Africa: The Return of the “Developmental State”

Source: African Agenda Editorial, 21 April (Third World Network Africa)

Since the need for stimulus packages in the developed world became an issue after the global economic crisis, there has been a strident call for the return of the 'developmental state'. Africa, once more caught in the whirlwind of the global economic downturn is mulling over its lost opportunities as it went for broke and under the guidance of the IFIs abandoned the developmental state agenda that most of its countries set for themselves after independence, according to the last editorial of African Agenda published this week by Third World Network Africa.

The Washington Consensus that deemphasized direct state involvement in economic transformation and opted for private involvement became the lot of most African countries. The result was that even social interventions in the area of education, health, transport, and housing among others that are key in the development of the state were abandoned and left for private commercial gain. Some three decades on and goaded on by 'stimulus packages', Africa is yearning for a return to its 'developmental state' agenda.

Some have however cautioned against a return to the developmental state with a good stocktaking of the challenges of the previous attempt, without learning the lessons of other countries like the Asian Tigers who went the path of the developmental state and succeeded. The particular earlier failure of Africa may not necessarily be that the policies were wrong as the return to the developmental state by even the developed countries in the era of global crisis clearly shows the merit in those policies. (See page 9 Global crisis must prompt Africa to transform its economic structure). Both the Africa Union and the UNECA, at their recent 4th Joint Meetings of the AU Conference of Ministers of Economy and Finance and ECA Ministers of Finance, Planning and Economic Development (March 28-29 in Addis Ababa) have added their voices to the call for Africa's return to the developmental state (See page 5 The African state must be back in the saddle).

Prior to this the UNECA had launched its annual Economic Report on Africa titled, 'Governing Development in Africa - The Role of the State in Economic Transformation'. The report unequivocally proffered the return to the developmental state as fundamental to drawing Africa from the jaws of poverty and deprivation. It goes on to define the developmental state that Africa needs as one in which the 'state takes as its overall socio-economic goals the long term growth and structural transformation of the economy, with equity.' The UNECA's Executive Secretary, Abdoulie Janneh in support of the call asked that African countries return to the 'effective developmental state' with, 'clear visions of development paths and coherent, consistent and coordinated planning frameworks.' 

The global crisis and the response of the developed countries to turn round their economies may have awaken African countries to the need to return to the developmental state but it should also remind them of the blow that Structural Adjustment dealt them. The unfinished agenda of the developmental state that Structural Adjustment curtailed must not be lost on Africans. They must pick up the necessary lessons from the challenges of the previous attempts at implementing the developmental state and harness the positives from them for the next stage.

From Europe through the Americas to Asia, the success of most countries can be traced to their recourse to the developmental state as the basis of building their countries.This has been reinforced by the 'stimulus packages' with a heavy state influence they implemented after the global crisis to put their economies back on track. The irony is that Africa faced with a more debilitating crisis through the 70s to the 90s was advised by the same countries and institutions that the answer to its challenges lies in state withdrawal from the economy. Thus the state the only entity with a huge potential to turn around Africa's economies through various interventions left the scene for private sector operators. The result was that poverty was accentuated as a minute group of the people, the upper middle class shared the spoils of Structural Adjustment to the detriment of the majority lower class whose safety nets in the form of provision of subsidized social services were withdrawn.


To reverse these trends, the state must return to its core business of protecting its citizenry from the vagaries of poverty through not only social interventions but state-led sustainable economic stimulus packages that ensure social equity. It must also be at the centre of transforming Africa's economies from their primary commodity dependency status to a value addition process that gingers Africa's industrialization. The earlier attempts at import-substitution based industries must be looked at again and retooled to oil the wheels of Africa's industrial revolution. Agriculture which is a major player in Africa must be put on track to ensure agro-processing and this must be linked to the total industrialization effort of the continent.

All these also calls for a return to planning which was kicked out of the ministries of most African countries and replaced by 'development edicts' from the IFIs and socalled development partners. African countries if they don't have planners must invest in them, institute planning departments/ministries that come up with comprehensive development plans that seek to redress the many years of collapse of planning.

At the heart of it all is the political will and commitment by the state to retake its rightful place in the development of its people. The abandoned developmental state is to all intents and purposes the answer to untangling Africa's development challenges as shown by both the Asian countries and now the Western countries 'stimulus package' in response to the global crisis. The state cannot abdicate its duty of 'developing' its citizenry to private commercial capital, who has profit as its sole aim. It will be an abject dereliction of duty towards its citizens! Back to the developmental state and drawing board must Africa go!