April 10, 2013

Three trends in African development drawn from the east Asian experience

Posted: 14:13 PM CEST

by ECDPM Editorial Team

in Uncategorized

This is a guest contribiton from Elsje Fourie*

The assumptions and ideas that drive development policy are never static, but the rise of non-traditional donors and non-Western economic powers has accelerated the pace of change in recent years.

In 2010, I conducted extensive fieldwork in Addis Ababa and Nairobi in order to understand one aspect of this change:  the drawing of lessons from abroad by local policymakers.

Many of the trends behind the way development is ‘done’ today in Africa stemmed, I found, from the emulation of a handful of East Asian countries.

The return of physical infrastructure

Dams, highways and other works of civil engineering are being built on a large scale and at a fast clip across the continent.  Ethiopia’s building of five major hydro-electric dams on the Omo river is just one example, as is the five-fold growth of Kenya’s roads budget from 2010 to 2015.  Some of this is certainly due to the rapid influx of Chinese money and labour into these countries’ construction sectors, but my research showed that China’s own domestic example has had at least as much of an impact in convincing leaders that construction is essential for business and for growth.  This is has also begun to be reflected in donor programmes such as the EU-Africa Infrastructure Trust Fund, launched in 2007.

An emphasis on rapid economic growth

Just as economies are contracting in the West, rapid increases in material wealth have become the sine qua non of governance in Ethiopia and Kenya, and a core source of their leaders’ legitimacy.  Ethiopia’s Growth and Transformation Plan aims to double the country’s GDP from 2010 to 2015 and to achieve ‘middle income status’ for Ethiopia by 2025, and Kenya’s Vision 2030 similarly aims to achieve double-digit growth until 2030, by which time it too hopes to be a ‘middle income country’.  Once again, this trend is also finding its way into the plans of donors. One of the six ‘structural reform priorities’ that the UK’s DFID aims to implement before 2015 is to ‘make British international development policy more focussed on boosting economic growth and wealth creation’.

An increasing reliance on science and technology

High-tech and technological solutions are making their way into every policy sector, but their influence is particularly noticeable in three areas.  Firstly, education is becoming focused on technical, vocational training: witness Ethiopia’s spate of new Universities of Science and Technology.

Secondly, biotechnology and technologically-intensive agricultural practices are beginning to transform African agriculture, as this report to NEPAD and the AU makes clear.

And finally, Africa’s new leaders—such as Ethiopian Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn and Angolan Vice President Manuel Vicente—increasingly have engineering or science backgrounds.  The examples of East Asian countries again act as models here, with lesson-sharing often organised by organisations such as the Commonwealth Partnership for Technology Development or the Shanghai Global Learning Initiative.

Some may argue that none of these new priorities ever really went away.  After all, what government doesn’t want good roads and more money?  But these elements of development have often not been explicitly present in our recent paradigms.  As Jeffrey Sachs points out, the World Bank went without a science advisor or a science policy for much of the 1980s and 1990s, implying that it believed science to be a priority only for wealthy countries.

In a world of limited budgets and even more limited attention spans, an emphasis on one element of national development almost inevitably signals a shift away from other elements.  Thus a refocusing on bricks and mortar—the ‘hardware’ of development—may herald a move from institution-building, social policy and the other ‘software’ of development.

The prioritisation of fast GDP growth signifies a disillusionment with measures that have poverty reduction and non-material wellbeing as their central aims.

And those searching for scientific and technological solutions to the problems of underdevelopment have been accused of overlooking problems of governance.

These ‘lessons’—as well as others detailed in my recently completed study—are important for their impact on current and future development programmes.  Even more interestingly, they challenge the often-held assumptions that African policymakers have little control over the content of these programmes, or that developing-country leaders only enact policies from abroad under duress.

Instead, emulation is both a driver of specific practices and a key source of inspiration for such leaders.  As I was told by a senior Ethiopian economic planner, “Believing it can be achieved is a lesson in itself”.

Indeed, this might turn out to be the most important lesson of all.     


*Elsje Fourie is a guest contributor. She has written a thesis on ‘New Maps for Africa?  Contextualising the ‘Chinese Model’ within Ethiopian and Kenyan Paradigms of Development‘.


This blog post features the author’s personal views and does not represent the view of ECDPM.

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