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Exhilarating, exhausting, intriguing: the Report of the African Commission

Simon Maxwell*

Overseas Development Institute


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Book Review Symposium

The Africa Commission Report is an exhilarating, exhausting and intriguing read. Exhilarating because of its breadth and political impetus. Exhausting because of its ambition and the comprehensive nature of its proposals. Intriguing because of the new twists embedded in its narratives, and the intellectual challenges they pose. It is these – the intellectual challenges – which will extend the life of the Report beyond its immediate political span.

Exhilarating need not detain us. There have been many reports over the years on Africa. Few have been signed by as many practising leaders, from North and South. And few have seen their recommendations translated so quickly onto the agenda of the G8, the EU Presidency and the UN. Few, it might also be said, have been as well written.

Exhausting can also be covered in short order – certainly in shorter order than the 462 pages of the Report. The extended summary alone, called here ‘the argument’, extends to 58 pages. There are five substantive chapters, dealing respectively with: (i) governance and capacity building; (ii) peace and security; (iii) investing in people; (iv) growth; and (v) trade. A substantial chapter deals with resources. Other chapters set the scene, talk about the importance of culture, and discuss implementation. The substantive chapters are strongly research-based, and are packed with examples and ‘killer facts’, some of them literally so: corruption adds 25% to the cost of public procurement; an AK47 can be bought for US$6; poor infrastructure in Uganda amounts to an 80% tax on textile exports; in Zambia, by 2010, every third child will be an orphan.

The recommendations run to 13 pages. They include many actions to be taken by African governments and people, especially in the area of governance and accountability, and many to be taken by developed countries or the international community as a whole. Among the latter are recommendations to reduce tariffs and subsidies, of course, but also fund the African Union’s Peace Fund, agree a treaty on arms trading, support health and education programmes, create an African Enterprise Challenge Fund, and generally provide more aid. The total cost of the programme is estimated at an additional US$37.5 billion per annum in the first five years, rising to $75 billion p.a. in the second five. Aid should provide an additional $25 billion in the first phase and $50 billion in the second. This is an immediate doubling from the 2004 level.


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