’ve read.

Unfortunately, much of the content in this non-technical text will be familiar to those that have read books like Johan Norberg’s In Defense of Global Capitalism and William Easterly’s The Elusive Quest for Growth. As such, I found the book at its weakest when it was covering well-treaded ground such as agricultural subsidies, the failure of development assistance, and the lack of transparent property rights.

Nonetheless, for those with more than a passing interest in development, I’d recommend The Shackled Continent.

My most serious complaint: The introduction, which at twenty-five pages (10% of the total) is far too long, provides an outline of the topics to be covered so exhaustive that one later reads many sections with a sense of deja vu.