Prospects For Africa's Economic and Societal Transformation in 15 years: Hopes And Impediments

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African Union headquarters -- how will things shape up in the continent in next 15 years

The transformative "2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development" was adopted on September 25, 2015, by world leaders during the 70th session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York City.

It aims to integrate the dimensions of rapid economic growth, social inclusion and protection of the environment in a balanced manner. The Agenda has 17 goals including the eradication of poverty and inequality and the offshoots of hunger, disease and ignorance as well as the creation of peaceful and inclusive societies.

By historical development standards 15 years is a relatively short time.

The examination of past transformative development experience with reference to the United States of America, Japan, South Korea and China might shed some light on the extent to which Africa may perform between 2016 when the implementation of the agenda begins and 2030 when it ends.

Countries that have transitioned quickly from developing to developed economies and societies shared many characteristics worth reviewing.

They all had leaders committed to the transformation of their economies and societies. In South Korea and China the leaders undertook agricultural reforms that provided land to small farmers by breaking up large farms.

They also facilitated access to high yielding seeds and fertilizers that increased agricultural productivity for domestic consumption and surplus for sale to generate income to cover education and healthcare costs thereby building human capital essential for accelerated growth and development.

In Africa there is an increasing tendency to create large farms by driving small holder farmers off the land and forcing them into informal economies in rural and urban areas where their earnings are insufficient to meet the basic needs of food, education, healthcare and shelter.

Unless this trend in land ownership is reversed, it will be difficult for these informal workers to end poverty in all its forms and dimensions by 2030.

Countries that transitioned quickly from low to high incomes and standard of living graduated from commodity production and export to industrialization for domestic consumption and export. For example, the United States under the guidance of Alexander Hamilton, the first Treasury Secretary, embarked on the manufacturing sector by controlling the import of competing manufactured goods from Europe.

This was done by raising tariffs on imports and subsidizing the infant industries until they were able to compete. South Korea and Japan also followed the same model. Industrialization has many advantages including forward and backward linkages, job creation and value addition that help to transform economies and societies.

In Africa, leaders have consistently emphasized the critical role of manufacturing enterprises. They have even launched "industrialization decades" at the continental level. 

Yet Africa is generally distinguished more by de-industrialization. For example, when the National Resistance Movement (NRM) captured power in 1986, the government promised the metamorphosis of Uganda’s economy and society through industrialization within 15 years. What is being witnessed is de-industrialization as some enterprises relocate to other countries, while others are closing or operating below installed capacity.

De-industrialization is taking place in many African countries for several reasons. There is not a sufficient enabling environment in terms of skilled human power, security, infrastructure such as roads and energy supply and laws that protect property rights to attract domestic and foreign investments.
The liberalization of African markets under the globalization regime has flooded African markets with cheap imports such as used clothes, making it difficult for African infant industries to compete.

Not least, Africa is still condemned to the comparative advantage of producing and exporting agricultural commodities and minerals in raw form. This arrangement has constrained Africa’s efforts to add value to her products and create badly needed jobs.

In its 2063 development Agenda, Africa has once again emphasized industrialization and the supporting sectors of infrastructure and energy. Hopefully, with support of development partners the continent will become industrialized by 2030.

Countries that transformed quickly embarked on a comprehensive program of human capital formation that included education and skills development, healthcare, nutrition and housing. This capital was retained and employed productively.

In Africa human capital formation has remained problematic. Many of the graduates are unemployable because they lack the skills required in increasingly knowledge-based economies.

Most importantly, many of the best trained and experienced Africans have left their countries for greener pastures abroad. Although labor mobility within and between countries is a human right that must be respected, it is critically important that African governments create a conducive environment that retains educated and experienced men and women at home and attracts those abroad to come home.

With a concerted effort by African leaders and their development partners, Africa should be able to meet the sustainable development goals by 2030.

Kashumbuzi is an international development economist and consultant


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