Rodrik’s Triple Trap and Growth Prospects in Africa

Many factors lead people to write about heterodox economics in development. This has obviously been greatly informed by the Eurozone debt crisis and political fiasco of the past 4 years where the good old criticism of ‘the system, man’ has gone beyond simply blaming the excesses and transgressions of the financial sector and the superwealthy, to reach at issues of basic wealth distribution and equality and discrimination in society.

The attraction of the schools of thought which reject neoclassical economic models of growth and convergence to me is that they come with concrete policy tools and prescriptions, which are drawn in many cases not from an ideological contre-posture to the Washington Consensus or the like, but tied to concrete cases of economic success. The policies that East Asian countries like Korea, Japan and Taiwan used to develop since the 1950s have been used to highlight and guide policy advice for current developing countries. In short, my appreciation for heterodox development economics has been rooted in the suggestion that it can actually achieve economic development.

So when my favorite thinker in this line, Harvard’s Dani Rodrick, starts getting pessimistic, I get worried. Rodrick has given talks and put out papers in the past year or so looking at the shifts in labor among different sectors of an economy, the productivity of those sectors, and the rate of growth of the countries. The diagnosis, apparently, is bleak.

Developing economies, Rodrik argues, are facing a triple trap of economic structural change. Convergence in productivity certain sectors of manufacturing has slowed down compared to previous decades, meaning that transitioning an agrarian labor force to manufacturing will be less effective than before at increasing productivity. However, the service sector has its own pitfalls (a leitmotif of many development economists), mainly in the high barrier to entry that it has, presented by the higher skills needed to enter this labor market and the lower number of workers that it can absorb. And the third trap is that of primary-resource-led development. The argument here is also a classic- agriculture and mining are too dependent on demand + investment in commodities, or they are simply not sustainable. Besides which, the more high productivity sectors such as mining are invariable much less labor-intensive. Much of African growth over the past decade (stellar by the way) has been led by high primary commodity prices.

The outlook is somewhat grim. African countries’s real issue according to Rodrik seems to be a mix of their high urban informal sectors, which are apparently very unproductive, and the can’t go here, can’t go there conundrum.

I wonder though. Countries like China and Korea achieved high growth in part because they first saw huge increases in factor accumulation- they brought more labor into their manufacturing sectors, and they bought and used more machines- before productivity went up much (this is Krugman’s famous ‘perspiration not inspiration‘ argument (pdf) regarding East Asia’s development). African countries haven’t seen this sort of shift (at least not into the formal sector manufacturing jobs), so it is perhaps too early to say that manufacturing cannot lead to very solid growth. We simply haven’t seen much sustained manufacturing growth- not even in inputs, forget productivity- in African countries to be able to tell what factors would push it forward. The optimists on Africa will not stop talking about the rise of an African consumer. Imagine a growing manufacturing industry which benefits from rising costs of production in China on one hand and rising demand on the continent on the other.

To achieve this, it’s clear that the large informal urban economy (think Nairobi) would have to be addressed by policymakers. Finding way to drive labor into the most productive sectors of the economy (Rodrik’s opinion on the best way forward)? This isn’t the fight-the-comparative-advantage Rodrik I know. Imagine if you raise the productivity of these informal urban micro-firms and production centres, just a little, and the effect that might have. Imagine subsidy programmes which encourage larger scale production, social protection which drives people to larger firms, and skills and business education which makes individuals more productive.Let’s see if Dani Rodrik can start proning more solutions as well.

While I am by no means an optimist of the “Africa Rising’ type, the continent has not yet had its final word.

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The Problem with Global Income Categories

With so many countries experiencing rapid rates of growth, with so much income disparity and with so many countries whose particular demographic/economic situations are of a complexity which belies the simplicity of mere income-based rankings, how come the World Bank’s famous global income categories, measured in Gross National Income per capita are still used with such authority?

Several possible reasons stand out: 1-because GNI per capita and global income categories are widely understood and used categories, useful for communicating and coordinating with a multitude of international actors; 2-because these categories can be indicative of countries’ capacities to produce goods and services; 3-because many developing countries have embraced the terminology derived from these categories, with attaining the middle income category being seen as a significant achievement.

The Middle Income Angle
Much of the debate within international financial institutions, development agencies and global fora is focused on identifying the position and role of middle income countries in global development assistance architecture. Key considerations include whether to continue to allocate resources to middle income countries, whether or not to prioritize certain middle income countries in global aid and lending strategies, identifying the role of middle income countries as emerging donors and sources of development experience and expertise, as well as specifying the type of engagement that the international development world needs to take in middle income countries.

