Africa’s quest for policy sovereignty

A perceptive graduate student reminded me in class recently that the United States government spends billions of dollars in subsidies, tax exemptions and aid to American farmers. This is the kind of policy the World Bank and the IMF banned African governments from doing at the height of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs).

Agricultural subsidies and relief packages to farmers serve a dual role. First, they keep farmers in business especially at a time when they otherwise would be pummelled by a slump in demand or destructive weather. Second, they keep food prices from skyrocketing in the event that farmers make heavy losses, thus crashing out of production and potentially triggering a crisis of supply. In a sense, subsidies subsidise production but especially consumption.

In Africa, the World and its twin, the IMF, told government policymakers that subsidies were a bane not a boon as they were faulted for distorting and interfering with market fundamentals and the free flow of forces of demand and supply.

Instead, the policy prescription went, farmers should be left to their own devices, to tussle it out in the free market arena and that government should restrict its role to providing an enabling macroeconomic environment by nipping inflation in the bud, maintaining currency credibility, providing security and protecting property.

Similar policy dictates were applied in higher education where the World Bank reasoned that higher education is more of a private than a public good, that university education was a luxury to be paid for by those who could afford and that government funding instead should go towards providing elementary education. Needless to say, in Europe and North America, universities including private ones that on their own are incredibly financially endowed nevertheless receive hefty state funding, particularly for research.

The two policies in agriculture and education, among others in the grand scheme of SAPs, turned out to be deeply flawed and representative of the ill-thought measures that African governments undertook at the behest of international financial institutions.

Consider this. In the hallowed global free market, vulnerable and financially under-resourced African farmers are expected to compete with their European and North American competitors, even as the latter benefit from huge state subsidies while the African farmer has to fight it alone.

Contrary to articles of faith that have belaboured to sanitise SAPs, the promised miracle that was to result from austerity measures and the sweeping, if uncritical, embrace of free market orthodoxy simply did not come to fruition.

Arguments that suggest that SAPs and the entire menu of externally dictated economic reform measures in the continent did not go far enough or were only partially implemented, as Nickolas van de Walle has argued, are simply unconvincingly if not entirely misleading. In 1998, after nearly two decades of implementing SAPs, Thandika Mkandawire and Charles Soludo provided a compelling indictment, concluding that SAPs ‘are grossly defective as a policy package for addressing the endemic poverty and pervasive underdevelopment of the region [Africa]’ even as the World Bank insisted that ‘Adjustment was working.’

Obviously, African leaders (or perhaps more accurately rulers) have always been complicit in many of the external machinations that continue to haemorrhage the continent. Sometime around the mid-2000s, the Voice of America’s Ugandan journalist Dr Shaka Ssali asked Uganda’s now long-surviving ruler, President Yoweri Museveni, if he regretted any decision or action he had taken as head of state.

Museveni was at pains recalling anything, quite typical of a man who thinks of himself as somewhat infallible and omnipotent! After a long pause and deep reflection, Mr Museveni told Shaka that he regretted having listened too much to foreign advice on matters of managing Uganda’s economy and the handling of national defence and security issues.

Quite instructively, more than two decades later, Mr Museveni and other African rulers remain beholden to the dictates and patronage of Western financial institutions and donor agencies that purport to know what Africa needs, what is good for its people and how the continent can overcome its poverty trap.

Even after publicly regretting taking wrong advice from his Western benefactors, Museveni remains firmly ensconced to IMF and World Bank tutelage, dependent on their aid largesse thereby continuing to surrender to the commands of his foreign financiers.

Aid dependence has persisted, and the best that rulers like Museveni have managed is to diversify this dependence, bringing into the fold new controllers and masters like China and India.

Meanwhile, African economic and political elites along with Western commentators remain convinced that African economies have performed wonders in the past few decades and will continue to roar forward. This would be fine only that the growth that is often hyped is scarcely robust and holds very little potential of bringing about structural transformation as youth populations surge and mass unemployment intensifies.

Stuck with and beholden to International Financial Institutions and Western donors, African governments and ruling elites are unable to dare break decisively from neoliberal orthodoxy and pursue a decidedly different policy path whether a wholly novel one or at a minimum experimenting with the so called Beijing Consensus that takes the model of capitalism with Chinese characteristics.

As I recently argued on this platform, if the outside world were to transform Africa, today the continent would not be occupying the lowest rungs of global development indicators and measures. No continent compares to Africa in the extent of foreign (largely Western) influence and intrusion, ideas and models, programmes and projects all ostensibly to save the continent from its sorry state.

The idea that so called experts and consultants with textbook knowledge can engineer socioeconomic change in Africa is one of the greatest illusions. Social change and economic transformation world over have historically been fundamentally organic processes rooted in local contexts, ideas and interests.

Jimi Adesina has made a clarion call for reasserting Africa’s policy sovereignty, the urgent need for African public policymakers to reclaim the mantle of charting the continent’s future away from foreign consultants and experts who often have superficial and shallow understanding of the issues, the contexts and the problems over which they are dictating policy directions and prescriptions.

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