Dissonance in Development Discourse: ‘Africa Rising’

I recently wrote my frustration with the conception of risk and vulnerability in the African continent as dealt with by a Davos World Economic Forum debate. There is a similar line in the ‘Africa Rising ’ discourse, which as the Davos debate, centered almost exclusively on growth, investment and interest in the continent’s economic future. What is missing from these conversations is a serious consideration of how growth is benefiting the citizens of each country, and how international development efforts and international capital should approach this evolution.

Part of the problem is a dissonance between aid/development actors and business and investment actors when it comes to developing economies on the continent. The discourse of shared growth, welfare, investment in local economies and the like are pillars of the broader aid/development discourse, and are put into practice through different programs and policy advising.

The business and investment end does not have the same angle of attack. To be sure there are differences between foreign direct investment and financial speculation, bank driven investment and the like. The nature of the investment and the timeframe considered for the investment are such that in the latter case, there is a smaller incentive to care about second-degree causes of success, such as a country’s education level. There is a tendency across the board to look at indicators such as the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business, ‘hard’ infrastructure such as roads, electricity, internet, but also the ‘soft’ infrastructure indicators that are laws, regulations, corruption indices and the like.

This is why debates like Davos can come up, and this is why McKinsey and Co. keeps coming out with reports (relevant and useful though they may be) on how Africa’s rise is being driven by privatization, low inflation rates and other ‘strong fundamentals’. So, that the question of ‘whose benefit’ has not been featured as prominently as it should be in a certain (nebulous) sector’s articulation of ‘Africa Rising’ is certainly one glaring obstacle.

Nairobi Marketplace

Nairobi Marketplace

African Consumption

There is another very interesting line, running parallel to the previous one, but with a more African-centered focus: it’s the way in which Africa’s rise is equated with the rise of an African middle class and of an African consumer. (This is a real leit motif of whoever is in charge of African markets research over at McKinsey, because they are all over this one- and here, and here). The actual numbers are very interesting. Consumer product industries slated to grow by 400 billion dollars by 2020. Private consumption on the continent rose by 568 billion dollars from 2000 to 2010. All very exciting stuff.

It’s exciting because an African consumer of enough significance could really change the way foreign capital looks at African countries, in addition to deepening markets for African businesses. In pointing this out, these reports, op-eds and books play an important role in getting the message out- that is, we are long past the days when ‘development’ in African countries meant simple aid money. Okay, all well and good.

Upon Further Inspection…

But this discourse and these studies are still very detached from that of shared growth and social welfare. The business community, the investors who have African countries, companies, and projects in their portfolios aren’t as eager to talk social protection, insurance and welfare.

And yet there is a real need to do so. Not simply because there is a large vulnerable population on the continent, but because sometimes the very growth that is touted in all these statistics comes at the expense of the more vulnerable population. So yes, there is a rising African consumer. But when you look closer, you learn that 81% of African private consumption is concentrated in 10 countries- only 5 of which are in sub-Saharan Africa (and they are all pretty much the usual suspects). One more step and you learn that a vast majority of labor on the continent is informalized. Another step and you see that while Diaspora communities returning ‘home’ can bring some economic advantages, it also perpetuates existing social inequalities.

You can be satisfied with the quotation here below for only so long…

In the 1990s African economies embraced the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF) structural adjustment programmes, which advocated free market policies.“The introduction of liberalisation, which focused on private sector-led growth, is key to the growing middle class on the continent,” said Bategeka. “Countries introduced sound economic policies which controlled inflation, benefiting investments in their economies.” Source

…before you remember what structural adjustment also did to the African state’s ability to protect the most vulnerable in the 1980s and 1990s.

In the end…

There is nothing wrong with growth. But when you keep listening to Davos and to McKinsey and the others, it is easy to forget that growth and wealth in and of itself is not the end goal. Equatorial Guinea is classified by the World Bank as a High-Income country since 2007, even while 77% of the population lives on less than 2 dollars a day.

