Africa: Development or Democracy, Which Comes First?

The 22nd World Economic Forum (WEF) which took place in Addis Ababa from 9 to 11 May is over, but the fact that the forum chose Africa’s fast economic growth the theme of the meeting is still the subject of much discussion online.

At WEF Panel on African Leadership, Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi lauded his government’s economic achievement and dismissed claims that there is a relationship between economic growth and democracy. He said:

There is no direct relationship between economic growth and democracy, historically or theoretically. I don’t believe in bedtime stories, contrived arguments linking economic growth with democracy. Democracy is necessary to keep diverse African nations united.

Despite Meles Zenawi's claims, critics claimed that fast economic growth brought about at the expense of democracy are ephemeral and superficial. Ermias Kassaye, a critical commentator based in Cape Town, does not think so. Reacting to Endalk's observation on Facebook, he wrote:

The dull mind always enjoys by the suppression of the free. Of course he struggled to fill his big stomach, never had a single freedom thought in his mind. The reason for growth is democracy and free thinker society, but if growth flourishes on the grave of democracy, one day is enough to demolish the whole material being.

Writing on the World Bank blog, Justin Yifu Lin, World Bank’s chief economist, argued:

I disagree with those who assert Ethiopia and other African nations of similar income level s are too burdened with governance, poverty, and poor investment climates to exit the poverty trap. China and Taiwan, China – where I am from – as well as many other newly industrialized economies were just as poor a few decades ago and equally saddled with corruption and other obstacles. Many of them still rank low in various governance and business environment indicators today. I was involved in China’s transformation away from agriculture and I’m confident a similar evolution can happen in Africa

He further noted that:

What’s required is what I call ‘Development Thinking 3.0,’ an approach based on identifying what the country has (that is, its endowments) and what it can do well (that is, comparative advantage). As part of this, the government should play an active role in helping the private sector scale up what the country can do well now.

Development economics in the past often focused on what developing countries did not have and could not do well. One example of this was the attempt to prop up heavy industries using an import-substitution strategy based on what I call the old structuralism, or ‘Development Thinking 1.0’. This was followed by a focus on governance issues as epitomized by the neoliberal Washington Consensus – what I call ‘Development Thinking 2.0’. The fruits of Development 1.0 and 2.0 were generally disappointing.

Development Thinking 3.0 proposes a change in mindset — we need to stop telling Africans and other low-income countries what is wrong and what needs fixing and instead work with them to identify their strengths based on what they have now. These strengths can then be turned into competiveness in the domestic and international markets.

But many netzines have wondered whether his choice for development over democracy is an applicable thought in the context of Ethiopia. One anonymous commentator on World Bank blog asked:

As an Ethiopian I find it hard to swallow what you wrote about the country. Ethiopia's growth mantra is much of hype than facts on the ground would depict. Imagine, Ethiopia is a country that gets 3 billion dollar of aid money every year. The regime has been in power for the last 20 years, the country's GDP per capita stands where it was 20 years ago. 20 years ago, even during the time of the dictatorial military regime, the people were able to eat at least two times per day, now after 20 years of WB's aid, the people are unable to eat once in a day. In Christian Ethiopia theft is an abomination, now corruption has turned to be a national culture. You may see skyscrapers in Addis Ababa, but they are owned by the ruling elites, army officers and their affiliates. 7 million Ethiopia's are yet under safety net program, which is largely funded by the WB, and 4 million people need urgent food aid. Ethiopia in Addis Ababa and Ethiopia outside of Addis Ababa are different. The government beautifies Addis Ababa to dupe the foreigners that the country is growing, but 100 kms outside the capital everything is different. Ethiopia is a country where human rights violation is so rampant, and I don't blame you if you down grade the value of freedom and democracy for development as you were born and raised in China, but for the sake of comparison imagine Libya before Ghadafi. It was a rich and well built country, but the country turned to ruins in just a year. China's fate won't be different from Libya's and Ethiopia's will be worse. We Ethiopians need to have a stable government first before we think of any kind of development. Once we establish our government based on free election, it won't be difficult to change the country for good. The World Bank needs to hear the cry of Ethiopians; freedom first .Freedom bakes bread not the other way.

The World Bank has reported that online consultations have started regarding the Bank’s Partnership Strategy with Ethiopia. Ethiopian netizens can participate online by suggesting priorities for Ethiopia’s development.

African Confidential
, a fortnightly newsletter covering politics and economics of Africa has, reported that though Ethiopia ranked as one of the fastest growing economies, its political strategy and regional role is a questionable one:

Food, housing and water are deemed more important than democracy and trade unions. ‘We’re a fairly tough regime, no one denies that,’ says an official in Addis, privately. He makes Ethiopia’s world view clear: Eritrea is a menace; Somalia is not a cosy neighbor; the Oromo Liberation Front makes threatening noises but is in complete disarray. Foreign NGOs such as Human Rights Watch have difficulty entering the affected areas and horror stories emerge from the refugee camps about periodic political crackdowns.

In addition, a report by The Economist titled ‘A new fund attests to the country’s allure—and to the value of connections’ shows that Ethiopia’s door for investment is opened preferentially based on connections.

Ethiopia, the second most populated Sub-Saharan African country, is accused continuously for using Chinese made monitoring and surveillance technologies to supress voices of dissent in the country.

*Thumbail: Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi. Courtesy of WEF Flickr page (CC BY-SA 2.0)


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