Africa, our Future?
The West's un-development is closing the gap.
For as long as I can remember, western governments and African leaders alike have looked to apply modern western theories of economic development to that continent. After decades of failure, the gap between Africa and the West is now closing: not because they are going forwards, but because we are going backwards. If you want an idea of where the West will be in twenty years if nothing changes, it’s instructive to look at some features of Africa today.
This is not an essay about Africa. I’ve visited the continent many times over the last thirty years, but Africa is vast and almost infinitely varied, and you should distrust anyone who claims to know or speak about it as a single entity. My purpose here is much more modest.
There are a number of recognised weaknesses affecting African countries and governments, and many people, myself occasionally included, have spent part of their lives trying to do practical things to help alleviate them. The results have been mixed, at best, but that’s not what this essay is about. Rather, I want to look at four of these persistent weaknesses, and suggest that not only do they already exist in the West as well, but that they will get rapidly worse if nothing is done. Now beware, because whilst this list reflects some of the problems you can observe on the ground in Africa, it isn’t necessarily the same list that a development NGO or the OECD would put forward.
The first is lack of government capacity. Now, this is not the tiresome debate about “failed” and “fragile” states beloved of Development Ministries and NGOs. It is a simple pragmatic question: can the state actually deliver what its citizens reasonably expect, and what it has promised them? Often, the answer is no, and this can be because of insecurity or actual conflict, simple lack of money, lack of qualified staff, poor or no pay for them, and interference by donors, to give the most common reasons. (It is highly unlikely to be the lack of documents described as Concepts, Visions, Strategies or Anti-corruption Frameworks, for all that their preparation keeps local and western NGOs harmfully employed.) Consequently, crimes are not investigated, prisoners are convicted and then released because there are no prisons available, court judgements cannot be enforced, permits and documents are never issued, utilities are not maintained, teachers are not paid, taxes are not collected, policemen have no vehicles …
Isn’t that happening in the West as well? In the 1970s and into the 80s, most western states were reasonably capable. In spite of the media-led whispering campaign against people who worked for government, most of those who did saw it as a calling, rather than a way of becoming rich, and behaved accordingly. The hollowing-out that has taken place since, the slash and burn approach to public sector institutions, the denigration even of the idea of public service, have had exactly the effect that would have been expected. Schools and health services no longer work, large parts of major cities are abandoned to criminal gangs, wealth is not really taxed and the wealthy make their own rules, and may be more powerful than governments. If it reminds you of things you might have seen or read about in Africa, well, it should.
The middle class is fine with this. They have their private schools and hospitals, and crime is largely invisible to them. After all, good liberals believe that the only function of the police is to prevent crimes against property, so if you have no property, why should you expect the police to protect you? On the other hand, the middle class regards the police as essentially their servants, so it likes pushing them around: just as in Africa you can get money for a police monitoring NGO, but not to pay the police properly, so increasingly in the West the liberal middle class has fun with fantasies of replacing the police with social workers. Ordinary people are less fine with this, and may either simply accept that organised criminal gangs make the law, or set up vigilante groups of their own: something the middle class inevitably views with horror.
The second, a consequence of the first, is a patrimonial system. Because the state has little capability, there is no point trying to access its services in the normal way. Far better to use family connections or tribal and institutional links to access the services you need. Maybe if your local community leader’s nephew works in the Town Hall, you can actually get that building permit you want in return for a small consideration. Contrariwise, to have a government job can be an enormous advantage, precisely because it opens the way to irregular payments. An entire family might have to live off the government salary of one member, which puts enormous pressure on that member to maximise revenue by all methods. In turn, a Mayor, a Governor or a Minister will have a patronage group relying on them, and which will require incentives to get out the vote for them next time. Public-sector contracts are a time-honoured method of doing this.
It’s fair to say that in most of the West, we are not there yet. But consider for a moment an aspect of what is often called “corruption.” In a properly functioning state, the front-line cost of supplying basic government services should be, at most, a user fee which is the same for everyone. The transaction cost is effectively zero if the staff have already been paid. But logically, if the demand for basic state services exceeds the supply, then the price will go up. If the number of officials responsible for vehicle licensing has been reduced, such that they cannot cope with the demand for licenses, then some way has to be found of bringing supply and demand into balance, and price at the point of delivery is the obvious way. This is already starting to happen. And more recently we’ve seen public-sector contracts awarded to friends of Ministers (during Covid for example) in countries where this never used to happen.
The third example is the economy of rent. This is where owners of economic assets, or those controlling access to them, profit from exploiting their position, rather than investing in anything new. The term comes, of course, from land and property ownership, where mere possession (often through inheritance) grants you access to an income stream without you needing to do anything. Such an extractive economy does not invest, but essentially lives off assets which either don’t increase (in the case of land, for example) or even decrease with time, as happens with raw materials.
Such economies were the rule in the West until modern times, and the Industrial Revolution, where it became possible to invest money, and see a return, thus facilitating the growth of the economy as a whole. Much of Africa consists of extractive economies (there’s a lot to extract, after all) often because the kind of long-term political and economic stability required for investment in productive activities is lacking, or simply because the economies of certain countries are dominated by foreign extractive interests.
But there’s another side to the economy of rent: rent-seeking practices by ordinary people. For example, with a handful of exceptions, you don’t find safe and reliable transport from the airport to the city in most African countries. Therefore airport taxis, whose main clients are foreigners, and foreigners, generally on expenses, will pay whatever is asked. There’s no point in taxi drivers competing with each other, and even less reason to have a public transport option, even if it were technically feasible. But more generally, simply getting around in many African countries requires people who speak your language, people who know how to get things done, and who to talk to about what. Someone with reasonable foreign language skills can earn more as a driver for an Embassy or an NGO than they would ever do with a university degree and in a responsible job in government.
