Saturday, July 11, 2009

Why is Obama Recycling Africa's "Good Governance" Myth?

I was originally excited to watch President Obama's first speech in sub-Saharan Africa but after a few sentences of the written transcript I realized any hope of equal partnerships between the administration and African governments on development issues is highly unlikely. In addition to many others, one particular passage caught my eye and I think it summarizes the general attitude and tone of his message. Speaking in regards to his brand of "transformational change" in Africa he commented,
"This progress may lack the drama of 20th century liberation struggles, but make no mistake: It will ultimately be more significant. For just as it is important to emerge from the control of other nations, it is even more important to build one's own nation...This is a new moment of great promise. Only this time, we've learned that it will not be giants like Nkrumah and Kenyatta who will determine Africa's future. Instead, it will be you — the men and women in Ghana's parliament — the people you represent."
Obama's speech to the Ghanaian parliament was clearly designed to counter the growing influence of Chinese investment in Africa via defining America's leadership role in the continent as a mentor for its allied countries around the concept of "good governance". There are several issues surrounding the use of the ambiguous term "good governance", as often thrown around by western governments and NGO's (Tanzanian scholar Issa G. Shivji gives one of the most damaging critiques of the paternalism lying underneath the phrase here) but the elusive definition of the phrase is not the focus of this post.

President Obama's insistence on "good governance" and persistent criticisms of "strongmen" in Africa was sadly misplaced. The reality is sustainable economic growth in the continent is actually stymied by weak leadership, not the inverse. Historical weaknesses of African leadership (and institutions) is one of the lasting legacies of European colonialism in the continent. As discussed in a paper sponsored by the World Bank Commission on Growth and Development, it is the lack of effective, consistent, and visionary leadership in Africa that prevents it from moving beyond its current state in the political economy. Author Benjamin Mkapa laments the political and economic reality that African leaders have often lacked preparation, and financial resources to bring their visions to life, leaving governments weak and incapable of responding to crises.
"I believe that Africa’s trajectory of development would have been very different
and much more positive had the departing colonial powers behaved differently,
including treating Africans with greater respect; helping them to train and build
capacity of independence leaders and administrators; helping to build strong
institutions to deal with the challenges that the new countries faced rather than
trying to perpetuate institutions intended to promote, sustain, and defend
Western economic and political interests; and giving the new governments space
and the wherewithal to realize the vision and dreams they had for their newly
independent countries."
Mkapa also lists 10 issues he believes are essential for leadership in Africa "if the continent is to make greater headway in growth, development, and poverty reduction". There are even some lessons that can be learned from some of Africa's emergent post-colonial leaders like Julius Nyere of Tanzania.

President Obama was quite dismissive of the fact that the colonial legacy in Africa is in fact enduring, as newly independent countries like Ghana inherited the political and economic institutions of their former colonizers. For all of their faults, former leaders like Kwame Nkrumah and Julius Nyere can not be blamed for Africa's lack of growth and poverty reduction today--nor for that matter even corrupt autocrats in 2009.

As in any other continent, democracy is an important goal for every African government to ascribe. However, the rhetoric about democratic governance in Africa overlooks the fact that many of the most authoritarian regimes around the world today post the highest growth- rates and have been more effective in eradicating poverty than so called democratic ones i.e. China. Maybe objective observers should be less concerned about whether they are "good" in some abstract normative sense, so much as they are effective. If the Obama administration's foreign policy resembles anything close to the lecture he gave the government of Ghana you can expect to see more of this.


  1. dearest,

    give me some numbers on China's poverty eradication rates, because from what I know, poverty is still a huge problem in China. Indeed, the people in the professional class is doing quite well, and China's economic growth as a whole is amazing, but I dont believe this growth is felt or experienced by most of its population. Granted, I know China has a HUGE population so the number of people living in poverty is going to be huge anyway just because the population is so large, but I just dont believe China has been THAT efficient in eradicating poverty in its nation....more so just good at covering it up with its immense successes.

    Just a thought.

  2. Hi Erica,

    China has been very effective in many of its development policies, but your question made me wonder about specific numbers too.

    The rural population of China living in absolute poverty declined from 250 million in 1978 to 21.48 million in 2006. The poverty rate went down from 30.7% to 2.3%.

    Low-income population dropped from 62.13 million in 2000 to 35.5 million in 2006. The proportion of low-income people in the rural population decreased from 6.7% to 3.7% in those six years.

    Statistics sometimes reflect particular interests, so there is always the possibility that the data is being manipulated to look good for China. However, there are groups in the West who would jump at a chance to minimize China's successes, but even they have had to admit to China's achievements in that sector.

    Check out this quote from 2006 by Kofi Anan when he was still Sec. Gen of the UN:

    "China's remarkable economic growth has helped to reduce poverty on a scale that is unprecedented in human history. Because of China's size, the way it performs on achieving the Millennium Development Goals is crucial to how the world as a whole does in reaching them."

    I hope this helps.

  3. Austin,

    Reading the transcript further convinced me of the parternalism in his speeches to communities of African descent, including the African-American community.

    In this speech however, many of his statements were simply incorrect. He claims the West has nothing to do with the Zimbabwean economy being in shambles or children being enlisted as soldiers. Yeah right. Anyone with a grain of intelligence and an ounce of sincerity can pin point the different ways in which powerful elements of the West ( multi-national corporations) fund or supply groups to spur conflict and extract resources. The DRC is a perfect example of this. As for Zimbabwe, the impact of the embargo is pretty significant.

    But anyway, when good governance is mentioned it always seems to primarily imply a fight against corruption. Often, many of the criticisms aimed at socialism or centrally planned economies revolve around corruption. I have bumped into some sources which claim that in the context of Africa, it is capitalism which has been the greatest stimulant for corruption within government. I was wondering if you had any thoughts on that?

    Also, is the Benjamin Mkapa you cite the same one as the former president of TZ?


  4. Hey Erica,

    For all of China's faults, and there are many when it comes to inequality, the government there lifted over 100 million people out of poverty. this wasn't a miracle but was because of the effective management of globalization and ironically institutions put in place under Mao Tse Tung in education and health care.

    I agree that inequality has stymied much of the progress China had achieved, but nevertheless there is no disputing that what China did even with a centralized government, as with South Korea and other Asian countries had nothing to do with parliamentary democracy.

  5. As always I disagree.

    I however am to lazy at this point to write a long comment/arguement displaying how it is I can construct a great one.{It's been a long wknd]
    So call me so we can have the usual back and forth lol I just finished reading the transcripts and a have a few google searches and conquers in me so call me while its fresh lol.

  6. i wanna hear this "disagreement"