In 2005, I had the distinct honor of speaking with nearly forty children in primary 5. These eleven-year-old rural boys and girls shared their career dreams with amazing clarity and fervor. They dreamed of becoming doctors, nurses, architects, pilots, engineers and professors.
But the poise and sense of urgent purpose of one girl left me spellbound. Angela was a lot like her classmates except for one thing: she wanted to find a cure for two diseases, HIV/AIDS, which left many of her friends orphaned and malaria, which cut short the lives of millions of children like her. Her belief in the power and promise of science was awe-inspiring. Angela embodied everything that a father could ever wish for in a daughter.
Amidst depravation at home and the less than basic education infrastructure, made worse by chronic teacher absenteeism and an unwieldy curriculum, Angela’s dream was indomitable. Angela’s aspiration is the essence of development as defined by Amartya Sen in his book Development as Freedom: “enlarging people's choices, capabilities and freedoms, so that they can live a long and healthy life, have access to knowledge, a decent standard of living, and participate in the life of their community.”
Angela’s story has caused me to question existing models of economic development. Have you wondered why mobilizing aid, capacity building and technology have not lead to transformative economic growth in Africa? In their conceptualization of development, economists have long held that growth is a self-reinforcing virtuous cycle: high investments lead to capital stock increases, which lead to high output and more incomes and more savings and more investments, leading inevitably to sustainable development.
As an ecosystems ecologist, soaked in complexity and systems thinking, the liberating ideas of adaptive systems, emergence and feedback are my staple. I therefore find the dominant economic growth model woefully linear, intellectually stifling and limited in its conception of development. It is no wonder that there is little to show for six decades of the so-called development assistance in Africa. As systems thinker, I know that throwing aid, technology, capacity building and international best practice blueprints at Africa will not lead to economic development in the sense of Amartya Sen.
As a complexity and systems scholar, I think of economic development as a self-organizing emergent property of complex interactions, adaptive transformation and feedback among technology, finance, social, legal, political and cultural institutions, which give children like Angela the liberty to pursue and live their dreams. The dominant and wrongheaded assumption of economists and policy pundits is based on the notion that governments simply do not understand what is needed to make their countries prosperous. This engineering model driven by aid, policy reform, institutional strengthening and technical assistance, favored by the World Bank, IMF and bilateral donors is flawed and we have 60 years of empirical evidence.
In their book, “Why Nations Fail: The origins of power, prosperity and poverty”, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson argue that policies, institutions and overall state effectiveness are not exogenous but emergent properties of complex and adaptive feedback generated by a country’s political culture. To most development economists, the fact that ranks of Africa’s politicians and civil servants are dominated by kleptocrats, blindly committed to feathering their nests, seems irrelevant to understanding and explaining Africa’s sluggish pace of economic development.
Africa’s record of development over the last 60 years is unremarkable. Classical economic models cannot explain why African nations have failed to prosper at the same pace as their Asian peers. Economists are oblivious of the fact that the economy in which they are intervening is non‐linear, and comprises institutions that interact and co-evolve with each other in a complex adaptive system.
Moreover, Africa’s ruling elites have no interest in seeing the financial, political, judicial electoral or civil society institutions adapt or co-evolve to become effective and independent. When adaptive transformation and co‐evolution are stymied, the self-organizing emergent property of complex interactions, adaptive transformations and feedback among agents and institutions, is economic stagnation and inequitable development.
We cannot engineer poverty reduction or economic growth through external flows of aid or capacity building or technology transfer or legal or institutional or policy reform. Only a development model that emerges from co-evolution and adaptive transformation of vital societal institutions can give Angela the freedom to pursue her dreams. Such a model will unleash the drivers of economic growth – technology, capital, education, policy and institutional reform, land governance and democracy.