New Year, New Questions: Marco Di Nunzio

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In the latest of our ‘New Year, New Questions’ series, Marco Di Nunzio draws on his research on Ethiopia to highlight the need to rethink what inclusive growth really means for marginalised young people across the continent, and beyond. Marco is a FNRS Postdoctoral Fellow at the Laboratoire d’Anthropologie des Mondes Contemporains at the Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium. He has written articles on the street economy, political mobilization, community policing and the life trajectories of marginalized youth in urban Ethiopia. For more info on Marco’s work, click here.

In the last few years we have witnessed something of a paradigm shift in how the African continent has been represented in media reports and business accounts. In the 1990s, the African continent was described as a black hole of sorts, full of failed states posing a threat to rich countries in the west. Nowadays, discourses on the rising African middle class, accounts of the spectacular transformation of African urban landscapes, and reports on the growing GDP rates of African countries paint Africa as a new frontier for business and investment. Africa is rising and open for business!

Critiques of these narratives have changed the exclamation mark to a question mark, debating the real extent of Africa’s economic growth – is Africa rising? This is not the question I want to raise here. Whatever institution, figure, or scholar we choose to trust, walking around cities such as Addis Ababa it is hard to deny that the volume of capital and investment circulating has increased and a growing number of people have access to a range of consumer goods that was unthinkable 10 or 20 years ago. As we enter the year 2015, we should not exclusively focus on discussing the degree and the proportions of economic growth. Perhaps, it is time to ask more fundamental questions and interrogate the formulas and assumptions currently informing narratives on Africa’s economic growth: what are the political underpinnings of such growth? Is economic growth fostering the emergence of more comprehensive forms of social redistribution or deepening social inequalities?

Delivering growth: African success stories

The steps that national elites should take to foster investments, efficiency, and economic growth are subject to fierce debate but donors and governments seem to agree on one thing: political stability is key. Countries described as African success stories – Ethiopia, Rwanda and, to some extent, Uganda – are governed by political parties that have been in power for more than 20 years: the ability of these governments to centralize resources and steer interventions has been seen as key to their recent and remarkable economic growth.

And indeed, the link between political stability and growth seems obvious. Moreover, political stability is desirable on its own terms: few of us would sign up for a life framed by political conflict and volatility.

Yet, we still need to make sense of the kind of growth currently being pursued. If we read business reports, media accounts, and some of the academic literature that explores the link between political stability and growth, we see that commentators enumerate the benefits of economic growth and present political authoritarianism and growing social inequality as transitional phases. When critics point to evidence that the apparatus of political control is expanding or that patterns of social differentiation are deepening, they are told to wait for growth and development to be fully realised; to wait for that approaching modernity when all skeptics will be proven wrong. Some commentators even present inequality as necessary for growth: low wages, they argue, will lure investment, increase productivity, and boost growth.

Those who laud these East African success stories critique authoritarianism, but not the political stability or economic growth that it supposedly enables. Political stability, economic growth, social equity and the fair distribution of political and civil rights are perceived as sequential goals, that culminate in the realisation of democratic, developed, and affluent societies. Thus, we are faced with normative understandings of development and change and a peculiar politics of time, through which whatever happens in the present is justified as an inevitable step towards the future – that future.

A long time ago, Hannah Arendt suggested that a sense of necessity and finality are fertile grounds for authoritarian politics. What we need is a different perspective on time. Instead of fixating on an imagination, we need to travel ‘Back To The Present’ and see the challenges that lie ahead.

Elections and the Imagination of Growth

So what should we be looking at in the present? This year, many countries will be facing a national election. Of interest is not just whether elections will be meaningfully competitive, but also whether successful political parties will open up debate and discussion with those they represent.

In 2010, for example, the ruling Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front won an overwhelming electoral victory, giving it total control of the Parliament, with only one seat held by an opposition party. I followed those elections through the eyes of what the government has described as the ‘unemployed youth’. I have continued to study what Ethiopia’s economic growth means from the perspectives of marginalised youth – those involved in government-supported entrepreneurship schemes and others working on wooden scaffolding, building the Dubai-style steel and glass buildings, which are now the symbols of Ethiopia’s success story.

Among them, are many who voted for the ruling party in 2010 and might cast their vote in that direction again in 2015. A great deal of research analyses the apparatus of mobilization and control that enable long-running incumbents to garner votes and remain in power. However, in Ethiopia many of those I spoke with were driven by the hope that they too would benefit from the country’s economic achievements.

Acknowledging their demands and desires, it might be tempting to fall back on well-worn buzz-words – the need for ‘inclusive growth’ and ‘participatory development’. And, indeed, the Ethiopian government might argue that it is already on track in this regard, having established youth-focused employment programmes. But words like ‘inclusion’ and ‘participation’ remain empty if we do not grasp in what, and for what, people have been included. In reality, employing the unemployed does not tackle the predicaments of marginalised young people, when the employment on offer pays low wages and subjects them to bad working conditions. Similarly, there is no point in claiming that youth ‘entrepreneurialism’ will solve poverty, and then stigmatising and criminalising those who ‘fail’ to achieve success for lacking self-determination. Poverty is not a matter of skills and capabilities. It is a reality that is embedded in political and social hierarchies, which have been historically enforced and reproduced.

Keeping this mind, perhaps, would help with generating a new range of questions about growth, both for the present and the future. To begin the year, I thus want to ask: to what extent is it possible to re-think the path to growth? To rethink the goals of growth? And perhaps more importantly, to what extent will previously ignored claims and demands from below shape how development, economic growth and collective wellbeing are conceptualised and pursued, not just how they are measured or assessed?


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