What Africa wants – and what the West needs to do

What Africa wants – and what the West needs to do

Poor countries need effective, delivery-oriented governance – it hardly matters what the institutional setting is.

If the West wants to position itself in Africa for the future, and in relation to China, it should focus on good governance instead of persistently calling for liberal democracy and rights for every social grouping as some type of silver bullet. On its own, democracy is not a solution to Africa’s development challenges.

In fact, at low levels of development, the contribution of democracy to growth is contested. What poor countries need is effective, delivery-oriented governance. It hardly matters what the institutional setting is.

Democracy and wholesale respect for the full spectrum of human rights, from first to fourth generation, is an undeniable global good. All people aspire to self-actualisation – the desire to have the freedom to make their own choices and to give their children the opportunity to make life choices based on their priorities.

China is already Africa’s largest trading partner and is set to expand that role in the future

Efforts to compensate for a lack of security and government capacity, the two initial transitions in the process of state formation, by extending or deepening democracy offer limited prospects, however. Neither China nor the middle powers such as Turkey, the Middle Eastern countries and others that compete for influence in Africa are liberal democracies.

Democracy (a government of the people, by the people and for the people) is important, and there’s no doubt that Africa needs the basics, aka what is generally termed the first generation of civil and political rights. These are regular elections, elected leaders constrained by term limits, a strong and loyal opposition (loyal in the sense of being committed to national development), freedom of speech and strong institutions to uphold the rule of law. But most of all we need developmentally oriented governments and leaders who prioritise the needs of their people.

The African state is an external imposition. It is not based on a stable security foundation – on control of the territorial area for which it is legally responsible, within which a single governing system dominates.

Instead of steady progress through the three classic transitions of first creating stability, then building capacity and, in time, becoming more inclusive (or democratic), Africans are told (and many believe) that democracy will resolve all their woes. It won’t. Without stability and more state capacity, the push towards democracy is not a solution. In fact, it may complicate or worsen things.

With the rise of China, the world is again buffeted by big power competition

Deeper democracy in the sense of liberal democracy doesn’t compensate for Africa’s lack of stability and poor state capacity. In each of these dimensions, Africa trails other regions. It’s like arguing that once Africa becomes a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council or the G20 as these bodies are currently structured, it will somehow tilt the development floor in Africa’s direction. Much more important than either is the reform of the international financial institutions, derisking private sector investment and suchlike.

None of this means stepping away from the essentials of electoral democracy, such as free and fair elections, minimum free speech and a clear division of powers. Some, such as Adam Przeworski and Robert Barro, even argue that early democratisation fuels corruption, patronage and suchlike. A corollary to this reasoning is the belief that the more inclusive a peace agreement is, the better. Or that a larger, representative cabinet will somehow do better.

Actually, peace agreements generally fail when they do not include the men with the guns (i.e. the most important factions with power), and if the provisions in the agreement are not implemented. A cabinet needs a minimum representation, but competence is at least equally if not more important, as any South African will tell you when contemplating the large crop of ministers and deputy ministers who mismanage the country.

This is not an argument against democracy. It’s asking what the appropriate nature of democracy is given the development levels of many African states. It’s about development partners changing the language of democracy to good governance.

Asia has become the locus of future economic growth, lifting global growth including that in Africa

The two, democracy and good governance, generally overlap, with democracy considered (and generally proven as) the best way to ensure good governance in the long term. But while waiting for the long term we need to get through the short and the medium terms at a time when 35% of Africans live in extreme poverty and average incomes in Africa are only 74% of the average for the rest of the world.

Since the end of the Cold War, as of 1989, the West has pushed for an ever-expanding swath of democracy and human rights. Africa experienced a surge in the quantity and quality of democracy in the years that followed, largely because of the opportunity offered with the end to superpower competition in Southern and the Horn of Africa. Concerned about the widening gap with Africa, key Western countries pushed for the Millennium and later the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Recent years have seen the SDGs lose momentum as, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, their goals disappear into the rear-view mirror. Eventually, it was neither levels of democracy nor geopolitics that unlocked growth, but the commodities supercycle in the first years of this century that improved Africa’s development prospects.

Now, with the rise of China, the world is again buffeted by big power competition and the West finds itself at a distinct disadvantage. Aid, investment and support from the West are often accompanied by demands for improvements in specific rights. China offers to trade, build infrastructure and invest, admittedly associated with secrecy clauses, high interest rates and little debt relief. China is already Africa’s largest trading partner and is set to expand that role in the future.

A cabinet needs a minimum representation, but competence is at least equally if not more important

Asia has become the locus of future global economic growth. More rapid economic growth in Africa could eventually follow, but the window of opportunity is closing. This is largely because of Africa’s rapid population growth, the impact of labour-saving technology, and the effects of climate change that will see poorer countries suffer most.

If democracy and the full suite of first-, second-, third- and fourth-generation human rights generally follow development, then Africa’s friends need to focus on those governance aspects that can unlock more rapid growth. That will, in time, also translate into deeper and more widespread democracy. A focus on good governance is also a requirement from China and provides a common meeting place for collaboration on support and investment into Africa.

Image: master 2/Alamy Stock Photo