Provisional Notes On the Post-Colony – Lessons from Asia
It is commonly stated that in the 1960s, at a point when many African countries were fighting and obtaining their independence, a number of African countries were at the same level of development, if not doing better than some of their Asian counterparts. This is particularly true of Ghana and Kenya which had higher per capita income and better social and human development indicators than South Korea, one of the leading Asian tiger economies today. South Korea is setting the technological pace in innovation with its smart cities, cars, and phones; all of which are envied by the entire world. On the other hand, most of Africa is characterized by its deficits in infrastructure, governance, food, etc. What happened to Ghana and its other African peers?
For decades, African scholars and Africanists have sought to explain the situation in terms of deleterious effects of colonization and weak state formation during the post-colony. The arguments are well laid out in books and scholarly journals; I will not attempt to rehash them here. More recently, the African critique has centered on the fact that the continent has evolved a leadership model of “strong men” rather than “strong institutions;” a point poignantly made by President Obama’s Accra speech on July 11, 2009. Asia also had its own strong men and even postulated the notion of “enlightened despotism” as a pathway out of poverty, albeit with resounding resistance from the student population. When I accepted a posting to work on East Asian and Pacific countries, it gave me a remarkable opportunity to better understand the sources and drivers of the East Asian economies. Therefore, as an interested observer of the Asian scene for over two decades, I learned the following five lessons which might be applicable in the African context today.
First, there is no meaningful and lasting development without dignity. Peoples and societies that have emerged as vibrant and cohesive are those who maintain their core values and engage on global platforms as partners in development and not as beggars. It is this sense of dignity that allows individuals and communities to seek self-realization and to embrace the challenges holding them back from achieving transformational change. The flipside of the notion of dignity is the quest for recognition that sets up the platform exchange and reciprocity – the give and take that is at the center of meaningful engagement. As Jean Baudrillard reminded us in The Violence of the Global, “the basis of all domination is the absence of reciprocity …. The unilateral gift is an act of power. And the Empire of Good, the violence of Good, lies precisely in giving without any possible reciprocation. This is to occupy the position of God.” As I traveled in different parts of Asia, it became very clear to me that institutional foundations of development always anchored a solid sense of individual and/or collective dignity, creating the space and the platform for creative exchange rather than a lecture.
Second, there is a prevailing crisis of the “public interest doctrine” which is at the center of the construct of the modern state. Holding public office is always considered as a public trust requiring the office holder to create public value. This brought into very sharp focus the notion of “public interest” because office holders were serving the public interest and therefore were considered as “servants of the people.” The underlying premise that the “nation-state” is the custodian of the public interest has come under enormous strain in most parts of Africa because the notion of the modern “state,” let alone “nation-state” is still highly contested and fought over by the constitutive elements of the state. Political entrepreneurs mobilize ethnic, religious, and other sectarian interests to challenge the founding myths of statehood—if any. Without a shared meta-narrative of statehood, the state itself as a construct for the articulation of the public interest is still a problematic concept for the creation of public value.
The emergent state of institutional pluralism, or the binary dichotomy between “customary” and “modern” systems, is used creatively by the elite to chart their pathways to prosperity and political advantage. They articulate diverse strategies and sub-narratives of ethnicity and belonging to consolidate their hold on power as a basis for recognition and wealth. Of course, when political entrepreneurs resort to locality/ethnicity as the platform for their power play, it is often very difficult to articulate a meta-narrative of statehood. Instead, these entrepreneurs attempt to appropriate different trappings of the state power for their own subgroup interests. The lingering question is: who defines what is in the public’s best interest?
Third, investments in infrastructure are central to state effectiveness. The remarkable rise in Asian countries, especially China and South Korea, is anchored in massive infrastructure investments creating agglomeration economies by reducing the transaction costs of doing business. This is particularly true of the rapidly growing coastal cities of the Orient. Although economically driven infrastructure investments raise the dichotomy of the leading region – lacking region dynamic, the eventual outcome has been the emergence of growth poles with wealth creating and employment generation potential. These growth poles have accounted for a significant rise in internal migration and urbanization in Asia which is critical for the emergence of a vibrant middle class. Infrastructure deficits are still the bane of development on the African continent despite the creation of several regional economic and monetary zones. By way of comparison, it is estimated that South Korea alone has more energy output than of all of Sub-Saharan Africa put together. A look at the energy map of the world depicts Africa as one “dark continent” due to the severe energy deficits the continent suffers, despite its enormous natural resources which could fuel the continent. In fact, traveling within Africa, let alone doing transformative business within the continent, is still a major challenge.
