Professor Nicolas van de Walle (Ph.D. Princeton University, 1990)
Maxwell M. Upson Professor of Government, Cornell University
Two common clichés are often repeated about Africa. First, it has become common to admonish observers about how big and varied a continent Africa is, with its more than fifty states covering varied types of territory and endowed with very different levels of resources. And, second, writers often point to the rapid change taking place in Africa; the pace of change is incredibly fast, it is often said, in a region with very rapidly growing population and a recent history of frenzied political and economic change.
Yet these two often stated truths about the region are mostly ignored in the political economy literature on the region, which tends to generalize incredibly broadly about “Africa,” almost as if it was a single country. Similarly, for a region that we all recognize is changing radically fast, it is disappointing how often the timelessness of certain ideas and certain political dynamics are asserted in the literature.
The book focuses on three sets of key interacting variables to understand institutional and policy change since the 1970s: interests, ideas, and institutions. Too many analysts focus entirely on one of these variables, yet it seems clear that examining interests, say, while ignoring ideas or the institutional context in which interests are asserted, will lead inexorably to reductionist explanations. Instead, the book chooses the option of greater complexity, by focusing on the interaction between the three variables in order to develop a more sophisticated theory of change, in which certain choices are made, while other, perhaps more desirable choices never seemed possible, at least in some of the countries of the region.
In its broad sweep, knowledge of the literature, and ability to broadly engage the empirical realities of nine different countries, the book provides an impressive synthesis of an important tranche of Africa’s recent economic history. Professor Signé is particularly good at explaining the relationships between the countries of the region and the international financial institutions. He writes knowledgeably about the transition from the early, not very productive years of structural adjustment to the more complex realities of the New Partnership for Africa’s Development and the Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers. Though he is not naïve about the continuity between these different phases of the relationship between the governments of the region and various international actors, he shows also the very real evolutionary changes over time, the policy learning that went on, the institutional memory lapses, and the new possibilities that open up even as other opportunities fade into the background. In sum, Professor Signé has written an important history of the political economy of francophone Africa during the key period of the region’s postcolonial decades. Not everyone will agree with the arguments in this book. Some readers may wish the book discussed in greater detail the political changes these countries underwent during this same period. Others, perhaps, would have liked a more adversarial stance
vis-à-vis the Washington institutions. Still, everyone will need to confront the arguments advanced in this book.