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Why Is Africa Poor? 2/5

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Several scientists, scholars, researchers, economists, anthropologists, and many, many, more have tried to figure out why the continent of Africa is poor.

The various explanations can be divided into different schools of thoughts. I have divided them into four schools.

The four schools are

  1. History Matters
  2. Institutions Matter
  3. Resources Matter
  4. People Matter

I will go through each school and mention the pros and cons of each one. The schools have severe flaws, which are often overlooked when discussing the predicament of African countries. Each school will be published independently to avoid this piece getting too long.

5. I will end the series with an overall conclusion, where I’ll discuss William Arthur Lewis’ take on Africa.

And if Africa is poor? All these schools try to explain why Africa is poor, but what if that point of departure is not correct?

The second article in the ongoing series:

2. Institutions Matter

This piece will dwell on predominantly three aspects of this theory.

  1. Democracy and Institutions
  2. If leaders are the problem, why do people elect bad leaders?
  3. Bad policies


A) Democracy and Institutions
The main argument is a matter of causality.

We can observe, that countries with strong institutions also tend to have a strong democracy.

But is it a strong democracy that generates strong institutions, or is it strong institutions that are vital for a strong democracy to take hold?

Europe has for a long period of time supported the thesis that democracy is necessary for strong institutions to emerge.

After the end of the Cold War, good governance became one of the conditions before aid was given. After civil wars in Sierra Leone, Liberia and DR Congo, the first measures were to hold democratic elections.

A strength focusing on elections is that it is visible. Donors can prove to the people back at home that progress is made. Your tax dollars are making a positive difference, and everybody can pat themselves on the shoulder reaffirmed that they are the good guys.

The problem is, at times it is the less visible that is the most crucial. The focus in holding elections have led to some African leaders stealing elections. Winning an election provides the leader with the needed authority. But it is the election ritual that provides the authority to the leader not how it was conducted, it appears. Holding an election is not difficult. North Korea is having elections.

Elections in some countries are a standing joke, like this clip from the movie “The Dictator” illustrates.

A reason we witness elections in countries such as Angola, Rwanda, Togo and the Republic of Congo, even it is merely a play. Everyone knows their lines and the result is known before a single ballot has been cast. If there is doubt about, the authorities shut down social media, as it happened during the latest presidential election in Uganda in 2016, and the  Republic of the Congo shortly afterward. Each president won. Surprise? Not really.

An election ends becoming a facade to a basically undemocratic and oppressive regime. It is an expensive facade.

Consequently, democracy might not automatically lead to strong institutions, and the money that could have been spent on strengthening the institutions were spent on a big theatre.

Perhaps it is time to focus more on improving existing institutions, that prevents leaders from stealing elections that allow said leaders to hold scam, yet expensive, elections.

If we accept there is a causality between having a democracy and having strong institution, we then accept A -> B

Though, instead of viewing democracy aka elections as A, what if elections are a consequence rather than a cause.

Instead to strive for elections as soon as possible, look behind the curtain and examine the institutions. If institutions are strong they will likely lead to a stronger democracy and credible elections.



B) If leaders are the problem, why do people elect bad leaders?
Elections are won by people who then become leaders regardless whether an election is credible or not.

The argument is that the fault for Africa’s predicament is the bad leaders. However, if the leaders are blameable, then why do people elect bad leaders?

The counter arguments is that blaming leaders does not provide a satisfactory answer since leaders do not exist on their own merit.

There are countless examples of bad leadership among African leaders, a reason we also witness tension between the people and a leader. In Burkina Faso, the tension led to former President Blaise Compaoré fleeing the country, an escape facilitated by France.

Critique of African leaders is not new. The Nigerian writer, Chinua Achebe, in the book “Anthills of the Savannahargues that Africans want to be oppressed in style. If you have power, then you must display your wealth for others to know, that you are a big man.

