African academic economists are a dangerous threat to Africa’s future

It is sad, indeed dispiriting to read Professor Ayittey’s article “Africa’s Reform Conundrum and Zimbabwe’s Tragedy”, published in “The Zimbabwean” of 21st September 2018 (

You may think that to call African academic economists like Professor Ayittey “a dangerous threat to Africa” is simply over the top journalistic sensationalism – after all, few people in the general population read them. But to think they and their fellow development experts do not matter is extremely dangerous because they wield enormous influence. It is their Western counterparts who are the real power behind the big global agencies: the UN, World Bank, IMF, World Trade Organization (WTO) and Western governments. And it is the theories of academic economists & development experts that form the basis of all the aid & development policies of these organisations in Africa.

African academic economists & development experts are also extremely important because they influence how most “lay” African writers, activists, campaign groups and civil society organisations deal with “the Africa Problem” (by which we mean bad governance, endemic corruption, oppression and extreme poverty) both in their own countries and pan Africa.

This is of great relevance to Zimbabweans because most make the mistake of thinking Zimbabwe is a special case. It is not, it is merely suffering from the same Africa Problem as virtually all Africa’s other 53 nations, and this article is just as relevant to it as to them.

No one can deny Africa is a mess, so that is not the issue, and it is a waste of everyone’s time to keep writing articles that simply repeat all the old problems and come out with all the old solutions that realistically will not be applied. The questions academics should be asking is who is to blame? and What can we do about it?, not in theory but in practice.

The common belief in both Africa and the West is that Africa’s corrupt, often oppressive governments are to blame. And because that is what academics say, that is what the general public and its campaigners are taught. Professor Ayittey’s article is merely one of the great majority of academic writings that preach this message (so in that sense, we are being unfair on Professor Ayittey by singling him out, for which we apologise).

But what if prevailing thought is wrong? What if bad governance is not the real cause of the Africa Problem? Then it would mean that bad governance is not the root cause, merely an effect or a symptom of the cause. And, as any hands-on expert in any field will tell you, dealing with the effect or the symptom of a problem will not cure it. This is like a doctor putting a sticking plaster on a cancerous mole, or a car mechanic merely filling the radiator when the problem is a burst pipe. To get rid of a problem, you have to get to the root cause of it, and then deal with that.

Africa has now had half a century of independence (some nations more, some less). That is a very long time. So why does no academic seem to question why, despite a truly massive aid & development effort, Africa is merely falling further and further behind the developed nations?

It is very easy and utterly obvious to blame corrupt African governments (or, as many Westerners do, that Africans are just incompetent at sorting themselves out). But the obvious is not always the answer. And after half a century of simply repeating the same old failed solutions, why does no one seemed to have asked the question: “Is it possible that bad governance is not actually the cause – has bad governance been caused by something else?” Or: “Is it possible that the aid & development taught us by the West is wrong, and instead of eradicating extreme poverty and corruption, it is actually helping to perpetuate it?”

African nations did not have and still do not have the knowledge and experience to take their citizens from poverty to affluence. Only the developed – largely Western – nations have that knowledge and expertise. So of course Africa has relied very heavily on the West to teach it what to do. Unfortunately – and this is where it has gone wrong for Africa – African academics have not questioned whether what the West has taught us is actually correct. And it very clearly is not for a variety of reasons.

First, no nation in history has ever managed to take its citizens from poverty to affluence by using the Aid Approach. So why has the West imposed this solution on Africa?

Second, EVERY nation that is now developed became so by using the Business Approach. Yet not only is this not being used in Africa in the way ALL developed nations used it, but the UN, World Bank, IMF and WTO (which are supposed to be leading the war against poverty) have actually put up barriers to Africa following the successful Western model.

Third, NOT ONE developed nation used free trade & globalisation to go from poverty to affluence. ALL of them remained protectionist until such time as they were strong enough to compete internationally – and that includes the UK, the USA and, more recently, Japan. So why is the West telling Africa that free trade & globalisation are the ways to eradicate poverty?

