Saturday, August 20, 2022

Alessandro Iandolo's "Arrested Development"

Alessandro Iandolo is Marie Sklodowska-Curie Fellow at the Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies at Harvard University.

He applied the Page 99 Test to his new book, Arrested Development: The Soviet Union in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali, 1955–1968, and reported the following:
Page 99 in Arrested Development is an interesting, but partial, snapshot of the book. On page 99, Kwame Nkrumah—the Prime Minister of newly independent Ghana—is having an argument with one of his key advisers: W. Arthur Lewis, a prominent economist and future Nobel prize winner. It was the summer of 1958, a little over a year after Ghana had gained independence, and Nkrumah and Lewis disagreed about the future of the country. Both thought Ghana needed economic development, but they had a different idea of development in mind. Lewis, an economics professor and experienced consultant for multiple governments in Asia and Africa, recommended taking a gradual approach. He believed Ghana should have relied on foreign private investors to acquire capital for development. Nkrumah, a charismatic leader, dreamed of making Ghana a beacon for all Africa. He aspired to create a strong national economy, based on state investment and public ownership. The rift between what Nkrumah wanted and what Lewis suggested was too large. Something had got to give.

This is where page 99 ends, but Arrested Development goes much further. In Ghana, Nkrumah ended up firing Lewis. To fulfil his dream of making Ghana an economic powerhouse in record time, Nkrumah turned to the Soviet Union. And so did two more West African leaders with radical politics and big dreams: Ahmed Sékou Tourè in Guinea and Modibo Keïta in Mali. They found an enthusiastic partner in Nikita Khrushchev, the boisterous new Soviet leader who had replaced Iosif Stalin. Khrushchev was keen to show the world what the USSR could do—not only with nuclear bombs, but also with cranes, tractors, and chemical fertilizers. The Soviet Union offered Ghana, Guinea, and Mali loans with low interest rates, tractors to mechanize agriculture, and machines to develop industry. Soviet engineers travelled to West Africa to build dams and power plants; Soviet agronomists introduced high-yield crops in Ghana, Guinea, and Mali; and Soviet economists helped Nkrumah, Sékou Tourè, and Keïta draw up ambitious development plans for their countries. Meanwhile, hundreds of West Africans journeyed to the USSR to go to college, attend training workshops, and explore the world’s first socialist society.

Unfortunately, there is no happy ending in Arrested Development. The Soviet Union and Ghana, Guinea, and Mali were engaged in a whirlwind romance, complete with mutual suspicions, petty quarrels, and threats to quit. Eventually, a sense of ennui overcame everyone involved. Development proved more expensive, complex, and elusive than anyone in the USSR or West Africa had anticipated. In the end, governments in West Africa changed, Soviet tractors and cranes turned into rusty relics, and the IMF and the World Bank came to privatize what had been nationalized. Not all was lost, though. The ideas that drove the Soviet Union’s encounter with Ghana, Guinea, and Mali continue to shape the world we live in. Then as today, what economic development is, and how to achieve it, is a matter of debate. Proponents of the state clash with believers in the market, just like Nkrumah and Lewis did in that fateful summer of 1958, evoked on page 99.
Learn more about Arrested Development at the Cornell University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue