Africa at a Crossroad: Between Development and Transformation

Sandra Appiah April 21, 2011

By Wilson Idahosa Aiwuyor

More than five decades after independence, attempts by most African countries to bring about development and improve the living standards of their citizens have recorded some successes and many failures. We are now at a critical juncture in the history of the continent. Young people across the continent, from North Africa to Burkina Faso, Swaziland, Djibouti, Cameroon, Nigeria and elsewhere are increasingly active in political spaces, seeking to transform the socio-economic and political relations in their societies.

Africans want to transform relations to meet the aspirations of all in the society. All citizens want their governments to serve them, and not just vice versa. Workers want livable wages and better working conditions. Students want affordable and quality education. Women want gender equality. Everybody wants protection from the destruction of their environment by corporations. And citizens want their country’s resources to be used for their common good. Indeed, young people across Africa are now determined more than ever to realize their aspirations for human dignity, freedom, and social justice – aspirations that could not be guaranteed by the kind of development that the continent has pursued for the greater part of the post-independence era.

Human development indices – measuring standards of living, life expectancy rate, and literacy rate, among others – indicate that the continent has not made significant progress in achieving the aspirations of its people over the past decades. According to the UN Human Development Report for 2010, average life expectancy in sub-Saharan Africa is only 52 years, the lowest in all the regions of the world. In fact, some African countries have lower life expectancy today than they did 40 years ago.

Most African countries gained political independence in the 1960s and 1970s. For the most part of the post-independence era, the majority of African countries have been confronted by poor governance, dependency on foreign aid and assistance, low human capital development, low production capacity and low level of scientific innovation.

Over the years, development has been championed as a means of changing the socio-economic condition of the continent. But today, while we appreciate some little progress that has been made, we must also probe how the failures of development strategies have contributed to depletion of living standards on the continent.

Development has often been described as improvement in the standards of living of a people, derived mainly from increase in economic growth. Economic growth is achieved from increase in productivity, measured in terms of gross domestic product (GDP). Economic growth has always been touted as the main driver of development.

The goals that the pursuit of development is supposed to achieve include life sustenance, self-esteem/personal dignity, and freedom. Life sustenance refers to the ability to provide basic needs, including food, shelter, and clothing; while self-esteem in this context refers to the personal dignity derived from one’s ability to sustain oneself. A people’s self-esteem is bruised when they lack the wherewithal for self-sustenance, just as a nation cannot be said to be developed if it relies on external humanitarian aid and assistance or if it cannot control its political and economic destinies. Freedom, on the other hand, is the ability of a people to determine their own destinies.

The pursuit of economic growth, while in itself may not be bad, has failed to improve the aggregate living standards in Africa over the past decades. After decades of pursuing development, 65% of people in most African countries remain poor, according to the 2010 UN Human Development Report. This failure of the development in Africa has prompted the UN report to unequivocally state that, “the economics of growth and its relationship with development, in particular, require a radical rethinking.” Indeed, this radical rethinking demands that we abandon the failed and deformed development paradigm we have experimented with for decades and adopt a different strategy to improve the living standards of Africans.

In the 1980s and 1990s, there was a major decline in living standards in Africa. It is not by accidents that this was the same period that the implementation of development policies known as structural adjustment was gaining ground on the continent. Structural adjustment policies (SAP) were imposed on Africa by the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF), and some Western governments as conditions for granting access to much needed development loans. The goal of SAP was to achieve economic growth and development. Through SAP, there were cuts in workers’ wages, removal of government subsidies from agriculture and food production. Government subsidies were also eliminated from the production of other goods and services that had made life bearable for ordinary people.

SAP also slashed government expenditure on education and health care, including maternal care. It pushed for economic deregulation, allowing fewer government regulations of private corporations, many of which were powerful foreign multinational companies. Majority of these corporations got more leeway to operate with the least amount of government oversights that were supposed to safeguard citizens against exploitation. There was massive privatization of every sector of the economy, including health and education, resulting in situations where most people who used to enjoy free education and government provision of health care became marginalized.

These development policies coupled with the entrenchment of government corruption across the continent contributed to broadening the gap between the wealthy and the poor. Citizens’ discontent and apathy towards their governments swelled. Most of these governments became more dictatorial as they tightened their repressive security apparatus to quell dissent and consolidate their rules in an atmosphere of pervasive military coups and counter-coups. Such was the development that stifled innovation and deprived the people of the kind of atmosphere necessary for socio-economic transformation.

