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Journal of Political Ecology:
Case Studies in History and Society
VOLUME 8 (2001)
The Baobab and the Mango Tree: Lessons About Development - African and Asian Contrasts. By Nicholas Thompson and Scott Thompson. London: Zed Books (2000), xii+212 pp.
Reviewed by A. F. Robertson, Anthropology Department, University of California, Santa Barbara.
On the eve of decolonization half a century ago, attention
in academic circles was focused on the new leaders of the "developing
nations". Progress would depend very largely on the quality of the
"inheritance elite," western-educated leaders with the intelligence
and integrity to build on the material endowment of the colonial regimes.
The dream was shattered by the apparent incapacity of developing societies
to produce "good" leaders by recognizably democratic processes.
Too soon, power was growing from the barrels of guns, and leadership in
"The Third World" was characterized by ugly words like "kleptocracy."
As a new wave of scholars sought to apportion blame for the most conspicuous
political failures of the twentieth century, i.e. the expansion of poverty
and environmental damage, attention shifted to social forces beyond the
range of individual personality, initiative and qualification. Externally,
the new states were seen as the hapless products of imperial rule and
the global expansion of capital. Internally, they were seen as enmeshed
in "clientism" or "prebendialism," dysfunctional blends
of "traditional" and "modern" politics.
Good leadership was the hope of the 1950s, bad leadership
the despair of the rest of the century. This view resonates with popular
judgments in the rich countries about the personal incompetence of people
in poor countries to govern themselves. Ascribing these ills to personal
failings like greed, stupidity or ignorance is a way of way of evading
the broader and more profound causes that lie beyond the compass of individual
motivation and agency. The policy implication that we can progress by
replacing bad leaders with good is incredibly trite. If we have learned
anything from fifty years of development studies, it's that life is much
more complicated than that.
Blaming leaders rather than society or history for
the ills of humanity is not so much a theory as a political presumption.
According to Edward Luttwak, in one of several flyleaf puffs, "This
book is propelled by a brilliant intuition: by comparing two non-Western
countries (Ghana and Thailand) with each other, instead of the usual and
futile comparisons with Western models, the authors have uncovered some
true secrets of the `wealth of nations' or lack of it." If this is
indeed the intention of Nicholas and Scott Thompson (son and father) it
is surely disingenuous. The book and its comparisons are predicated not
on something authentically Ghanaian or Thai, but on a very familiar set
of Western ideological premises: "the evidence, in totality, is that
there is indeed a relationship between political freedom and economic
growth" (p. 14); "development really boils down to freedom"
The Thompsons' criteria for progress are "openness"
to international markets, unconstrained freedom of choice, the conservation
of "good" traditions as "cultural capital" (pp. 20-23),
change by gradual reform - "perseverance" (p. 15), investment
in formal education, and above all, smart leadership. These very mid-twentieth-century
virtues are augmented by a fashionable concern for courtesy to women and
reasonable care of the environment. Other tell-tale preferences pop up
from time to time: an enthusiasm for Francis Fukuyama, Harry Lee of Singapore,
and Botswana ("the most astonishing economic miracle of Africa"
(p. 45)) on the one hand, and a distaste for trade unions, "political
correctness," Libya, Iraq, and Cuba, on the other.
If you are seeking reinforcement for your liberal convictions,
you will enjoy this book. If you are looking for new explanations of urgent
issues such as the abuse of natural resources, or ethnic and sectarian
violence, or corporate greed, or child armies in Africa and Asia, or generation
warfare anywhere in the world, you will be disappointed. Nor can the Thompsons
make much headway with such curiosities as the greater equality of income
- and wealth - in the benighted Ghana than in enlightened Thailand, or
why the latter could do little to resist the "meltdown" of its
economy (pp. 53,112) in 1997.
Although the baobab seems to raise its roots to the
sky, I do not grasp the Thompson's image of "top-down development".
Naively, I always thought the baobab a marvelous tree that survived where
no other could, and offered succor to the traveler. But then I never did
find Saint-Exupéry appealing. Neither, it seems, would West Africans,
for whom the baobab is a vital, popular symbol. "You see," said
the leader of Senegal's famous Orchestra Baobab recently, "we are
just like the tree we are named after. The baobab lives for years and
years. Storms and cyclones can rustle it, but it always stands firm"
[Guardian Weekly May 10-16, 2001].
The mango, alias Thailand, develops modestly and fruitfully
from its bourgeois middle, which "leads to qualified success, if
you do everything else right too" (p. 15). "Thailand is not
paradise - it has been turning "forests into asphalt" and is
"the whorehouse of the world" (p. 4). It has had a procession
of military rulers, and concluded the century with a massive economic
"meltdown", but in the authors' eyes it is redeemed by its open-door
liberalism. "Thailand may have been corrupt or even careless at times,
but at no point was the government consciously and intentionally acting
against the interests of the people or of development" (p. 11). The
underlying reason for the pernicious comparison is clear: "East Asian
leaders have gripped Adam Smith's invisible hand, while for forty years
African leaders tried to cut it off" (p. 103).
