Friday, December 16, 2011

Africa: A Trap of Potential?

Lately, I have been reading the outpouring of confidence the rest of the world has on Africa. A majority of the views I have had occasion to read have been unanimous in the conviction that the next century belongs to Africa. There seems to me that there is, globally, an imperishable belief that Africa is the next frontier.

There is endless chatter about Africa’s potential. Tony Blair believes that Africa can be for the first half of this century what Asia was for the second half of the last century. This is truly bold optimism.

Admittedly, Africa has in abundance valuable mineral resources. For instance, Africa has 10 % of the world’s oil resources, 8 % of the world’s gas resources, 60 % of the world’s diamonds. Namibia alone has 7 % of the world’s uranium resource.

This potential game gets even better. The untapped mineral resources –cobalt, diamond, copper and gold- of the DR Congo are estimated at $24 trillion (38% of global GDP), the equivalent of the combined GDP of Europe and the United States of America. The DR Congo’s hydroelectric power potential is estimated at 100,000 MW.

But Africa’s combined GDP is just $1.7 trillion, a mere 2.6% of the global GDP. Why I ask, is Africa locked in this eternal trap of potential?

Africa’s trap of potential becomes explicable when you take into account that it has the highest proportion of: the world’s hungry and malnourished; the world’s poor; the lowest gross enrollment ratios at all level of education; badly managed countries; and the highest disease burden – mostly preventable diseases.

African political class does not have an inordinate share of kleptocrats compared to Asia or countries like Italy or Russia or India or Pakistan.

Bill Easterly has pointed out that the divergence between Africa and East Asia, for instance is dramatic. The two regions, Easterly observes, started from similar level of per capita income, economic structure and human development.

In their essay “Africa’s Growth Tragedy: Policies and Ethnic Divisions”, William Easterly and Ross Levin suggested that Africa’s high ethnic fragmentation explains a significant part of most of the factors that stymie Africa’s growth.

Although there is broad consensus about the adoption of flawed policies as cause of the Africa’s growth tragedy and about the causal relationship between the quality of public and private institutions and the quality of governance, there is still inadequate understanding of the main reasons behind the apparent lack of growth in a majority of African countries.

Lant Pritchett, Michael Woolcock, and Matt Andrews discuss the mechanisms of persistent implementation failure. They use a variety of indicators to illustrate that many countries remain in “state capability traps” where the implementation capacity of the state is severely limited. Pritchett et al suggest that at the current pace of progress Liberia would take hundreds of years to reach the capability of a country like Singapore and decades to catch up with a moderate capability country like India.

Weak human capacity or intellectual capital is at the heart of state capability trap and implementation failure among African countries. Africa’s underinvestment in higher education is persistent and debilitating. According to 2009 statistics by UNESCO, gross enrollment in Africa’s higher education was just 5 % compared to 20 % in East Asia and 70% in OECD countries.

The technical caliber of the civil service in a majority of African countries betrays decades of underinvestment in human capacity. For instance, a 2011 audit of revealed that after half a century of independence less than 10 % of Kenya’s civil servants have attained higher education. Similarly, in 1998, less than 3% of the national public administration staff of Mozambique had received higher education.

It seems to me that a critical outcome of low technical competence within public and private sector in a majority of African countries has encouraged the perpetration of classic modernization as an approach to development. Rather than evolve their own unique pathways and theory of developmental change, African states have relied on models and approaches to change, including institutional forms imported from other countries. Pritchett et al have referred to this as “isomorphic mimicry”.

Isomorphic mimicry is the reason why a majority of African countries subscribe to the logics development and yet fail to acquire real capability. Isomorphic mimicry is the reason Africa is teaming with experts and consultants of every color and creed.

Underinvestment in education, isomorphic mimicry and the mistaken belief in the Hegelian teleology of classic modernization is the reason we do not hear an African led discourse on a uniquely African development trajectory suited to Africa’s context.

Africa like other continents and regions must define it destiny and chart her own cause. African governments must ramp up investments in higher education. African scholars and intellectuals must engage and grapple with the search for authentic, context relevant solutions to catalyze a uniquely African path to sustained development.

Africa’s true potential lies in its human resources, not on troves minerals beneath the surface. The riches of Africa’s resources will always benefit everyone else except Africans as long as Africa’s human resources remain a desolate wasteland.

No amount of aid or expatriate support will substitute for Africa’s lack of capability. And only Africans can and must confront and overcome Africa’s challenges.

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