Then there are more aggressive forms of rent-seeking. There are times when a policeman stops you for an alleged traffic offence, and won’t let you go without “paying a fine.” But then he’s got a family to feed, and he’s not being paid, and you’re a westerner and you can afford it. And at the other end of the scale there are flagrantly criminal activities such as “checkpoints” manned by pretend soldiers who will shake you down for some money or goods.
This may sound quite distant from life in the West, although I can think of areas south and east of Vienna where similar things happen. But the real issue is that the West is moving steadily back to an economy of extraction and rent: the main difference from Africa is that the extraction is out of assets that are largely financial, and often have no objective existence. (We do not have Africa’s advantage of sitting on enormous untapped natural and mineral assets.) Sometimes, this is simply the manipulation of ascriptive rights to use cheaply purchased public assets to receive income while doing nothing. A classic and notorious example is the fortunes made by a number of French companies out of the “management” of autoroutes funded by the taxpayer. In some senses, paying money at an autoroute toll-gate is not that different from paying to pass a “checkpoint” manned by kids with AK-47s. It’s profiting off the ability to stop people passing unless they pay you. At a more mundane level, it’s buying in-demand toys at Christmas-time from hypermarkets, and selling them at a massive profit on E-Bay.
But more generally, the West has seen its economies remodelled more and more in the direction of pure financial extraction. With few key raw materials, largely unable now to feed itself, and having offshored most of its previously productive economy, the West is left with what used to politely be called the “service economy,” except that there is increasingly little of the real economy left to service. Indeed, a large part of the notional GDP of many western countries consists of some version of magical financial services; generally a form of speculation with money that does not actually exist, but can be collectively hallucinated. If you follow that sort of thing, it’s instructive, and somewhat disturbing, to see how many crypto-currency businesses, allegedly worth hundreds of billions of dollars, simply disappear overnight like light-bulbs being turned off. But that’s what an extractive economy looks like when there’s nothing real left to extract: borrowing hypothetical money to sell hypothetical access to hypothetical profits from more hypothetical money.
The final characteristic I want to mention is the lack of coherent political identity and collective vision. Nation-building takes a very long time, whilst nations can be destroyed very quickly. In Africa, the belief that nations could be created by fiat from the top down, pushed by western experts and eagerly embraced by the first generation of African leaders, has proven to be quite mistaken. The liberal state belief that, once allowed competitive elections, African voters would vote along class lines, much the West then did, has proven equally false. Many of the early African independence leaders recognised this, and established one-party states as a way of appeasing tensions between groups and trying to create some kind of embryonic national identity. Moves towards multi-party systems in Africa from the 90s onwards were frequently a precursor to conflict.
In reality, the borders and ethnic composition of most African states are no more irrational than those of most states in the West. But the difference is that borders, in most of Europe at least, are now accepted, after hundreds of years of wars, peace treaties, dynastic marriages, civil wars, unions and independence movements. Inter-communal tensions in places like Belgium and Canada can create political crises, but nobody expects actual fighting. (When asked whether the African Union could develop into something like the EU, I generally answer that Africans might not want the history that alone made the EU possible.)
People identify with, and vote for, those with whom they think they have a common interest, and those who they think might represent that interest. In most African countries those common interests are not class-based, but based on region, culture, language and religion: in other words, a much more fundamental type of identity than that deriving from your current economic function. So anyone looking at the geographical distribution of the Presidential election results in the Cote d’Ivoire in 2010 —a country split in two—would have been unsurprised by the violence that followed.
The West is now increasingly following this path. Western political parties have abandoned the traditional mass politics based on economic interests, in favour of a single political class that is educated, urban-based, internationalist and socially and economically liberal. Factions of this class compete for a dwindling number of popular votes primarily by seeking to frighten their electors with the consequences of the other faction winning. In retaliation, the people often do not vote, vote for marginal candidates outside the elites, or just vote to damage the system. Increasingly, the political balance is urban centres against the periphery, prosperous areas against poverty-stricken ones, high-income and high-education islands in the middle of widespread misery. It’s no wonder that electoral maps from the United, States, France and Britain resemble more and more those from some countries in Africa.
For western states, Covid represented a kind of potential wake-up call, a moment when the lack of state capacity, the increasing capture of the state by outside interests and the profound disunity of the countries affected were all made brutally and unmistakably clear. Confronted with this problem, the elites of these countries did not hesitate: they ran away. I mean by that that, after ineffectually managing the problem for a couple of years, they decided it was just too big to handle, so it was going to be cancelled. Even now, as Covid figures spike again (I’m a sufferer, finally) there is nary a word. A problem hidden, after all, is a problem solved. This may not be maintainable after the next few months, especially when combined with the deadly boomerang effect of the sanctions introduced so light-heartedly against Russia.
The situation of un-development that the West finds itself in now is unprecedented in history, and all the more so since for the most part it has been deliberately willed by elites. How they will react to the gathering tempest of global crises is hard to say: not well, one imagines on the basis of previous showings. Perhaps other forces will arise, perhaps new political systems will come into being. Perhaps, let’s say it, we can learn from Africa itself: the can-do approach of ordinary people, the rich social structures and the subtle and non-violent ways of resolving conflict. Given enough time, maybe we could. Who knows, it might even make a difference. But it’s awfully late if Africa is not to be our future.