The African developmental conundrum:The paradox of NEPAD vs. developmental state policy

Eyob Balcha, Special to Addis Standard (@EyobBalcha)

The “Developmental State” discourse is one of the most recurrent topics of discussion among the leading actors and decision makers of contemporary Africa. It is no wonder that the topic assumed a center position in the agenda of most meetings given solving the developmental quagmire of Africa has been one of the primary task among many. On the other hand, Africa has the famous New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD) which is considered by many as the technical arm of the African Union (AU) to address the socio-economic challenges confronting the continent. NEPAD has been in the agenda of the continental platform for almost a decade, although it is more characterized by the confusion surrounding its clear mandate. This article attempts to examine the scenario where the Developmental State paradigm and the NEPAD discourse, two contradictory principles, are equally entertained by the African political economic elite.

 The NEPAD promise

NEPAD is a ‘pledge’ by African leaders to African people in an attempt to address the pressing factors that resulted in ‘backwardness’ and ‘underdevelopment’ of the continent Africa. This initiative was driven by African presidents of the early 2000s namely Abdoulaye Wade of Senegal, Olusegun Obasanjo of Nigeria, Abdelaziz Bouteflika of Algeria and most notably Thabo Mbeki of South Africa. Later on, the late Prime Minister of Ethiopia Meles Zenawi had joined the leading group in operationalizing NEPAD into its institutional framework. What made NEPAD unique by its time of inauguration was the fact that it was initiated by African leaders who had decided to change the fate of the continent by owning the ‘developmental agenda’ and committing themselves to its realization. However, one of the major criticisms against this initiative include the consultations that the main proponent of the initiative Thabo Mbeki did with external actors like the G-8 and the World Bank than with his African fellow presidents, institutions and actors like civil society organizations. It is also heavily criticized for its inherent appetite of seeking a huge sum of money from donors in the form of aid for its implementation as well as its unreserved and unconditional acceptance of the global political economy as a source of redemption for Africa’s challenges. Some even likened it as an African version of neo-liberalism, a system detested by developmental ideology oriented leaders from the continent.

Indeed in its underlining assumptions, NEPAD unquestionably embraces the neo-liberal oriented ‘development’ endeavor where economic growth and poverty reduction efforts in the continent are consolidated through liberalization of the economy and free-trade.  Some of NEPAD’s principles argue that Africa is marginalized from the global political economy; hence what is needed is its integration into the global economy through the inevitable globalization process.

Developmentalist politics

In the last couple of years, the agenda that is dominating the continental decision making process is the ‘Developmental State’ paradigm. This paradigm is given serious consideration to the extent that the 2011 African Economic Report produced by the UNECA was fully devoted to explain how the developmental state perspective can be institutionalized and materialized in Africa. The East Asian countries mainly South Korea, Japan, Thailand and even China are always referred as the success stories of this perspective. The fundamental elements of the developmental state development paradigm include a state that is capable and effective enough to realize socio-economic transformation through a developmentalist vision and political leadership. This requires a well planned developmental agenda, and an autonomous, capable and professionally disciplined bureaucracy/civil service. The state becomes the most dominant player of the economic transformation process by determining the developmental vision and path of the country as well as by facilitating the role of various actors in the process. This makes the political orientation of government officials a significant point of departure to negotiate the role of other actors in the developmental endeavor. Though the developmentalist vision is expected to outweigh the political orientation of the state elites, who defines this vision and who determines the role of various actors brings back the supreme role that the political cadre is allowed to play. It remains unanswered though whether such kind of conceptualizing and practicing development agenda is enabling for pluralistic views and active citizenry engagement in the entire spheres of society.

 The puzzle

There are clear contradictions between NEPAD and the Developmental State paradigm. The principle of NEPAD, although hardly adhered to, identifies the solutions for Africa’s developmental deadlocks within the neoliberal perspectives of free trade, economic liberalization, foreign direct investment led by a vibrant private sector and developmental aid agreed between states and their multilateral partners. On the other hand, the Developmental State principle attempts to put forward a solution deeply rooted to the developmentalist political leadership of the political elite, defined developmental vision and orientation aimed at socio-economic transformation of a society with states expected to play a central role. What is most surprising is the fact that both perspectives, in spite of their unequivocal distinction, are currently entertained by the African decision making bodies. It is like putting oil and water in a bottle and shaking for their unison tirelessly. There is either a huge confusion in understanding both the root causes of African development and the possible solutions, or a fierce struggle of determining the developmental path of the continent along the two opposite perspectives.

In political decision making there is no harm in entertaining different views and perspectives. What makes the present scenario difficult to understand, however, is the attempt to define a common goal and vision for a continent of 54 nations through fundamentally opposite insights and instruments. Africa cannot afford to stay in dire need of growing and a controversial path of defining its present and future both at the same time. The time for committed and effective leadership has already elapsed but there is still room to have the desired positive impact. External actors do not worry about Africa’s position so long as they are allowed to put their foot on its soil. But only Africa should determine where it should be heading irrespective of others’ interest. But this is seldom possible in a context where its leaders take two separate directions of divergent principles to reach at the same destination, perhaps at the same time.

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