Several authors, such as Frederick Cooper, Gerard Prunier, Patrick Chabal, Daniel Jordan Smith, and more, have argued the problems with clientelism facilitated and kept alive by the big men.

Jordan Smith also reminds the readers in his the book “A Culture of Corruption“, that the people support the system of clientelism. When a person gains access to resources, he or she instantly becomes a patron. As a patron, you are believed to benefit your network aka be corrupt. Even when a person wants to act according to the law, the networks demand special treatment. Jordan Smith compares it to how Nigerians react when in a traffic jam. The passengers in the bus complain when other vehicles break the traffic regulations, but they criticise their own driver when he tries to obey the same regulations. In this manner, the people become victims and facilitators of corruption. A similar conclusion to that of Achebe.

But it is still not a good explanation. Africans are no different than everybody else, hence we must assume they are as rational and irrational as the rest of us. They favouring bad leaders do not logically add up.

Furthermore, this explanation or rather an accusation has one more major flaw, it is an easy excuse for donors to free themselves from any misconduct or wrongdoings. Donors and the Bretton Woods Institutions (The IMF and the World Bank) can brush off bad outcomes of various programmes, African countries have to implement in order to receive aid.

If a programme fails, it is easier to blame it on the African president than to admit you were wrong.

This conveniently leads to the third and last point.


C) Bad policies
Through the past decades, donors have told African leaders what to do in order to develop.

It started on January 20, 1949, when the American President, Harry S. Truman. In his speech, he divides the world into two realms: the developed world and the underdeveloped world.

America and Europe were part of the developed world, and as so their job was to guide the underdeveloped parts of the world to become developed. An echo of the racial colonial ladder and the white man’s burden are hard to look past.

The Westerner remained the center of the world, and Africa remained in the periphery. Europe and the USA looked at each other and concluded, they were at the top of the ladder, therefore, they knew best.

Several development models were proposed. The more famous one was the Rostow Five Stages of Growth. Ironically, the path to Capitalism looks remarkably similar to Karl Marx’ stages toward Communism, even that one consisted of six stages.

Both theories see the world as operating in stages, both are strictly deterministic and teleological, and both theories operating on a global and universal scale, where one size fits all.

Rostow was wrong, and the project failed.

Neoliberalism made a terrible situation worse. During the reign of the British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the American President Ronald Regan in the 1980s, They paved the way for the so-called SAP reforms. Structural Adjustment Programmes demanded through the IMF. The main hypothesis was that the state was a force for harm due to bad leadership and the market was a force for good. The reason for this was the infamous Berg Report made for the World Bank (empirical data contradicted the Berg Report, but that data were neglected, overlooked, or denied).

The demands were to make the African states as small as possible.

The consequences were horrifying. The imposed demands on African countries were detrimental to their growth and to the well-being of the citizens. Ghana lost 50 per cent of their doctors, Senegal experienced their numbers of nurses fell sixfold. At least 13,000 doctors left Zimbabwe to find work in Europe or South Africa. It led to a collapse in the health care and the education sector in numerous African countries.

In 1991, an employee of the World Bank, Robert Klitgaard, wrote the book “Tropical Gangsters ”, where the gangsters-part refers to the ruling elite, but also to somebody else:

The real tropical gangsters are the capitalists, both domestic and foreign, and the aid agencies who promote them. Perhaps even the expatriate so-called experts qualify- such as you. (p. 11)

The bad leader-argument forgets that part.

Yes, some African countries do have bad leaders, but that in itself does not explain why a country does not perform. It decimates the influence of the people, it overlooks terrible imposed policies imposed by donors and the Bretton Woods Institutions, and the argumentation makes it easy for Western countries to wash their hands since they can use African leaders as scapegoats for their inept forced demands.

Other articles in this series
1) History matters
3) Resources Matter
4) People Matter
5) Is Africa Poor?


1 Comment

  1. […] articles in this series 2)  Institutions Matter 3) Resources Matter 4) People Matter 5) Is Africa […]


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