The end of poverty for the stalling continent: Just a vain hope?

Besides being affected by numerous calamities such as famines, droughts and HIV, another major problem of Africa is the lack of good governance. This last factor has captured the attention of International Organizations and Western countries whose main goal is to achieve the end of poverty through programmes financed by development aid. However, this goal seems a vain hope in the case of Africa. Indeed, according to several scholars, a sustainable economic growth is unachievable without inclusive political and economic institutions ensuring property and human rights protection, political participation, accountability and a trustful judicial system. In this context, it is natural to ask ourselves: are Western countries trying to promote this institutional transition? And if so, can their intervention through development aid be beneficial for the governance of this region or is it only an additional source of corruption and mismanagement?

Looking back at African history, Western countries had the opportunity to introduce their institutional framework in this continent during its colonization, but this did not happen. As Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson  illustrate, instead of favouring the institutional transition of their colonies, Western colonizers were more interested in exploiting their natural and human resources. An example of this is represented by the Kingdom of Kongo, an empire located in West Africa, with a society dominated by an elite class whose wellbeing derived mainly from slave plantations. When, with the “Scramble for Africa”, European colonizers occupied this area, they started to demand copper and ivory leading to an intensification of slavery in the plantations. Moreover, slave raiding became a common practice with the rising need for slaves in the American colonies. Therefore, it seems that, rather than set the conditions for a future partnership with this region, Europeans preferred to take advantage of the political instabilities and weaknesses of this continent for fulfilling their needs and creating even more extractive institutions.

Nowadays, the situation has been reversed. Despite the contrasting empirical results about aid effectiveness in relation to the accountability and corruption of recipient countries, Western democracies are committed to provide assistance to Africa in the field of governance in order to achieve the end of poverty. The eight Millennium Development Goals set by the world leaders at the UN headquarters in 2000 and to be achieved by 2015 represented a concrete step in this direction. The main scope was to fight poverty and diseases, as well as improve infrastructure, public management and governance in view of a global partnership.

Notwithstanding these commitments, as far as progress in governance is concerned, The Economist defined Africa as the “stalling continent”. Indeed, as the figure shows, the Ibrahim Index of African Governance, a measure of good governance composed by four categories, reported only a slight improvement in the overall score between 2008 and 2015. This was mainly caused by the low performance in the categories related to safety and economic opportunities and the declining scores of the best-ranked countries.

Despite these unsuccessful results, Western countries have not given up their efforts. In 2015 they set the seventeen Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to be achieved by 2030. In this second commitment, greater emphasis has been given to governance with the 16th goal, “Achieve peace, justice and stronger institutions”, which is considered a necessary condition in order to ensure the other SDGs. At the same time Germany started to promote the Marshall Plan with Africa. This new programme operates not only in view of economic development (first pillar), but also for promoting peace and security (second pillar) and democracy and rule of law (third pillar). However, the most noteworthy feature of this plan is its intent to make Africa an active player in the role of development assistance. African choices are respected and African ownership of development policies is guaranteed in order to foster a global partnership with this continent.

Overall, from this change in attitude of Western leaders towards Africa, I think that two key aspects emerge. Firstly, politics cannot be considered separately from economics: political and economic institutions are among the main drivers of economic growth and their interaction should be considered in the evaluation of development policies. Secondly, it is evident that the future of Africa is in the hands of Western democracies and subject to their intentions and the established international agreements. In the past world leaders did not care about development aid, now they do, but what about the future? Will they be willing to devote other resources to this cause in case of failure of these new programmes? It seems that the destiny of this continent is uncertain and only the future performance of the governance indicators can give us a glimpse of it .

Laura Brogi