Africa: "Plus Ça Change, Plus C'est La Même Chose" - Review of K.y. Amoako's Know the Beginning Well


K.Y. Amoako has had a remarkable life. Born and schooled in pre-independence Ghana, he did a PhD in economics at the University of California, Berkeley and joined the World Bank ("a largely white institution that controlled much of Africa's destiny" (p. 24)), where he was one of the first Africans in the young professionals program. After a stellar career including serving as country economist for Sudan, the Bank's representative in Zambia, and director of the Education and Social Policy Department, he was appointed the Executive Secretary of the UN's Economic Commission for Africa (ECA). Not only did he turn ECA into a dynamic institution, but he played a major role in pan-African initiatives on debt relief, gender equity and the African peer-review mechanism. When he left ECA, he founded a think tank, the African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET) that works on the structural transformation of African economies.

Know the Beginning Well, which documents that life, is a heart-warming, sensitive, and deeply reflective memoir, told by someone who expresses his feelings just as comfortably as he does his ideas. As one of few Africans at the World Bank in the mid-1970s, K.Y. experienced racism, being turned down for positions because "African governments would not take advice from natives of their own continent" (p. 58). In Zambia, he had to overcome "the general arrogance of Bank staff as perceived by the Zambians", p. 60) but also the Zambian government's resistance to much-needed reforms. He did this by working with reform-minded policymakers, winning their trust, and helping them convince the President about the reform program. As Director of Education and Social Policy, he grappled with the tension between the Bank's lending program and its knowledge program. The problems of education and social policy required strong technical assistance, possibly accompanied by small loans. The incentives at the Bank were geared towards large lending programs. K.Y. navigated between this Scylla and Charybdis by producing at high volume and high quality. "By the end of 1994, we were on our way to finishing eight major analytical reports or policy papers in two years. Yes, career technocrats get very excited about these things" (p. 153).

When the UN Secretary-General offered him the ECA position, K.Y. was reluctant because his career was progressing well at the Bank, his wife was building her career, and his daughters were in high school and college. But his two senior mentors at the Bank and his wife pointed out that this was K.Y.'s dream of serving the African continent. He took the job. At the ECA, he managed a turnaround by holding Open Space forums with all staff and drawing on some of the most distinguished experts on Africa. He won support for his reforms from both the staff and the Finance Ministers of Africa. He then launched a program of partnerships with other organizations aimed at mobilizing resources for Africa--for debt relief, development, and for gender equity. These high-profile initiatives were mostly successful although K.Y. realized that the binding constraint in Africa was not money but good governance. The ECA started producing a set of governance indicators for the continent, merging later with the Ibrahim Index of African Governance. K.Y. also played a pivotal role in the African Peer Review Mechanism, a program where African countries review the quality of policies and institutions of other African countries. Finally, he harnessed his extensive network of African leaders, scholars, and technocrats to create ACET, a think-tank dedicated to arguably the most important problem facing the continent, namely, the lack of structural transformation.

What is striking about this book--what makes it more than a memoir--is that almost all of the challenges that K.Y. faced throughout his career are, in one form or the other, still with us. The racism that K.Y. encountered almost fifty years ago is prevalent today, as Céléstin Monga (2020) recounts, not to mention the events that triggered the "Black Lives Matter" movement. While the arrogance of Bank staff may have diminished, the resistance to reform has not. The problems that K.Y. encountered in Sudan in the late-1970s, including exchange rate misalignment, debt, and agricultural subsides, are there today. The tension between the World Bank's lending and knowledge functions remains--and has been the cause of several reorganizations. That tension is sharpened by another tradeoff, between mobilizing more resources for development and making better use of existing resources. While the usual answer is to do both, campaigns to raise resources can undermine efforts to improve the efficiency of resource use, as I, among others, have pointed out (Devarajan 2015). Raising more resources enables governments to postpone taking the politically difficult decisions needed to improve efficiency. And governance remains the binding constraint to Africa's development. Tackling it in a forum of government ministers is difficult because some of the ministers may be the source of weak governance.

In light of the fact that the challenges facing Africa and the world today are similar to those K.Y. encountered over the last half century, it is tempting to ask whether there was something we could have done differently. Despite all of K.Y.'s successes in bringing about reform in Zambia, developing the World Bank's program in education and social policy, turning around the ECA, and mobilizing resources for Africa, the one piece I found missing was the engagement with everyday people. In Zambia, he forged a consensus between reformist and non-reformist ministers. But the people who stood to gain were the poor in Zambia who were suffering under the distorted policies. Amplifying their voice could have led to more sustained growth and inclusion. Likewise, the debate over whether lending or knowledge is more important for education should be resolved by the poor people who care desperately about their children's schooling. Discussions on mobilizing resources for Africa take a different turn when you ask ordinary Africans what they want. In 2011, I held face-to-face consultations with about a thousand Africans from all walks of life on what they thought was needed for Africa's future. Not one of them mentioned resources; almost all mentioned good governance. Moreover, governance can only be improved by making sure that governments--ministers, bureaucrats, service providers--are accountable to the citizens. These lessons are particularly relevant for ACET because it is people--not governments nor scholars nor leaders--who will bring about structural transformation.

In sum, this book is much more than a brilliant window into K.Y.'s mind and his heart. It is a platform for charting Africa's future. As the book's title suggests, to chart that future, we need to know the beginning well.


Devarajan, Shanta. 2015. "Shame on me: Why it was wrong to cost the Millennium Development Goals," Future Development, Brookings Institution.

Monga, Céléstin. 2020. "Discrimination and prejudice in development," Future Development, Brookings Institution.

World Bank. 2011. Africa's future and the World Bank's support to it. Board Report. World Bank, Washington, DC.

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