Briefly Noted

| March 11, 2010

The Challenge for Africa, Wangari Maathai (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), 336 pp., $25 cloth.

“Africa,” Wangari Maathai writes, “is a paradox,” for “it is one of the richest continents on the planet, endowed with oil, precious stones and metals, forests, water, wildlife, soil, agricultural products, and millions of people. Yet most Africans remain poor” (p. 274). It is this paradox that Maathai explores in The Challenge for Africa. With analytical precision and clear, concise prose, Maathai catalogues the social, political, economic, and environmental ills strangling the continent. And they are many: excessive dependence on foreign aid, rampant corruption, the lethal inheritances of colonialism, desertification, the destruction of the rain forest—all working together in insidious synergy to prevent Africa from utilizing its myriad endowments.

Maathai, the winner of the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and founder of the Green Belt Movement, an NGO devoted to sustainable development and women’s empowerment, is at her most eloquent when discussing the continent’s many environmental challenges, and her passion for the subject radiates through her words. Chapters on “Environment and Development” and “Saving the Congo Forests” are particularly impressive, demonstrating Maathai’s deep knowledge of the root causes of Africa’s ongoing environmental degradation and offering sound policy prescriptions for an alternative and more sustainable environmental order.

In fact, it is Maathai’s dual objective in The Challenge for Africa—to provide both a descriptive account of the present and a prescriptive framework for the future—that makes the work so compelling. Maathai is never satisfied to merely lament the current state of affairs in Africa; she is an idealistic pragmatist, offering innovative solutions throughout. Yet the personal is also very much political for Maathai. Her belief in the restorative power of political and environmental activism (“In seeking restoration for my continent, I am quite literally restoring myself—as, I believe, is every African—because who we are is bound up in the rivers and streams, the trees and the valleys” [pp. 287–288]) is a moving reminder of our intimate relationship to our natural and social environments. In this manner, the challenge for Africa is the challenge for us all.

Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, Mahmood Mamdani (New York: Pantheon Books, 2009), 398 pp., $27 cloth.

Darfur has a unique resonance in the Western imagination, considered both the literal site of genocide—the greatest, most deplorable international crime—and the figurative site of ablution, where the ghosts of Rwanda are excised, and where the international community transforms its collective lamentation of “Never Again!” from a dirge to a battle hymn. In the West the crisis in Darfur has been transformed by the idea that Darfur is a humanitarian matter properly viewed only in moral, and not political, terms. Thus, Darfur is stripped of its political and social context. It is this ignorance of politics and history, in concert with a subtle imperialism that employs the language of humanitarian intervention, that threatens to derail a lasting political settlement in the region.

Such is Mahmood Mamdani’s central contention in Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics, and the War on Terror, an erudite, exhaustive, and thoroughly unsettling examination of the conflict in Darfur. Mamdani, a professor of government at Columbia University, examines the conflict vis-à-vis the history of the region and the discourse of the war on terror. With an impressive account of the linkages among Sudanese history, the legacy of colonialism, cold war geopolitics, and the contemporary war on terror, Saviors and Survivors explodes the received wisdom about Darfur.

Far from a senseless, ahistorical conflict, the current crisis, according to Mamdani, has its roots in the legacy of British imperialism, which introduced the dichotomy of “native” Africans versus “settler” Arabs to the region and created homelands for some tribes while leaving others landless; in the prolonged drought and desertification of the Sahel, which has caused landless tribes’ encroachment on landed tribes’ territories in an already resource poor region; and in the continued legacy of the cold war, where a proxy war in Chad between Libya and Western powers (namely, France and the United States) helped militarize the nomadic Arab tribes that populate northern Chad and Darfur, and whose members now constitute much of the Janjaweed.

No Enchanted Palace: The End of Empire and the Ideological Origins of the United Nations, Mark Mazower (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2009), 232 pp., $25 cloth.

This book calls into question central aspects of the history of the founding of the United Nations, providing a fresh platform for contemporary assessments of the future of the world organization. The Columbia University historian Mark Mazower challenges the premise that the United Nations marked a clean break from its discredited forerunner, the League of Nations. The new organization took its cues not, for instance, from the mid–century proposals for regional councils, for world government, or for an alliance of democracies, but precisely from the model provided by its post–World War I predecessor, an association of states anchored by the great powers. As at Paris in 1919, this model was successful not centrally for its potential to realize the worldwide enactment of self–determination, but because it gave shape to an imperial brand of internationalism, affording yet another means for the globalization of European values.

The United Nations differed from the League mainly in being even more a creature of the leading states, with the major modification being the addition of veto power for the five permanent Security Council members—an addition intended to keep the wartime alliance together. The United Nations would also follow different trajectories than the League on questions of minority rights, nationality, and the importance of international law; and all of these evolutionary changes in international society receive prominent attention throughout Mazower’s book. But his argument—which is developed through accounts of the contributions of prominent statesmen and particular theorists and social scientists—all unfolds from the insight that the intellectual history of the United Nations has to be given not as a mid–century, postwar American narrative, but instead in the context of intellectual currents (not to mention particular idea entrepreneurs) that had been in play at least since the turn of the twentieth century.

The punch line is that perhaps we should be less disappointed in the United Nations as it is today, for, unlike the League, it has managed both to survive and to weave itself into the fabric of international life. Perhaps most important, the United Nations has been able to redefine itself, and to help redefine international society quite profoundly. Indeed, the General Assembly eventually evolved into an anticolonial forum led by Third World nationalists, who, taking the universalist rhetoric of the organization at face value, promoted a conception of global order premised on the breakup of empire rather than on its preservation.

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Category: Briefly Noted, Issue 24.1

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