Explaining Africa’s Poor Performance and What to Do about It

While attending a conference on the status of women at the United Nations in New York in February 2008, African Ministers organized a side event which I attended. The Ministers wondered why Africa especially the Sub-Saharan region was performing poorly in spite of its vast natural resources and resilient people. The debate continued informally in small groups at coffee and lunch breaks after the side event had ended.  The various explanations for poor performance included the adverse effects of structural adjustment programs; lack of industries, brain drain and capital flight; the marginalization of women in the development process and political instability and armed conflicts. While these explanations are legitimate, some participants felt that the leadership issue which is the root of the problem was not discussed, even mentioned.  The omission was hardly surprising because most of the participants were ministers or senior government officials.


Besides God and Glory, colonialism was mainly based on the exploitative relationship between the colonizer and the colonized whereby the latter produced and exported  agricultural and mineral commodities with very low and unpredictably fluctuating prices in exchange for manufactured products with high and ever increasing prices from the metropolitan countries. This relationship was justified under the rubric of the classical Ricardian concept of comparative advantage whereby Africa produced raw materials more efficiently than manufactured products because the continent is favored by natural resources and climate. Accordingly pre-colonial manufacturing enterprises were destroyed and Africa has hardly made any progress in industrialization since independence. The few industries that were constructed under the import substitution arrangements in the 1960s and ‘70s have almost disappeared in the wake of globalization.

As independence was approaching, the metropolitan governments decided to maintain the colonial exploitative relationship and to prevent communism from gaining a foothold in Africa or access African abundant resources and markets. The easiest way to achieve this objective would be to manipulate the political and electoral processes so that the ‘right” candidates and their parties would win. Subsequently, these leaders and their governments would be lavished with grants, easy access to loans and foreign advisors mostly former colonial administrators. Others would join their new embassies or foreign companies in Africa or be hired by the United Nations and Bretton Woods Institutions from where they would continue to advise African governments. Authors such as David E. Albright (1980), Richard Cox (1965), Guy Arnold (1981), David Lamb (1982), M. A. Fitzgerald (1992), Victoria Brittain (1990), Peter Phillips (2006), Christopher Clapham (1996), C & A. Darlington (1968), Kenneth Ingham (1994), The Africa Report (January-March, 2008) and the Disarmament Times (Summer 2004) have provided a wealth of information about how African governments are formed, removed or sustained in power since independence.

In return, African leaders and their governments have, by and large, responded not to the requirements of their people but to the needs of their foreign sponsors who are interested in Africa’s raw materials for their industries and markets for their manufactured products and increasingly in providing services in sectors where profits are very high.  

In their new roles as advisors and with the power of the purse, these former colonial officers urged African governments to continue producing and exporting raw materials for processing in the metropolitan countries.  They also groomed some Africans through on-the-job training and in western universities to think and advise African governments the same way as foreign advisors do. African leaders or professionals with second thoughts about the appropriateness of the colonial development model who wanted to do things differently have either been removed from power altogether or forced to resign or marginalized.  

Since the 1980s, African economies and societies have been dominated by the imposed stabilization and structural adjustment programs which focused on macroeconomic issues such as inflation control, trade and exchange rate liberalization, price deregulation, export diversification, privatization of public enterprises, balanced budgets, economic growth and downsizing public services at the expense of building infrastructure such as roads and energy and institutions as well as human capital. Education, healthcare and nutrition, the very building blocks of a nation, were considered unproductive in the short-term and received inadequate support.

In order to increase and diversify export earnings, non-traditional exports largely of foodstuffs traditionally produced for domestic consumption received governments’ priority support. In the process, more land was privatized and brought under cultivation to grow cut flowers and horticultural produce as well as beans and maize etc. The expansion of the traditional commodities of coffee, cocoa, tea and cotton etc was also undertaken. And forestry, mineral and fishery resources were extensively harvested for the export market. The results are there for everyone to see: massive de-vegetation, resource depletion such as fisheries, water and soil pollution as the use of mining and agricultural chemicals has increased. Unemployment, income inequality, de-industrialization and hunger have all increased in Africa. Accordingly, the 1980s went down as a lost decade for Africa. For example, the growth in manufacturing value addition dropped from 8 percent of GDP in the 1960s to 0.25 percent in the 1980s (Makonnen Alemayehu, 2000. Industrializing Africa). Since then Africa has continued to perform poorly and Sub-Saharan Africa may not meet any of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015 if drastic steps are not taken – and taken quickly.

In spite of this disappointing performance, some African leaders continue to boast that they are happy with their adjustment programs especially inflation control in large part because the donors are satisfied. Rarely do these leaders seek a feed back from their fellow Africans.   

The experience with Africa’s comparative advantage based on raw material exports however diversified in markets and commodities underscores that the transformation of African economies and societies will be difficult because, unlike manufacturing enterprises, commodity exports do not generate a dynamic impact through forward and backward linkages.

To get out of the trap, Africa and its leaders need to take bold steps and embark on establishing and nurturing economically strategic industries that, besides creating the badly needed jobs, will add value to Africa’s products, raise and stabilize prices and earn sufficient foreign currency for development purposes. African governments also need to extend a helping hand because Adam Smith’s invisible hand of the market mechanism, individual freedom and private entrepreneurship have not delivered as expected. In short, African governments need to abandon the neoliberal rationalizations for inaction and begin to develop proactive and comprehensive development programs that promote not only high-skill and high-wage employment; but also high growth with equity and sustainable development, relying, to the greatest extent possible, on qualified and experienced Africans.