The rhetoric surrounding Africa, or at least the continent’s economic development, appears to be changing.
Despite the ongoing global economic turmoil, a number of African nations have been making impressive strides in their development, a point underscored by The Economist’s decision recently to run a leader describing Africa as the “hopeful continent,” drawing a clear contrast to its cover story “The Hopeless Continent” a decade ago.
And the continent’s leaders are now looking east for their inspiration. Rwandan President Paul Kagame, for example, has said he hopes to eventually transform his country’s economy into the “Singapore of Central Africa.” Such sentiments tap into the vast and growing repository of Afro-optimism, an optimism that sees sustained economic growth as the future, even as the north of the continent is embroiled in domestic political turmoil and uprisings.
So, is it Africa’s time to replicate the economic growth feats of Asia? This may seem like a herculean task, but given the recent economic gains made in countries like Ghana, which posted 13.5 percent growth last year as it casts off the failed economic policies of the 1980s and 1990s, as well as the success of recent BRICS addition South Africa, there’s now hope for an “African miracle.”
But if Asia is the guide for Africa’s economic miracle, then the Asian foundations of a strong state and supporting institutions must be made a reality in Africa. The examples of China and Japan loom large in the minds of many African leaders and elites. Yet in contrasts with these two Asian giants, the post-independent African state is still encumbered with significant structural weaknesses, a lack of professionalism and an excess of cronyism, patronage and other corrupt practices that would make even officials involved in some of China’s most notorious cases of corruption blush. This lingering image has undermined efforts to settle on a positive economic agenda in Africa, even when visionary leaders of developmentally-oriented states such as Mauritius and Botswana have emerged.
Some argue that the East Asian model of state-driven economic growth might not be suitable for African states, given the apparent weaknesses in their leaders’ characters (this isn’t to mention the somewhat troubling view that Africans are inherently not up to the task of producing sustained and healthy economic growth). With this in mind, some argue that the social, historical and structural weaknesses demonstrated by many African states suggest that their economies would instead be better off relying on market incentives, i.e., the Southeast Asian path beaten by Singapore and Indonesia.
Regardless of the model that African nations choose to follow, achieving the enviable growth patterns of some Asian economies will require the strengthening of intra-regional trade. Africa’s recent economic gains have been mainly driven by external trade, especially with emerging economies such as China, India, Brazil and South Korea. A recent report by the McKinsey Global Institute puts intra-African trade at a lowly 12 percent, about half that achieved in Latin America. This is despite almost a billion consumers residing in the African continent, meaning that intra-African trade should no longer be perceived as an insignificant element of any country’s economy, but rather a potential path toward market consolidation and leverage for African markets in the global economy. China and other Asian economies offer clear examples of the benefits of looking local as well as outside the region.
Another vital element in Africa’s future that chimes with the Asian experience is industrialization. This is where African governments really need to shift the economic discourse, away from a focus simply on commodities to a more diversified economic base that adds value to these products. Achieving this will require efficient and ultimately well-maintained infrastructure, a challenge that African leaders must face up to and address quickly. Interestingly, it is on this very issue that Asia, particularly in the form of increased Chinese investment, is able to offer practical assistance toward achieving this goal (although African nations must also be careful that they don’t miss out on opportunities to develop their own manufacturing sectors, rather than relying on imports and expertise from China).
Another key to African success will be following best practice in success stories like Singapore, particularly the city-state’s merit-based approach to bureaucracy. Whether its growth is state-driven or laissez-faire, a well-organized bureaucratic system should recognize and reward genuine talent. If Africa wants to replicate Asia’s success stories, it will need to work harder to ensure that merit displaces cronyism and elitism as the determiner of progress.
African nations are in a better position to achieve and maintain economic growth than at any time in their post-independent histories. And, in spite of the sporadic political and civil conflict that persists in parts of the continent, there have been many signs of a growing political maturity. With political discipline and a focus on merit-based critical institutions, the social cohesion necessary for sustained economic growth is gradually emerging, which should allow the continent to take advantage of its rich natural resources.
And, looking ahead, Africa has another potential advantage – a youthful population with a hunger for change. Many of the uprisings in support of democracy across the continent have been championed by disaffected young people bitten by the technology bug and anxious for opportunities. For these young and driven Africans, change isn’t a distant hope, but something achievable. The memories of colonial exploitation are receding further into the rearview mirror as young Africans look forward.
Ultimately, of course, building on Africa’s current economic gains will take a mix of optimism and dispassionate study of success stories like China, Hong Kong, Singapore, and South Korea. But even though the historical settings may differ, the promises of some African leaders to chart a course similar to Asia’s should be seen as the best way of lifting millions of Africans out of poverty – and beyond.
Richard Aidoo is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and Geography, Coastal Carolina University.