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.

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‘Resilience’ Worries at Davos World Economic Forum

The World Economic Forum

-Robert Scoble

The 2013 Davos World Economic Forum’s vision, articulated by its founder and executive chairman Klaus Schwab in a recent Project Syndicate article, leaves me with a couple furrows on my brow. Not that I am unfamiliar with the rather single-minded nature of the Davos discussion agenda, or with the criticisms that are leveled against the Forum. This time though, the issue with the Forum’s large frame/theme is rather subtle.

There are, we are told, two main objectives to this year’s forum:

First, the economic crisis has created a more defensive, more self-centered, and – at the level of states – more protectionist attitude. Grand unifying visions are missing, and the pressure for separation, not union, continues to increase. This has stalled progress on many of the issues – including reducing carbon emissions, establishing global financial regulatory measures, and concluding the Doha Round of global trade talks, to name a few – that require global attention.

The first objective is then to foster further global cooperation, under the idea that combined solutions (a “grand vision”?) to economic and financial problems are needed to bring the world economy into a new growth dynamic. Discursively speaking, nothing new. The second point is as follows:

The Forum has always promoted the notion of corporate social responsibility – or, expressed differently, of business leaders being accountable not only to their employees and shareholders, but also to their communities and society at large. So, my second objective for Davos this year is for all leaders to recognize that along with their economic responsibilities come moral as well as social obligations.

The second objective is slightly newer (but not really) in that it puts forward a social responsibility for the private sector, specifically mentioning (later on in the text) corporate social responsibility. Ultimately the idea is probably to pose the question of the ill-effects of austerity and adjustment policies in countries hit by the global financial and Eurozone crises.

Objectives Properly Addressed?

The talk always sounds great. But there is no indication that any of this is actually going to happen, beyond words, at Davos. When you look at the response of states and companies to the financial crisis in terms of cooperation (here mainly in Europe) it is clear that not only is there much to be desired, that which is being decided comes from a logic of relative economic influence, political clout (and interestingly enough, discursive identity) within the EU’s echelons of power. The WEF will probably not have an impact significant enough to change the way European countries interact in their own playground.

Second point of worry: even a layperson can see that objective number one is going to overpower objective number two without any special consideration for this latter one. How are French companies coming together with the government and labor to solve competitiveness problems and factory closings? Answer: They’re not. The order of the day, much to the chagrin of French minister Arnaud Montebourg (holder of the most unenviable title of ‘Minister of Industrial Renewal’) is for companies to argue that, affected as they are by the crisis, they have no choice but to lay off workers and have the remaining workforce take on longer or more irregular hours for less pay- or else the company closes up shop and moves to Morocco. The French government has an active hand in promoting these sorts of flexibility deals- anything to put a band-aid on the employment situation. The companies may become slightly more protected, but it’s not at all clear that the workers who get laid off or those who slip into poverty gain much in resilience.

Third point: while corporate social responsibility (CSR) is a nifty model which can and has demonstrated that win-wins are possible, most interestingly in developing economies, the question is less if CSR should be promoted, and more how to ensure CSR design that contributes to sustainable development. How to ensure that CSR is carried out in coherence with existing development agenda? Will proper attention be given to the failures and the lessons of profitable but not social viable CSR projects at the forum? This is one point I continue to watch with interest.

It is right to bring resilience to the table- it is yet another way that the traditionally very… economic WEF can inject a little social in its veins.

But in rushing to pose the question of resilience, Davos may have forgotten to ask ‘whose resilience?’

Chris Blattman

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