For the Thompsons, underdevelopment is a product of
historical and environmental disadvantage - how the dice are loaded. But
what matters now is the how the game is played, the decisions "made
at identifiable times by real people with names which need to be remembered,
for better and for worse" (p. 184). Structural explanations (e.g.,
class conflict, the international expansion of capital) and solutions
(e.g., national planning) are dismissed or ridiculed. Britain prospered
historically because of its well-regulated commerce. That old leftist
bogey imperialism is largely absolved of blame for the political and economic
predicament of post-colonial states like Ghana (pp. 29-34). The causes
of inequality are basically "just human nature" (p. 86) which
good leaders should try to alleviate - "without crippling the rest
of economic and political society" (p. 81). Smart leaders play the
economic game on the board, but wicked leaders try to mess about with
the rules. Luck, that great theoretical standby of the neoclassical economic
tradition, is evoked to explain market failures, but failures in socialist
planning are just bad leadership. "Idiot leaders have led to idiot
economics" (p. 118). There is very little sympathy for leaders who,
for all their faults, tried very hard to lead in a world that was so plainly
concerned to lead them.
Political agency is a notoriously slithery notion in
an analytical genre that can reach little further into causation than
individual interest and action. Various entities like "Thailand,"
"the government," "the state" and "the people"
appear often as univocal actors, rather than as political composites.
The Thompsons' understanding of agency extends to what used to be called
"the demonstration effect" in rural economics: smaller polities
learn invidiously from strong regional exemplars (pp. 66-68), like peasants
from kulaks. But they must know their place in the wider scheme of things:
"A country must have a strategy proportional to the size and competence
of the society" (p. 60). What this actually means, who should kowtow
to whom, and what distinguishes benign and malign hegemony, glossed over.
African Unity of the sort visualized by Nkrumah is unequivocally bad -
but for whom? The Thompsons condemn Ghana for its monstrous "international
hubris," whereas the Thais' "sense of gratitude" for assistance,
especially from the US, is their "finest cultural trait" (p.
The behavior of leaders is understood as a very transactional
sort of morality, rather than one shaped by social forces rooted in history.
Economics and politics are held distinct, the one a pure science, the
other a corruptible art. Politics threaten markets, they don't define
markets. Unfettered markets have the curative power to "root out"
corruption (p. 135). For the Thompsons, the ideal politics are consensual,
embodied in their own vision of "civil society" as the social
context of liberal democracy. It is a comprehensive "we group,"
a critical public moved by national sentiment and with the capacity to
moderate state power and "mercantile greed" (p. 153). The endemic
"tribalism" of Africa is inimical to civil society, but primordial
loyalties function positively if there is a "strong enough central
ethnic group to pull the rest into their magnetic field" (p. 26)
like the Han Chinese majority in Asia. Ethnic conflict in Africa is apparently
the work of silly leaders: "Ibo officers killed the prime ministers
of the non-Ibo regions and knocked off the Hausa Federal Prime Minister
and his mentor for good measure, then wondered why everyone turned on
them in a ruinous civil war" (p. 28).
In characterizing their version of Civil Society, the
Thompsons make much play on "Essential Structures", a cluster
of conservative values defined as conducive to expansion, security, and
legitimacy of "the state and nation" (p. 89). They include religion,
"culture" (p. 88) and "environmental protection" (pp.
90-91). Monarchy, as in Thailand, or Buganda, or Ashanti, can be an essential
structure, but a class working for itself can not. Thailand's "authoritarian
but gentle regime" is praised for the way it "kept unions down
in the 1960s" (p. 13), and Busia likewise gets grudging praise for
his assault on Ghanaian unions in the 1970s (p. 166). There is a loosely
populist assumption that a healthy civil society, whose life force is
exchange (markets, transactions), will spontaneously generate groups ("NGOs")
which will express corrective interests (e.g. "bodies devoted to
protecting obscure animals, distant human rights, and small farmers growing
odd crops" (p. 141).) "Switzerland and England" are the
paradigms of the "voluntarist participatory order", which constitutes
"civil society" (pp. 151-2). Disagreement is healthy, and utilitarian
democracy is the gentlemanly way of resolving it. But consensus is the
optimal political ecology of progress, and civil societies that become
too querulous stagnate.
