Global Development

Africa at a Fork in the Road: Taking Off or Disappointment Once Again?

From Chapter One, Overview, by Ernesto Zedillo

The contributors to this volume provide reasons to be both optimistic and troubled about Africa’s development prospects.

Africa at a Fork in the Road cover photoThere are reasons for optimism because most African economies have come a long way from the rather disastrous situation that afflicted them for a long time. Although none of the authors would dismiss the role that key favorable external conditions have played in Africa’s recent fast growth story, their analyses reveal that much credit should also be given to homegrown domestic conditions and to decisions taken by Africans themselves to overcome the economic, social, and political stagnation they endured from the second half of the 1970s well into the 1990s. The fact that the economic and political fundamentals that lie at the root of recent successes are essentially an African construction should make us believe that the newly acquired resilience is likely to be sufficient when tested by a less propitious international environment.

That sufficiency in resilience is likely but not certain. Recent setbacks in countries like South Africa, Ghana, and Nigeria, not to speak of those that have suffered the Ebola outbreak and many other disappointing examples, illustrate how uncertain the African take-off still is. Alongside their reassurances, our contributors provide a host of reasons to be concerned about the solidity of some aspects of the recent African progress. They all seem to agree that now that the external environment brings significant headwinds to African growth, like declining commodity prices and slower growth in key trading partners, most countries in the region will need to reinforce or even redesign a number of their strategies and policies with a view to fostering employment and productivity across their economies while reducing their economic duality. The challenge is not only to make sure that some of the basic macroeconomic fundamentals are restored to the condition they were in before the global economic turbulence of recent years, but also to embark on a structural transformation that goes well beyond the efforts applied over the last 20 years.

The most significant transformation needed in Africa consists of strengthening, and in some cases building, the institutions without which no lasting development will be possible. This view is clearly voiced by Dercon and his co-author who also suggest that foreign aid must be used actively to promote such institution building. One could add that among all the necessary institutional reforms, the most urgent and important are those pertaining to the rule of law. To make African growth inclusive and thus give it additional sources of dynamism, the playing field must be leveled for all Africans and this task starts with a system that provides justice and security for all, not just a few, of the African people. This ambitious but necessary step would lead to more accountable and responsible governments and would help a lot to further unleash the immense potential of the African people towards the development of their nations.

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