Developmental state in Africa: New wine in old bottles?
by Steve Kayizzi-Mugerwa
The Ivorian Government, with support from the United Nations Development Programme, the African Development Bank and the World Bank organized a well-attended International Conference on Emerging Africa that took place in Abidjan from March 18-20, 2015. The issue of the developmental state and the role it could play in Africa’s emergence took centre stage.
From the point of view of President Alassane Ouattara of Côte d’Ivoire and President Macky Sall of Senegal, who opened the conference, countries do not just emerge, they need the active support of the state in the first place, to create a conducive environment for growth, including the encouragement of public-private partnerships. The Ivorian Government could point with ease to its brand new Henri Konan Bédié Bridge straddling the lagoon, which is being managed through a public-private partnership. It is a good example of what a determined and willing government can do in a short time.
Africa’s development discourse sometimes tends to move in circles with ideas from the past re-emerging as the new thinking of the day. A case in point is the return of national development planning as part and parcel of economic policy and management, complete with national “visions.” Planning had been largely abandoned during the era of structural adjustment. In fact national development plans were routinely derided by the international community as “works of fiction.” But planning is back in vogue everywhere in Africa, even at the continental level with the adoption in early 2014 of Agenda 2063, a blueprint of Africa’s development for the next 50 years, at the African Heads of State and Government Summit held in Addis Ababa.
Another phenomenon returning to the fore, and related to the first, is the ongoing debate on the role of the state in development. In the early 1960s, the post-independence leaders were enthused by the power of the state and what it could do to eliminate “poverty, ignorance and disease.” Leaders from across Africa tried to overcome the constraints by adopting radical approaches to governance, generally referred to, and misleadingly in some cases, as African socialism. We had Nyerere’s Ujamaa, Nkrumah’s, Consciencism, Kaunda’s Humanism, Obote’s Common Man’s Charter and Kenya’s Sessional Paper No. 10, on African Socialism, etc. These documents saw the state as the primal driver of development. As Nkrumah noted famously: “Seek ye first the political kingdom.” For decades, the ideas emanating from these efforts, including the emphasis on state control of the commanding heights of the economy, which led to many (and failing) publicly owned companies (parastatals), were seriously opposed by the “new” thinking – that states should only indulge in areas, such as maintaining peace, regulation and exacting taxes, where they had comparative advantage, and leave the rest to the market.
The new counter-argument (which is actually not very new, but has arisen during Africa’s recent emergence) is that market forces on their own cannot “cause” development – they do not plan nor do they “self-correct”. The need in recent memory for massive public sector support to the financial markets on both sides of the Atlantic and in Asia has convinced many that there is a real role for the state in the economy – especially to return economies to equilibrium. However, as is also well-known in Africa, states have a way of turning into the Leviathan – expanding beyond control, and eventually doing more harm than good.
But ultimately labels are just labels, and the real task of Africa’s leaders is to eradicate poverty through the transformation of the African economy. This should be the focus of Africa’s aspiring developmental states.