I’ve been reading various things related to Africa in one way or another recently, I have three strong book recommendations on the topic, and I thought I’d write a bit about them.

Dancing In The Glory Of Monsters

It’s rare that I read a book and end up feeling that I liked the book, I tried to pay close attention, and yet all the information flowed right through my head and trying to hold onto it was like trying to catch a river in my fingers.

There are just so many details. So many ethnic groups, so many rebel groups, so many acronyms, so many refugee camps, so many cities where an atrocity happened. And yet the overall picture steadily becomes a bit clearer. Millions of people died in this series of wars in the Congo. It’s like a fractal story of chaos and loss.

The book is gripping. Like Game of Thrones, new characters enter, fight for power, characters exit with gory violence and death. It’s hard to stop reading.

I have three takeaways from this book. One is simply that Westerners underrate the amount of disaster and evil that has happened in central Africa because it’s so distant. Two is that many organizations in the Congo have an intertwined mix of elections, war-violence, and making money. In Western countries these things are much more separate.

The third takeaway is how impossible it is for NGOs to operate in the Congo without themselves becoming intertwined in the status quo. Paying taxes and fees in the Congo isn’t like paying taxes and fees in Denmark. Sometimes it is directly funding some local warlord who is spending the money ramping up violence. The outcome of spending money in war-torn regions of Africa is very non-obvious.

If you want even more of this sort of book, try The War That Doesn’t Say Its Name. Similar stuff, more academic, less un-put-downable.

Being Good In A World Of Need

This book is aiming at the philosophical question of, should we donate aid to Africa via NGOs? I found it to be a pretty compelling critique of the Effective Altruism idea that it’s possible to find a few specific charities that are more effective than others, whether it be malaria nets, deworming, or other causes.

The fundamental problem is that the GiveWell analysis of “this charity saves one life for every $3000 you spend” is not believable. They do a couple statistical studies that show malaria nets saved lives in one case. But overall, aid to Africa doesn’t really seem to be lifting African countries out of poverty. We know that many, many studies in social sciences don’t replicate. Why should we believe the small amount of research that suggests these particular charities work over the research that shows the opposite?

GiveWell pretty much ignores the political side effects of funding NGOs in Africa. Corrupt governments end up taking in a lot of money through taxing and charging fees on NGO activities. These organizations aren’t just funding health care, they are also funding violent dictatorships.

There is also a question of substitution. This isn’t really in the book, it’s just something I’ve noticed after working with nonprofits for a little while. Often there are donors who really want their money to be spent with particular conditions. But the people running the nonprofit have their own ideas of what’s important. Often you have a set of nonprofits that are essentially run by the same group, and they raise money in different ways, but it all goes essentially into the same budget. Your most restricted money, you allocate that first. The money you have for the overall organization, you allocate that last, for whatever areas you need to fill in the gaps.

In this world, donors simply don’t get to choose where the marginal dollar goes. Constraints on a funding source that’s less than half the budget just waste management time. The whole idea of making a choice about the marginal dollar is a construct designed to encourage people to donate. When you’re donating money to nonprofit causes, you should understand that. Either fund a new organization, or let the leadership allocate money.

I worry that NGOs in a particular country essentially merge to become the same nonprofit organization. They have to work together, right? What sense does it make for multiple organizations to distribute malaria nets to the same small town? But that means you can’t really have an influence on how they behave via donations. You have to trust the overall group of cooperating NGOs to be doing the right thing.

So these two books together worry me that so much of the Against Malaria Foundation work is basically sending more resources into the Congo.

A Bend In The River

Different sort of book. Fiction! This book is a masterpiece.

Salim grows up in a coastal region of Africa, and the book follows his attempts to run a business in central Africa. It’s a different angle toward a similar theme, to me, which is that so many different cultures and interactions between the cultures happen within the region that I often just lump as “Africa” in my mind.

Chaos, politics, love, violence, just like the nonfiction this book left me feeling like I didn’t necessarily understand anything any better, but I started to realize how much I didn’t know. The range of emotions Salim feels is completely real but as if the author tapped into a different set of emotions than you will read about elsewhere.


If you are interested in the history of Africa, read the first book. If you are interested in donating money to African causes, read the second book. If you aren’t interested in either of those things, read the third book. Enjoy!