The infrastructure conundrum has been further compounded by the rigidities of national borders, building a gas pipeline from Nigeria to Ghana will need to address four different regulatory regimes and the attendant bureaucracies. The idea that Africa will “leap frog” the infrastructure conundrum may be just wishful thinking if proper attention is not paid to the institutional moorings of infrastructure delivery and maintenance. A way forward might require a greater involvement of the private sector in partnerships. Moreover, the existing regional groupings such as ECOWAS, CEMAC, SADC should come up with regional infrastructure action plans as the first step in facilitating regional integration and the movement of goods and services. The provisioning of physical infrastructure is absolutely a pre-requisite for interconnectivity, the reduction of transaction costs for goods and services, and the emergence of social infrastructure required for building inclusive and accountable institutions.
Fourth, the vibrancy of Africa as one of the most youthful continent in the world, the vast majority of the population being under 25 years belies another weakness of the continent: the inability to train, motivate and retain its middle class. The strength of emergent Asia, especially countries like India, China and South Korea, has been their ability to build, retain and invest in their elite – fit for purpose – to address their developmental challenges. India in particular, invested substantially in Polytechnics and other technical, vocational, and engineering institutions, which produced a wide band of technicians and engineers who are now creating their own businesses. Rather than rely on the state as the primary source of employment, this emergent technical class has become the backbone of the middle class. In addition to creating jobs and wealth, they constitute a vital pool for the recruitment of state elite as well as a source of safety net for the poor through their remittances. Africa desperately needs that middle class on the continent—some countries like South Africa, Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria, etc. already have the solid foundations for sustaining this critical class of citizens—with the enabling environment and support infrastructure (including healthcare systems) to retain it on the continent.
Central to the issue of the enabling environment is the weak governance framework and lack of recognition for services rendered. In reality, the middle class deficit in Sub-Saharan Africa is not an issue of lack of capacity but a motivational issue associated with the lack of recognition and commitment. The problem is further compounded by the politicization of the bureaucracy (ruling elite) as well as the business elite. Politics trumps accountability and the rule of law!
Fifth, instead of institutionalizing public accountability and the rule of law, political connections are arduously cultivated and fostered as the primary axis of survival within the emergent sociopolitical and economic sphere. Prominence is given to the acquisition of political capital over economic capital since access to political power seems to constitute a fast track to recognition and respect (the dignity issue raised above). The lessons from Asia highlighted the ascendency of economic capital as foundational and the basis for the exercise of voice. Hence, the concerted efforts to promote the private sector as the cornerstone for economic emancipation. Through a combination of educational policies, infrastructure development, investment opportunities and rapid urbanization, Asian countries developed a vast network of growth poles and economies which are now forcing the rest of the world to pivot to the East.
Finally, the commonly taunted “Africa Rising” slogan will come to naught if African leaders do not create the enabling environment for the private sector to rise and shine as well as attract the African diaspora to invest on the continent as a prerequisite for attracting foreign direct investments. The building blocks for such transformational change will first require sustained investments in institution building to enhance state effectiveness by charting a way forward for greater coherence between “customary rules” and the emergent state rules, principles and protocols required to run a multi-ethnic body politic. This will require laying down succinctly the shared rules of the game so that the continent can transition from a one of “strong men” to one of accountable, effective and responsive institutions. Second, the alignment of investments in physical infrastructure to the investment in social infrastructure, at the core of which is the middle class, to serve as the social glue or the “Intel Inside” that will get the state hardware to function seamlessly. And third, the states should actively lift the barriers to doing business on the continent by promoting transnational business elite to create private and public value thereby tapping to the source springs and energies of an essentially youthful continent.