Economic Growth in Africa Must Lead with Equitable Development for all

This article written by Ruth Nyambura originally appeared on The International Political Forum: The Voice of Global Youth, but Ruth has offered to provide it for our blog! Ruth Nyambura is from Nairobi & holds B.A Degree in Mass Communication from Daystar University, Kenya. She works as a volunteer communications and advocacy manager for the Forum for Young Women in Politics (FYWP) & is passionate about development issues in the Global South with an obvious bias towards Africa, women’s’ empowerment and the emancipation of youth.

Africa has undoubtedly seen impressive economic growth over the past decade. They have put to shame predictions of a ‘hopeless’ continent; a comment The Economist magazine subsequently apologized for last year. More aptly, they’re now calling it the ‘great’ continent. Africa has shown resilience and growth that has shocked many observers, nowhere more than in the West. From recovering fast from the global recession of 2008, to becoming a World leader in innovations, such as the Mobile money transfer system ‘MPESA’. With an estimated 600 million mobile phone users, higher than that of the whole of Europe, and a growing skilled labor force, it is little wonder that the East and West are engaged in supremacy wars that seek courtship of the continent’s countries.

While the impressive economic growth in Africa has contributed to top-line GDP growth, the benefits have not percolated down fast enough. The consensus has been in the Global South, ever since the liberalization of markets, is that with enough time the benefits of fast economic growth will surely reach even the poorest people, but the reality on the ground is very different.

The BBC, New York Times, The Economist and even The Times newspapers and magazines have all published a diverse number of brilliant analyses on Africa’s economic growth. With a growing middle-class rivaled only by China and perhaps India, every would-be foreign investor is dreaming about tapping into the purchasing power of this group. This is no doubt compounded by the stagnant and contracting economies of the north Atlantic.

Africa is no doubt less poor, but equally this hasn’t stopped the disparities between rich and poor increasing over the same time period. Take South Africa for instance; almost 20 years after independence, the country has the highest income inequality in the World. Now, I understand that the there are many socio-political and historical factors that have contributed to this. Equally however, it is undeniable that the blind quest for economic growth without concrete welfare policies has contributed greatly to these inequalities.

Economists John Dreze and Amartya Sen in their 1989 book, “Hunger and Public Action”, talk aboutgrowth mediated development” and state that “economic growth, of course, can be very helpful in achieving development, but this requires active public policies to ensure that the fruits of economic growth are widely shared, and also requires—and this is very important—making good use of the public revenue generated by fast economic growth for social services, especially for public healthcare and public education.”

The two economists coin the term “unaimed opulence”, referring to “the indiscriminate pursuit of economic expansion, without paying much attention to how it is shared or how it affects people’s lives.” This cannot better explain the situation in Africa at the moment. In my own country of Kenya, we have something we refer to as the ‘1 2 3 4 lifestyle’. Having 1 spouse, 2 children, a 3 bed-roomed house and a 4*4 vehicle is regarded as the epitome of success and achieving this ushers one into the much envied middle-class social status. Everything in the system trains us to strive for such a life, from the education system that is fixated on only grades, AKA the ‘winners vs losers syndrome’, to our socialization at home, in peer groups and unfortunately even in religious settings.

It is quite disheartening that nobody is asking the tough questions, people are so fixated with the things like the number of mbile phone users, to new infrastructure being put in place, and new tech hubs run by young innovate Africans, which is not bad but just should not be the whole picture. In Srilatha Baltiwala’s famous words and I shall paraphrase, Unless you transform the institutions that justify and form inequality – such as the media, markets, the education system, long held but negative cultural beliefs, patriarchy, age, gender and even social caste – then it is very difficult for true empowerment to take root in a society.

In our quest to be an economic power house, have we stopped to think at what cost and how we are using this phenomenal growth we are experiencing to benefit all and not just particular social classes? The progress of living standards for common people, as opposed to a favored minority, has been dreadfully slow. This is why have seen a boom in the real-estate sector, but still most of my fellow Kenyans cannot afford to take out a mortgage. There has been a steady increase in house rent and many towns are facing serious planning problems, with peri-urban populations not being factored into any planning. What about the thousands in slums all over the capital city Nairobi and other major towns? Why have the economic gains not been used by various stakeholders to tackle these pertinent issues?

Taking lessons from India, the 4th largest economy in the World but still with great poverty issues, it is obvious that we should not be deluded in thinking that economic growth will be the magic wand to solve all of Africa’s problem. While it has obviously done a lot, let us not forget that most of this growth made from millions of Africans has ended up in the hands of kleptocrats spread all over the continent and others who can be argued not to have been in the poverty trap to begin with.

South Korea, one of the most equitable countries in the World serves a good example for Africa on how to move from a developing country to a developed country in an equitable manner for all citizens. Growth must not be for a select minority. Development must be mediated, with governments all over Africa putting in place bold social security and economic distribution programmes for all. Brazil would serve as a good example in this case, not perfect, but good enough to show how countries can make a positive turn around in their social policies with ‘Bolsa Familia’ being a case in point.

Finally as Dreze and Sen contend, “growth can be very helpful in achieving development, but this requires active public policies to ensure that fruits of econ growth are widely shared.” Also Africa as a whole should not fall into the trap of regarding economic growth as the same thing as development, in the sense of a general improvement in living standards and enhancement of people’s well-being and freedom. While I must note in this essay that the democratic space in Africa has grown considerably in the last 5 years; what a democratic system achieves depends greatly on the issues that are politicized, which contributes to their advancement, rightly noted by the two economists. The ball is now in every African’s court.

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