The conventional view espoused by the main development and lending organizations as well as some OECD donor countries is that rapidly narrowing poverty gaps and growing GDP in middle income countries, along with increased capacity to formulate and actuate viable development solutions means that a higher priority should be given to lower income countries in development assistance, and at the least that support to MICs should not come at the expense of support to other categories of countries, such as LDCs.

Middle income countries have better access than their lower income counterparts to funds through their tax bases or their ability to enter sovereign bond markets, mobilize more competent bureaucracies and provide additional support for expanded social safety nets, and therefore less in need of development assistance.

The critique to the conventional view suggests that while specific country needs and responses by the international community may change with a ‘graduation’ to middle income status, this does not necessarily mean that serious problems do not exist within MICs, or that less priority should be placed on all middle income countries.

Recent studies have noted that with 74 per cent of the world’s poor (living on under 1.25$ per day) now living in middle income countries, the only way to make significant gains in the struggle against global poverty is for international development cooperation to give special attention to poor people, not just poor countries.

livingthemiddleincomedream

Living the middle income dream at $ 2.25 a day

Moreover the growth in GNI that can push countries across the imaginary line to another income category is not necessarily a reflection of commensurate increases in the wellbeing of all of their population. Many countries have persisting inequality and ‘pockets of poverty’, often in underserved regions or among marginalized populations, which national governments are often unable or unwilling to address. In short GNI growth by itself is misleading, and efforts must be made to better represent the relative quality of growth in global-level discussions.

While the conventional view generally acknowledges a broad diversity in countries which cuts across income categories, it still makes reference to and accepts these categories as approximate indications of the overall wellbeing of a country. However the link between income and other areas of development is not always very clear, and discussions on a variety of development-related topics, including food security, run the risk of becoming misleading if they take their cue from income categorizations.

Emerging Africa: More Questions

View from the Heritage Hotel, Dar es Salaam- Seyemon

View from the Heritage Hotel, Dar es Salaam- Seyemon

The tone was slightly reminiscent of an afro-pessimism/afro-optimism debate, but the January 11 rebuttal article of Rick Rowden’s Foreign Policy piece certainly makes some good points.

The interesting framing of the problem, (à savoir, ‘going the way it is going and pursuing the path it is on, will many countries on the African continent achieve more economic development?’) is in terms of what African countries do with the resources they have.

The authors of the book The Fastest Billion: The Story Behind Africa’s Economic Revolution make five big arguments for progress on the continent:

  1. Social and economic policies in many African countries are seeing a shift akin to that which took place in East Asian countries before their ‘takeoff’
  2. African countries are doing (and will keep doing) better at reinvesting the gains from agriculture and primary goods exports into infrastructure, services and other higher value-added production which will drive production in the future
  3. Rising wages in China and other Southeast Asian countries can cause a renewed interest in African countries for labor-intensive production
  4. Education levels are also rising on the continent, which will spur on the advent of industrialization and manufacturing
  5. Ease of doing business indicators have been getting better, corruption as well, and this is creating a more favorable environment for growth

After reading this I simply must get my hands on this book, The Fastest Billion. There are simply too many questions that I could not find answers for in the short Foreign Policy article. The book, I think, should be great for providing paths to the following questions:

–          Is agriculture really doing all right? Are the African countries in the so-called middle income stage of growth being supported by the agricultural sector? The authors mentioned the importance of agriculture as a basis for industrialization in Korea; is this the same case in African countries? Niger and Gabon are two countries with interesting plans to reduce reliance on food imports- is this type of state-led program the way to go?

–          Is it really easier to do business on the continent? There might be some improvement over the last 5 years in African countries’ scores on the World Bank’s Doing Business Index, but are these the result of steady improvement in policies? Here I surmise the answer will vary vastly among countries. Rwanda’s indicators for this year are leaps and bounds better than just four years ago, and are driven by a government dedicated to change. But so many countries are not showing much steady progress, while they also face trouble in corruption indicators.

–          Are resources being properly reinvested in value-added industries? There is much talk as to the extent to which these resources need to all be funneled into new industries- they are not the end-all be all of economic development, and first ensuring a population’s basic needs are addressed makes more sense on so many levels. But where are the oil dollars and copper and bauxite dollars going? I don’t have nearly as good an idea of this as I would like.

–          Are African countries really on track to absorb higher value added production, successfully move up global commodity chains and mobilize their population’s rapidly growing education? My most vivid memory over the last year were the protests in several countries by what were essentially overeducated youth, who invested precious years in study only to find that there were few, if any jobs available for them in their countries. Successes in primary education in Africa are becoming more and more known, and many have pointed to tertiary education as a sort of new education frontier for many countries. But how well is this skilled labor being absorbed by these economies? I really want to know.

For now there are only questions.

But the beginning of an answer will probably come more from looking at individual countries, as opposed to trying to rationalize trends across the great diversity that is the Continent.

Chris Blattman

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