The History of African Development, an open-source textbook!

The History of African Development
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Education is an engine of economic development and of political participation in Africa and elsewhere. It fosters innovation and an informed citizenry that is better able to hold governments accountable. Unfortunately, access to educational materials such as textbooks is limited in the Global South. This problem is acute in most African countries. That is why the African Economic History Network (AEHN), led by economic historians based in Europe, embarked on a wonderful initiative: the creation of an open-access textbook with contributions from social scientists based in Africa, Europe, and North America.

The History of African Development is therefore freely available to anyone with internet access. Contributors to the textbook are scholars of African history, economics, development studies, politics, sociology, or some combination of those because many of them are interdisciplinary scholars. The result is a textbook that will prove useful to educators and students in African universities and elsewhere. The textbook has already been used at the African School of Economics in Benin, the  University of Ghana, and Stellenbosch University in South Africa, among others.

The History of African Development is organized chronologically and with the goal of understanding the drivers of and obstacles to development in Africa, ranging from the slave trades (Chapter 3) to the rise of education (Chapter 8), to an examination of poverty and intra-regional trade in the contemporary period (Chapters 16 and 17). Any textbook on the history of development that ignored politics would be severely incomplete, so I contributed a chapter entitled Democracy and Development in Africa Since the 1960s.

Students are generally aware that many African countries rank among the poorest in the world and that many are hybrid regimes or outright autocracies. However, they may know much less about (i) major changes in levels of democracy and development in recent decades and (ii) the fact that some African countries are much more democratic and developed than others. These two observations thread the chapter.

Changes in levels of democracy and development over time

Between the mid-1970s and the mid-1990s, economists and political scientists were discouraged by zero-growth in many African countries. Some called this period Africa’s “lost decades”, during which the post-independence euphoria gave way to military coups in weak states that accumulated public debt. However, the average sub-Saharan African country has grown above 3% per year in the last 30 years. For example, the average growth rate over that period is 4% in Botswana and 4.2% in Senegal. By contrast, the average country in Europe has grown below 2% (2.1% in the UK and 1.7% in France). These growth rates are at odds with a simplistic picture of long-term stagnation in Africa (see Figure 1, left).

The reduction of Africa’s democratic gap since 1990 (see Figure 1, right) is very much at odds with simplistic pictures of “strong man dictatorships.” African countries, and to some extent non-African countries, have also become more democratic or less autocratic since 1990, when the end of the Cold War and civil society pressures in Francophone and Anglophone countries, such as Benin and Zambia, succeeded in removing autocrats from power.

Figure 1. Democracy and economic development in Africa from 1960 to 2017

Figure 1. Democracy and economic development in Africa from 1960 to 2017

Overall, the positive take-away is that the average African country has become richer and more democratic in the last 30 years. One negative take-away is that the economic gap between African and non-African countries has actually increased (Figure 1, left). This is because, while European growth rates have been very low, the growth rates of many non-African countries, especially Asian ones, have been higher than those in African countries. This runs against the thesis of some economists, such as Robert Solow, who expected poorer countries to “catch-up” or converge in GDP per capita to richer ones as long as they could replicate the savings rate and the technologies of richer ones. One reason for this persistent economic gap between African countries and developed countries lies in enduring differences in education and innovation, as emphasized by endogenous growth theory. Initiatives such as the African School of Economics founded by Leonard Wantchekon are precisely aimed at reducing these differences.

Political hindrances to development: the three Cs of bad governance

Another reason for persistent lags in economic development lies in what I label the “three Cs of bad governance”: corruption, clientelism, and conflict. Their good governance counterparts would be accountability and the rule of law, programmatic policies, and political stability (I define all these terms in the chapter). The three C’s help explain why the standard of living in some African countries has long been stagnant in some countries suffering from all three C’s, such as the DRC, Somalia, and Zimbabwe. States such as the DRC are extreme cases of “neopatrimonialism”, countries where a modern rational-legal administration on the surface coexists with an underlying system of exchanging votes for goods (clientelism) and elites capture public resources (corruption).

On the flipside, accountability, programmatic policies, and peace (the good governance counterparts) help explain the rapid economic rise of countries such as Botswana, Mauritius, and to some extent others such as Senegal (Figure 2). Botswana and Mauritius are two very different countries but both are often praised as African success stories. In both cases, good governance helps explain their spectacular economic development since independence.

Figure 2. Economic and political trends in four African countries since independence

Figure 2. Democracy and economic development in Africa from 1960 to 2017

The two countries share very few structural characteristics. Mauritius is an island in the Indian Ocean and is among the 50 smallest countries in the world, while Botswana is a landlocked country in Southern Africa 285 times larger in size than Mauritius. Botswana’s economic growth, visible in Figure 5, has been fueled by diamonds since the late 1960s. In contrast, Mauritius has no exploitable natural resources. Moreover, the population density of Mauritius is the highest in Africa (620 inhabitants per km2) while Botswana’s is one of the lowest (four inhabitants per km2). One similarity is that ethnic diversity is low in both cases when compared to the average African country. In Mauritius, over 60 percent of the population is of Indian descent, although Indo-Mauritians are a diverse group; a large minority are of African descent; and others are Creoles that combine African, Arab, Indian, and European ancestry. Botswana is rather homogeneous because about 80 percent of the population are Tswana.

After independence in the late 1960s, political elites in both countries designed and implemented programmatic policies—as opposed to clientelism—that strategically favored long-term development. Both countries have also enjoyed political stability (no coups or large-scale violence), and low levels of corruption. The first two presidents of Botswana, Seretse Khama (1966-1980) and Quett Masire (1980-1998), exercised farsighted leadership by investing early revenues from diamonds—discovered in 1967, a year after independence—in education and health.

Lacking natural resources, the government of Mauritius has tried hard and managed in recent decades to diversify the economy. Sugar and agriculture remain important exports, but fishing and textile industries gained some ground after independence. More recently, the government has fostered tourism and the information and technology sector. The government has also combined low taxes and secure property rights to attract foreign direct investment. To dampen inequality, the government developed a welfare state (the Mauritius Labor Party had pushed for an incipient welfare state in the latter years of colonial rule). After independence, at a time when international financial institutions were pushing for privatization, the government expanded the welfare state to include a National Pensions Fund, universal healthcare, and free education through university.

By examining a wealth of topics and cases, the editors and contributors to the textbook hope that educators and students can both better understand the history of African development and even craft the public policies of tomorrow.

Joan Ricart-Huguet (@ricarthuguet) is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Loyola University Maryland. His research interests encompass political elites, colonial investments and their legacies, education, and culture, with a focus on East and West Africa.

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