Volume 8, Issue 3
Continent of Mothers, Continent of Hope: Understanding and Promoting Development in Africa Today. Skard Torild. New York: Zed Books Ltd., 2003. †260 pp.
In this book, Skard draws on her rich experience working and living in Central and West Africa to recount the complex social, economic and political realities in the region. Skard carefully analyzes the overall development implications of conflicts, illiteracy and epidemics such as HIV/AIDS and malaria, with particular emphasis on women and girls. She reveals a wide range of institutional, ideological and cultural issues that have bearings on the ways in which development assistance has been undertaken in the region. Ultimately, the book is about effective and ineffective development interventions in Africa. The book argues for an unbiased and targeted development approach that ought to take into account the prevailing social, historical, cultural and political realities.†
The discourse swings back and forth in history, from the slave trade and colonial exploitation to de-colonization and post independence governance, carefully scrutinizing their contribution to the prevailing crises in the region whilst analyzing their implications for meeting development objectives in the future. By drawing attention to some of the most deadly and brutal civil wars in the region and highlighting the appallingly violent attributes of these conflicts, Skard not only recounts the past but also challenges readers to ponder the future of Africa. For example, she briefly touches upon a crucial, and yet paradoxical aspect of peace building: the practice of rewarding rebels in an effort to end violence as was done in
Furthermore, Skard underscores the importance of fully appreciating the dynamics between traditional and modern values in the region before introducing new development approaches. Such understanding ensures that one builds on indigenous and positive practices rather than re-inventing the wheel. Skard supports this argument with examples of successful community and local initiatives such as Lemden Womenís Cooperative in the arid Brakna region of
Drawing on personal experience, Skard makes note of a few successful development interventions in Central and West Africa sponsored by UNICEF. At the same time, she gives a detailed account of her leadership and managerial challenges within UNICEF that, in her view, reflected a clash of culture between Westerners and Africans (p. 207; 208). Skardís interpretation of cultural clash seems to be confused with an institutional culture that, in my view, better represents the challenges described by Skard. For instance, problems associated with the local staff include the inability to dissociate business from personal affairs, nepotism and unpunctuality. The fact that the private sector operates within the same environment and cultural constraints and yet does not suffer from the same problems points to the institutional not cultural value of accountability and purposeful leadership. Just as the private sector adheres to these values to stay in business, the public sector can impart them to their host community as part of the development package rather than giving their tacit endorsement to unacceptable practices (p. 208).††
Skardís attempt to pull together a wide range of peace and development issues in Central and West Africa in a succinct and engaging fashion is certainly the strength of this book.† However, due to the sheer number of themes covered in this limited volume, some of the key points are addressed in an abrupt and superficial fashion including the underlying theme of the book - women and mothers in Africa. Furthermore, the book suffers from broad generalizations concerning ĎAfricansí and their Ďcultureí often based on isolated incidents, specific geographic locations, institutional culture and the decisions of unelected officials. This results in an incomplete and at times inaccurate portrayal of Africans and their diverse culture and history. For instance, Skard claims that in sub-Saharan Africa, Islam has spread from the north while Christianity came much later and penetrated slowly from the south (p. 184). This generalization is altogether erroneous when one examines the history of
Nevertheless, the book is particularly insightful for young and committed development professionals who are dedicated to fighting poverty and the unacceptable level of violence that still rages on the continent.† Moreover, Skardís expert account of development politics and what it has and has not changed on the continent should be a good resource for researchers and junior and seasoned development professionals alike.† While it will introduce newprofessionals to the complex world of development, it will provoke discussion and debate among others with more experience.††††