Western model falls flat in Africa

The World Economic Forum (WEF), like similar institutions and forums, is fascinating in many respects, and the same goes for the WEF on Africa, which met recently in Cape Town.

Such forums attempt to find solutions to fundamental, often seemingly intractable, challenges with regard to the economy and society. They bring together relevant expertise across all fields. They claim to permit unencumbered engagement. Yet participants are often the usual suspects, making it feel like a reunion. The tweets from the WEF are probably the most fascinating thing about it.

What forums such as the WEF on Africa do is demonstrate that we know a lot more about the world and its challenges now than we did a couple of years ago. There is more willingness to address challenges now than there was five years ago. Africa is surely now better placed to correct the mistakes of the past than it was a decade ago. To an extent, feasible issues are tackled with an open mind and with better knowledge of the particular problem.

Yet, zealous optimism, which, in my view, emanates from the enthusiasm of the participants or even the excitement of the “reunion”, constrains the atmosphere of critical inquiry. The many new ideas or even newer insights into some of the stubborn challenges that confront the world or, in the case of the WEF on Africa, persistent poverty and underdevelopment, are, of course, a welcome step. The trouble is, some of the conclusions reached and praises sung overlook the fundamental challenge confronting Africa.

This is a challenge that the 2011 Report of the Africa Progress Panel touches on timidly. The main headline is that Africa is out of the woods: the growth of Africa’s economy is on the rebound, ahead of other continents’ growth rates. Economic growth in sub-Saharan Africa rebounded in 2010, with an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) of 4.7%, a trend expected to continue. The latest projections for 2011 and 2012 are of growth rates of 5.5% and 5.8% respectively. Africa’s economy is estimated at $1.6-trillion (in GDP terms).

Clearly, the projected growth of the continent, or of sub-Saharan Africa in particular, is not enough. Similarly, the size of the cake is still too small for an economy with so much potential. It could be doubled in the next 10 years if serious thinking and effort were applied to the issue.

The levels of poverty Africa continues to experience cannot be tolerated any longer. Moreover, the numbers of the poor in sub-Saharan Africa have arguably increased because of the recent global economic recession. Paul Collier, in his recent book, The Bottom Billion, estimates that more than 70% of the “bottom billion” (those in extreme poverty globally) are in Africa. The latest estimate by the United Nations Development Programme, made prior to the realisation of the full impact of the recession, was that 458-million people in Africa are poor.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Wangari Maathai, in her book, The Challenge for Africa, says something very instructive about our troubled continent: “Africa is a paradox. It is one of the richest continents on the planet, endowed with oil, precious stones and metals, forests, water, wildlife, soil, land, agricultural products and millions of people.” Juxtapose that with the numbers I have reproduced and allow your imagination to go wild. You might get an image of destitution amid plenty. Why might that be the case?

The complacence that seems to characterise forums such as the WEF on Africa is part of the problem. We appear pleased that growth is rebounding to the mediocre levels it reached during the global economic recession. Although economic growth is not the only answer, the evidence suggests that it helps a great deal. Thus it cannot be right that Africa accepts the projected rates of growth.

The major coming challenges for Africa which have been highlighted, particularly those relating to urbanisation and demography, require not only that the growth rate be accelerated, but also that the size of Africa’s economy be substantially expanded. They also require effective social policies, which seem lacking in Africa.

Lastly, the complacence gripping us as Africans is blinding most of us. The big issue for Africa is our developmental model. This does not detract from other important issues, most of which were debated at the WEF on Africa. The fundamental issue is that the developmental (not growth!) model that Africa has adapted from others is not working for Africa just as it is no longer working for the rest of the world.

No doubt Africa is making tremendous progress. The progress made in the past decade or so is commendable, but still far below par. There are grounds to attribute this to the reigning socioeconomic-developmental model. It is not working for the human condition globally or, rather, it is working only for the few. This is a basic problem we are not tackling head-on. The mere reiteration of the accepted capitalist nostrums will not help Africa.

Professor Vusi Gumede is a trustee of the Southern Africa Trust, an associate professor at the University of Johannesburg and a special adviser to the minister of public enterprises

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