November 28, 2011


Africa Unleashed: Explaining the Secret of a Belated Boom (Edward Miguel, Nov/Dec 2011, Foreign Affairs)

Steven Radelet's accessible and insightful new book, Emerging Africa, joins a growing chorus of voices explaining how and why Africa has turned the corner. Radelet, who joined the U.S. State Department to work on international development issues last year, was a fellow at the Center for Global Development and has served as a policymaker in both the United States and Liberia, where he advised President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf. He does a remarkable job of weaving together hard statistical patterns, case studies, and a coherent narrative that explains both Africa's decline and its recent rebound. The book is useful reading both for specialists in the field, who will gain from its detailed description of the experiences of numerous countries, and for those newly interested in Africa, including non-economists, who will find their preexisting notions about the continent overturned. Emerging Africa crystallizes the new conventional wisdom on Africa's recovery. But it also highlights gaps in experts' understanding about its underlying causes.

In Radelet's view, five main factors have conspired to turn Africa around. Expanding democratization has opened up governments, bolstering popular accountability. Improved economic policies have curbed the worst tax and regulatory policies that had plagued African households and investors. Debt reduction has freed up resources for education and health care. New technologies (most notably the ubiquitous cell phone) have boosted Africans' access to markets. And the rise of a new generation of energetic leaders, the so-called cheetah generation (in the evocative terminology of the Ghanaian scholar George Ayittey), has brought new ideas and attitudes to the fore.

Radelet assembles chronological graphs for dozens of key measures, such as income levels, foreign trade, political freedom, schooling, and cell-phone penetration. He then ties the data together with fresh accounts of how the process of transformation has actually occurred on the ground. Tanzania, for example, boosted primary school enrollment by abolishing school fees in 2000. In Mozambique, the liberalization of agricultural markets has allowed farmers to keep more of what they sell. Mali's mango exports have soared since the adoption of improved supply-chain management practices. In Rwanda, incentive payments for doctors have strengthened the health-care system, as has the use of daily text messages to remind HIV/AIDS and tuberculosis patients to take their pills. These and other smart public policies are revolutionizing African economies.

Radelet also looks beyond government decisions, describing how individual Africans have accelerated these transformations, often at great personal risk. He profiles such visionaries as John Githongo, Kenya's fearless anticorruption crusader, and Patrick Awuah, a Swarthmore College graduate who left a lucrative career at Microsoft to return to his native Ghana, where he founded Ashesi University, a liberal arts college that aspires to educate a new generation of ethical and entrepreneurial African leaders. There is finally enough oxygen in these increasingly free countries for talented Africans to reimagine and rebuild their societies.

Although all five of the factors Radelet describes have plausibly played a role in Africa's nascent transformation, the essential question, of course, is, which one has contributed the most? Radelet's answer is democratization. The relationship between democracy and economic growth in Africa, he writes, "is crystal clear: democratic governments . . . have been successful, while authoritarian governments have by and large been failures." He goes on to note that 13 of the 17 countries he singles out as emerging success stories have made the transition to more or less full-fledged democracies since the 1990s, whereas the pace of democratic reform has been far slower in both oil-producing countries and economic "laggards."

Radelet argues that Africa's political opening in the early to mid-1990s had a number of positive side effects. Competitive elections promoted public accountability, which led to better economic policies and governance. Politicians rightly perceived that competent macroeconomic management and fiscal policies would benefit them at the polls, and so they began to give up their kleptocratic ways. Increasingly open political systems created new opportunities for well-educated "cheetahs," energetic political newcomers who were often trained abroad, to outcompete the slow-moving "hippo" holdovers from the anticolonial struggle. Newly democratic regimes have also been more eager to embrace, rather than suppress, new information technologies that can make markets more efficient and grass-roots political organizations easier to form. Although social scientists are still debating the relationship between democracy and economic performance, Radelet makes a robust case that democratic reform was a necessary precondition for many of Africa's other recent advances. 

Posted by at November 28, 2011 5:41 AM

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