What Africa wants and what the West needs to do

Democracy generally follows development, so Africa’s friends should focus on unlocking rapid growth through better governance.

If the West wants to position itself in Africa for the future – and in relation to China – the focus should be on good governance instead of calling for liberal democracy and the full spectrum of human rights as some type of silver bullet.

On its own, democracy is not a solution to Africa’s development challenges. In fact, at low levels of development, the contribution of democracy to growth is contested. What poor countries need is effective, delivery-oriented governance and first-generation rights.

This is not an argument against democracy. Democracy and respect for first- to fourth-generation human rights are an undeniable global good. All people aspire to self-actualisation and the freedom to make their own choices based on their priorities. But compensating for weak security and government capacity – the two initial stages of state formation – by deepening democracy offers limited prospects.

Democracy is important, and there can be no doubt that Africa needs the basics. These are the ‘first generation’ of civil and political rights, namely regular elections, elected leaders constrained by term limits, a strong and committed opposition, freedom of speech and robust institutions to uphold the rule of law. But most of all, we need developmentally oriented governments and leaders who prioritise the needs of their people.

The African state is an external imposition. It isn’t based on a stable security foundation, which means the ability to control the territorial area over which it has legal responsibility, and within which a single governing system dominates.

Deeper, liberal democracy won’t compensate for Africa’s lack of stability and poor state capacity

Instead of progressing through the three classic transitions of stability, then building capacity and, in time, becoming more inclusive or democratic, Africans are told (and many believe) that democracy will resolve all their woes. But without stability and sound state capacity, the push towards democracy is not a solution. In fact, it may complicate or worsen things. Some, such as Adam Przeworski and Robert Barro argue that early democratisation fuels corruption and patronage.

Deeper democracy in the sense of liberal democracy doesn’t compensate for Africa’s lack of stability and poor state capacity. In both these areas, Africa trails other regions of the world.

It is like arguing that once Africa becomes a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council or the G20, that will tilt the development floor in Africa’s favour. What would make a much bigger difference are, for example, reforms of the international financial institutions and de-risking private sector investment.

None of this means stepping away from the essentials of electoral democracy, especially free and fair elections, free speech and a clear division of powers. Instead, the issue is what the appropriate nature of democracy is, given the development levels of many African states. And that development partners should use the language of good governance rather than focusing on democracy.

Democracy eventually leads to good governance, but what of the 35% of Africans currently living in extreme poverty?

Democracy and good governance generally overlap, with democracy considered (and generally proven) as the best way to ensure good governance in the long term. But while waiting for the long term, Africa needs to get through the short and the medium terms at a time when 35% of people on the continent live in extreme poverty, and average incomes are only 74% of the average for the rest of the world.

Since the end of the Cold War, the West has pushed for democracy and human rights. Africa experienced a surge in the quantity and quality of democracy in the years that followed, largely because of the opportunity offered by the end of superpower competition in Southern Africa and the Horn.

Concern over the widening gap between Africa and the rest of the world saw key Western countries push for the Millennium and later the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). But the SDGs have started to lose momentum as, in the words of UN Secretary-General António Guterres, their goals disappear in the rear-view mirror.

Ultimately, it was neither levels of democracy nor geopolitics that unlocked growth in Africa. Instead, the commodities supercycle in the first years of this century improved Africa’s development prospects.

Africa’s growth was unlocked by the early 2000s commodities supercycle – not by democracy or geopolitics

With the rise of China, the world is again buffeted by big power competition, and the West finds itself at a distinct disadvantage. Aid, investment and support from the West are often accompanied by demands for improvements in specific rights. China offers to trade, build infrastructure and invest – admittedly associated with secrecy clauses, high interest rates and little debt relief. China is already Africa’s largest trading partner and is set to expand that role in the future.

Asia has become the locus of future global economic growth. More rapid growth in Africa could eventually follow, but the window of opportunity is closing. This is mainly because of Africa’s rapid population growth, the impact of labour-saving technology, and the effects of climate change that will see poorer countries suffer most.

If democracy and the full suite of human rights generally follow development, then Africa’s friends need to focus on those governance aspects that can unlock more rapid growth. That will, in time, translate into deeper and more widespread democracy. Prioritising good governance is also a requirement from China and provides a common meeting place for collaboration on support and investment into Africa.

Jakkie Cilliers, Chair of the ISS Board of Trustees and Head, African Futures and Innovation, ISS Pretoria 

Image: © Eric Nathan / Alamy Stock Photo

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