Weak elites stand in way of progress in Africa

The experience of economic development in the 500 years since Christopher Columbus reached the Americas and Vasco da Gama reached India via the Cape of Good Hope teaches us that it is the dominant political elite in any given society that determines whether a country develops or not.

Entrepreneurs of all descriptions — from pirates to inventors and investment bankers — play a critical role in economic development, but they can do so only if the political elite allows them to play that role.

There are many reasons a political elite may push economic development. When an elite is threatened by foreigners more powerful than itself one of the ways it tries to survive is by acquiring the foreigners’ expertise, in the process developing its country’s economy. This was how Japan developed modern industry. Wars in Europe compelled the continent’s rulers to develop industries that gave their countries the capacity to protect their regimes.

Economic development occurs when a population in a given territory applies modern technology to production processes.

The use of science raises productivity per worker, which, in turn, leads to higher standards of living. Greater use of science in production also raises the general level of knowledge in a population.

This explains why economic development is not always preferred by some political elites. They see it as leading to greater independence of thought in their subjects, which threatens their power. This is a reason why many countries in Africa have not developed.

Their weak elites feel threatened by rising knowledge and skills among their citizens. The greatest threat facing the people of Africa is the possibility of state failure. There have been many studies of the durability of African states, most of which have drawn attention to the weaknesses, first, of Africa’s political elites and, second, of the states themselves.

Evidence of the weakness of African states is the on-going instability in Zimbabwe, Kenya, Côte d’Ivoire and Libya. These four countries were once considered among the strongest in Africa, with reasonably diversified economies and high standing in the eyes of most Africans and the international community.

Today they are on the edge of disintegration. There are solutions to Africa’s political malaise. Where societies are reasonably equal, the economy is well managed and elections are free and fair, democracy works in Africa.

Moeletsi Mbeki is a writer and entrepreneur. This is an edited extract from the introduction to Advocates for Change: How to Overcome Africa’s Challenges (Picador Africa), edited by Mbeki. Mbeki will address developmental and other issues at the Gordon Institute of Business Science on July 4.

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