Should Africa follow its own economic recipe?

[Carlos Lopes, Africa in Transformation: Economic Development in the Age of Doubt (London: Palgrave, 2018), 175 pp]

REVIEW /  Emilija Žebrauskaitė

The emergence of a new discourse about ‘Africa rising’ is not at all surprising. After all, the continent is home to many fastest-growing economies of the world and the African sub-regions experienced economic growth way above the world average for more than a decade. New opportunities are opening up in the continent and Africa is becoming to be viewed as an attractive opportunity for investments and entrepreneurship. 

However, Carlos Lopes views the discourse about ‘Africa rising’ as a narrative that was created by foreigners interested in the continent and the economic opportunities it offers, without the consideration to the Africans themselves. In his book Africa in Transformation: Economic Development in the Age of Doubt Lopes presents an alternative view of the continent, it’s challenges and achievements: an alternative view that is centered on Africans and their needs as opposed to the interests of the foreign investors.

The book describes a wide scope of topics from political to economic to intellectual transformation, all of them focusing on the rethinking of the traditional development models and providing a new, innovative approach to building the continent and its future.

One of the main points Lopes highlights is the importance of the agricultural transformation in Africa as a starting point for industrialization and development. The agricultural sector provides nearly 65% of Africa’s population with employment. It is, therefore, one of the most important sectors for the continent. Drawing on historical evidence of other countries successfully climbing out of poverty relying on the transformation of the local agriculture, he comments that while some African countries have managed to increase their agricultural production, comparing to the rest of the world, the progress so far is pretty modest.

Lopes also points out that countries with low agricultural production are less industrialised as well. The solution he offers for Africa’s industrialisation starts with agricultural transformation. He argues that the first step is the need for agricultural transformation that would lead to increased labour productivity, which would, in turn, lead to greater access to food per unit of labour, reducing the price of food relative to the income of the worker of the agricultural sector, allowing for the budget surplus to appear and become an impetus for the demand of goods and services beyond the agricultural sector.

While Lopes argues that the increase of Africa’s labour productivity is as best “modest” compared to other developing regions of the world, at first glance this statement might seem contradictory to the fact that many African countries are among the fastest-growing economies of the world. However, the critique of Lopes highlights that despite the economic growth of the continent, it did not generate sufficient jobs, nor it was equally distributed across the continent. Furthermore, the growth did not protect African economies from the rocky nature of the commodity exports on which the continent relies, making the growth unstable.

According to Lopes, not only the diversification of the production structures is required, there is a need for the creation of ten million new jobs in order to absorb the immense youth number entering the markets. As the trade liberalisation forced unequal competition upon local African industries, Lopes suggests using smart protectionist measures that are not directly trade-related and therefore outside of the influence of WTO. In the end, the African economy must be internally driven and less dependent, and the policies should focus to protect it.

This leads us to another focus of the book, namely the lack of policy space for African countries. The economic and political theories reflected upon Africa by the developed countries, specifically the US, do not leave enough space for African countries to develop their own policies based on local circumstances and necessities. In cases where the ideas imposed from abroad fail to function in African circumstances, the continent is left without much space for adjustment. Lopes discusses the failure of the Bretton Woods institutions to remain impartial in their policymaking, and the disastrous effect the neo-liberal policies, enforced on the whole world until the crisis of 2008.

While Lopes agrees that the lack of the capability of enforcing the IMF and World Bank policies by the implementing countries contributed to their ineffectiveness, the lack of flexibility from the part of the international organizations to adapt the policies to the regional circumstances and the arrogant denial to admit their inefficiency were the major factors contributing to the negative social impact, namely inequality, that neo-liberalism enhanced in Africa. According to Lopes, now that the trustworthiness of the international financial institutions has decreased, more space is left for Africa to reformulate and enforce its own policies, adapting them to the existing circumstances and needs.

In the end, the book approaches the problems faced by modern-day Africa from a multidisciplinary point of view, discussing topics ranging from ideology and ecology to economy and politics. Carlos Lopes is a loud and confident voice when it comes to the contribution of the ‘Africa rising’ narrative. While he does not deny the accomplishment of the continent, he is cautious about the narrative that portrays Africa as an economic unit, interesting due to and only because of new economic possibilities that are opening for foreign interests. His alternative is the idea of ‘Africa in transformation’ – the view that focuses on the growth of the possibilities for the people of Africa and transformation of a continent from an object of someone’s exploitation, to a place with its own opportunities and opinions, offering the world new ideas on the most important topic of contemporary international debates.

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