Providing a breath of fresh air from the normal doom and gloom of literature that surrounds Africa, Patrick Chabal and Jean-Pascal Daloz argue that Africa is not in fact broken – it just operates in a different way. With the aim of presenting a paradigm devoid of moral and judgemental undertones, Africa Works explains Africa’s failure to develop in line with Western expectations from a culturally relative perspective. It is an indispensable read for anyone attempting to decipher current day Africa, and provides an alternative explanation for modern day Africa’s shortcomings.
In a continent often characterised by governments that lack competence or commitment, Africa Works looks beneath the modern state in the belief that it was the transition from colonies to independent states that holds the key to unlocking modern day Africa. Although not a book aimed at desecrating the colonial powers, the weakness of the modern African state is largely accredited to the failure of Western institutions to become ingrained during the colonial era.
In particular, Chabal and Daloz believe that it was "questionable whether colonial administration did much to lay the foundations for a properly emancipated state". Similarly to Robert Jackson and Carl Rosberg’s categorisation of African states as "quasi states", Chabal and Daloz argue that the rushed process of decolonisation resulted in African states coming to power without the required features for statehood. They expand on this idea by stating that this weakness, when coupled with the rushed wave of decolonisation that occurred during the 1960s, has allowed for such structures to become "Africanised" after independence.
In contrast to Western predictions that ethnic loyalties would disband with the creation of the state, the two systems instead operated side-by-side, creating a blend of formal and informal structures and a myriad of perceived problems. It is this inability of institutions to withstand social pressures following independence that creates the crux of Chabal and Daloz’s thesis.
Chabal and Daloz focus largely on the correlation between weak states and corruption. Specifically, they argue that it is the weakness of the central state that has acted as a major catalyst for corruption to flourish since independence. This in turn allows for patron-client relationships, as seen prior to colonialism, to continue to be a legitimate function, even "an integral part of the social fabric of life". Although the reality of corruption as a legitimate practice is highly contentious, Chabal and Daloz argue that, if redistributed along socially acceptable lines, it can in fact be an acceptable practice. With this in mind, they warn us that we must "avoid reasoning simplistically in terms of the bureaucratic ideals which we, in the West, assume to have universal relevance".
Africa Works therefore poses a puzzling question: within inefficient states, can informal networks supersede the government as the major service provider? In countries in which resources are scarce, vertical chains of redistribution assist in meeting the needs of the people. Although the patron within this vertical chain undoubtedly finds this relationship to be profitable, there is a social expectation that a percentage of such profits will then be redistributed along kinship or ethnic lines. Relationships are therefore seen as mutually beneficial, for not only the client in need of favours, but also for the patron to uphold their positions of prestige within the community. Within such a relationship, "public opinion legitimises the right kind of personalised exchange" with a failure to distribute being met with suspicion and disdain within the community. Whilst not necessarily fair or equitable, in the absence of a functioning state Chabal and Daloz believe that this is the manner in which Africa works.
Though an interesting theory, Chabal and Daloz’s argument is weaker in practice. For example, in Nigeria capital flight and mass accumulation of wealth by the elite - at the expense of the poor - is clearly evident. Reports that former Nigerian President Abacha and his allies sent billions of dollars offshore between 1988 and 1994 while more and more citizens lived in poverty makes the argument that Africa is "working" questionable.
Although supporters of this thesis will take comfort in such a realisation, it is important to understand that this comes as a major blow to prospects for governance and the creation of strong states. Leaders have a personal stake in maintaining the chaotic systems of governance over which they preside. In a disheartening realisation for many, for Africa’s big men to maintain their complex patron-client networks, the existence of the ineffective state – referred to in Africa Works as the "political instrumentalisation of disorder" – must remain.
Written at a time of rejuvenated Western interest in Africa’s development, Chabal and Daloz’s adoption of a counter-normative approach to analysing Africa offers an interesting, and at times controversial, insight into modern day Africa. Africa Works' attempt to provide a continent-wide appraisal, appealing for those aiming to gain a general overview, does lend itself to contestation. In spite of this, Chabal and Daloz provide an interesting alternate viewpoint for which to view Africa.