Fourth, ALL the success stories since World War II rejected the Western aid approach and copied the business approach used by the developed nations. These are mainly China, South Korea and Taiwan. They, too, remained protectionist and only entered the global marketplace when they were strong enough to do so.

Western economists & development experts say Hong Kong is proof that free trade & globalisation work. However, its growth was generated by highly experienced financiers. entrepreneurs & businesspeople who knew how to exploit globalisation, and they were given almost free rein by the government to do whatever was necessary to create the wealth Hong Kong wanted. Africa simply does not have that financial, entrepreneurial & business experience, and its governments are the very opposite of supportive to their entrepreneurs & businesspeople.

Also what we are not told is that extreme poverty is rife in Hong Kong, and it is getting worse.
Fifth, the West and China are heavily supporting Africa’s corrupt, often oppressive governments to stay in power with their aid & loans. But, surely, aren’t these the very worst governments African citizens could have, the ones that are least interested in poverty eradication? So why are the West and China helping them to keep power? In fact, the West even helped some of them get into power in the first place.

What the aid community seems unable to understand is that even if ALL aid & loans goes to benefit the citizens (i.e., NONE is lost to corruption or incompetence), it is still helping to keep an incompetent, corrupt or repressive government in power, and this puts up almost insurmountable barriers to Africans being able to escape oppression and poverty.

Zimbabwe is an example. Despite so-called sanctions, during Mugabe’s reign the West still gave Zimbabwe US$16 billion in official aid & development, an average of close to half a billion dollars per year, rising over his last nine years to $3/4 billion per year. Just for 2016-2018, China is giving $4 billion in grants and FDI—to which we must add the spending by Western NGOs. If this is not the West and China helping a vicious regime to stay in power, what is?

It is also well-known that apartheid only stayed in power as long as it did because of Western support. The West only “turned” on apartheid when Western public opinion forced it to. And there are countless other examples pan Africa.

The simplest research will also show that blaming African governments for being corrupt does not hold water, because it is the West that has facilitated and encouraged corruption, and even made it possible in the first place. In fact, had the West approached the Africa Problem in the way it should have done, it is likely that corruption would never have been a problem.

Professor Ayittey says “to fight corruption effectively, one only needs a free media to expose it, a pugnacious attorney general to prosecute the corrupt, and an independent judiciary to enforce the rule of law and to punish the corrupt for all to see.” Again his solution, although it sounds like common sense and obvious, is actually wrong when one is dealing with corrupt regimes where elections do not work. Many of the now developed nations were corrupt and oppressive and, once again, African academics need to study how they got rid of corruption and a ballot box that did not work, and apply the same model to Africa.

It is also wrong to lay the blame on African governments because they are only behaving in the way ALL governments will if their citizens do not stand up to them. Unless their own citizens stop them, ALL governments will sooner or later oppress, exploit and abuse their citizens. And if it is inherent in all governments to behave in this way, we must again learn how the developed nations got over this problem, and have prevented this from happening again.

This gives us the clue to the only way forward for Africa’s nations.

Africa’s academic economists & development experts have got us into this mess by failing to expose the Western myths we have been fed. There is no excuse for this because many Western economists such as Erik Reinert are seriously questioning their traditionalist colleagues and the advice they give to the UN, World Bank, IMF and WTO, and they are highly critical of the West’s aid & development policies in the developing world. African academics should be studying their work, and changing their own approach to the Africa Problem.

In fact, in its Agenda 2063 and accompanying First Ten-Year Implementation Plan 2014-2023, the AU itself has created a wonderful plan for Africa that is solidly based on the business model ALL the developed nations used to take their citizens from poverty to affluence, and has been used since by China, Taiwan and South Korea. This is something every African academic had a duty to pick up on, heavily promote and keep heavily promoting. Yet not one has done so. That is a seriously grave error.

It is very easy to sit in an office and pontificate. But academic economists & development experts wield immense power, far more than they realise. And like all great power, that can do great good or enormous damage. So they need to be extremely careful and responsible about how they use that power. It is up to you to take responsibility and make sure Africa’s campaigners do not keep going down blind alleys, but to take the right way forward.

David Barber and Tendai Ruben Mbofana are Co-Principals of The Arise-Africans Initiative

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