Should African economists learn more from America than from land-scarce Asia?


AFRICA faces innumerable developmental challenges and has for long dragged behind all other regions for this reason or the other. It has thus become common practice for economists and social scientists to look at various developmental models that have worked in other parts of the world in search of one that could work in our part of the world. In recent times the greater Asian region has gotten a lot of coverage because of the success of countries like Singapore, Malaysia, China and the Indian sub-continent. The success of this region has led many to often say that Africa can follow a similar developmental blueprint by perhaps applying similar models. But is Asia similar to Africa or can we learn from another part of the world? According to a study done by Adrian Wood, chief economist in London in the department of international development, although there are important lessons for Africa from the experience of East Asia, the sectoral and spatial structures of an increasingly prosperous Africa will be more like those of the Americas. Wood asserts that Africa should follow a development path more like that of land-abundant America than of land-scarce Asia. He goes further to claim that the long-term model for African development is not Japan but the United States and Africa’s medium-term trajectory should take the direction not of the East Asian NICs, but of Latin America. Because it is land-abundant, Africa will always have a larger primary sector and a smaller manufacturing sector than the land-scarce regions of Asia and Europe. Moreover, because much of its land is far from the sea, which raises internal transport costs, a prosperous Africa will be like America also in having a relatively unpopulated interior, based on agriculture and mining, with urban industrial concentrations on its coasts Moreover, although the histories of Africa and the Americas seem very different to us, they are likely to seem much more similar to a historian writing in the year 3000. Starting in the middle of the second millennium, Europeans with a mixture of mercenary, religious and political motives invaded and conquered these continents, all three of which were sparsely inhabited by peoples with ancient but technologically backward civilisations, and divided them up rather arbitrarily into countries of various shapes and sizes. By the end of the second millennium, however, all three continents had won political independence from Europe, and in each continent the decades after independence were disfigured by violent conflict among and within their nations. How long might it take Africa to become like America?
Africa slipped behind the Western hemisphere over several centuries, largely for geographical reasons — disease and internal distances were much bigger obstacles than in North or South America to its integration with the world economy and to the transfer of new institutions and new technologies. It fell even further behind during the few decades after independence — in a phase of conflict, political instability and economic stagnation not unlike that in Latin America after its own independence 150 years earlier. However, Latin America moved from this first troubled phase of nation-building into an extended period of growth, and Africa could do the same. Recent experience in other developing countries, moreover, shows that growth can be rapid, in tropical as well as temperate climates. Technologies are available which can overcome most of the obstacles formerly created by disease and distance — new drugs and new modes of transport and communication. The binding constraint on the speed of progress in Africa is no longer geography — it is politics. The region would grow if the non-commercial risks of investment were reduced and if infrastructure, education and health systems were improved. To achieve rapid and sustained growth of the sort that would be needed to make Africa as prosperous as America will require solutions to be found to many difficult problems, including those discussed above – but not all immediately and not as absolute preconditions of progress. For instance, quite small changes in policies and institutions can transform the attractiveness of countries to investors. According to Woods if the binding constraint on progress in Africa is indeed politics, then what will matter most are the choices and actions of African people and African governments. But the rest of the world needs to help, in a range of ways. One small such way is to contribute ideas to the debate within Africa. Africa could surpass the current income level of South America, although it may never quite catch up with North America because of its tropical climate and its division into many countries, which obstructs internal movement of goods, ideas and people. What is mainly needed to raise Africa from poverty to prosperity are improvements in governance which will reduce the risks of investment and encourage the return of flight capital, physical and human.
Similar improvements in governance are needed in all poor countries but the policy priorities of land-abundant Africa differ from those of land-scarce Asia in three areas. First, it is even more crucial for Africa to apply knowledge to nature by promoting scientific research, education and training in agriculture and mining. Second, to overcome the problems of internal spatial dispersion, Africa must spend more on transport and communications and facilitate movement of people, especially from the interior to the coasts. Third, Africa must ensure widely distributed access to land and education so that high levels of inequality do not slow growth and perpetuate poverty.


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