An Upstart’s Comments on Africa’s Development

Fri, 19 Nov 2010 Source: Idun-Arkhurst, Kobina

In a recent article, ‘Is Africa Emerging’ (Parts I&II), I sought to express my opinion on the failures and prospects of Africa’s development. I raised two key issues. First, that Africa faces a serious leadership challenge. Second, that part of the reason we have failed is because we’ve been stuck to misguided ideologies about the state and development, from the socialist era in the 1960s and the 1970s to the era of free marketism, especially in the post-Cold War era. Unfortunately my effort ruffled a few feathers, with one particular individual, a ‘Charles’, serving me some choice expletives, some of which I actually enjoyed though!

For example, he called me an ‘upstart wannabe’ and an ‘upstart idiot’ for daring to speak my mind on issues pertaining to Ghana (or Africa), although exactly which of the issues he was upset about he didn’t say. Perhaps, he was too angry to allow himself sufficient sobriety to make a coherent case. He also came across sometimes as harbouring a personal grudge, maybe about something I’ve written in the past, certainly not because he knows me. From what he said, he most likely doesn’t know me. But the description of me as an ‘upstart’, which occurred repeatedly in Charles’ exchange with one of my compatriots, is interesting, not least because it appears it’s true.

An ‘upstart’ is someone of lowly birth or humble origins, who suddenly attains wealth, power, or some kind of importance or influence, and, as a result, suddenly becomes arrogant, immodest or presumptuous. I come from a very humble background, with parents who were respectively a petty trader and a school teacher but who, like most hardworking Ghanaians, worked hard to make sure their children had the best of education anyone else could have. I am not ashamed, but proud, of that humble origin. My parents didn’t pick up a gun to rob another of their wealth or to stage a coup to attain a position of national importance in order to give me a good education. From their little station in life, they did the best they could. For this reason, I have no regard for those who think their high stations in life, honestly acquired or stolen, should give them more rights than others.

The other side of the definition of ‘upstart’ is that one becomes immodest or presumptuous as a result of their sudden rise to power, wealth or influence. This is where Charles’ description of me falls apart because he denies that I have any of these. And it is true. I have none. I haven’t received mention in a global forum for being a faithful channel for the ideological and geopolitical expansion of the powers that be. The closest I’ve been is being invited among a select group of 200 of supposedly the best graduate students from the world’s top universities to a forum with global leaders in the United States. Even that, in the last minute I couldn’t attend the event because of the late arrival of my visa.

But in whatever station, I shall not seek to make myself such a faithful channel for others, because I believe it is part of our problems: that all too often we’ve allowed ourselves to become pawns in other people’s geopolitical game, often in return for aid, grants, or name recognition. During the Bush administration, they called it ‘transformational diplomacy’: which is to look for pliant local civil society groups through which to pressure local governments to carry out reforms that are in America’s interest. If being recognised for this is what should qualify someone to speak to national issues, then we don’t even understand the democratic system we’re practising. As far as I’m concerned the principal, in matters concerning national development, is the native people, not the guy who gave someone a grant or scholarship. So in coming to this debate, I care less about foreign name recognition! Honestly, I think we should get serious. I respect and admire achievers, but don’t tell me because you get named somewhere for being a geopolitical client you are better than others.

In addition, Charles also questioned my educational qualification to come on Ghanaweb ‘pontificating’ on national issues. Well, I welcome Charles’ advice that I should go and get a certificate. I’m doing just that so that people like him don’t think the rest of us should bow to his kind. But I don’t need to state my educational credentials here because that’s not what entitles me to space in a Ghanaian public square: it is my status as a citizen. And it is my civic responsibility to engage myself in the national discourse. For this reason, indulge me to reiterate and clarify the key issues I raised in the previous article. If anyone has a problem with the real issues I raise, I gladly welcome the different opinions because I’m open to new ideas and prepared to get my views challenged so I can get better. I’m not an ideologue stuck in an intellectual patch.

