Roel van der Veen
Van de Koude Oorlog naar de 21e eeuw
From the Cold War to the 21st Century
‘Why do things always go wrong in Africa?’ This was the question that bothered Roel van der Veen in the policy section of the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In his voluminous summary of developments over the past half-century – the time in which most African countries gained independence – Van der Veen blames Africanisation : centuries-old traditions that stand in the way of development. In other words: Africa is digging its own grave.
Van der Veen suggests provocatively, that Africa could easily provide for itself, even if the number of Africans were to double. But Africa is still premodern; there is not yet any incentive to develop. The main culprit responsible for cultural deprivation is neither colonialism, nor western trade barriers, but below-par government and a stifling system of personal networks with little regard for national interests. The combination of patronage, allencompassing power and the pre-modern workings of the economy with weak, western-style state institutions have led to what has been called the ‘failed state’. Failed states don’t succeed in fulfilling even the most basic state tasks, such as maintaining law and order, let alone contributing to development.
Which is why, according to Van der Veen, foreign aid and the fight against poverty are doomed to fail. In his highly readable and fast-paced study he comes to a moderately optimistic conclusion: despite the conservative elite, some change is underway in the African system, from the inside outwards.
Slowly but surely, new traditions are being created in which political involvement becomes less insecure and unsafe and those wielding power will be less inclined to pander only to their own network.
A middle class may be emerging from the informal economy, which could become the core of a new, dynamic private economy. Van der Veen hopes that the power and stability of possible future constitutions will inspire all African countries. In any event, he relieves the West of a heavy burden of responsibility: we are not indispensable to the salvation of Africa.
Van der Veen’s provocative book gives a clear-cut view of what is happening in Africa at the moment: the developments in 43 African countries are convincingly placed in a common context. His controversial statements enable him to enliven the debate on Africa and our involvement in the continent.