Review of Steve Radelet's Emerging Africa

emerging-africa-140Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading The Way
by Steven Radelet (Western Samoa 1981–83)
Center for Global Development
$18.75; Kindle $9.99
169 pages

Reviewed by Shlomo Bachrach (Ethiopia PC Staff  1966–68)

It’s nice to come across a book that takes an optimistic view of Africa, where the usual account of famine, coups and ethnic violence is replaced by evidence of improving governance and growing economies. Steve Radelet, in Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading The Way, makes the case for optimism that since the 1990s, development is taking hold in Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA). In these seventeen countries, and six more on the threshold, “it was the interplay between economic reform and political change that ignited the change.”

Radelet divides SSA into three groups: Emerging and Threshold countries, Oil Exporters and Other Non-Oil Exporters. Until the mid 1990s, there was little to distinguish these countries. Signs of economic growth in the 1960s were followed by stagnation in the 1970s and actual decline in the 1980s.

He lists four “syndromes” that characterized the two unhappy decades. Three syndromes involve destructive economic policies: iron-handed control of national economies; diversion of wealth to political allies and favored ethnic groups, and disregarding the consequences for development; and heavy borrowing for immediate payoffs with little concern for long term impacts. The fourth “syndrome” was “state breakdown and political instability”.

Those who were paying attention to Africa remember how good news dried up not long after independence. Coups installed authoritarian regimes. Ethnic violence was not rare. Corruption was rampant, particularly where oil or minerals generated easily stolen flows of cash. Powerful cliques enriched themselves and lived in luxury. The rest endured unchanging poverty and political oppression.

In Ethiopia, Emperor Haile Selassie was replaced by the brutal Derg, which used murder and torture to control the economy and the citizenry. Uganda had Idi Amin, a psychopath. Nigeria had the Biafra war and ethnic rivalry. Zaire/Congo had Mobutu. Kenya suffered, and still suffers, from breathtaking levels of official corruption. And so on.

Only Botswana and Mauritius seem to have escaped the curse of Radelet’s syndromes. In other countries democracy was almost unknown. Human rights were rarely protected. The oil shocks of the 1970s provoked reckless lending by First World banks, leading to debt levels that soon crushed African economies. Much of the money soon disappeared, probably resurfacing in these same banks but now in accounts owned by corrupt autocrats and friends.  When loans to Africa dried up in the financial crisis of the 1980s, the decade of contraction began as governments were forced to cut spending on schools, health, roads, etc. and investors turned away. Governments printed money, inflation soared, accompanied by rising discontent among former beneficiaries that the autocratic states could no longer buy off.

Radelet gives international institutions, particularly the IMF, credit — maybe too much credit — for making economic reform a condition for shoring up collapsing governments. The suitability of some conditions has long been questioned. Though he says that internal change was a bigger factor than IMF-led change, his conviction about this seems thin. It isn’t clear how unrest led to reform in the 1990s. But for whatever combination of reasons, economic policies were liberalized and electoral politics gradually began to replace authoritarian rule in some countries.

The evidence Radelet marshals clearly shows that change began to take hold in a growing number or countries. Using a somewhat arbitrary standard of 2% annual economic growth, his seventeen countries have put an impressive foundation under their growth, with the six threshold countries just below 2%. They have grown at that rate or higher for 13 years, long enough to have a made a big impact on economic growth and poverty reduction. He strongly cautions, however, that progress is uneven, and reversible if not nurtured.

Radelet documents impressive growth from the mid 1990s, when cumulative changes began to have an impact, until 2008. Better trade, investment and exchange rate policies encouraged investment. Incentives for farmers led to better prices and bigger harvests. Exports have risen. The evidence is impressive and refreshing.

Strikingly, oil producing countries are not part of the general economic improvement. Passively earning large sums of money that have created few jobs pose a governance challenge that these countries, as a group, have not met. Oil economies are lopsided. Easy money undercuts the urgency to develop a balanced economy. Radelet doesn’t explore the issue here, noting only that oil producers have a unique set of problems.  The 17 emerging and 6 threshold countries are learning governance and policy lessons that the oil producers still have to address.

Using indicators developed by Freedom House and others, Radelet shows that good governance has gone hand in hand with economic growth between 1996 and 2008.  The contrast with the rest of Africa is dramatic. As a group, those countries with poor governance also showed worse economic results, such as Somalia and Eritrea. The correlation between governance and growth could not be clearer.

Yet, cause and effect aren’t always clear.  Ethiopia’s present government took power in 1991. Beneath a moderate exterior, it is still a heavily autocratic state. In the last election, the ruling party won 99% of the seats in Parliament. The economy is tightly controlled and also accused of ethnic favoritism. The government openly endorses “state capitalism” modeled after China. Political opponents are intimidated and/or jailed.  The press is on a short leash.  The government claims growth as high as 10% in some years, a figure that should have led to a much bigger economy by now.  Doubts have been growing about the reliability of the government’s economic data, which can’t be independently verified. How much of this growth reflects the $3 billion dollars that poured in during 2008 and is not the outcome of sustainable growth? But even cutting the government’s claims in half, growth would still be notable.

In a survey of this kind, Radelet can’t take on every development mystery. His audience is the general reader, not the policy maven. The text is not jargon-heavy and his points are nicely supported by graphs and tables even if important questions remain. For Steve Radelet, Africa’s glass is half full.  I’ll drink to that.

To order Emerging Africa from Amazon, click on the book cover or the bold book title — and Peace Corps Worldwide, an Amazon Associate, will receive a small remittance that helps support our awards.

Shlomo Bachrach first went to Ethiopia in 1964 to teach at Haile Selassie I University after getting his MA in Linguistics with an English as a Second Language specialty. At the Faculty of Education, he trained English teachers, advised the Ministry of Education on English language curriculum development, taught undergraduate English and introduction to linguistics courses.  Shlomo was on the PC training staff for most Ethiopia programs from 1964 to 1971, when many PCVs served as English teachers. PC/E asked him to run periodic workshops for English teachers in rural schools and then hired him to do it full time for two years (1966–68).  He is the author of a 7th-grade English text, based on the sample lessons he produced during those years, that was widely used in Ethiopia for many years, beginning in 1967.  A revised edition of the textbook has just been published by Ethiopia’s leading publisher, Shama Books. Since that time Shlomo has remained closely connected to Ethiopia, making regular visits. For the past twelve years he has compiled a widely read newsletter covering the Horn of Africa, East Africa Forum.



Leave a comment
  • A reasonable request! Here are all of Radelet’s lists, in alpha order by group:

    Emerging Countries

    Burkina Faso
    Cape Verde
    Sao Tome and Principe
    South Africa

    Threshold Countries

    Sierra Leone

    Other Non-Oil Exporters

    Central African Republic
    Democratic Republic of Congo
    Cote d’Ivoire
    The Gambia

    Oil Exporters

    Republic of Congo
    Equatorial Guinea

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