Can any good come from Washington?

In July 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama visited Africa, he conveyed an important message to African leaders that succinctly captured the crux of Africa’s malaise: “Africa doesn’t need strong men, it needs strong institutions.”

It would appear that the leaders attending African summit in Washington next week have failed to heed his advice. Instead they are travelling to the summit as defiant as ever, with yet weaker institutions. Efforts to stem endemic corruption and the excesses of the patrimonial state continue to be ignored by the continent’s political elite. Leaders committed to reform can build strong, effective, efficient, and transparent institutions in Africa, as they have elsewhere in the developing world. For now, however, the commitment is lacking.

Two weeks ago I visited a friend in the middle-class South C neighborhood of Nairobi, Kenya. I was struck by the narrowness of the streets in area, in comparison to other parts of the city, with cars parked on either side making it difficult for the smallest of cars to drive down them. At the end of one of these streets was parked an enormous black Humvee which, I was informed by my friend, belonged to a young man from Africa’s youngest country, South Sudan. Alongside the Hummer, my friend told me laughing, that this young man was also in possession of a BMW and a Mercedes though no other property.

At that moment I remembered Professor Ali Mazrui’s diagnosis of the African problem, which he divided into two stages – the pre-colonial tragedy of “deficit greed” and the post-colonial crisis of “abundant acquisitiveness.”  According to Mazrui, “Africa’s economic tragedy has been this basic transition from the inadequate acquisitiveness of pre-colonial culture to the greedy consumption of the post-colonial era.”

For the past forty years, the international financial institutions have pressured African states to implement neoliberal policies that have addressed neither the needs nor priorities of these states and their populations. The result has instead been the deterioration of almost all economic indicators, with greater deficits, mounting debts, entrenched aid dependency, the disastrous privatization of state enterprises, the further weakening of state institutions, and yet wealthier autocrats.

The African summit next week could still be a success if the agenda is to reframe, redefine, and balance what professor Mazrui termed “profit motive” and “prestige motive.” The intention of the so-called ‘Washington Consensus’ was to incentivize the “profit motive” to create market economies.  The outcomes was to foster an unleashed “prestige motive” that created a culture of acquiring not more productive enterprises, but more Humvees, more BMWs, and more Mercedes.

If African strong men and their host, President Obama, are able to make any progress during the summit, it will be to reconfigure “profit motive” to serve a wider public interest rather than the seemingly unquenchable thirst of the political elite.


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One Comment

  1. Avatar Fiqi
    Posted August 2014 at 8:33 pm | Permalink

    Nothing Good comes from Washington! Washington is the root source of Africa’s economic and political malaise. Washington policies seek only to maximize America’s economic and political interests, by empowering its corporations at the expense of African nations. The promotion of neo-liberal economic policies in Africa systematically undermines economies of African nations, and OBAMA deliberate deflects the blame on African leaders. It is indeed hypocrisy of an epic proportion on the part of Obama to preach African leaders to build strong institutions, while at the same time, promoting deliberately crafted policies that undermine social and economic institutions.

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