Once upon a time, emaciated children, conflict, military coups, poverty and disease dominated the media image of Africa. Rapid GDP growth, expansion of infrastructure, bulging consumer class and a vault of opportunity for investors are the new accentuations in Africa’s meteoric makeover.
Africa has metamorphosed from a “scar on the conscience of the world”, in Tony Blair’s words, to a great vault of opportunity. This is Africa Rising. However, there has been very little critical reflection, especially among African scholars, on the Africa Rising saga. Similarly, in the desolate days of hopeless continent narrative, African scholars offered very little intellectual reflection.
Historically, Africa has been spectacularly at ease with outsiders defining and framing its problems and destiny. For example, there is a pervasive belief that in the 21st century, an Asian style Green Revolution might solve Africa’s chronic low farm productivity. Moreover, Africa is awash with development NGOs who believe that small, isolated short-term projects could make a dent on household poverty and put whole communities on a solid path of durable socio-economic transformation.
Africa Rising is inextricably linked to the sudden appearance of emerging economies, especially China, whose histrionic eruption of belated industrialization has fuelled an unprecedented surge in global demand for commodities. China’s appetite for Africa’s raw materials, as well as the dramatic surge of foreign direct investment in Africa has had the singular effect of orchestrating a new scramble for Africa among developed countries and corporate leaders. Essentially, China’s engagement with Africa affirms that the continent is a new and viable opportunity for global capital to invest and reap.
Africa Rising is a shameful reproduction of the old, problematic order; Africa’s lop-sided reliance on exporting raw commodities and importing manufactured products. This is the extraordinary tragedy of Africa Rising. And just like in the past, Africa’s political and business elite has a solemn obligation to preside over the production of a surplus to be appropriated voracious global capital.
Africa Rising is really about GDP growth that is overwhelmingly buoyed by expansionary fiscal policies, commodity booms, flow of foreign capital, and massive aid flows in the case of Ethiopia, Uganda, Rwanda and Tanzania. Moreover, while Africa’s GDP growth at 4.5 percent is impressive at face value, it is too feeble to produce durable and inclusive growth. The continent needs to grow at 7 percent for the next 20 to 30 years to register meaningful wellbeing improvements.
Alongside with the Africa Rising narrative, there has been a mistaken belief that China and the emergence of BRICS would somehow challenge free market ideology, and hopefully usher the redistribution of economic power. On the contrary, China is instituting neoliberal economic policies to re-balance its economy and stimulate domestic rather than export driven growth. I think the entry of the BRICS merely serves to diversify dependency.
Africa Rising has not been accompanied with requisite structural transformation, which I characterize as an expansion of industrial activity, diversification and value addition of export products, and shift of labor from low productivity to high productivity sectors. Moreover, the dominance of cheap manufactured imports from places like China and India will entrench Africa on an irredeemable path of de-industrialization. But there is no doubt that the exuberant eruption of China has given Africa’s political elite some space for manoeuvre.
For example, Kenya has advanced a Look East policy as an attempt to cultivate deep economic and strategic relations with China and checkmate the West. Let me make this very clear. Africa must be very clear-eyed when dealing with China. China and the so-called BRICS, just like everybody else are self-interested and exploitative. Our engagement with the West and China is within the old logic of division of labor, production or supply of primary commodities and import of cheap manufactured products.
Africa’s progress must not be measured by rising GDP growth or exports or higher level GDP per capita owing to expansionary fiscal policies. Africa’s progress must not be fuelled by a whimsical mood swing by outside pundits. Africa’s progress must be built, brick by brick, by raising industrial output, sophisticated exports, and deployment of Africa’s huge reservoir of young people in high labor productivity sectors, away from street vending, operating motorcycle taxis and manual farm labor.
Given the scale of development changes the continent faces, the Africa Rising narrative is an appeasement that serves the interests of the global political economy and Africa’s extractive political elite.