Africa is not destined for underdevelopment (Ha-Joon Chang’s Thing 11)

23-things-they-don-t-tell-you-about-capitalismAnother post in this occasional series of excerpts from Cambridge development economist Ha-Joon Chang‘s excellent 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism (p.112-3, 124):

“Africa has not always been stagnant. In the 1960s and 70s, when all the supposed structural impediments to growth were present and often more binding, it actually posted a decent growth performance. Moreover, all the structural handicaps that are supposed to hold back Africa have been present in most of today’s rich countries – poor climate (arctic and tropical), landlockness, abundant natural resources, ethnic divisions, poor institutions and bad culture. These structural conditions seem to act as impediments to development in Africa only because its countries do not yet have the necessary technologies, institutions and organizational skills to deal with their adverse consequences. The real cause of African stagnation in the last three decades is free-market policies that the continent has been compelled to implement during the period. Unlike history or geography, policies can be changed. Africa is not destined for underdevelopment.

…[W]hat appear to be unalterable structural impediments to economic development in Africa (and indeed elsewhere) are usually things that can be, and have been, overcome with better technologies, superior organizational skills and improved political institutions. The fact that most of today’s rich countries themselves used to suffer (and still suffer to an extent) from these conditions is an indirect proof of this point. Moreover, despite having these impediments (often in more severe forms), African countries themselves did not have a problem growing in the 1960s and 70s. The main reason for Africa’s recent growth failure lies in policy – namely, the free-trade, free-market policy that has been imposed on the continent through the Structural Adjustment Programs. Nature and history do not condemn a country to a particular future. If it is policy that is causing the problem, the future can be changed even more easily. The fact that we have failed to see this, and not its allegedly chronic growth failure, is the real tragedy of Africa.”

I am broadly sympathetic with Chang’s argument, but he avoids a deeper exploration of the politics of development. It is all very well to say that bad policy is the cause of underdevelopment, but why do bad policies persist? The answer to this lies at the interface between politics and economics, namely in a political economy analysis.

Economic trends influence the distribution of power in society between particular interest groups, and this in turn has an effect on the choice of policies and institutions, and their subsequent success or failure. I will discuss the implications of this for development in future posts, focusing this week on Venezuela, which has been much in the news recently, for all the wrong reasons both economically and politically.

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