African narratives vs. African development strategy

Carlos Lopes and Alan Hirsch, Nelson Mandela School of Public Governance, University of Cape Town

This blog is part of a thread that aims to challenge existing narratives about Africa and its development.

Africa’s positioning in the global scene is seldom immune to controversy. The numerous debates about Africa’s true size and developmental successes can deflect Africans and potential partners from a coherent continental development strategy.

Despite its landmass of 30 million square kilometres, the commonly used Mercator projection maps Africa’s size to be equal to Greenland’s, which is fourteen times smaller. That such a depiction is popularised even by Google Earth shows the endurance of certain perceptions. Moreover, contemporary afro-pessimism is rooted in history and is not limited to the injustices of modern-day cartography or the erroneous views portrayed in contemporary literature. It is about risk perceptions, levels of conflict, political instability, and the variety of economic experiments. Many continue to identify Africa as uniformly beset by conflict, crisis, bad governance, and a risky place for making investments.

The postcolonial era

Going back to the post-independence era, colonial legacy continued to weigh against Africa’s economic development. The structure and nature of economies still reflected inherited enclaves, preventing departure from resource dependence and attempts to change the economic trajectory. Although Africa registered noteworthy economic growth, industrialisation and infrastructure development between the late 1950s and 1970s, there was no single trajectory. Much of Southern Africa and other scattered colonies remained under minority settler control. For the rest of the continent, developmental policies and paths diverged. For instance, Kenya and Côte d’Ivoire adopted policies supporting market-driven economic development. Both were the favoured regional centres of the colonial era, and both continued to outpace their neighbours in economic growth terms. Meanwhile, countries like Algeria or Egypt invested heavily in infrastructure. Most African economies started the commodity dependence cycle during this period.

Common to these paths was the effort to invest in social and human capital, to begin to make up for the distorted public investment patterns of the colonial era. Another variant was epitomised by the tragic fate of the Congo. With its abundant resources, Congo emerged out of colonialism with almost no indigenous middle class, and virtually no social or economic infrastructure except those built to funnel human and natural resource riches out of the country. The spectre of Congo/Zaire led to further distortions of Africa’s image.

The lost decades

The years between 1975 and 1995 are widely known as Africa’s lost decades. Most of Africa’s per capita income was stagnant or negative over this entire period because many commodity-exporting countries were trapped in resource dependent patterns. Marred by huge public debt, overvalued currencies, relatively poor endowed human and physical capital, the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) did little to address the economic malaise that followed the two-decade slump in demand for natural resources that hit African economies badly. They also undermined state capabilities in key areas of social policy.

However, stagnation and decline were not universal narratives for Africa during the lost decades. Mauritius built a development coalition that could break path-dependency. The country pursued productive policies that saw the shift towards export portfolio diversification, labour-intensive manufacturing, and modern services. Botswana’s experience also gives another counter-narrative of steady growth during this era. The country’s leadership built a systematic relationship with the private sector that ensured trust and consistent growth, compatible with the state’s 50% ownership in bountiful mines. Botswana represents the only case in Africa where great mineral wealth (similarly to Chile and Norway) has been well managed with an effective balance of public and private interests.

Post-1990 growth and the Africa rising storyline

Africa’s performance, starting in the late 1990s, was supported by China’s demand for commodities. The simultaneous debt relief initiatives (Heavily Indebted Poor Countries – HIPC and the Multilateral Debt Relief –MDRI initiatives) reinforced the improved growth circumstances with a greater degree of macro-economic stability. This allowed many governments in Africa to shift their attention from servicing debt to improving services and investing in infrastructure. The end of the Cold War and the consequent greater accountability of African governments to their own people probably also contributed to better development outcomes. These shifts heralded a new period of faster growth that created a new narrative: a positive story about Africa’s performance. “Africa rising” dominated the news for a while, hiding again the diverse experiences and trajectories, while focusing on externalities rather than the need for structural transformation.

With the 2008-2009 subprime crisis, Africa’s twenty-first-century growth story started to show its fragility, shifting from positive views to old characterisations and pessimism about the sustainability of such growth and doubts about accelerated industrialisation potential. The pervasive effect of the terrorist-induced conflicts in Libya, the Sahara-Sahelian band and the Horn of Africa; the ethnic-related tension in the Great Lakes; and the Ebola pandemic in West Africa, curbed the short-lived wave of optimism.

On one hand, these distorted perceptions undermine the diversity of a continent that has experienced remarkable changes.  On the other, while Africa is not a country, it is rarely perceived objectively in its entirety as a continent. Sub-dividing the African continent undermines the computation of Africa’s accurate real GDP, debt/GDP ratio, the size of its trade or consumer market and an array of other critical indicators. In fact, Africa could qualify for a seat at the G7, G20, and other fora if its true size and institutional arrangements were recognised, the way the EU is treated. At a time when challenges are increasingly global and interconnected, these concerns have provoked a re-examination of Africa’s partnerships. When negotiating as one, the weight of the continent is considerable, allowing it to position itself as the European Union’s third largest trading partner (second only to US and China) or to highlight that it barely receives as much Chinese outward FDI as Pakistan (and not the overwhelming amounts that are regularly referred to). Africa’s transformation requires a united front as projected by the most ambitious regional undertaking, the African Continental Free-Trade Area.   

Moving forward, Africa’s development strategy must address five factors that are going to influence its future. First, the emergence of a multipolar economic world that now includes the Global South – a source of new investment opportunities and export destinations, development experience and know-how – as well as a new aid architecture that is forcing a redefinition of multilateralism, including attempts to correct its failures and enhance triangular co-operation. Second, demographic changes brought about by a young and increasingly urbanised continent of over a billion people – a number that is expected to double to 2 billion by 2050, with two-thirds living in cities. Third, the continuing discoveries of large natural resource deposits (this time minerals that are going to be strategic for a low-carbon economy), the associated challenges they entail, for instance, illicit financial flows and corruption, as well as opportunities emerging from natural resource exploitation. Fourth, the real opportunity to use technology, including mobile technology, to enhance methods of production and service delivery. Finally, fifth, the potential of climate change to generate significant conflict over environmental assets such as land and water, weakened biodiversity and threats to existing livelihoods, if not transformed into a unique call for Africa to take advantage of the new green and blue economy potential.

This blog is based on an article posted on