SOME things will never add up, therefore, making it difficult to explain. One such thing is poverty in Africa. Aside its many definitions, African countries have struggled to get their people out of poverty — to improve their well-being and make it easy for their people.
For nearly seven decades since the continent started attaining independence, its countries have gone 360 degrees in search of appropriate policies on how to get things right — from modernisation, South-South Cooperation to the Look East policies. They have looked everywhere for ideas but never within their countries.
At independence, most African countries remained economically attached to their former colonial administrators with the hope that development and growth would diffuse from the developed to the developing countries. Perhaps, African leaders at the time were oblivious that the colonial relationship was simply exploitative and self-centred. You cannot blame western governments for that as they have responsibility to their citizens.
Over the decades, there has been numerous attempts to detach from Western policies in search of alternatives due to the insensitivity of western development and policy approach to countries outside the western block. Some of the outcomes of those attempts is the South-South Co-operation, where the leaders of South American and African countries hoped that their strengthened co-operation would usher in a new world order and counter Western dominance. Simple logic dictates that you cannot successfully counter dominance without building your own strength. Moreso, countering dominance does not translate into development or economic growth. Asian countries did it without countering anyone.
While there have been huge economic improvements in some of the South American countries such as Brazil, Argentina, Colombia, Venezuela, Chile and others, the same cannot be said of Africa. The reason for this disparity is plain simple. South American countries developed models that were suited to their contexts, because they realised that local ownership of development is, in spite of, what western countries have attempted to impose, crucial for their progress. And it paid off and yet for African countries, the same policies were simply implemented in speeches at global events and never in their countries.
A lesson to draw from South American countries is that a country develops and experiences sustainable economic growth when its economy is owned and controlled by its people. That lesson also helps us to realise that the current political environment in Africa offers the possibilities, but its leaders must take leadership in developing locally-driven productive economic policies that place their people at the centre. There are options, one of which is to bring together all the big business people in and outside the country together and let them lead the process of establishing a local economic core group with the support of the government. The South African economy hinges on the same model.
It is the same approach that has transformed Asian countries. With the rise of the Asian countries, we also switched and looked East purely for nothing but pretending to copy ideas, yet the real reason was to spite the West. It is only today that some African countries have started to realise that in all these policy shifts, we were simply exposing ourselves to external exploitation. It is for the same reasons that most African countries have not come up with their own local context-driven development models and yet have remained aligned to external ideas.
To put it in plain and simple terms, we have not developed policies based on home-grown ideas. Borrowing ideas is part of learning but we have overly depended on external ideas to frame what we have referred to as our development policies. No country in the world has developed from external ideas because they are designed to favour their originators. Development and politics are not an act of religion, where fairness is an underlining principle. While it sounds politically correct to preach the gospel of Zimbabwe is now open for business in foreign lands, but none of that foreign audience has an interest in seeing Zimbabwe overtake their countries, as doing so simply means surrendering economic and political power.
Our poverty is an outcome of our inability to conceive home-grown ideas and to use what we have to our benefit. Simplistic as it may appear, let us put things into perspective. Africa is a rich continent compared to others and our politicians have taken pride in that. More than 30% of the world’s natural resources are imbedded in Africa’s land mass.
In addition, more than 60% of the world’s arable land is in Africa, which makes it the largest fertile land in the world. We hold the keys to the world’s future food security if we are wiser now. If sub-Saharan Africa grew at more than 5% for a generation, its people would have the same wealth levels as Argentina today. Growth at three to four per cent would bring them up to Brazil’s levels.
There is a good possibility of transforming the wealth in the ground into prosperity to benefit people in Africa, especially young people looking for employment. However, this promising scenario will not materialise without fundamental commitment on the part of governments to a set of policies that focus on local empowerment with the goal of building a local economy. If these resources converge with home-grown ideas, the word poverty would be a thing of the past in the not too distant future but alas its people and leaders are beggars of ideas and finished products. That is why half a billion of its people still live near or below the poverty datum line and yet the beneficiaries of its natural resources live a comfortable life.
Tapiwa Gomo is a development consultant based in Pretoria, South Africa