When one thinks of Africa, images of corruption, sectarian violence, lawlessness and despots such as Robert Mugabe or Idi Amin often come to mind. Emerging Africa: How 17 Countries Are Leading The Way, a thoroughly researched, well-written book by Steven Radelet, a Professor at Georgetown University and a Former Senior Fellow at the Center For Global Development, serves to dispel that stereotype for a lot of Africa. While countries such as Zimbabwe (which averaged a -2.9% growth rate per capita between 1996 and 2008) certainly fit that stereotype, there are in fact 17 countries* with more than 300 million people residing in them that are in fact growing. These countries, most notably Ghana and Tanzania, have put behind them stagnation, dictatorships and conflict, and have achieved steady economic growth, deepening democracy, stronger leadership and falling poverty.
Radelet suggests that there are 5 trends that are responsible for the growth in these countries. The first is the rise of more democratic and accountable governments, including many peaceful transitions from one democratically elected government to another. Over one-half of Africa is democratic and the era of African strongmen like Mobutu Sese Seko and Charles Taylor is largely over. Radelet argues that this one trend has been the most responsible for the rise of the emerging African nations. This ties into the second trend, which is the implementation of more sensible economic policies. While before many countries had restrictive regulatory policies and often doled out money to special interests, they have now removed many trade barriers, strengthened the rule of law and generally made it easier to conduct business. The third one is an end of a decades-long debt crisis. While previously many governments were only able to go to the IMF or World Bank for loans, they can now go to other organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. While the IMF was right to demand accountability of recipients, many of their requirements were too stringent or they asked for too many changes too quickly—which was often unrealistic for many countries—and played a role in many of them falling into high levels of debt. Since then, the IMF has supported debt reduction and/or debt relief, which has alleviated the burden on many of the countries. In addition, because many of these NGOs are more interested in partnering with these countries, they have collaborated with them to ensure more effective use of aid and have applied far less stringent austerity measures.
The fourth major trend is that the spread of new technologies—primarily increased phone and internet penetration—are creating new opportunities for business and political accountability. Many Africans have been empowered as they have leapfrogged from having no access to any technology whatsoever to using mobile phones in innovative ways. For example, mobile technology has allowed farmers to figure out market pricing, enabling them to sell their crops to the person offering the highest price. The fifth major trend is the emergence of a new generation of policymakers, activists and business leaders. Many Africans who have been educated and have worked abroad have returned back to help grow and improve their home countries. Combining what they have gleaned abroad with a sense of giving back to their home countries, they have put “best practices” to use in ways that have already helped their countries. These trends have enabled these countries to break free of the morass or host of other problems such as the “resource curse” that have afflicted many countries (and unfortunately continues to adversely impact Nigeria, although to a lesser extent than before) and focus on development and growth. In the past 15 to 20 years, many key development metrics are heading in the right direction: incomes have grown, fertility rates have dropped and primary school enrollment rates are higher.
Overall, Steven Radelet’s book is a very interesting, well-written and researched book. He does a great job of discussing the important development metrics and uses sourced data to show quantifiable improvements. He also points out that even though these 17 emerging countries have made substantial progress, there is still a significant need for improvement (i.e., most African health systems are in a really bad state and need significant investment) and major hiccups such as the 2007-2008 electoral violence in Kenya still occur. He also lists some of the ongoing challenges that Africa will continue to face, including managing the relationship with China as it becomes more entrenched in Africa and intertwined with its growth. Finally, I’m glad that he called out The West and their absurd protectionist policies by saying, “It does little good to preach to poor counties that private sector development and integration with global markets are the keys to development if rich countries continue to subsidize their own farms and restrict trade.” I wish more vote-grabbing, union-appeasing Western politicians paid heed to Radelet on that last point.
There are a few ways that he can improve his book and where I respectfully disagree with him. Like many other books focused on development economics, it can be enhanced with personalized examples or anecdotes. While his chapter on The Coming of The Cheetahs has several incredible stories, there is a paucity of anecdotes or personalized stories in the other ones. Also, Radelet is a strong believer in the government being at the forefront of long term sustainable growth. While I feel that the government has a role to play, as more of a free market economist, I feel that its role should be less than what Radelet advocates.
Overall, this is an attention-grabbing book that gives me hope for a lot of Africa. I recommend it to anyone interested in development economics, learning more about how Africa has changed significantly in the past couple decades or how Africa is on its way to success.
* The 17 countries that Steven Radelet labels as emerging are: Botswana, Burkina Faso, Cape Verde, Ethiopia, Ghana, Lesotho, Mali, Mauritius, Mozambique, Namibia, Rwanda, São Tomé and Principe, Seychelles, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda and Zambia.