How to Write About Africa [An Example]

One of the cool parts about my job is I get to read. A lot. When I see anything that I think may possibly have something beneficial to contribute to my research, I place it in my ‘to read’ queue.

Most of what I end up reading, especially policy reports from think tanks, are interesting and informative but ultimately will not directly contribute my current research. Every once in a while, however, I come across a report that is different. The most recent East Africa Prospects report providing An Update on the Political Economy of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) is one of these unique reports.

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Several weeks ago I wrote about how NOT to write about Africa. Admittedly, the post was stated in the negative form. I recognize how timid and weak this type of writing can be. This is me setting things right.

This report is (or should be) example number one in the ‘how to write about Africa’ curriculum. What makes it so good? There are three reasons:

1. It is not about ‘Africa’. It is immediately obvious that one of the features that makes this report rock is it bites of a chewable sized collection of countries to work with. Africa has 55ish countries, depending on your political opinions and feelings about Zanzibar, Mauritius, the Western Sahara, and the various centralized but not recognized kingdoms throughout the continent. Each of these countries has their own political structures, histories, people groups, cultures, social norms, traditions, etc, etc, etc. To write both informatively and well about each of these countries is a gargantuan task, a task that, to date, nobody has been able to adequately complete.

2. It’s analysis is evenhanded, maybe even a bit pessimistic at times, but not deterministic. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for positivity. (That’s one reason why I study economics rather than sociology.) If there is one thing I like more than positivity, however, it is the truth. One lesson I’ve learned both through my studies and through my work is that the truth is always complicated. It grinds my gears to no end when a situation is intentionally oversimplified. A lot of aid and development programs have failed simply because those involved were unwilling to embrace the complexity of the situation. This report is pessimistic because the realistic outlook for the majority of people living in Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda is more or less pessimistic. (If you are wondering why, READ THE REPORT.) Through all this complexity and pessimism, however, it provides some sober, realistic, and attainable pathways forward towards progress and improvement.

3. It consists of a healthy mix of technical expertise and local perspective. This is rare when it comes to reports in the aid and development field of work. Most are lopsided on one side or the other. Some are so overly technical that the actual application of the report is ultimately useless, either because the report is so damn long or because the econometrics is impossible to follow for the average, or even above-average, reader. Conversely, some reports focus too much on the local perspective that they lose out on the informed knowledge of technical experts. While I think Robert Chambers would dispute this point, it seems likely that the fundamental problem with technical experts in development work is how their technical expertise is packaged and communicated.

This report features both the technical expertise of scholars like Douglas North and his insights on “limited access orders” which characterize the political economy in all four of the involved countries and is the keyhole in which most of the conclusions are drawn. Additionally, there are direct quotes from political and business leaders, aid workers, and actual citizens of these countries that deeply influence and inform the dialogue. Upon reading through this report I feel as if I have attended a weekend conference at Oxford while simultaneously spening a year walking the streets of Nairobi, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, and Kigali.

HT @BoringDev

1 thought on “How to Write About Africa [An Example]

  1. Pingback: Kenya’s Political Economy… in a Yoghurt Carton | Jeff Bloem

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