Making policies work

Talking Points

‘Making Africa work’ – What not to do

16-10-2017

Byiers, B., Bilal, S. 2017. ‘Making Africa work’ - What not to do. ECDPM Talking Points Blog, 16 October 2017.

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‘Africa Works’ was the somewhat provocative title of a book published in 1999. With the subtitle “disorder as a political instrument”, the problem cited is that it often ‘works’ in a perverse way, and to the benefit of a select few. This was brought to mind by a more recent arrival entitled: ‘Making Africa Work’, authored by Chief and Ex-President Obasanjo of Nigeria, Greg Mills and Dickie Davis from the Brenthurst Foundation and Jeffrey Herbst (well known for his book on states and power in Africa).

Obasanjo, Mills and Davies were at ECDPM in Brussels last week for closed-door discussions with high-level development officials, framed in the context of the upcoming AU-EU Summit. The discussion was followed by a public launch of their ‘handbook for economic success’, jointly organised by Brenthurst Foundation, ECDPM and the European External Action Service (EEAS).

Though a welcome, forward-looking compendium of successful examples from around the world, with ‘Africa Works’ in mind the question arises: how much can a handbook offer if the current system ‘works’ for those in power?


A common agenda for development?


The premise of the book is that population growth estimates in Africa combined with rising urbanisation, the decline in commodity prices, and rising debt ratios all require urgent changes in development policy. The authors highlight five challenges in particular: jobs, investment, infrastructure, governance, and democracy.

With forecasts of Africa’s population doubling to 2.5 billion people by 2015, making Nigeria the third largest country in the world, staggering demographic growth in Africa over the next three decades, the number of jobs required to occupy this expanding population of youth is enormous. Thus the focus on private investment, where the low levels of external – but also internal – investment are clearly a key hurdle to job creation. Those investments are also hindered by a lack of access to utilities such as water, electricity and markets, thus the need for infrastructure. All of that requires changes in governance – needing leaders to adopt the ‘growth ideology’ while, according to research presented in the book, development outcomes are on average associated with more democracy (in spite of the oft-cited ‘outliers’ Rwanda and Ethiopia).

This all sounds very sensible and indeed familiar to those of us engaged in development policy discussions. Some see the demographic dividends more as an opportunity (through increased labour supply; increased savings as a result of low dependency rate; increasing domestic demand due to higher GDP per capita; and human capital development). Yet, most would recognise the need to harness structural transformation along the lines suggested in ‘Making Africa Work’, with underlying education and skill development as a key condition.

The emphasis on market-driven sustainable growth is also at the core of the EU approach to supporting Africa’s transformative endeavours, part of attempts to address the ‘root causes’ of migration. The External Investment Plan (EIP) seeks to do so by partly de-risking investment in infrastructure and other areas through financial guarantees, boosting public and private sector capacity through technical assistance, and helping improve the business environment through policy dialogue. Up to now, the EU and authors are on the same page.

Where the handbook element comes in is with concrete examples from around the world of cost-effective ways to improve transport, support the manufacturing and services sectors, to reframe the way governments work with the extractive sector and improve security. This is the kind of thing that EU policymakers could do with, nevermind the targeted African leaders.


Back to the 90s


However, as ‘Africa Works’ described, there is a hitch. Obasanjo and co-authors cite the challenges of patronage, corruption, rent-seeking, and the complications of politics. But we don’t hear how they suggest overcoming governance and leadership failures to achieve success. That, then, leaves the challenge of how to change the system if, indeed, ‘Africa Works’?

Failures to reform are still too often couched in terms of lack of knowledge, leadership and capacity. While these definitely matter, transformative reforms are more likely to be achieved by explicitly identifying and taking account the interests, incentives and power relations of relevant stakeholders. Such politically-informed approaches, focused on drivers – and blockers – of change, are well articulated in the recent ‘World Bank Development Report on the Governance and the Law’, and other recent publications on building state capability. That is also the approach advocated by the ‘Thinking and Working Politically’ Community of Practice, and one that we are currently applying to regional integration in Africa.

The issue of what motivates leaders to push for specific policies is therefore key, and one that the book and policymakers struggle to address. In ‘Making Africa Work’ there seems to be an underlying assumption that there are benevolent leaders out there who would do more, if only they knew what to do. For the rest, the thesis can be summarised as: with all the challenges coming your way, “reform or perish”. That threat may be what led to the recent reforms in Morocco, cited in the book as an example of repositioning the country as an efficient, connected, skilled place to invest. It may also bring changes elsewhere, though election protests in the likes of Gabon in 2016 show how the ancien regime can be tough to dislodge.


“Development is about choices”


Perhaps the best point made by the book is the need for pragmatism, namely the need to get away from long wish lists of so-called ‘priorities’ and move towards short, actionable ‘to do’ lists. This is where the authors suggest that what is really required is often a discussion of ‘what not to do’ from the long list of potential priorities: the longer the list of to do’s, the less likely they are to get done.

The need to be selective is one of the insights that African and European leaders could put into practice when they will meet at the 5th AU-EU Summit at the end of November in Abidjan if they want their partnership to remain relevant and avoid empty wish lists.

But beyond that, the real challenge seems to lie in defining what not to do on the basis of a better understanding of political incentives, power and winners and losers. Only by doing that, will it be possible to address how ‘Africa Works’ and give a chance to the ideas provided for ‘Making Africa Work’.


The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of ECDPM.

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