Leadership and Africa’s Development:

Only few will disagree that part of the problem we face in Africa has been the crisis of leadership. I don’t know how saying the obvious should make anyone angry, unless that person benefits from the paralysis in which Africa has been stuck. Successive post-colonial leaders, especially since the 1970s, have failed to orchestrate a bold and visionary development agenda to transform our societies, even as within the same period of time other regions have recorded impressive transformations. If you’re an African and you don’t get frustrated by this, then you’re probably a beneficiary of the system. I argued in the previous article that an average of 10years have been enough for some leaders elsewhere in the developing world to bring about structural change and position their countries for continuous future growth. Here in Africa, some 20-40years haven’t been enough for some leaders!

Even more troublesome, after they have let office they still want the national consciousness to revolve around them and their relatively not-so-impressive legacies. In consequence, we often waste tremendous national energy and time trying to please such leaders, while serious national issues are left unattended. The situation also constrains a new class of leadership to make the important national decisions they ought to make, because obviously after being in power for so long such past leaders wield enormous weight, which weight they should use responsibly. If this comment is what is riling up some folks, then that’s unfortunate because whether you’re a princeling or simply close to those who wield power, you surely must think of posterity. I do, because my family is unimportant and my fortunes are tied to improvements in the country generally. I have no opportunity to ‘skim up’ at the top. Neither am I comfortable travelling around the world and seeing Africa’s poverty humoured all the time.

Aside history, travelling provides an important education outside the classroom. So in Ghana, for example, we have people who know our history very well and therefore can make important contributions to the national discourse without holding certificates. Similarly, having studied, lived and worked in Africa, America, Europe and Asia, I believe I’ve picked up a few things I can share, from the observations I’ve made about how rapidly other regions are developing to the discrimination and insults I’ve received as black African. I don’t need a certificate or to have cited myself repeatedly in journals to give myself an air of importance to share my views on national and global development.

I make the point in the previous article that the rise of Asia is posing a fresh challenge for leadership in Africa and that if we fail once more, we shall fall completely off the geopolitical map of the world. Further, I argued that often African leadership has failed because of self or externally-imposed ideological rigidities, which limit our policy options in responding to different sets of geopolitical challenges and prospects. When we’re faced with a competitor, which generously supports its industries, such as does China, our best approach may not be to use the old free market ideology of the state being a ‘night watchman’. There ought to be a level playing field for our entrepreneurs.

We may not have the resources to do full-scale industrial policy, but sometimes generous incentives and state activism in the provision of the infrastructure businesses need will help a great deal. In a developing country with a weak infrastructure and education base it will take more than tax cuts for businesses to spur growth. You may disagree on this, but it would be nice to make a well-argued case, if you do, rather than use expletives to hound people out of the forum. Of course, doing so simply means you don’t have a case or are afraid of being exposed. It will be really nice to see ‘Charles’, for example, show up his true self and post an article here so we can all debate him, No?

Ideologies and Why We Should be Mindful of Them

Above, I stated two extreme ideological positions we should be concerned about: Marxist-socialist pretensions (as in the 1960s and 1970s) and free marketism (as of today). The former denied the importance of private initiative and sought to encourage the state to overreach itself, sometimes to systematically ‘castrate’ private entrepreneurship, which, most of us will agree, is crucial for injecting dynamism into the economy and creating jobs. The latter has tended to go to the other extreme to deny the importance of state activism in certain areas and at certain stages of development. Here, the libertarian camp presents the most radically extreme position that the state must get out of the way, or at best confine its role to being a provider of law and order and an arbiter in the market.

What I tried to do briefly in Part II was to place this radical notion in its cultural context, that is, its emergence as a reaction to totalitarian and fascist regimes in central Europe, and ask whether it is necessarily useful in our own case. In the United States libertarianism, sent there by central European thinkers like the famous Friedrich Hayek, found compatibility with American liberalism, also historically a reaction to the predatory reach of the British Crown through heavy taxation of the wealth of the American colonies. But how many Ghanaians think that national health insurance or state funding for education is such a bad thing, as the conservatives in the U.S often tend to believe?