After decades of pursuing the SAP development agendas, inequality has become more entrenched within Africa and between Africa and other regions of the world. Between 1980 and 2010, sub-Saharan Africa witnessed an average human development growth rate of only 0.94%, an unimpressive figure compared to 1.73% for East Asia and the Pacific, or 1.65% for the region of South Asia. In most parts of Africa, inequality accounts for an average of 22% decline in living standards, 32% decrease in access to education, and 45% decline in access to health care.

One would have assumed that the “massive” foreign development aid and assistance that have been poured into Africa in the past decades are enough to improve living standards, create equitable access to education, health care, and reduce or even eliminate poverty. Instead, there has been a perpetuation of dependency, low human capital development, and significant decline in living standards.

The development we have pursued created such a corrupt and deformed system in which African countries were not only dependent on foreign assistance. The resources that were supposed to be used to improve the people’s living standards were flown overseas. Africa has become so dependent on foreign aid that some governments cannot survive without them. It is difficult to understand how, up to 2008, aid as a percentage of government spending was 126% for the Democratic Republic of the Congo and 771% for Liberia. This is despite the natural resource wealth of these countries.

Some liberal estimates state that over the past 50 years, Africa has received more than $1 trillion in development aid. Ironically, in less than 40 years, between 1970 and 2008, the illicit financial outflow from Africa is estimated at $1.8 trillion. Other estimates have also shown that up to 30% of the GDP of sub-Saharan Africa is moved overseas. This is the paradox of how a development paradigm underdeveloped Africa.

Indeed, the kind of development strategies that African countries have adopted for the most part of the post independence era has neither protected African peoples from the stranglehold of foreign controls nor empowered them against exploitation and oppression in the hands of freedom fighters that turned despots. Decades of development has not restored the human dignity of Africans to the level where the global media image of the continent is no longer starvation, diseases, and wars. It has failed to achieve the aspirations of the African people for better living standards, self-sustenance and political freedom.

This failure necessitates the pursuit of something different. We must pursue an agenda for transformation beyond the limits of development. We must work to transform the relationship between African leaders and African peoples; transform the gender relations; and transform the relations between African leaders/ elites and foreign interests that negate the interests of African peoples.

This is where it is imperative to place the revolutions spreading across the continent today in the proper context, where citizens are rising against the failure of a deformed development paradigm and its associated despotic leadership to meet their aspirations.

Revelations have now emerged from the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) that the structural adjustment policy of privatization and its attendant ills contributed to the build up of rage that culminated in the Egyptian revolution. According to the report, “anger at Egypt’s privatisation programme, involving the transfer of billions of dollars worth of public assets to private hands, aided the Egyptian revolution.” In this new climate of revolutions and quest for a different paradigm and new mode of leadership, the younger generation of Africans must articulate and pursue an alternative transformative agenda for the next fifty years.

Against the backdrop of the crisis in the global economy and the ongoing revolutions in Africa and the Middle East, the managing director of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, has taken a position that suggests that the old approach of the IMF is flawed. Speaking at the Brookings Institution in Washington DC on April 13, 2011, Mr. Strauss-Kahn acknowledged the imperative for a new approach. Retreating from past policies of IMF, which sacrificed equity and social justice on the altar of economic growth, he said: “We need policy to reduce inequality, and to ensure a fairer distribution of opportunity and resources. We need strong social safety nets, combined with progressive taxation that can dampen market-driven inequalities. We need more investment in health and education. We need collective bargaining that is very important, especially in an environment of stagnation of real wages. And we need social partnership, which is a useful framework as it allows fair sharing of both the gains and the pains.” This was a long overdue shift from the usual policy of IMF, which has always been centered around economic growth.

The ultimate question is:  how seriously are African leaders willing to take this outright admission of the deformity of the old paradigm? We cannot continue to mire in a retrogressive pool of growth and development that is devoid of social equality and adequate social policies at a time when the champions and high priests of the paradigm are admitting that it is fundamentally flawed.

To achieve transformation, we must adopt a holistic approach to organize our societies politically, economically, and socially for the optimal well being and dignity of all. We can not achieve poverty alleviation, let alone eradication if we cannot guarantee livable wage or if we are deprived of responsible and accountable leadership. We cannot reduce maternal mortality or improve life expectancy in an atmosphere where there is inadequate government investment in health care, education, sanitation, agriculture, and gender equality.

We must continue the revolution to create a pathway to transformation. We must be steadfast. We must sustain the momentum with optimism, a clear sense of purpose, unflinching determination, and a non-violent strategy until we transform Africa beyond the limits of development.

Wilson Idahosa Aiwuyor is a researcher. A graduate of International Relations from the Maxwell School of Syracuse University, he is also a Public Policy and International Affairs (PPIA) Fellow at the Woodrow Wilson School of Princeton University. He could be reached at

Last Edited by: Updated: September 15, 2018


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