How can more of the population be involved in and see benefits from growth? How can growth serve to protect the most vulnerable from the risks of a globalizing domestic economy, from environmental changes, from health concerns? These are all questions of importance to the continent, and yes, to its overseas investors as well. This is the type of debate I would like to see grace center stage at forums like Davos.


Helping people or helping to help people?

In which the author discovers sustainable development

One of the things I hear quite a bit from people who are interested in (or indeed, who work in) the nebulous ‘international development’ is about their desire to help people. This has always vaguely bothered me, and while I am still not entirely sure why, I think that I have put my hand on one of the reasons.

Putting people at the center of development is nothing new, but it is a concept that I believe has proven its worth both in policy and in terms of actual effect. This holds across areas, from environmental considerations to industrial policy to security. Besides, if the goal of a country in developing is not the betterment of its people we may as well give up right now.


The problem for me comes when it is framed as a question of ‘me’, the individual, helping people (usually in other, poorer countries). People and organizations that put forward this idea a little too strongly are perhaps not entirely self-aware as to the development work they do. But if you look at it from a societal level, aid organizations, development programs, people in beige jackets and SUVs are not natural. I’m not at all convinced that they are part of the natural topography of a society. They are tacked on, informed by foreign aid dollars, by policy decided at USAID, at DfID, by global visions for a world without poverty, for xyz development goal, and more. Not that these things can’t be good, not that they can’t be effective; they’re just not natural.

What is natural then? It isn’t as though organizations and systems to help people and solve problems in a society are all unnatural- the state is usually accepted as natural, legitimate. Associations of people in society are natural. Different types of media are natural. These things come out of the natural development of a society and out of a locally-assessed need.

OK, a compromise is needed. We don’t live in the 19th Century where societies can be easily shut off from one another and where identity is a simple question of geography. What moves and contributes to the natural development of a society is not only that which is intrinsic to that society. But it certainly still means a local interpretation of things. That which moves and shapes a society is the collection of people, institutions, ideas and common places whose existence and behavior (on the aggregate) is not predicated on next year’s funding. It seems to me that the state and civil society, but also local organizations, community groups, music bands and others are deeply invested in their society as a whole, and not on whatever development the society may have. They will be around even after a society becomes ‘developed’ enough to see the international aid agencies leave.


Because they make up the society, they are necessary to it. Shouldn’t efforts by those interested in the development of societies be more focused on these sorts of social components? Shouldn’t the help be to make sure that the state, that local government, civil society and businesses be able to effectively deliver better goods and services to the society’s people and guarantee a minimum standard of living? Isn’t this better than coming in and attaching an unnatural extra temporary support beam to the structure?

This is about basic sustainability. Sustainability of development, when it comes from outside the society in question, doesn’t really sound all that sustainable.

‘Inside’ vs. ‘outside’ a society isn’t a distinction between foreign and domestic aid per se, or even one between centrally planned or ‘liberal’ aid- I think this debate comes before Sachs and Easterly. In other words, if the road for developing some dimension of a society is effective with market-oriented, ‘outward-looking’ action, then why not? As long as those in control are the same who make up the society (this would get too long if I got into inequality within a society, so I will leave it at that for now).

Helping Societies help People

Every aid program should contribute to turning the keys of the development they work on over to the people for whom they are working. Of course new ideas can come from people overseas, from people from somewhere else, from people who are just passing through. But I think that they should mold these new ideas into the society they wish to help, through participation, joint brainstorming, ownership and understanding of the implications of their work at all levels.

Sustainable development is not about how best to continue a specific project, and not about how to ensure any one organization’s continued effectiveness. It’s first about how to make sure that the projects that will be worked on are worthy of being continued, and it’s then about asking if society can continue them.

Helping societies to help people seems to me a much more freeing and rewarding goal.

Chris Blattman

International development, economics, politics, and policy


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