Practicing "openness" in this political conspectus
involves entertaining debate while keeping a tight and tacit clamp on
its resolution (a bourgeois trick that the Marxists were so concerned
to expose). This book is interspersed with little boxes containing the
bickerings of a mysterious couple, "Tara and Taylor", who toss
out opinions which the authors themselves seem too squeamish to voice:
"Africa is poor because of Africans" (p. 32), "Wal-Mart
is something that comes along with development and with freedom"
(p. 80) etc. Other assertions are offered boldly as fact: "at the
end of the millennium, every society that had tried to direct its economy
had failed" (p. 8). (That must include all the national planners
of the twentieth century such as Japan, France, and West Germany - along
with such bold American ventures as the Marshall Plan and the Tennessee
Valley project.) Again: "The global information economy is all-consuming
and it depends on transparency" (p. 13). (It feeds very selectively,
and it thrives on opacity.) And: "Short of Antarctica, Africa is
the hardest continent for human beings to survive on" (p. 23). (That's
a poisoned chestnut - as with every other continent, it depends where
you live and who you are.) And one more, to take the breath away: "Africa
has been isolationist, hostile to immigrants and international business,
reluctant to accept foreign advice" (p. 31).
True to the liberal doctrines of individual initiative,
rationality and morality, leadership is what links "history"
and "tradition" in the making of a healthy "open society"
(p. 7-8). "Bad leadership transcends ideology" (p. 39). The
book homes in on the fetish of corrupt leadership, widely regarded by
people in the rich countries as the cardinal failing of those in the poor.
That leaders go bad is a complaint as old as politics, but these authors
are at a loss to explain why they do so. Redemption, some prospect of
a second chance, will depend on whether "the right people make the
right decisions" (p. 174). The first piece of advice the authors
have for the brave new leader is that "you have to consolidate political
power so that what you accomplish doesn't fall back on itself" (p.
165). This is exactly how Jerry Rawlings inaugurated his regime: the Thompson's
make no less than seven scandalized references to his swift and prudent
execution of his "three living predecessors" (pp. 44, 46, 64,
133, 148, 163, 181). If, as a Flight Lieutenant you have just seized power,
the last thing you want is predecessors breathing down your neck. This
he had apparently learned from their mistakes (the Thompson's second item
of advice). He also (the remaining items) made snappy decisions and authoritative
changes. The authors credit him very grudgingly with "a strand of
cranky idealism" (p. 148) for capitulating to the IMF and its "Structural
Adjustment" policies. His cardinal sin, it seems, was his distaste
for professional economic advice (p. 168).
The Thompsons' praise for King Bhumibol of Thailand,
a "mild, ascetic and gentle man" (p. 58), is unstinting. In
his "great and long reign", this "beloved ruler" (p.
12) "has arguably been the most successful monarch of the century
anywhere" (p. 5). Numerous other Thai officials, politicians and
generals are also praised unreservedly for their complaisance. By contrast,
the Thompsons are unstinting in their condemnation of those "plain
brutes" (p. 50) the leaders of Africa. After independence they were
"absolutely awful but their successors have been even worse"
(p. 7). Nkrumah, with his "crazed dream" of socialism and unity
for Africa, is their bête noire, slammed for "his vanity, ideological
duplicity and disingenuousness" (p. 42). Jerry Rawlings does not
fare much better: he was "a typical African despot", the "great
whale" (p. 163), though apart from bumping-off his predecessors,
the authors are unable to nail him for a truly convincing vice. Busia
was "bumbling" (p. 43). Acheampong was "an incompetent
tyrant" (p. 10) and "Ghana's chief kleptocrat" (p. 11).
The disapprobation sweeps out to the other African leaders: Sekou Touré
was "the destructive President of Guinea" (p. 66) and Eyadema
of Togo "one of the worst blights ever to be cast on Africa"
The jacket blurb presumably has these excoriations
in mind in commending the book as "courageous." One way or another,
it has all been said before, and so many of the culprits are on the litigiously
safe side of the grave. The thought-provoking contrast, however, is not
with the Thompsons' approbation of the Thai leaders, but with their panegyrics
for the bourgeois intellectuals with whom they ally themselves: "that
great economist Partha Dasgupta" (p. 158); "the great development
economist Robert West" (p. 14); "the learned Carl Rosberg"
(p. 44); and a stream of others, many of whom rate the over-exercised
At Independence, African leaders had a passionate respect for academics, and insisted on the qualifications they had acquired, one way or another: Doctor Nkrumah, Doctor Obote, Doctor Banda. Now, everywhere, and with justification, the mood is skeptical. "It's all academic now," we say, when one football team is being incontrovertibly thrashed by another. Publics, even in Africa, are getting thoroughly inured to the vacuities that stream from the ivory tower. As for liberal panaceas and moral harangues about leadership, they have certainly heard all that before. As Jerry Rawlings famously remarked, when he was being lectured by the Structural Adjustment pundits: "blah blah blah" (p. 46).