30 July 2012

Africa: Europe's Woes Are No Cause for Smugness in Africa


This post offers a cautionary note about a new fashion: mocking the West's current debt and growth problems en route to exaggerating the relative achievements of sub-Saharan Africa's economies.

Pence and Simon's 'Africa Rising' - a recent piece on this blog - exemplifies this trend. Such contributions may be well intended, and certainly many positive aspects of the African growth story are under-appreciated or too easily dismissed. However, such contributions ironically risk merely confirming the unfortunate, long-prevailing preconception that any good news out of the continent simply cannot be as good as it seems.

There are many problems with significant planks of the authors' piece. For example:

  • The piece conceivably called for a demonstration of how genuine wealth-creation and sound commercial credentials have enabled African individuals or Corporates to compete globally, including by moving abroad and acquiring European assets. It is very hard to understand why one would use the foreign acquisitions of the Angolan president's daughter as an example here, at least without acknowledging that the source of some newly mobile African capital is highly relevant to whether it supports the case for news out of Africa that is both good and new. (The authors' response to criticism on this point simply misses it).
  • Likewise, implicit in the 'Africa Rising' thesis is a commendable and understandable effort to get people to take Africa more seriously. However, resorting to contorted arguments will tend - unsurprisingly and unfortunately - to have the opposite effect. The authors claim that Gatwick airport "was recently purchased by a Nigerian" when it was actually purchased by a US private equity fund that happens to be headed by a Nigerian (who appears to have lived in the US since the late 1970s). The point here is that clutching at such random 'facts' lends a desperate feel to the argument for Africa's upward trend. This is unnecessary; on one reading, it would also be a highly condescending example to use - 'look how well he has done overseas!' were one of the two authors not himself African.
  • A piece arguing, in effect, that many African economies are now far better managed than many of their Western counterparts implicitly suggests that African settings are now far more sensible places to invest than before. Someone making this case however needs to explain the continued high level of capital flight from 'Africa Rising' by members of the new economic elite. If such persons do not believe, when push comes to shove, in their own economies (or polities... ), ought we to be as optimistic about them?
  • It is already hard work persuading Afro-pessimists to re-think their negative views of the continent. The task is made even harder when contributions like 'Africa Rising' simply ignore reality: it is argued that Africa's inflation rates, among other things, are exemplary relative to Western economies. This puzzling assertion fails twice -- once at the factual hurdle (despite gains in taming the very high inflation levels that in recent years wracked especially east African economies), and once in not acknowledging that high headline rates of growth have, partly because of inflation, not necessarily brought improvements in livelihood to many African settings.

These criticisms may seem petty, but Africa's rising deserves more accurate, and so more persuasive, story-tellers. However, what most compels a response to the piece is the misplaced triumphalism that one detects in its overall tone. On my reading, the authors come across as doing a celebratory toi-toi over Western economic problems while African economies are registering strong results.

The long historical experience of the West's condescension towards Africa no doubt explains much of the widespread attitude of schadenfreude across many parts of the continent at this time. This also probably accounts for the enthusiastic comments by readers and heavy re-tweeting of the piece.

It is also true that an intangible and invaluable factor in any great national or supra-national awakening is a sense of new or reclaimed destiny, entitlement or belief that 'our-time-has-come' (contemporary Turkey perhaps best exhibits this important element in national self-upliftment). In this sense, the shared feeling of Africa gaining ground on Western economies (or leading them in some innovations and areas) is no doubt vitally important to that belief manifesting as reality. Moreover, there may be many ways African sectors or countries can 'leapfrog' developed countries or find alternative and better paths to peace and prosperity. Western austerity may indirectly reduce structural aid dependence and reduced European demand may incentivise African policymakers to accelerate removing non-tariff barriers to greater trade within the continent.

However, if the 'Africa Rising' authors wished to be responsible rather than merely popular (or populist), they would have saved space for a sentence to note that debt and declining growth in Western markets is hardly in the best interests of African economies, at least in the short term. It could indeed prove disastrous -- ask the almost one in eight South Africans in formal sector jobs who lost these in 2008-09. It makes little sense to cheer (in effect) about problems that have caused a reduction in demand from what remains the biggest export market for many African economies. Nor does it make much sense to dance about fiscal austerity in countries that still foot the bill for significant proportions of development spending in many African settings. The authors' argument was in terms of 'Africa has been better at following prescriptions than those who did the prescribing'. But the triumphalist tone accompanying it is misplaced when viewed through the lens of Africa's best interests.

I may be attributing more schadenfreude to the piece than the authors deem fair. Nevertheless, theirs is one of a number of contemporary arguments with this tone. For African policymakers or businesspeople to smile about Western travails at a time when South-South growth is also faltering (see too The Economist, July 20, 2012) is tempting, but very short-sighted. The authors exhibited little acknowledgement of this truth.

Finally, I wonder if I am alone in being unclear about the overall argument of the piece. On one hand, the authors seem to be saying that Africa is shaping its own framework for what counts as success. It does not need to join the mainstream, it is making a new mainstream that the West should consider joining. Yet, on the other hand, the piece (especially in its first paragraph) seems to suggest nothing more than the idea that African economies have generally been better at implementing 'Washington consensus' norms for managing the fiscus. If this is the point, the authors may merely have argued that it is good that African countries are closer to the Western mainstream. This would disappoint those readers who wished to see in the piece the case for African consensus on an African century, and a truly African renaissance -- rather than Africans succeeding at implementing external frameworks.

If I have unfairly characterised the 'Africa Rising' piece, let it be in the spirit of fostering 'African Arguments' - correct characterisations of a complex continent are not easily captured in any single post.

Jolyon Ford is senior analyst (Africa) at Oxford Analytica. These are his own views.

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