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InReview – Issue 61

Africa Doesn’t Matter: How the West Has Failed the Poorest Continent and What We Can Do About It by Giles Bolton. New York: Arcade Publishing, 2008. 350 pp.

Giles Bolton has worked in development in Africa for more than 10 years as an aid worker and diplomat, with assignments in both Kenya and Rwanda. He lives in London. Bolton uses personal stories of people in Africa, statistics on aid, and government policies from the West, combined with considerable analysis, to demonstrate how the West treats Africa as if it doesn’t matter. He also makes recommendations, arguing that his proposed changes would benefit Westerners as well.

Here are a few samples of the problems he identifies. Canned tomatoes from Italy on the shelf of a grocery store in Nairobi, Kenya, are priced below the local product from Kenya. How can this be with transportation costs and higher wages in the West? Government subsidies on farm products in the West lead to an overabundance of product that is then dumped in Africa below cost. This leads to the undermining of the farming and packaging businesses in Africa. [p. 199]

In 1970, governments of the West committed through the U.N. to provide a minimum of .7 percent of their gross national income to poor countries by 1975. The commitment was reiterated in 2002. The amount has never reached .4 percent, and the U.S. aid for 2005 was about .2 percent. [p. 151]

This data is really much worse. By far the largest recipients of aid from the U.S., for example, goes to Israel, Egypt, Iraq, and Afghanistan, while the 10 poorest countries of the world receive much smaller amounts. [p. 118] Western countries spend far more on farm subsidies than they do on aid [p. 118], inadvertently undermining farming in Africa. Charitable giving by individuals in the West does not significantly change the picture [p. 75].

There is yet another compounding factor. Every country and every charity has its own pet projects. This makes it much more difficult to achieve leverage on bigger issues that are high priority for the country receiving the aid.

Bolton’s proposed solution, not without risk, is to provide much more of the aid to be used at the discretion of the governments receiving the aid. Yes, the threat of corruption is real. But he builds the case that this is the only way to achieve functioning governments and a place at the table for many who have been behind for decades.

In spite of its serious subject, this book is very enjoyable to read, with many humorous stories. There are a few places where I think he draws a wrong conclusion from the data, or recommends a path that has more unintended consequences than he has thought through. I recommend this terrific book that every citizen of the West should read and discuss.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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High Performance with High Integrity: Memo to the CEO by Ben W. Heineman Jr.; Boston: Harvard Business Press, 2008. 198 pp.

Ben Heineman was the senior vice president and general counsel for GE from 1987 to 2003, and senior vice president for law and public affairs from 2004 until his retirement in 2005. He is currently a distinguished senior fellow at Harvard Law School and Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

Most CEOs want to lead an ethical company, but they don’t translate this desire into action. The law, through Sarbanes-Oxley, has focused on board action, but in Heineman’s point of view, this is just a small part of the issue.

Rather, company leaders must themselves be committed to high integrity as well as high performance. It must be demonstrated in their personal actions, as well as in the systems they create for performance evaluation and promotion. They must create a clear opportunity for employees to have a voice, free of retribution, where they can identify a problem. In stating the practices of the company, leaders must discuss both what and why it is expected. They must build both high performance and high integrity into the fabric of the company’s operations.

This book does an excellent job of outlining the responsibilities of the leader (as far as it goes).

One shortcoming of the book is its focus on damage control ethics (compliance with the law and staying out of trouble), with minimal discussion of the positive ethical practices of guiding the mission of the organization. Another weakness, perhaps because of the author’s experience as general counsel, is the lack of connection to the people doing the work in the organization. Beyond setting up whistle-blower protection, there is a need to engage people at all levels of the organization in building good practices.

I would recommend this book to leaders who want to go beyond wishing for an ethical organization.

Reviewed by Al Erisman

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