Review: A masterful look at five decades of African development

Know The Beginning Well — An Inside Journey Through Five Decades of African Development by KY Amoako, foreword by Kofi Annan, Africa World Press


This terrific book presents the compelling life story of KY Amoako, president of the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) in Accra. The volume is much more than an autobiography. It is a masterful review of Africa’s development challenges of the last half century from a uniquely Pan-African perspective, written by one of the protagonists in the struggle to transform the continent’s societies and economies. Amoako played a pivotal role, often behind the scenes, in shaping several important African institutions and initiatives.  His story is a must read for all those interested in the question: will the 21st century be Africa’s century?

Know the Beginning Well, inspired by an African proverb which emphasises the importance of knowledge in guiding one’s life, is organised in four parts: The first three are devoted to Amoako’s career, first in the World Bank, then as executive secretary of the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA) and finally as ACET’s founder and president. The last looks at Africa’s future. There is also a prologue about the author’s private life, which, alas, is too short.

Amoako’s parents divorced and his father, of very modest means, was a main influence in his growing up, stressing the importance of education; he rediscovered his mother as an adult, while she was living destitute in a Ghanaian village. He has a wonderful marriage of more than 40 years, with three children and four grandchildren. Kwame Nkrumah was his idol when he was growing up, at the time of Ghana’s fight for independence. I wish he had written a bit more about his family’s origins and the other influences during his early life.

But the book is very much about Amoako’s work. His vision is to transform Africa’s economies from reliance on subsistence agriculture and primary commodity and fuel exports to complex productive economies featuring manufacturing and services that would raise the standards of living of all Africans. During his 20-year career at the World Bank, spanning the mid-1970s to the mid-1990s, he had to face numerous obstacles: there was still an undercurrent of racist attitudes and doubts as to whether, he, an African who entered the Bank without any previous work experience, could deal with the difficult relationships between the Bank and the governments in Sub-Saharan Africa. 


The 1980s, when he was working in the Bank’s programmes in Zambia and East Africa, was a tense period: the Bank together with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) was promoting the so-called “adjustment loans”. Under these, the IMF would support macroeconomic stabilisation usually involving devaluation and budget tightening while the Bank would provide general project assistance, conditioned on the governments undertaking “structural” reforms in taxation, agricultural pricing, trade, privatisation and other policies. The programmes came under criticism both inside and outside Africa for their adverse impact on poverty and they frequently failed as African governments did not meet the strict conditions attached to them.

Amoako presents a very balanced and nuanced treatment of the complex issues involved. He notes the presence of many African government inefficient policies and corruption as serious problems.  But he clearly identified that the main problem with these programmes was the lack of government ownership for the proposed reforms. The Bank would make a deal with ministers of finance who needed the external financial assistance and had little choice but to agree to reforms of policies not under their control, but the responsibility of other ministries and without the support of the main stakeholders. 

The result would be failed conditionality, cancelation of parts of the loans and continued financial problems and poverty.  Amoako’s intimate understanding of Africa’s problems and the perspectives of its leaders and his championing of government ownership permitted him to overcome initial credibility issues and become an effective interlocutor between the Bank and African governments at the highest level.  After a successful stint in charge of human development projects in Brazil he was promoted to director of the Bank’s economic and social policy department, where he played a lead role in making the Bank take gender issues seriously. But soon after his promotion his earlier work on Africa brought him to the attention of UN secretary general Boutros Boutros-Ghali who appointed him executive secretary of the ECA.

At the time of his appointment, the ECA was demoralised and ineffective. The volume details Amoako’s successful efforts to strengthen ECA’s analytical capacity and use of his excellent talents of organising and convening to promote meaningful dialogue and co-operation among Africa’s top leaders as well as international donors, on policies to  promote  Africa’s economic transformation. By 1999, a UN review concluded that “ECA now occupies a vital place in development efforts in Africa”.

There were three areas in which I believe he made a real difference:

First, he launched a series of “big table” meetings which permitted a frank exchange of views between African ministers of finance and planning and international donors on ways to make aid more effective. The conclusions from these deliberations ultimately became the basis for Rome-Paris-Accra global agreements on aid effectiveness involving both donors and recipients. Sadly, the traditional donors are no longer meeting the commitments they made under these agreements and China, the new big donor, is providing project assistance through credits often with non-transparent conditions creating new unsupportable debt burdens for many African countries.  

Second, under his leadership, ECA provided the technical support that underpinned and paved the way for the biggest Pan-African initiative ever that became the “New Partnership for Africa’s Development” (Nepad). The agreement undertaken under the auspices of the African Union eventually led to the adoption in 2015 of Agenda 2063, a long-term African strategy for inclusive growth and sustainable development. 

Third, within the context of Nepad, Amoako promoted the establishment of Africa’s “Peer Review Mechanism” (APR), under which the effectiveness of individual African government policies, was reviewed by other African governments with the support of a secretariat, originally proposed to be ECA but ultimately organised under the African Union. APR was patterned after the more limited peer review mechanism that donors had organised for several decades to review their aid policies and performance in the development assistance committee of the OECD — a fact that might have been more prominently discussed in the volume. APR was far more ambitious, elaborate and politically sensitive. APRs for several countries were undertaken with limited impact on policy reform, but ultimately the “mechanism” failed to meet the great expectations at its inception. Still, it was a remarkable initiative, not undertaken by any other developing country grouping anywhere in the world.

In 2007 Amoako founded ACET, a nonprofit think-tank in Accra, where in many ways he continued the work on Africa’s transformation that he had started in ECA. He put together a high-quality staff which produced excellent studies, such as the 2014 African Transformation Report. The report has been used as a basis for convening meetings of high level government officials, including heads of state, to exchange views on policies to transform Africa’s economies and lead to higher standards of living for Africans.

The last part of the volume, which was written before the Covid 19-pandemic, looks ahead to Africa’s future. Amoako lists seven sets of actions necessary for effective transformation and, I would add, dealing with the additional challenges created: developing a shared vision, state focus on core functions, coordination, public-private partnership, trade integration, resource mobilisation and effective leadership. The latter is the focus of his insightful last chapter. 

Rwanda’s spectacular economic progress under Paul Kagame’s autocratic rule has led many to believe that transformation requires giving up on democratic principles. Amoako’s conclusion, which I believe is the right one, is that multiparty democracy can also be developmental provided people in authority are not only visionary, honest and capable, but they also “empower and support civil society, traditional communities and families, particularly women and youth”.  If this were to happen, Africa could indeed realise its potential and the 21st century could be Africa’s century.

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