Africa reading list, part two

What should every analyst, student and writer on Africa read? I posted a personal reading list not so long ago, whereupon my colleague Elliot Green at LSE noted a few omissions.

The lesson? Be careful what you comment! I promptly asked Elliot to write up a few of his favorites.

My African development Master’s students at the LSE often ask me what books they should really read. Here’s my take, excluding books less than five years old:

Robert Bates’ Markets and States in Tropical Africa: This is perhaps as good as it gets in one, succinct volume: a clear and coherent analysis of why post-colonial Africa’s agricultural policies have been so poor, and more generally why African development has failed. Along with Michael Lipton, Bates helped develop the theory of ‘urban bias,’ whereby governments were worried about urban dwellers overthrowing their regimes and were thus more interested in keeping urban food prices down than in paying farmers full prices for their crops.

Crawford Young’s The African Colonial State in Historical Perspective: Young is a long-time scholar of Congo-Kinshasa (aka the Democratic Republic of Congo); this is his award-winning analysis of African colonialism. Yes, it’s a long book, but for a reason: Young shows why colonialism in late-19th and early-20th century Africa was so different from colonialism in other parts of the world and at earlier points in time, and why any understanding of contemporary Africa has to be based on a complete understanding of how colonialism altered the continent.

Jeffrey Herbst’s States and Power in Africa: Herbst writes here perhaps the best book ever published on the international relations of Africa. Tracing the influence of Africa’s unusually low population densities from the pre-colonial period to the present, Herbst asks such important questions as why African states tend to be small in terms of population and geographic size, and why there have been so few secessions in post-colonial Africa.

Pierre Englebert’s State Legitimacy and Development in Africa: The only book here that employs quantitative methods, Englebert shows that state legitimacy has played a major and negative role in the political and economic development of modern Africa. He argues that legitimate states – those whose institutions have remained largely unchanged since the pre-colonial era, or which were unpopulated prior to colonialism – have much better developmental outcomes than states whose colonial predecessors imposed a radical change to Africans’ lives.

Catherine Boone’s Political Topographies of the African State: While this book ostensibly only focuses on three countries (Côte d’Ivoire, Ghana and Senegal), its remit is actually much wider: Boone presents here strong critiques of the argument that British and French colonialism produced different effects across their colonies, as well as the argument that rural Africa is homogenous enough to be discussed as a single entity. She rather argues that institutional linkages between the periphery and the centre in African countries have much more to do with local political economies than ideology, rural/urban divisions, ethnicity or other factors.

These books all should have been on my original list.

Elliot also reiterates two readings from my list, with a more thorough description:

Mahmood Mamdani’s Citizen and Subject: Chris has already mentioned this book – it is perhaps the best book written by an African on African politics. Mamdani spells out the way colonialism divided Africans along urban (citizen) and rural (subject) lines, and the way this division has persisted into the post-colonial period. All analyses of colonialism, ethnicity, race and local government in Africa have to take this book as a touchstone.

Nicolas van de Walle’s African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis: In many ways a successor volume to the Bates book noted above, this is the book to turn to if you want to understand how the structural adjustment programs that began in 1979 have affected Africa over the past 30 years. Van de Walle cuts through the left/right debate on structural adjustment and shows how African politicians have very capably adapted and even entrenched their positions amidst much economic and political reform.

If you want to see some of Elliot’s work, check out his web page. I like his article on the construction of ethnicity in Uganda, where he illustrates how the creation and manipulation of ethnicity for political purposes is a tangled and troublesome affair–much more difficult than newspaper accounts and some academic treatises would suggest.

Finally, see other reader comments on fiction and non-fiction here.

3 thoughts on “Africa reading list, part two

  1. Yep, this is a tremendous resource! The only Africa-related book I’ve read was “Cry for the beloved country” by Alan Patton (sp.?). That was in high school. That’s merely another critique I have of graduate economics training that we get introduced to no literature on Africa… (Actually, no good literature at all… We Econ phd students have got to find all good books & ideas our selves.)

    I think I just bought four books from this or the other book list…

  2. OK, my Africa books arrived… I leafed through most of Paul Collier’s “Bottom Billion” and i think it makes some sharp points, but overall I’d probably give it three stars/five. I didn’t see any discussion of Africa being in a Malthusian trap, but then again I didn’t read the whole thing carefully. (And what i did read/skim didn’t make me want to read the whole thing carefully…) Nevertheless, a good book to have.

    I also got Michael Lipton’s “New Seeds and Poor People” — which I really like so far, although I don’t think the author does a good enough job identifying the big questions in agriculture in africa or answering them. He spends a lot of time batting down theories which sound obviously false and which I didn’t subscribe to in the first place… like the idea that “modern varieties hurt the poor”… Also tends to get down in the weeds w/ details of agricultural research without telling us what the big-picture point is… What I’ve read so far of this book, however, suggests it is worth reading in detail, even if the author never really solves the question of why modern varieties haven’t solved Africa’s Malthusian Trap.

    I have also just dove into Bates’ “Markets and States in Tropical Africa.” honestly, although i’m just a few pages in, Bates has already almost lost me… It sounds to me like he’s fighting old intellectual battles, and not necessarily an Africa know-it-all. I want to know about Africa — in such a short book, why waste a page and a half arguing for rational choice? Statements like “We assume throughout that political action is purposeful behavior, and that among the major purposes of governments are the pursuit of certain social objectives and the resources needed to achieve them” are real snoozers. The beginning of the book is littered with such annoying statements. Since he doesn’t have my confidence, I’m not sure I can have much confidence in his conclusion that it is agricultural policies that have held africa back. What does Bates think about whether Africa is Malthusian/the crosby/diamond theory? the book is too dated to know about the latter (and it wasn’t mentioned in the preface to the 2005 edition) and a skim revealed no discussion of the former.

    Mandela’s “Long Walk to Freedom” looks interesting so far… I need more hours in the day.