One of the challenges America faces today in its ability to compete with Asia is the tendency to be held back by ideology, while pragmatic Asia rapidly catches up with, and leapfrogs, America on major fronts. Of course, there are also the interest groups who want to keep the status quo, just as there are interest groups who want to keep the status quo in developing countries in order to assert their global primacy, an interest often shrouded in promises of bringing Enlightenment.

Recently, a senior advisor from an influential U.S.-based think-tank got on the plane and landed in Ghana to advise us to simply share the oil cash because it will, in his own words, help ‘curb state power’. This advice arises from the same morbid fear of the state. But how many of us believed then and now that the advice was sound and that we should embrace it because that is what Alaska has done. In an article on the issue, ‘Courting the Devil’s Excrement’, I argued for what I believe most Ghanaians think- as online and radio reactions to the above advice indicated- is the most sensible thing to do with our oil wealth in our particular circumstances: to invest in our people (education and health), to build the hardware for growth (infrastructure), and to support our farmers and industries (industrial policy) to feed ourselves and create jobs.

Part of the problem with Africa is that we have often allowed ourselves to embrace ideas and practices without deconstructing their cultural or historical sources to determine whether they should necessarily apply in our contexts and to what extent they should shape our range of options. But as I point out in Part II of the previous article, even the U.S. at some point in its history, such as when it was still a developing country or when it faced collapse during the Great Depression, found state activism necessary to create the conditions that would equip individuals to ably pursue their activities. In fact, even Milton Friedman, one of the foremost theorists of free marketism agreed that state activism is at times necessary. Given that Friedman’s ideas have been co-opted in libertarianism, indulge me to quote a little more extensively from his Capitalism and Freedom (1962, pp 2-3): ‘Beyond this major function (that is, provider of security and law and order), governments may enable us at times to accomplish jointly what we would find it more difficult or expensive to accomplish severally (i.e. individually).’ Although such a use of the state is ‘fraught with danger’, Friedman added, ‘We should not and cannot avoid using government in this way. But there should be a clear and large balance of advantages before we do.’

Statement and caveats taken together, what this means is that under certain circumstances government intervention is necessary to assist us to realise our expectations when (i) as individuals we can’t realise them without a little push and (ii) when the benefits outweigh the disadvantages. This view is consistent with an emerging school in the libertarian tradition called ‘libertarian paternalism,’ which asserts, as do Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in ‘Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron,’ (University of Chicago Law Review) that ‘it is possible and legitimate for private and public institutions to affect behaviour while also respecting freedom of choice.’

I think to allow this more pragmatic position to work in practice, libertarians, must first cure themselves of the view of the state as some kind of a Frankenstein, especially in developing countries where state activism is most needed. We can’t get anywhere with this view, especially if it’s being hawked by undoubtedly some of the best brains we have (and foreign powers and NGOs always want to co-opt our best brains). Instead, anytime government wants to do a project we’ll hear them opposing it under the cover of transparency and good governance. To find out their true motivations, take their texts and deconstruct the contents. This is not to suggest that they have no genuine concerns about governance or transparency, but if these are their only concerns they will show too.

To reiterate the point made in the previous article, we should all be wary of creeping dictatorship or totalitarianism, but we can’t hold ourselves hostage to that fear, especially if within a particular cultural context or historical conjuncture, such fear is unfounded, existing only in the textbooks that we bring from the West to read. All I’m saying is that pragmatism and good, selfless leadership will hasten and clarify our march to development. You might not agree, but this is neither an insult nor hot air! Or, is it? I think it is an opinion. And you can have your say too! On the substantive issue, of course, not whether I am an ‘upstart’! Or, have a certificate or enough publications to pontificate! After all, I’m starting up, just like everyone else up there did!

Kobina Idun-Arkhurst (kobkurst@gmail.com)

Columnist: Idun-Arkhurst, Kobina