Welcome to the second half of my African development economics series. Make sure to check out my previous article where I explore some misconceptions about Africa and why there’s room for optimism. Additionally, the piece evaluated the role of external countries in Africa such as France in West Africa and China in East Africa.
Economic and human development is often seen as something that “Developed” countries enact upon “Developing” countries. This dynamic can foster attitudes such as a white saviour complex, wherein denizens of the Global North take it upon themselves to “improve” the Global South in a manner eerily reminiscent of the attitudes of colonial missionaries. Additionally, this dynamic fuels protestations of neocolonial domination, characterised by the economic and political exploitation of a population. While exploitation undoubtedly exists and needs to be addressed – and respect-based partnerships can be formed with non-African countries – this narrow understanding of development neglects the voice of African countries and the myriad ways in which they can shape their own futures.
At this stage, it is worth reiterating that Africa is not a monolith and there are profound differences both within and between countries. The following analysis is therefore subject to the limitation that no single solution is going to be universally appropriate for the 54 distinct UN recognised African countries. My aim with this article is to present some key principles and continental initiatives that may serve as a launchpoint for your own further engagement with this dynamic and important continent.
Keys to Domestic Success
Isolating policies and factors that can create a successful economy within any given country is an inherently complex and nuanced problem that evades straightforward or cookie-cutter explanations. However, there are a number of principles and approaches that are likely to play some role in contributing to economic success, some of which are outlined below.
Institutions are the foundation of growth, determining a country’s sustainability, stability, and rights, while constituting the framework within which all economic activity takes place.
Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson popularised the concepts of inclusive and extractive institutions in their seminal book ‘Why Nations Fail’, which is based on a paper co-authored with Simon Johnson. Inclusive institutions are accessible to all members of society while securing tangible rights, whereas extractive institutions are exploitative and are characterised through institutional domination by a subset of the population. It is the establishment of inclusive institutions that helps to lay the foundations of prosperity.
Many institutions in Africa have been determined or influenced by colonial establishments with deleterious results that persist to this day. In addition, the process of decolonisation came with immense pressure to establish institutions rapidly, in comparison to the iterative long term process that other countries had the luxury of benefitting from.
Nonetheless, there are numerous steps that can be taken to create more inclusive institutions, a few of which can be seen in indexes of institutional quality. Changes towards more inclusive institutions can be derived from a variety of sources, including elections, political pressure, civil society activism, and grass-roots organisation.
Underlying social tensions and ethnolinguistic fragmentation can undermine otherwise prosperous nations if this tension erupts into violence and/or produces the disenfranchisement of a minority group. Conversely, efforts to promote social cohesion through education can contribute to greater economic prosperity.
This lesson has been horrifically immortalised by the events of the Rwandan genocide. While the genocide had multifarious causes, it took place amidst tensions between the majority Hutu population and the minority Tutsi, who were previously favoured by the colonial elite in Rwanda. This tension then escalated into violence, whereby members of the Hutu population killed and displaced millions of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. In the wake of this immense human tragedy, Rwanda underwent a social transformation and reconciliation process to ensure violence on this scale never happens again. This was partly achieved through the Vision 2020 plan of the Rwandan government, with the aims of “attaining per capita income of a middle-income country in an equitable way, and the aspiration to become a modern, strong and united nation, without discrimination between its citizens”. While not all of the ambitious social, economic, and governance indicators were accomplished, Rwanda has achieved substantial strides in becoming a prosperous and socially cohesive middle-income country.
There is hope that other countries will learn from Rwanda’s example and build greater social cohesion without requiring an initial tragedy to motivate the change.
There has been an ongoing and growing Pan-African movement aiming to unify African people through a shared experience and identity. On an institutional level, these Pan-African ambitions are represented by the African Union, alongside other regional initiatives such as ECOWAS.
It is within the context of this momentum that a variety of interesting continental initiatives have emerged.
African Continental Free Trade Agreement (AfCFTA)
The AfCFTA is a free trade agreement that comprises 54 out of 55 African Union members barring Eritrea, representing the largest trade agreement in history with respect to the number of signatories other than WTO agreements. This move can potentially help to address the commodity dependence issues cited in my previous piece through improved regional trade while aiding industrialisation of the continent. The AfCFTA is projected  to increase income by $450 Billion USD, bring 30 million people out of extreme poverty, and foster greater income increases for women, although there are concerns that larger countries stand to benefit disproportionately.
The Africa 2063 initiative is an ambitious roadmap established by the African Union “that aims to deliver on its goal for inclusive and sustainable development and is a concrete manifestation of the pan-African drive for unity, self-determination, freedom, progress and collective prosperity”.
The key programs include infrastructure investment, a space program, establishing an African museum, the aforementioned AfCFTA, and the establishment of African financial institutions.
While genuinely inspiring in its scope, the success of these goals is subject to numerous factors; including sustained cooperation and investment across the continent, a Pan-African mindset, and the aforementioned keys to domestic success.
The Great Green Wall
The Great Green Wall is a collaboration between 11 African countries to combat the issue of desertification through establishing a cross-country initiative to plant trees across 8000km by 2030. This represents a potentially compelling example of international collaboration to achieve climate and environmental goals. However, the targets are not on track to be met, and greater investment, logistical support, and collaboration is required for the wall to succeed.
Moreover, greater action is needed to combat climate change which will require substantial global coordination. I have outlined some approaches to this problem in a previous article here.
Through a combination of robust domestic success, continental initiatives, and respect-based partnerships with non-African organisations, there is genuine hope that Africa can achieve their role in the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals and build an exciting global future with a central role for Africans.
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