Preparing for next year, when United Nations member governments will meet to grade the Millennium Development Goals and agree on a new set of benchmarks for 2015-2030, an important part of the discussion is focusing on Africa, the continent recognized as having great unrealized potential that is still unmet. Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu, a former UN legal and financial official who is now deputy governor of the Central Bank of Nigeria, calls it “the global economy’s last frontier.”
Moghalu, in a new book, “Emerging Africa,” published by Penguin Books, looks long and hard at many factors holding Africa back: post-colonial politics, history, resources, cultural factors and, very interestingly, the “worldview” of Africans. He suggests that those who see the rise of Africa as inevitable and the continent on the edge of a boom should examine some overlooked fundamentals. “If you believe, then, that the end of poverty and underdevelopment in Africa is imminent and that the continent is on the verge of an immediate breakthrough as a major global economic player, Emerging Africa will rain on your parade,” he wrote.
The book, centered on Nigeria, the continent’s most populous nation and a leading African economy, makes a strong plea for Africans to take over their own development, starting with homegrown financial and industrial policies that expand manufacturing for a national market and build strengths to compete in a wider world. Policies that rely on commodity exports do little to stimulate human development and enhance labor and management skills. Throughout, Moghalu is sharply critical of foreign aid — he says it led Africa into a cul de sac — and also wary of outside investment, including from China. He is concerned that jockeying for influence among foreigners could turn into a new “race for Africa” reminiscent of the colonial grabs of the 19th century.
Moghalu does not, however, favor a government-run, nationalized economy as some post-colonial governments chose. He is a strong proponent of growth driven by the private sector, but it should happen within countries of the continent — Africa for Africans. Fundamental economic transformation and the building of solid institutions are key, in his view.
He examines Malaysia’s policy of industrialization as one example. He is not alone among writers in Nigeria, or Africa generally, seeking to explain how former British colonies in Southeast Asia that gained independence at about the same time as their African counterparts have achieved living standards of the world’s rich nations, while African countries have lagged at the bottom of human development charts.
The Nigerian writer Wole Soyinka, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1986, took up this theme in a recent book, “Of Africa,” in which he wrote contemptuously of what he believes venal, power-hungry and ideologically muddled post-colonial leaders have done to Africa, and how Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore were able to soar ahead of their African cousins after independence because of their better political leadership.
Amina Mohammed, a Nigerian who is UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon’s special adviser on post-2015 development planning — effectively in charge of negotiating the next round of universal development goals — says Africans need more accountability from their governments. An adviser on development to a series of Nigerian presidents, she also advocates an end to reliance on international assistance, saying it should be only the first building block of development, with the harnessing of human and natural resources, technological advances and the recovery of illicit financial gains part of national policy. Offering the example of Nigeria, she told a conference on women’s rights in New York in September: “We know where the loot is. We just don’t know how to get it back.”
Mohammed is critical of proliferating experimental projects planted in Africa by well-meaning donors and nongovernment organizations. “Please, no more models,” she said, describing Africa as a giant petri dish.
Moghalu wrote that public health failures demonstrate not only how foreign donors often skew programs in Africa to meet their own priorities but also how weak or nonexistent government public health services cannot (or do not) do their own strategizing based on local conditions. For example, he wrote, insecticide-treated bed nets are essentially a palliative and not a long-term solution to malaria. What is needed, he wrote, is a fundamental, strategic approach to eradicating malaria from the continent with the use of DDT, as richer countries did successfully a century ago. But now Africans are told that DDT damages the environment and should not be used.
“Donor countries threaten developing countries that seek to use the chemical with aid funding cutoffs, while emphasis is placed on aid funding for insecticide-treated bed nets manufactured mostly in European countries,” he wrote.
Now there is Ebola, revealing in all its horror what happens when an epidemic of this nature hits countries with no public health and crisis information systems worthy of the name. Apart from the exploding human death tolls, fragile economies are also in mortal danger. In an exchange of emails, Moghalu commented in early October “that the Ebola outbreak makes some important points about the larger issue of development.”
Moghalu added: “I believe the outbreak and its disastrous impact in the three epicenters in West Africa — Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea — demonstrate the importance of social infrastructure and human capital in development. Education and health systems are the basic building blocks of economic development, and in my view take priority over physical infrastructure.
“Ebola demonstrates as well why building health systems that can be deployed to contain threats to public health, broadly speaking, is more beneficial than vertical interventions that target specific diseases only. African countries can deploy their own national resources to build such systems and do not need foreign aid. Nigeria’s success in nipping the [Ebola] outbreak in the bud is essentially homegrown and sprang from strong political will on the part of the country’s government and public health authorities. That commendable success demonstrates what is possible when African nations develop and execute public policy, or even face emergency situations such as Ebola, with resolve and clarity of mission and purpose. I certainly hope the lessons learned from this incident are applied to building strong public health systems in African countries.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.
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