Impediments to holistic development in African countries
A common argument adduced in defense of Africa’s abysmal development pattern or lack of it is that African policy makers lack the will and dedication essential to crafting and assiduously implementing well-recognized socio-economic vectors that other countries in the West and East Asia have cleverly adopted to spur development. In the case of Nigeria, critics point to the fact that in 1960 South Korea and Nigeria had comparable levels of national income or parity in Gross Domestic Product. From this base level, it is then extrapolated to the present differential in economic performance by both countries, and conclude that South Koreans did much better because Nigerians are saddled by a succession of rotten leadership, and corrupt public servants. This has been a consistent explanatory theme and criticism, but both are wide of the mark. Unfortunately, however, they have been the focal points of attempts to rectify African development trajectory by well-meaning experts from donor nations and multinational development agencies.
Rotten leadership and bureaucratic corruption are not indigenous to African countries; they thrive quite nicely in developed and developing nations of the world. The only reason for observed differential impact on outcomes is that institutions in Western economies and other moderating socio-cultural observances are so well-advanced and refined that they effectively contain and minimize the negative effects of bad leadership and corrupt practices. By institutions I here make reference to legal, economic, and political systems that govern behavior, and by socio-cultural observances I point to the unifying power of a commonly observed religion, a common language, and cultural adherences that infuse a sense of belonging and collective ownership of a defined territorial competence with sovereignty or what is commonly called a country.
In African countries, the Tower of Babel effect (Genesis 11:1-9) is very much in evidence through its capacity to discourage organized effort via a multiplicity of distinct languages, and allegiances to just as many social belief systems and cultural constraints. This is problematic in crafting development-friendly public policies that at once address the demands of the various constituencies that make up the polity. Any development policy thrust in this context of disorganized state is a near impossible feat, and naturally such attempts fail; but this reality has not deterred African leaders from introducing new ones with prospects just as promising as those before them. Meanwhile a country’s effort at development is defeated, and the country either stagnates or retrogresses. That many African countries are very weak or failing is a manifestation of the inability of governments to carry out their core functions such as the exercise of monopoly on violence, provision of essential infrastructure, enforcing the rule of law, and providing basic welfare services to the masses. A debasement of these capabilities leaves a devastating vacuum that cannot support any development initiative in any country.
Legal, economic, and political institutions in a country are invariably dependent on the quality of the educational system the country’s citizenry enjoys. In almost all countries in sub-Saharan Africa the quality of primary, secondary and tertiary education is at best irredeemably bad; this quality notwithstanding, access to them is just as abysmal. So far, especially in Nigeria, the solution peddled by policy makers is the expansion of access but not much on the question of quality. The outcome is that every year more functional illiterates are unleashed into private and public sectors starved of a well-educated workforce. The result is a debilitating paucity of the liberating effects of a liberal arts education, and scarcity of job-ready graduates with marketable technical skills. Without these qualities in place, African countries would remain unable to attract and retain out-sourced jobs by global corporations, and would perpetually remain at the mercy of a never-ending chain of development experts.
A better understanding of what development means
For over sixty years, right after the Second World War, the development ‘industry’ that emerged from the ashes of burnt-out European economies, began its march towards Africa and other parts of the world to spread the gospel of market-led development theories. The underlying assumption was that development is a technical process that can be mechanically applied to all societies without much variation in expected outcome. After witnessing the spectacular outcomes of such mechanical approach in Western Europe and East Asia, the idea that a one-size-fits-all development methodology was taken as settled reality. Now it is clear that this reasoning is faulty for two good reasons: (1) the assumption of what development entails is incomplete, and (2) the successes witnessed in Europe and East Asia are a result of a long history of effective and sustaining social- institutions that are malleable and receptive to development initiatives. The attempt to replicate such successes in Africa has failed miserably because African countries lack the necessary institutions needed for sustained development. In other words, institutions matter; thus, a different articulation of development and how to engender it are now imperative.
Development, like any other endeavor to improve social welfare must be holistic and attend to economic, healthcare, educational, and spiritual or religious aspects of human existence that improve and sustain a minimal standard of living within existing realities in a country. This means looking at things from the point of view of those whose welfare one intends to improve. In early attempts to introduce development policies in sub-Saharan Africa, the overwhelming emphasis was on the economic aspect of human conditions in total disregard of other equally important necessities that engender human development. Unfortunately, this deficiency in understanding continues to be present in development models currently applied to African countries. A country that does not have a steady-state supply of electricity, a functional educational system that enhances its human capital, an efficient legal system that enforces the rule of law, and the liberalizing effects of a progressive socio-political system cannot industrialize and engage in the manufacture of goods; it also means that it cannot take advantage of beneficial externalities that accompany production of goods and services, which in turn deprives it of technologies that permeate and enhance other sectors of the economy. This is the lot of many African countries.
A step in the right direction
Personal development requires careful planning. It is also a lengthy process that demands efficient use of time, setting and accomplishing goals, acquisition of useful knowledge through formal and informal education, proper nourishing of the body, access to good healthcare, and purposeful use of accumulated human capital. The development of a country is no different; it requires all of the above plus the collective will to take full ownership of the country by performing the duties required of citizens such as paying taxes, participation in the electoral process, and unwavering fidelity to the rule of law. But in the mix of all these must be a unifying factor or factors such as a common language, affiliation with a particular religion, identification with a common ethnicity, or uniform acceptance of a form of government. The absence of a unifying factor amongst the citizenry makes the development of a country a difficult proposition. A closer look at the myriad of cultural, ethnic, religious, and linguistic cleavages that decorate the landmass of Africa is sufficient to illustrate this point.
For African countries to achieve meaningful and sustained development, it is now clear to both partial and disinterested observers of the continent that policy makers and those whose affairs are governed must engage in a partnership of constructive planning for growth, and unifying factors that endow citizens with ownership rights to their country. Ownership rights and vested interest can be readily achieved through effective use of the tax system. Through taxation governments not only derive needed revenue stream to fund social projects, it also empowers citizens to demand transparency on how tax revenues are spent. Unfortunately in most African countries governments do not rely on tax revenues to fund projects; they would rather rely on revenue from natural resources, loans from multinational institutions, and foreign donors, all in the concerted effort to avoid accountability to their citizens. The citizens, naturally, are quite content not to be burdened with taxation. But this disposition is defeatist, for it severs the necessary and important relationship that undergirds sustainable development. It is upon such foundation that other development vectors such as education, transportation networks, steady-state supply of electricity, financial institutions, telecommunication, and healthcare are productively deployed. So much for a one-size-fits-all model of development.