Notes on economic development in Africa

I have been doing some reading on economic development in Africa recently. The continent, if it is even possible to lump its many diverse nations together when discussing development, which is probably unwise, gets some bad press. But as development economist Ha-Joon Chang has said in his bestselling book, ‘Africa is not destined for underdevelopment‘.

That is refreshingly optimistic, and I humbly concur. Having said that, Chang thinks it is all about policies, but for me this is only part of the story. Why do bad policies persist? This is what we need to study. Poor nations whose people want things to improve via economic and social development need pragmatic and effective governments who can implement policies appropriate to their particular national contexts. These will vary from country to country, and over time.

Below I will share some of the ideas I have gathered which mainly draw on the work of political economists who have studied development processes across the African continent. Continue reading


Why development in Africa is so difficult

In this brief video, a journalist gives his view as to why development in Africa has been so difficult. The answer apparently lies in the colonial legacy of (mis)dividing up the continent into states in a way that has failed to give rise to nation-building, both economically and politically. He also points a finger at self-serving elites, who have built great personal wealth but not, in general, the wealth of their own nations.

However, he does ignore the uneven record of growth on the continent since World War Two, which saw varying degrees of economic transformation. It is a tragedy that much good was undone during the ‘lost decades’ of the 1980s and 90s. A number of countries grew more rapidly in the 2000s, mainly due to the expansion of primary commodity exports, but a widespread problem is the failure of governments to diversify their economies into sectors which have more potential for growth in output and productivity, such as manufacturing.

Notes and quotes on Zimbabwe and Marx’s theory of ‘so-called primitive accumulation’

Zimbabwe is in political turmoil. Now that Robert Mugabe has gone, many are wondering what will come next. Given my interest in development economics and my own ignorance of the political economy of this troubled nation, beyond the reporting of the mainstream media, I thought it would be helpful to draw on some of the ‘literature’ to further my understanding and, hopefully, that of the readers of this blog. I can’t pretend to have expertise in this area, but one of the aims here is to share useful knowledge, so here goes.

I have included a brief summary of Zimbabwe’s economic performance since the War and follow that with some quotes from political economists who have studied the country, as well as the historical emergence of capitalism through what Marx called ‘primitive accumulation’. Continue reading

Stiglitz and Greenwald on the learning society

In the short video below, Bruce Greenwald and Joseph Stiglitz introduce their work on the learning society and the idea of development. They argue that the most important feature of economic and social development is the creation and diffusion of knowledge, rather than capital accumulation per se, which has been the traditional focus of much economic theory.

They also argue that learning takes place mainly in institutions rather than in markets, and that markets are in general inefficient due to the presence of imperfect information. State intervention is necessary to correct such market failures.

‘Modern’ industrial policy in brief

In the short video below, Evelyn Dietsche outlines what she calls a ‘modern’ approach to industrial policy that developing countries can apply to their policymaking. She contrasts the lessons of those countries in East Asia that industrialised successfully in the post war period, with the relative failures of such policies in other nations.

Although she mentions rent-seeking as a potentially bad outcome of industrial policy, the video misses the point that rent-seeking can lead to value-creating rents which benefit development. All economies have rents and rent-seeking, broadly defined, although they tend to be more formal and legalised in advanced countries, taking forms such as lobbying rather than bribery and other forms of corruption.

The video does discuss the need to look at the specific contexts in which industrial policy takes place in different countries. This is an important point.  In some cases, a successful industrial policy may require some kind of prior political reform; in others, a particular economic policy may be implemented straight away. In both situations, governments and other institutional actors need to adopt an experimental approach, and learn from successes and failures as they go.

Overall the video makes some helpful points in introducing some of the modern research findings on industrial policy. The latter has had something of a bad name in mainstream circles, but the tide has been shifting in recent years.

Michael Hudson on The American School of Political Economy

JisforJunkEconMore from iconoclast Professor Michael Hudson’s book J is for Junk Economics (p.30-32). For a more detailed account, I can recommend his book America’s Protectionist Takeoff 1815-1914, which I have posted on here.

“American School of Political Economy: The northern economists who focused on protective tariffs, infrastructure investment and a national bank to promote industrial and agricultural technology before and after the Civil War (1861-65). Mathew and Henry Carey, Henry Clay and William Seward among the Whigs and, after 1853, the Republicans, provided the economic policy that enabled America to industrialize and overtake England. They also emphasized the positive effect of rising wage levels and living standards on the productivity that made the American economic takeoff possible. Every major Northern politician and region was associated with a major economist: Alexander Everett for Daniel Webster and other Bostonians; Calvin Colton for Henry Clay; the Careys for Pennsylvania industrialists; and E. Peshine Smith for Seward and the Republicans. They developed the logic for tariff protection as opposed to Ricardian free-trade theory, and for government-sponsored internal improvements and a national bank to finance industry and achieve monetary independence from Britain.

It is testimony to the censorial power of subsequent free-trade ideology that these writers make no appearance in histories of economic thought. Historians have also ignored them, focusing on the Democratic Party (which meant mainly the South seeking to add slave states). At issue was whether the United States would suffer deflation and monetary and trade dependency on Britain, or would become independent. The American School opposed westward expansion and Manifest Destiny, and also opposed the Anglophilia of free traders and slave owners. The latter demanded monetary deflation to prevent industrialization so as to keep food prices low (and hence the cost of feeding slaves).

When the Civil War brought the Republicans to power, the American School found that the most prestigious colleges – founded originally to train the clergy – simply taught mainstream British free trade economics (largely because New England and southern seaboard schools favored free trade). The path of least intellectual resistance was to create a new set of schools – business schools and state land-grant colleges.

A central tenet of the American School was technological optimism in contrast to the Dismal Science of Ricardo and Malthus based on diminishing returns in agriculture and overpopulation leading to poverty. Also central was the Economy of High Wages doctrine: “It is not by reducing wages that America is making her conquests, but by her superior organization, greater efficiency of labor consequent upon the higher standard of living ruling in the country. High-priced labor countries are everywhere beating ‘pauper-labor’ countries.”

By the late 19th century nearly all the major American economists studied in Germany and followed the Historical School. Returning to America, they developed the Institutionalist School to explain why the United States should follow a different economic path from free-trade Britain. They continued to elaborate the logic for the protective tariffs that were nurturing American industry, as well as for public support for internal infrastructure improvements so as to create a low-cost competitive US economy. Most notable was Simon Patten, the first professor of economics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He taught protectionist trade theory and led economists into the discipline of sociology to analyze what he called the Economy of Abundance that resulted from the increasing returns in industry and agriculture.

When the United States achieved world industrial and financial dominance after World War I, it deterred other countries from protecting their own industry and agriculture – while continuing to protect its own. This about-face emulated British experience in urging free trade on other countries so as to make them dependent. This free-trade logic remains the buttress of today’s financial austerity and privatization policies imposed on debtor economies by the United States, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. These policies are the opposite of America’s own protectionist takeoff, the Economy of High Wages Doctrine and the Economy of Abundance that powered its rise to global economic supremacy. The lessons of the American School of Political Economy provide a more realistic model for other countries to emulate.”