Over the past six decades, Africa has operated within a contentious history characterized by the rise and fall of empires, colonialism, apartheid, liberation movements, structural adjustment programs and globalization, and remained constrained by it.
This story unfolded distinctly not for technical reasons, as is often claimed, but because of power dynamics at the national and international levels and the way in which the interests of the main actors are safeguarded, merged or resisted. It is by analyzing this political economy that we find the reasons why some countries have done better than others and why others have not.
Borrowing, conceptually, from the path of reform that South Africa so badly needs, as set out in the book Better Choicesinstead of asking what is possible in Africa “on a neutral canvas – in tourism, agriculture, manufacturing, etc. – we ask what can be achieved despite, and [especially] because of” these tumultuous historical paths and the need for repair.
The prosperity of countries, at least the way we have seen them improve, emanated from manufacturing and selling goods in wider markets, lowering barriers to the entry of private capital, promotion of entrepreneurship and innovation, the provision of adequate social protection and a sustained effort for good governance, among other factors. Can we not study them and imitate them and, if this is undesirable, improve them? The colloquial African question most appropriate for this is, “Do they have two heads?”
ANC policy papers wishlist could further improve South Africa’s future
Deeply rooted interests
Typically, when it comes to growth, we are witnessing an evil political economy that has yet to deliver social, economic, political, and environmental outcomes favorable to more than its elites. As a result, reformists and well-meaning people are pushed to the periphery, or borderline, by entrenched interests that maintain power within a small group and, in some cases, are legally protected by institutions which are only democratic on paper.
One of the continent’s greatest challenges, therefore, is undoubtedly to put the political economy around growth, where the right one means creating a state apparatus focused on creating an environment that attracts investments and encourages growth, and provides better living standards for its constituents, today and tomorrow. .
The agents in charge of these processes are often influenced and directed by incentives – some good, some bad – that emerge from their personal and professional experiences and expectations (read policies).
More often than not, political expediency and personal ambition define many of these choices made and, again, not made. If the system is thus constituted, what does it mean for the governed who hope to see their ambitions realized by those who are supposed to be elected to represent them?
Arguably, part of that is asking good questions and voraciously demanding accountability. It is also choosing pragmatism rather than ideological and politicized debates.
The answer to a dysfunctional growth political economy, or at least a critical part of it, lies in realigning politics away from power capture (a hallmark of liberation movements) and survival, to focus on growth, employment and security.
The African continent has the youngest population, with an average age of 19.5 years. The average age of an African president is over 60. Yet it is estimated that only 3% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is over the age of 65. Seventy percent of the population of sub-Saharan Africa is under 30 years old.
The generational gap between leaders and the people they lead is stark. This gap is not just about numbers (age), but about what it entails – experiences, expectations and ways of doing things. Our leaders deal with a population that is not difficult to understand, as is often professed; they are just different. And part of that difference may very well be a lack of affinity and a glorification of past times.
Today, when asked about the “most important issues the government should be tackling,” Africans prioritize employment and health (both mentioned by 34% of respondents surveyed). And, while they want those basic needs met, they also yearn for more. Furthermore, information from recent surveys shows that self-sufficiency, autonomy and democratic, accountable and responsive governance are strongly present.
However, judging by the current trajectory of our political governance, the benefits of the preferred system of governance – democracy – have not lived up to expectations and are apparently on the verge of decline. Some 43% of Africans surveyed are satisfied with how democracy works, down nine percentage points from ten years ago. Other declining indicators include scores on the extent of corruption and the effectiveness of governments’ efforts to combat it.
Also amazing is the drop of eight percentage points in the commitment to multi-party elections as the best system for selecting leaders across the continent between 2011 and today, according to Afrobarometer. This is largely a manifestation of growing disillusionment with electoral processes that are often marred by violence and produce contested results.
Glimmers of hope exist in this seven out of 10 Africans always prefer democracy to any other type of system of government and are always engaged to this social experience. Also, quite remarkably, nearly two-thirds of people on the continent believe that a government’s accountability to the people is more essential than its ability to “get things done”, until 10 percentage points from a decade ago.
On a continent whose post-colonial reality is a cut-and-paste model, where one set of elites has been replaced by another (foreign for local), this is difficult. This apparently meant that the institutional weaknesses and biases that distorted the accumulation of benefits for the average African were maintained.
It is these institutional weaknesses, reinforced by decades of mediocre effort and an overly patient population, that have institutionalized a dysfunctional political economy, where “democratic” states are legalized by vested interests, inefficiency, entitlement and a logic of destructive governance that often works against the prosperity of the lot.
Tinker and pay lip service
The time has come for many other African countries to stop tinkering and pretending to “promote growth and improve the standard of living and freedoms of their citizens”. Instead, it is necessary to forge a new practical social pact between and among the state, the elites and its people, elite as well as working class.
This would involve asking why our growth strategies aren’t delivering broader results, what is working, and then implementing them – not talking about them, doing them. This iterative and difficult process would require commitment and the implementation of sound policies that prioritize openness, transparency and more equitable access to opportunities. Only then will African leaders be seen as competent stewards of the economy.
The aspirations and realities of citizens are no longer an unnoticed phenomenon. Research and recorded experiences from countries around the world show how determined government can improve living standards and grow economies. Yes, nuances exist and creative ideation will be needed on how, but the what to do is no secret, and we must no longer pretend that it is.
Poverty is not inevitable, nor synonymous with Africa. But, if we don’t change course and build a growth-oriented, progressive and inclusive political economy, African leaders could very well prepare their people for devastating social, political, environmental and economic outcomes. Then, no matter how much grammatical finesse, pseudo-ubuntu banter or falsely inclusive demonstrations will save us. DM
Marie-Noelle Nwokolo works for the Brenthurst Foundation. She is the host of a Podcast which shares insights from practitioners, researchers and policy makers on relevant gains, challenges and concerns in and about Africa. Check recent episode here.