Review: The Economist's Tale
By Rosemary Ekosso
There’s a new trend among a few of the many economists who have worked in the developing world. They’re being nice. Well, not exactly nice, but at least more honest and objective than they have been before.
There is marginally less of the signature arrogance of the I-have-come-to save-you-from-yourselves sort.
I first saw this when I read Confessions of an Economic Hit-man by John Perkins. But Perkins’s book seems like an expiation of his sins in a manner calculated to make him look nice.
I liked Peter Griffiths’ The Economist's Tale more. It has that slight edge of cynicism tempered by honesty without which most narratives sound either self-absorbed or unbearably sentimental in the way perfected by current American evangelism.
It is written in simple, clear language that is easily understood by an economics near-illiterate like me. He writes as if he was writing for his daughter, Jane, and actually begins the book with a letter to her.
This book”, says Griffiths in his introduction, “shows that it is individuals who cause poverty, underdevelopment and famine, by their actions, by their failure to act, and by their failure to speak up.”
Griffiths is a World Bank consultant sent to carry out a study in Sierra Leone. He soon finds out when he gets there that the World Bank’s Man in Havana, as it were, is arrogant, opinionated and lives in a world of his own.
He realises that the man, whom he refers to as the Resident Representative, probably in order to avoid the risk of a libel suit, is unlikely to help him. But he cannot afford to antagonise the Res. Rep because, as he admits, “I get two-thirds of my income from doing consultancy from them.”
In the end, he finds out more or less what he needs to know about Sierra Leone’s extremely precarious food situation, but it is a Herculean task. The Wold Bank office will not help; the Sierra Leonean government officials will not help either.
Then he antagonises a lot of people by seeking so determinedly to find out what is going wrong. He goes to places he shouldn’t see, he talks to people he should never have noticed. He makes waves.
Griffiths presents Africans in a sympathetic manner, and suffers from less of the prejudices that afflict other Africa watchers. Through his book, you see Sierra Leonean, and other black Africans by extension, as human beings with foibles, some good, some bad, and some very bad, but human beings, not the poor, starving, corrupt Africans we are used to read about.
The expatriates are there too. They are, for the most part, an uninspiring and sometimes downright sick lot.
So what else is new?
Take this conversation Griffiths had with an expatriate who tells the story of a bar girl who supplements her paltry income with a bit of prostitution on the side. He discovers that she has stolen his money:
“She denied it of course. I grabbed her and searched her. Guess where she had hidden it?”
“Well, one thing led to another and we were at it hammer and tongs for another couple of hours.” He grinned reminiscently.
“But she pinched my money again. She denied it and she flatly refused to give it back.”
“What she did not know was that I pay the police station at the end of the road every month. I gave them a ring, and they came and fetched her.
“They kept her for their amusement for four days, and then let her out, completely exhausted.”
When you read passages like these, you think capital punishment would be too kind to some of these expats working in Africa. I give Griffiths a lot of credit for recounting this episode.
But I see something else in that passage. In my view, it is an epitome of the relationship between Africa and the vast majority of the people who go there ostensibly to help, develop or evangelise it.
You are used and then handed over to be raped. The original exploiter, (in this case the expatriate) makes you think you are getting something in exchange for what you offer (in this case the girl’s body).
You cannot complain because it is a “fair exchange”: his money, your goods. The policemen who rape the girl I see as our governments. When the Westerner is finished with us, he hands what is left over to our governments, who then do with us what they will. Talk of being between a rock and a hard place!
I liked the book. Some reviewers have called it “clumsily written”. I did not find it so. In any case, the World Bank and organisations of its ilk have people who write in the best style, wear the best suits and have come from the best schools. Where are we as a result of the management of these “best people”?
The Economist's Tale should be read. Westerner economists are finally talking. I think we should listen, because this is one way of gaining the understanding that it is not all our fault. No, we are not cursed. Some things we are to be blamed for, but not all.
You do not, in a country where people suffer under a dictatorship, blame all the country’s ills on the small-town bully.
Rosemary Ekosso is with the International Court of Justice in The Hague, Holland. She blogs at Ekosso.com
Please e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org