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.

Baudrillard’s “Silent Majorities” and Public Discourse

I was always interested in Debord, Baudrillard and the idea of the ‘systemic capture’ of people by their governments, by systems of capitalist consumption (Debord) or by their own inertia (Baudrillard)

Baudrillard in particular has this great notion of ‘hyper-reality’ which he uses to explain the perlocutory/illocutory relationship of people (‘masses’) to power. I wouldn’t say that I understand all of it, but I recently found a rather nice and concise explanation online which made me think about what this concept means for public discourse- in particular in the United States- The following is a quote from an explanation of Baudrillard’s work on this concept.

Le Maître, désormais, ne parle plus au peuple pour lui imposer un sens. Il laisse le peuple devant l’absence du sens, et le laisse constater que lui, le peuple devenu masse, ne peut en produire un. Puis le pouvoir parle pour la masse. « Les Français pensent que ceci, ou cela », dit-on. En réalité, le mot important n’est ni ceci, ni cela. Le mot important, c’est penser. Les Français pensent, voilà le vrai message. Peu importe, à la limite, ce qu’on leur fait penser. La force de ce système, c’est qu’il simule le sens après en avoir détruit la possibilité dans le réel. Ce sens simulé, c’est ce que Baurdrillard appelle : « l’hyperréel ». –Notessuroeuvres


‎In short, there are ‘silent majorities’, ‘masses’ of people whose very existence is characterized by a lack of sense, a lack of meaning. Meaning is not so much taken away from the ‘masses’ as they themselves come to shun it. This means an enthrallment with the spectacle and with the image over the substance of matters (a separation which is in my mind rather controversial in and of itself), but also a better acceptance of manufactured meaning- because convenient, because pleasurable.

Hyper-reality comes from (as in the quote) the fact that the void of meaning from the ‘masses’ does not mean that some form of meaning is not put out. Meaning is created and attributed where there is none. In other words the meaning created (by a minority, by individuals) does not owe its existence to the ‘masses’, but rather thrives in the vacuum of their inability to create. Baudrillard says that this sort of meaning is intrinsically removed from the real.

Beyond Baudrillard…..

I think that we’ve come a long way since Baudrillard. Social or political inertia (‘people like reality shows too much’; ‘mainstream political discourse is manipulated, and nobody cares’) are still legitimate targets for those interested in social change. But in many ways, in the United States at least, I have the feeling that we are countering the ‘hyper-real’, and some fundamental changes have taken place.

Our living in post 9/11, post Iraq and post Afghanistan is important. The manufacture and substitution of  an unreal discourse has a harder time when the topics are divisive, precisely because political power says something (let’s invade Iraq) that such a large number of people object to and mobilize against. Those who agree with the proposition then have to defend it.

It’s maybe uni-dimensional, but at least people are more engaged, and in finding a direction (on a somewhat restricted plane, but still) they have to create and own their own meaning to an extent.

…..to New Issues

Maybe the real problem comes when the dichotomy presented in an issue or problem isn’t as stark as it is made out to be (red state/blue state) or when the discursive back and forth itself becomes just a game (hardball, crossfire), or again when the topic itself is just too far outside one’s daily life to take a deeper and sustained interest in (Kony 2012).

Chris Blattman

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