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Africa: International Relations, Democracy and Social Networks.

Reviews of 3 books on Africa in Foreign Affairs.

The International Relations of Sub-Saharan Africa by Ian Taylor:

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Given Africa’s poor economic performance, it is easy to dismiss the region as marginal. In this up-to-date and always readable introduction to Africa’s international relations, Taylor argues that, on the contrary, Africa has often played a significant role on the global stage, and he provides many examples of how African leaders are able to manipulate the international system to pursue their own interests. They play the great powers off against one another, they leverage access to the region’s substantial natural resources, and they take advantage of the region’s economic failures to get foreign aid. Surveying the relationship between each of the world’s major powers and Africa and discussing the region’s international economic relations, the book also includes an especially incisive chapter on China’s recent forays into the region and another one on recent British policies there. Although it is presumably targeted at an undergraduate audience, it will appeal to most interested readers.

Identity Economics: Social Networks and the Informal Economy in Nigeria by Kate Meagher:

Within development circles, conventional wisdom has it that successful manufacturing sectors often develop in low-income countries thanks to identity-based social networks made up of producers working together. These networks are said to generate the social capital that can be used to overcome many of the shortcomings of underdevelopment. Meagher’s careful study of two such networks in southwestern Nigeria — of small, undercapitalized garment and shoe manufacturers — suggests that the advantages for producers within the networks are being undermined by an increasingly dysfunctional state. Meagher shows that these networks, whose roots go back to the colonial era, bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue and export their goods to states throughout West Africa. But in recent years, they have proved vulnerable to Asian imports and have largely failed to develop economies of scale, invest in new machinery, or generate new lines of production; these networks, it turns out, stifle innovation and consolidation, even as they protect their members. Informed by theory as well as sustained fieldwork, Meagher’s study is a useful antidote to the purveyors of magic-bullet solutions for African development. It should be read by anyone interested in Africa’s industrialization.

Democratization in Africa: Progress and Retreat, 2nd. ed.:

Read together, the essays collected here provide a broad and sophisticated survey of the state of democratic politics in Africa. The volume’s best general essays contribute both to democratic theory and to public policy, and its 15 country case studies are informative introductions to recent (and woefully underreported) political developments in the region. Almost all African countries moved to multiparty electoral politics in the early 1990s, but only a handful can be unambiguously characterized as democracies today. As a result, the view of the continent that emerges from these surveys is mixed, with encouraging democratic progress in some countries balanced out by failure and stagnation in others. Although constitutionalism and democratic institutions have undeniably strengthened over the course of two decades of competitive electoral politics, much political power remains personalized and unaccountable. Africans generally appear to be supportive of democratic forms of government, yet the region’s enduringly mediocre economic performance and the failures of its state institutions threaten that support.

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