What is preventing Africa from becoming an economic power?

By Gabrielle Pickard
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China.org.cn, June 25, 2010
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"Africa is not poor, it is poorly managed", were the words of the Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in 2009. While other developing nations continue to be lifted out of poverty and sustain economic stability and power, Africa, despite its wealth of natural resources, remains the begging bowl of the world. Centuries of civil war, environmental devastation and political disparity have painted a dark picture of Africa to the developed world, who perceives it as a continent crippled by conflict and disease. Despite the adversity Africa faces from hostile climatic forces and the problems associated with the ethno-linguistic fragmentations of its countries, it is the nation's economic failings which have arguably arisen out of poor political policies and leadership, that are crafting the continent to be economically cursed.

To be considered an economic power, sufficient productive resources need to be available to underpin economic decisions and to ensure their implementation. There is a school of thought which says Africa has sufficient productive resources, but what it lacks is the ability to enforce [the right] economic decisions. Former Rhodesian leader Ian Smith described a "politically naïve" President Mugabe as transforming Zimbabwe from being the "bread basket of Africa into the begging bowl". Sometimes Smith's sentiments regarding Zimbabwe are extrapolated, especially in the West, to the whole of Africa: failed political institutions and bad management are unable to develop and maintain infrastructure, which prevents Africa from utilizing its abundant natural resources and becoming the global "bread basket" it potentially could be. Instead Africa is mired in fiscal volatility. Nigeria for example, in spite of being the seventh largest producer of oil in the world, cannot even generate sufficient electricity to power its industries.

A further Western interpretation is that Africa has failed to become "capitalist". "Africa is bathing in oil but there is no chemical industry. The economic infrastructure has not changed in Africa for the past 100 years. Small economies remain essentially small economies and this is the heart of what is preventing Africa from becoming an economic power," says Eric Chinje from the World Bank.

People in Africa do not generally own land and there is a bureaucratic, expensive and time-consuming system involved in obtaining licenses to set up businesses or trade goods. Subsequently people routinely are unable to set up businesses. One of the key arguments of what leads to economic collapse and subsequent mass poverty and human conflict is the deployment of non-capitalist systems.

Taiwan was once comparable in its poverty stakes as Kenya but is now economically sound, thriving on the high technology industry. Capitalists believe the crux of Taiwan's success stemmed from the government giving land to farmers, a move which spurred on entrepreneurialism.

This is linked to the anti-foreign aid school of thought whereby foreign aid has also been linked to having a negative effect on Africa, which some believe is actually impeding economic growth. William Easterly confirmed such reactions in his book, "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good". Easterly insists that instead of achieving economic stability and growth, international aid is counterproductive, as it forces nations to be less democratic and disdain from democracy results in stagnated economic growth.

Of course there are other views, especially in Africa who would seek to retain an 'African' way of moving forward. Thus explanations of "failure" are more prosaic and more local. For example, a lack of manpower is also believed to be preserving Africa's fragile trade industry and impeding economic growth. Greater manpower to improve agricultural systems, some experts say, would be the way to boost the economy.

Talking about Nigeria, Dr Deep Mirani, the vice chairman of Nigerian Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said: "You have to stabilize your agriculture. That is fundamental to the progress and growth of any nation. To make stable progress, Nigeria must make agriculture very strong."

Of course in the West Mugabe has been used as a kind of all embracing explanation for African "failure". Hence the argument runs: It was a combination of a leader who was driven by dictatorship and seeing his power breed and a lack of [expert] manpower, which led to instable and inefficient agriculture forming in Zimbabwe, which helped drag the country to ruin. Mugabe made land reforms and took farming land away from the white Zimbabwean expert farmers and installed black farmers, who were unskilled and uninformed by comparison. The counter argument that Mugabe is trying to enable Africans to reclaim economic power to set alongside political power commands an audience in Africa but not in the West.

Not that would cut any ice with my friend John Palin, who worked for the Ministry of Agriculture in Zimbabwe. Palin was born and bred in Zimbabwe, but having a Scottish grandfather. He was able to leave the country for Britain in the 1980s, escaping the conflict and poverty the country's leader was creating. The Zimbabwean believes Mugabe's legacy of anti-colonialism and inefficient agriculture is prevalent in many African societies today and is what is essentially preventing Africa from becoming an economic power.

"Mugabe's approach of replacing capable farmers with the incapable formulated antagonism and ultimately generated economic devastation. His legacy remains endemic in many African societies today flanking poverty and disease and it is this inefficient planning of governments which is preventing Africa from becoming an economic power," said Palin.

In order to lift from the realms of poverty and to achieve the economic power, democracy needs to prevail bureaucracy and economic models need to be rethought in Africa, a feat which according to Eric Chinje, "Will need visionary leadership and courage from Africa's people".

The author is a columnist with China.org.cn. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/node_7077604.htm


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