Saturday, December 5, 2009

Africa's Development in the 21st Century: A Review

Frankly, trying to address the ills facing the African continent in 40 pages is like trying to gather in a school of tuna with a butterfly net. You have to wonder what the Nordic Africa Institute, the sponsor of this work, was trying to achieve.

Nevertheless, Fantu Cheru’s treatise, 'Africa’s Development Agenda in the 21st Century: Reshaping the Research Agenda', is an earnest attempt to provide a roadmap for a new path towards African development. Cheru’s dispassionate lens briskly sweeps across the major issues of agriculture, urbanisation, globalisation, peace and conflict in a survey of all the ills that the continent faces. Unfortunately, he misses some of the major and perhaps most intractable ones.

He states that 'the development challenge in Africa is multidimensional and conventional development orthodoxies are inadequate to address it.' He then proposes five pillars of development for rebuilding Africa: reverse the failure in agriculture; reverse the decline in higher education; strengthen regional integration; expand the governance reform agenda; and prevent deadly conflicts. These dictums should strike even the most casual reader as both obvious and conventional.

Search as I might, I couldn’t find one exciting new approach to the challenges of development. There was scant mention of issues like corruption, HIV/AIDS, the possibilities for communication and bio-technologies, the impact of transnational drug and weapons flows, the dangers of China’s unique brand of self-serving ‘assistance’, reforming the World Bank and IMF (International Monetary Fund) agendas and the bilateral aid system, or the impact that climate change, economic meltdowns or the global jihad will have on Africa in the new century. What Cheru has given us is a policy paper that could have come directly off the World Bank’s website 10 years ago.

At this point one has to ask, what is Africa? Is it Botswana or Guinea-Bissau? Is it Swaziland or the Democratic Republic of Congo? Of course it is all of them. But they won’t develop in remotely similar ways. In fact, there should actually be a moratorium on the use of the word Africa in book titles related to development. Just that one modification would force well-intentioned thinkers like Famu to investigate more deeply and see what might actually work in a particular case, rather than what ought to work for everyone.

Famu should also pay more respect to the historical record. He calls the conflicts in Liberia, Sierra Leone and Angola 'the most deadly' without putting into the same category the war in the Congo, which has claimed several million deaths, or the wars in Mozambique, Sudan or even the wars of his own country Ethiopia with Eritrea. The section on conflict is the weakest in the text. In addition to committing factual errors such as claiming that Liberia’s President Samuel Doe was killed by supporters of Charles Taylor, rather than by Taylor’s arch-rival Prince Johnson (caught live on video tape), Famu submits that localising conflict resolution is the key to preventing conflict in African states in addition to 'changes in the social and political order'. Advice like this is veridical but hardly a reshaping of anyone’s agenda. He also promotes such dubious contrivances as the African Union inspired Panel of the Wise, which has accomplished nothing of significance since its creation in 2007.

If Africa must rely on the African Union or talk-shops like ECOWAS (Economic Community Of West African States) to solve its endemic conflicts, then pity the poor African. Even in West Africa, where Liberia and Sierra Leone seem to be making baby-step progress, Guinea is heading in the opposite direction. What good has the African Union been in Guinea, or Guinea-Bissau or Equatorial Guinea, where thugs rule civil society and the word democracy is a tasteless pretence on the tongues of vampire elites?

In fairness Famu’s text has two strong recommendations: the need to assist urban slum dwellers who are multiplying exponentially but who rarely get a nod from the donor community; and the need to strengthen tertiary education, which has been embarrassingly ignored by the donor community. There is a great danger that with the newly inspired focus on reforming agriculture, the millions of young people growing up in urban slums will simply be left out of everyone’s ‘agenda'. It is certainly a lot easier to give a bag of seeds to an impoverished farmer than it is to find jobs for slum-dwelling, semi-literate, 20-year-old ex-combatants. One problem is that when the world thinks Africa it thinks poor peasant farmer, while the reality is that Africa, like most of the developing world, is urbanising at a rapid clip, and to say in an unplanned manner would not be ungenerous.

Brevity can sometimes be a virtue, but in the case of Professor Famu’s agenda it undermines its message by leaving out the urgency and anger.

Published by Pambazuka 12/03/09 Issue No. 460