It would be very difficult to identify another writer who could tackle the subject of this book with the same passion, knowledge and authority as Carlos Lopes – writes Stephen Williams as he reviews the former Executive Secretary of the UNECA’s book – Africa in Transformation: Economic development in the age of doubt.
As anyone who has heard this Guinea-Bissau- born economist speak, he combines scholarship with clarity and, it might be perceived, a barely concealed anger at the status quo that Africa struggles with.
Lopes, the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa (stepping down in 2016) is now a Professor at Mandela School of Public Governance at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and visiting Professor at Sciences Po in Paris, France.
He writes: “The Africa Rising narrative has been replaced of late by new doubts about the real potential for the continent to sustain growth and respond to pressing demographic challenges.
“It is important to contextualise the more positive views of the continent that have marked the first decade and a half of this century. It was most about the opportunities to expand markets and the commodity boom super cycle dynamics.
“Now that reality checks are back it is time to assess the condition for economic structural transformation. Industrialisation has a key role to play. Recent studies doubt Africa’s possibilities of implementing an export-led industrialisation model. Africa needs to find its own model.”
In fact, more than once throughout the book, Lopes questions the ‘Africa Rising’ narrative, but Professor Vijay Mahajan’s seminal book of the same title published in 2009, came at a time when few saw the continent as anything much more than an aid-reliant ‘basket-case’.
The few defenders of Africa potential tended to only be sitting at desks in the West and pontificating, while Mahajan undertook extensive research that took him the length and breadth of Africa to talk to business leaders about the realities and opportunities that were presenting themselves.
It can be argued that Mahajan provided a key impetus to wake-up and transform attitudes to Africa even if, as Lopes contends, ‘The rise of Africa’ narrative borrowed immensely from a simplistic view of commodities being central for the stimulation of the continent’s economic activity; yet, today, the largest contributor to growth is internal consumption and the largest sector is the services”.
That said, it would be tough to question very many of the other views that Lopes puts forward in this remarkable book.
He sets the book out in a coolly logical manner: firstly diagnosing the most important political challenges; then addressing the issue of diversity drawing heavily on the work of the South African Dr Jakes Gerwel, an academic whose “pioneering doctoral thesis” of 1979 described the way that Afrikaner novels between 1875-1948 in effect paved the way for Apartheid’s racist agenda.
Further chapters examine a tendency in Africa to externalise the reasons for Africa’s failings, “not accepting culpability, and in the process, to forego needed accountability. Lopes then visits the notion of the aforementioned Africa rising narrative.
In the fifth chapter, Lopes seeks to answer a central question for African leaders, namely what should be the nature of the transformative industrial policies for Africa? He contends in the next chapter “one of the pillars and, indeed, a driving force behind Africa’s structural transformation derives its strength from the agricultural sector”.
A brave new world
It is significant that Lopes places a huge focus on the issue of climate change. Often, development thinkers treat this subject as a side issue, not front and centre of what Africa has to consider.
In his words, Lopes states: “… Africa’s renewed development ambitions are occurring in a brave new world, where emergent dangers such as climate change and environmental destruction loom large.”
And of course, that brave new world will also include coming to terms with an “acceleration of digital opportunities and computer-led technological developments … artificial intelligence, genomics and 3D printing will be added to the knowledge–intensive capacities already being deployed through automation and robotics”.
However, the brave new world of accelerated digital opportunities will only be realised if the disaster of global warming, climate change, extreme weather events such as storms, flooding and droughts as well as rising sea levels and loss of biodiversity can be averted.
Lopes makes the point that, “as one of the most vulnerable continents, Africa’s growth momentum faces a fundamental risk”. He goes on to point out that as more than 90% of Africa’s agricultural production is rain-fed, it faces huge challenges due to climate change.
“It is estimated that by 2020,” Lopes writes, “rain-fed agriculture could decrease by as much as 50%, exacerbating the food security challenges.” When you add in the inevitable water stress that climate change would lead too, it makes the seriousness of the situation even clearer.
Yet Lopes sees a clear win-win strategy for Africa in as much that most of Africa’s commodity exports have no element of value addition but are exported in their raw form. If Africa industrialises, he argues, embracing green technologies, manufacturing would take place in the continent obviating the need for the transportation costs for exporting raw materials and the associated greenhouse gas emissions.
Given that the industrialised world is increasingly aware of the perils of climate change, we can be hopeful that stimulating the establishment of green industries in the continent will be part of the global response to a looming danger that will impact the whole world.
And, Lopes adds, Africa must engage in the blue economy, both in terms of sustainably exploiting the bountiful resources and being a custodian of the oceans that surround the continent.
No book examining Africa’s development dynamic would be complete without an examination of Sino-African relations, and Lopes does not disappoint.
The author writes: “The continent needs partnerships for fast implementation (particularly in the areas of financial resources, trade, investments, and capacity-building) of its development priorities.
“There is need to unpack the different dimensions of the links between Africa and China, including the ‘untold story’ of the relationship, which is the growing interest of Africa in the Chinese economy.
“There is a need to recognise the complexity of this relationship and identify ways of reinserting African agency in Sino-African relations. Africa must make the best of its relations with the China, its number one trading partner and foreign direct investor.”
Lopes summarises this highly recommended book by stating: “[It] reviews eight challenges that are considered the most acute for Africa’s structural transformation. For each one of them – changing politics, respecting diversity, understanding policy space, industrialising, increasing agricultural productivity, building a new social contract, adjusting to climate change, and inserting agency in the relationship with its key partner, China – some policy recommendations are made.
“The objective is not to be exhaustive but to demonstrate the enormous potential for change and build on successful experiments so far.”
For anyone who cares for the continent, or indeed the planet, this book is truly food for thought. NA