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The Guardian’s take on the rise of Africa: the continent must develop its own way | Editorial

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“IIt was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Thus opens A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens. Set in London and Paris in the late 1700s and on the eve of the French Revolution, the novel was a warning about what happens when wealth rises while the masses stagnate. Nowhere does the best and worst of times meet more geopolitical force than in Africa.

African writers have swept the Nobel Literature Prize table at The Booker, while seven out of eight children in the continent’s sub-Saharan region cannot read by the age of 10. This year, the continent was home to the slowest internet speeds on the planet, as African judges granted the world’s first patent granted to a robot inventor. About 50 million Africans are expected to fall into extreme poverty in 2021, when the continent’s richest billionaires will see their wealth increase by one-fifth.

Globalization has polarized societies, an effect that was magnified during the pandemic. This pattern is not unusual in other nations, but applying it to Africa suggests that it possesses a unity beyond mere geography. African nations have come together in the face of the climate and Covid storms – with good reason. Instead of rewarding African scientists for identifying the Omicron threat, the West has imposed travel bans on the continent. The suspicion is that if the Sars-CoV-2 virus had been found in Africa, it would have been cut.

The pandemic has made visible a world shaped at the expense of Africa. Low vaccination rates are a reason for the emergence of dangerous variants of the coronavirus, so why let only 8% of the 1.3 billion Africans be fully vaccinated? The industrialized world will not grant Africa a patent exemption for vaccines, and foreign aid represents only 2% of the continent’s GDP. As a result, African countries cannot manufacture their own cheap drugs and lack foreign exchange to cover distribution costs.

Climate cost

Despite having played a negligible role in creating the climate crisis, African countries are already finding themselves paying a heavy price. The EU plans to introduce greenhouse gas taxes on imports, which will create a carbon curtain over the Mediterranean. Carlos Lopes of the University of Cape Town says African train projects built by Chinese companies do not use the low-carbon technology deployed in the country.

Africa’s performance has been described as the worst economic tragedy of the 20th century. Mundane explanations do not stand much scrutiny. Statistics can show that the closer a country is to the equator, the poorer it is. Yet no one would argue that slow growth has pushed a country closer to the equator. Africa has been destabilized by conflict, but this has not, according to Professor Lopes, prevented Thailand from developing an export base. A controversial argument is that too few, not too many, colonizers were the problem. The theory is that higher levels of European settlement led to more productive institutions. However, historian Morten Jerven, in his book The wealth and poverty of African states, says real wages have stagnated in the settler economies of South Africa, Zimbabwe and Kenya, while in the peasant economies of Uganda and Ghana, real wages have risen.

Africa was not colonized because it was poor. European powers occupied and divided the continent in the 19th century because it was wealthy. Africa was once a breadbasket; how did he acquire the reputation of being a hopeless case? One of the reasons is an extractive economic model that promotes Africa’s development through foreign direct investment, export-led growth and financial liberalization. This web, according to Tunisian economist Fadhel Kaboub, drains nearly $ 2 billion a year from developing countries.

Today, African economies export goods with low added value compared to their imports. Instead of growing their own food to feed their people, countries import food. While some countries export crude hydrocarbons, many others import refined petrochemicals such as gasoline. The right to bring these essentials is handed over to a class of politically connected business “rentiers” who have a vested interest in the status quo. There is a demand for jobs, a thirst for education and a desperate need for health in Africa. Yet leaders are caught in a dilemma: if they create money to spend on social cohesion, they risk increasing imports of food, energy and capital goods, and increasing their trade deficit. This puts downward pressure on the national currency. A low exchange rate means that imports of basic necessities will be more expensive. History is littered with examples of violent revolutions preceded by soaring prices.

An alternative strategy

Economic orthodoxy has no answer. Its textbooks would ask African governments to ask central banks to borrow US dollars to support the local currency and to prioritize foreign creditors with austerity. Africa’s development lag demonstrates that poor states continue to get poorer by being integrated into the global system through an unequal economic exchange relationship with rich states. An alternative African strategy would see governments spending on public services and increasing renewable food and energy sovereignty, while fighting corruption.

This allows us to get out of the current trap of development. In their book Africa’s Last Colonial Currency, Fanny Pigeaud and Ndongo Samba Sylla suggest that instead of importing food and burning foreign reserves, African states should produce food at home, because land, labor and know-how are abundant. “If they financed the development of their agriculture, they would not reduce their foreign exchange reserves; on the contrary, they would save money.

State-owned enterprises and a competitive domestic private sector would help Africa escape the activities demanded by the countries of the North. As African countries become increasingly digital, data will be in power in economic governance – and local entities must be its stewards, not transnational corporations. Trade agreements between countries of similar income levels are more advantageous for them compared to the framework of the World Trade Organization. The African Continental Free Trade Area, created by 54 of the 55 AU countries, is a good start. African economies would benefit from producing green industrial goods that rich countries take for granted, but whose mass production has not reached the continent. It would be in Europe’s interest to help – as more Africans could find work at home, the pressure to migrate would ease. Africa is caught between history and geography. Understanding how and why it got to where it is today will help the continent move forward in the future.


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