How often do you come across an Think Tank report that doubles up as a genuine page-turner? Doubt such a thing even exists? Well, I’m here to tell you East African Prospects by ODI’s David Booth, Brian Cooksey, Frederick Golooba-Mutebi and Karuti Kanyinga is that report.
Shockingly readable, unendingly quotable, and deeply entertaining, it’s a kind of weary Hobbesian counterpart to the standard, pollyannaish hogwash that dominates so much think tank writing about aid.
Starting from Douglass North’s analysis of Limited Access Orders, David Booth and his collaborators pick apart the political economy of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda with rare clarity and insight.
There’s a frankness to the writing that’s like a balm. Take this bit of straight talk from the introduction:
Comparative history suggests that, as a group, the EAC countries will retain for some time yet most of the features of what North et al. (2009; 2013) call a limited access order (LAO). That is to say, the political and economic power of elite groups will remain closely entwined. Markets will not be highly competitive or inclusive. Capitalism will begin to take hold but in the form of ‘crony capitalism’ in which non-market relationships play a crucial role. The generation and allocation of economic rents will play an important role in limiting political violence and maintaining the fundamental agreements underlying the rules of a patronage-based political game. This will limit the use of rents to finance the learning processes and provide the market coordination required to turn fast economic growth into real economic transformation. It will also prevent politics and policy-making from becoming primarily a battle of ideas based on contending programmes or ideologies.
The feeling you’re left with is that a grizzled old East Africa hand, somebody who’s been around the block two dozen times and knows exactly how things go down, has decided to take you under his wing and is giving you the straight dope over beers.
What Booth and his colleagues have done is turn the Gates Foundation’s formulation on its head: rather than Impatient Optimists, what we have here is the Patient Pessimists’ view.
Booth et al. are pessimists, but not fatalists. It’s an important distinction to grasp. The work of dispelling the facile fantasies of the Gates/Sachs set is the first step in their journey, not the final word. If they lay some unpleasant realities squarely on the table it’s so you’ll have a clearer grasp of what is achievable, how, and on what time-scale. The realities are somewhat sobering, but sobriety seems like a much needed corrective to the cycle of over-promising and under-delivering that so much of the aid world seems stuck in.
For now, I’ll make it easy on you: if you’re even a little bit interested in the region, you have to read it. The good news is, it’s great fun to read.