By Tom Odhiambo
Many Africans today may not remember Walter Rodney’s classic book, How Europe Underdeveloped Africa. However, several educated Africans constantly sing the mantra of ‘Africa rising’ that is beloved of tens of European, Asian and American financial commentators who preach the dogma of Africa being the most productive frontier for foreign investment. This is the message that Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu has for Africans in his book Emerging Africa: How the Global Economy’s ‘Last Frontier’ Can Prosper and Matter (Penguin Books, 2014).
Moghalu surely knows a thing or two about economic development. He worked for the United Nations for 17 years, served in the government of Nigeria, and established his own ‘strategy and risk management consulting firm’ in Geneva, Switzerland. He notes that his decision to write Emerging Africa was informed by the ‘realization that the continent’s future would be determined by a confluence of domestic leadership, public policy and private capital, not by international organizations.’
But what is Moghalu’s analysis of Africa’s underdevelopment? What does he think is the real disease that afflicts the continent, holding it back from guaranteeing its people a good life? His diagnosis largely draws from the experiences of his own country, Nigeria. Moghalu sees lack of clear economic strategic policy, poor financial markets, little foreign investment, underdeveloped knowledge economy, unfavorable international market and finance arrangements (think of IMF and World Bank), unequal world trade terms (think of last year’s WTO talks in Nairobi) among others as the causes of Africa’s economic underdevelopment.
It is difficult to see which ones of these issues hasn’t been isolated and discussed endlessly as contributing to Africa’s economic backwardness. In a sense Rodney’s book had identified these issues although in a different historical context. It probably would have been a fitting introduction to Emerging Africa considering that the same historical factors that Rodney blames for Africa’s underdevelopment haven’t really changed for a long time. Firstly, Africa is afflicted by brain drain today pretty much as there was labour drain when thousands, if not millions, of Africans were taken to Europe, America and the Caribbean as slaves. African governments spend millions training the best of its minds, who are then offered jobs elsewhere in the world. Unless Africans become really patriotic – and there is the example of Asia to learn from – then we will continue to decry lack of human resources and innovation for our poverty.
Secondly, the question of poor economic policies is a difficult one to accept considering that after 50 years of self rule African bureaucrats and politicians still don’t understand and appreciate what the needs of their citizens are. The hundreds of grandiose projects – these days in the form of infrastructure – that African governments brag about suck resources from providing the basics of life, education, healthcare, support to agriculture (considering that agriculture is the mainstay of African economies), funding of small and medium enterprises, establishment of technical colleges that would guarantee innovation of locally appropriate technology, among others. So, how can Africans still be talking about misplaced policy priorities when what needs to be done to improve African economies is so obvious?
Thirdly, the argument about the unfairness of the global economic system to African economies is also too difficult to appreciate. Africans always strive to ‘fit’ into ‘global standards.’ Why? When the Chinese restructured their economy and established themselves as an economic powerhouse, they did it from within. They understood that they needed to produce goods that would satisfy local needs first, then the regional markets before they ventured beyond their region. Why do African countries not think of the continent first as a market instead of trying too hard to produce goods that satisfy the Euro-American markets?
The standards that African countries have to satisfy to be able to sell their goods in these markets keep shifting and it really doesn’t matter what the results of the WTO negotiations in Nairobi last December are. African countries will still find it tough to sell their vegetables, flowers, beef, fruits etc to Europeans. The farmers’ lobby in Europe and America is too strong to allow concessions on agricultural produce that favors Africans. Africans should simply learn to grow, process, and distribute what they need first instead of wasting time growing such things like flowers for the European market.
Do Africans really need to be babysat by the World Bank and IMF? Why are African leaders so beholden to these institutions, which history shows have really never been interested in supporting local economies? Who doesn’t know the damage that the Structural Adjustment Programs of the 1980s did to African economies and their people? Who doesn’t know the destruction wrought on African lives by market liberalization and currency devaluations forced on African governments by the WB and IMF? How blind are Africans for continuing to ‘structure’ and ‘restructure’ their economies as demanded by these institutions?
There is no doubt that Moghalu makes a good argument in Emerging Africa about the convergence of factors that would drive Africa to develop. But this is an old argument. It may be made with fancy-sounding ‘strategic’ vocabulary but Africa has been here before and it is still here. Africans must learn to do things on their own, but do things that serve their interests first. If we are looking for economic progress model, there are just too many on Google. If we want to re-innovate our education system in order to produce skilled labour, Asia provides another good example, with Africa’s latest darling, China, the best ever example. As for borrowing, Africans need to live within their means. Africans need to reorganize their politics and stop blaming the rest of the world for their woes or entertaining such fantasy like ‘Africa rising’ or ‘Africa emerging.’
Writer teaches literature at the University of Nairobi.