Last week, I went down to London to attend an ODI and World Bank conference titled Africa after 50: building on recent development progress. You can view part of the presentation via these five Youtube links: Punam Chuhan-PoleLiesbet Steer Patrick Gihana-Mulenga Laurie Lee Mark Lowcock (Sadly that’s all ODI uploaded and the first video is of poor quality. They can’t seem to upload the Q&A session which was the main highlight but I’ll explain it below).
So anyway, you can get the gist of the topic which was that African nations (both LDCs and developing countries) are making substantial progress out of poverty and developing. You can view more of the results on this site and this site. Anyway, several thoughts coming out of the conference: First speaker, Ms/Dr/Prof (I can’t find her CV online) Punam Chuhan-Pole gave a statistical overview of African development indicators sort of trying to prove how Africa was no longer underdeveloped as the discourse went. More interesting part came whne she mentioned how different African countries progressed: Rwanda removed its barriers to trade (to agricultural products if I remember correctly), there was liberalisation (I can’t remember what kind) in Ghana and other countries implemented macroeconomic stability. Rings’ the bells of the neoliberal/Washington Consensus Paradigm. She also mentioned much about both state and market failure–though I think she gave a longer focus on state failure. The second speaker, Dr. Liesbet Steer emphasis several key points that you have to look at absolute measures of progress. Second, some progress was better off for different income groups–especially the lower income groups. Finally (and I love this point), the area to look for in development is progress and not so much success. She launched into several factors of progress which I thoroughly agreed with. These factors are “smart leaders”, “smart policies”, “smart delivery” and “smart friends”. Rwanda’s Kagame was an example of a “smart leader” akin to some of the “big” leaders in East Asian economic “progress” (not success!) stories. On “smart polices this at least was described by her in a non-neoliberal fashion. “Smart friends” merant effective donors and partnerships with other Southern partners. Quite a bit of an ey-opener.
Third Speaker: Mark Lowcock from DFID. You can view what he said through the links above. Nothing really new and in fact was a tinge political. Fourth speaker was the cultural attaché from the Rwandan High Commission, Mr. Patrick Patrick Gihana-Mulenga and a member of the Rwanda Development Board.(I kind of like the name–sounds like Singapore’s Economic Development Board). He was outlining the vision to “put Rwanda on the map” and was in praise of Kagame (I have no qualms about that). Part of his review also noted state-led initiatives. Fifth member: Laurie Lee, from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Nothing interesting again, you can watch him in the above clip. Sixth member: (this was by far the largest panel of all ODI events I’ve attended): Willy Day, talking about sustainable development. The usual talk.
Q&A: First question was a guy who took a while to describe his position and asked all about their thoughts on urbanisation. I got the second question and I targeted the actions of liberalisation, removal of trade barriers and macroeconomic stability, questioning the pace at which they were implemented, whether there were any social safety nets and was it simply a repeat of the Washington Consensus. I also asked if the progress/success stories were numerical and for the short term or represented long-term change. Other questions came including on who was directly opposite my view: He asked whether more trade barriers would be removed–or something along those lines. The rest of the Q&A were on specific topics like education in Ghana and others. Answers: The World Bank Economist said something about dynamic change comes from the bottom and that removal of any barriers or restrictions were needed. Dr. Steer defended the case studies she gave citing that they were over a certain time period–can’t remember which and that there was substantial proof that African countries were progressing. The greatest defence of all came from the Rwandan attaché who spoke from his own experience and his countries experience of economic change.
Afterwards, I approached Ms.Chuhan-Pole to gain clarification over her reply to my questions especially since I couldn’t catch them. If you didn’t guess it by now, I was playing the Ha-Joon Chang drum beat but she was still in defence of the issues of liberalisation and removal of barriers as was the other gentleman who was in defence of opening up more trade barriers that African countries were imposing. I played the famous (well relatively famous) “my six year-old son should get a job” line from Dr.Chang–the infant industry argument but she told me to check out a video by the Chicago-trained Chief Economist of the World Bank–Justin Yifu Lin.(Justin Lin is Chang’s semi-opposite, he believes in state action, but minimal state action). Finally, both of them argued that trade should not be reciprocal which got me thinking. Did they mean that African nations should choose their trading partners and initiate bilateral trade agreements or something else? I didn’t have time to clarify.
Majors points from the event: Africa, well parts of Africa is progressing in terms of development indicators and heading towards the MDGs. The countries may not individually meet each MDG but as I’ve written before, the MDGs are not fixed goals. Rwanda is a shining example of African progress especially after its conflict in the 1990s. You may criticise the character and ruling of its leader but you can’t discount for its development statistics. Progress and not success is what you should look out for. Numbers do mean something. Well for IPE scholars like Liam Clegg numbers indicate a rationalist and constructivist notion–see his article Clegg, L., (2010) “Our Dream is a World Full of Poverty Indicators: The US, the World Bank, and the Power of Numbers”, New Political Economy,15(4), pp.473-492.To a development economist like those at ODI and those who support ODA and aid organisations, numbers are a means to describe the state of a nation. Perhaps the numbers stated during this event are indications of optimism. Or short-term sparks in the road ahead. We shall see. Finally, the event tells any sceptic of Africa otherwise. Hears to African progress.
(updated: Added a Youtube link on Liesbet Steer’s presentation. Hopefully ODI will upload the Q&A).