The study of economic development in African countries is facing a basic problem of lack of reliable data and statistics. These problems of economic data are best addressed under three main categories: design, capacity, and politics. The focus is on gross domestic product (GDP), but the relevance goes beyond GDP statistics because the aggregate of GDP requires economic data on all sectors of the economy, including expenditures and consumption, which gives the basis for discussing levels and trends in monetary poverty as well as having a correct count of the total population. The problem of design refers to the fact that many, if not most, of the statistical categories that are in use in international organizations disseminating statistics on social and economic affairs are categories that were designed as appropriate for developed countries. Indicators such as “unemployment” work better in a formalized labor market. The problems of design translate into problems of capacity. Because most economic transactions are not recorded in informal economies, this means that they are not reported as a rule and that therefore such recordings require a lot more resources. Many statistics that are readily available from administrative sources in higher-income countries need to be collected in more expensive surveys in low-income countries. Budgets for official services may already be constrained, and thus resources for statistical offices to collect these data are less than the resources needed to do so. Finally, politics of data matter. When statistics are based on missing data, the estimates will invariably be soft, and therefore malleable. Thus, when incentives are clearly identifiable before reporting or aggregation, the final estimates may be biased.
Globalization, or increased interconnectedness between world regions, is a dialectical and recursive phenomenon that consequently tends to deepen through time as one set of flows sets off other related or counterflows. This is evident in the history of the phenomenon in Africa, where transcontinental trade, and later investment, were initially small but have grown through different rounds including slavery, colonialism, neocolonialism, and the early 21st-century era of globalization. However, globalization on the continent, as in other places, is not unilinear and has generated a variety of “regional responses” in terms of the construction of organizations such as the African Union and other more popularly based associations. The phenomenon of globalization on the continent is deepening through the information technology “revolution,” which also creates new possibilities for regional forms of association.
The emerging literature on the politics of social protection in Africa provides insights into the ways in which the unevenly changing character of representative democracy shapes processes of public policymaking in practice. Reforms are widely on the agenda, in part as a result of their advocacy by diverse international organizations and aid donors. But there are many obstacles between the policy agenda and policymaking (and implementation). In many countries, political elites hold conservative views on cash transfer programs. The institutionalization of regular and nominally contested elections has rarely resulted in significant pressures from below for pro-poor programmatic social policy reforms. In some countries, “democratic” politics continues to revolve around competition for patronage rather than programmatic reform. In others, voters themselves seem to prioritize other programs (especially agricultural subsidies) ahead of social protection. Nonetheless, a growing number of competitively elected governments have introduced reforms, as have some semi-democratic or authoritarian regimes. For both more and less democratic governments, regime legitimation through apparently more inclusive development seems to be a more powerful factor than voter pressure.
Peter M. Lewis
In the era following the decolonization of Africa, the economic performance of countries on the continent can be traced across three periods. The early postindependence years reflected moderate growth and policy variation, with occasional distress in some countries. From the 1980s through the late 1990s, the region was gripped by a sweeping crisis of growth and solvency shaped by a steep economic downturn and a slow, stuttering recovery. This was also a period of convergence and restrictions on policy space. By the early 2000s, accelerated growth buoyed most economies in Africa, although commodity price shocks and the global economic slump of 2008–2009 created episodic problems. Different approaches to policy and strategy once again marked the landscape. A number of influences help to explain variations in the occurrence of economic crisis across Africa, and the different responses to economic distress. In addition to structural factors, such as geography, resource wealth, and colonial legacies, middle-range political conditions contributed to these downturns. Key institutions, core constituencies, and fiscal pressures were domestic causes and external factors include donor convergence, access to finance, and policy learning. One framework of analysis centers on three factors: ruling coalitions, the fiscal imperative, and policy space. The ruling coalition refers to the nature of the political regime and core support groups. The fiscal imperative refers to the nature of state finance and access to external resources. And the policy space comprises the range of strategic alternatives and the latitude for governments to make choices among broad policy options. Applying the framework to Africa’s economic performance, the first period was marked by distributional imperatives, a flexible fiscal regime, and considerable space for policy experimentation. During the long crisis, regimes came under pressure from external and domestic influences, and shifted toward a focus on macroeconomic stabilization. This occurred under a tight fiscal imperative and a contraction of policy space under the supervision of multilateral financial institutions. In the 2000s, governments reflected a greater balance between distributional and developmental goals, fiscal constraints were somewhat relaxed, and policy variation reappeared across the region. While the early 21st century has displayed signs of intermittent distress, Africa is not mired in a crisis comparable to those of earlier periods. Developmental imperatives and electoral accountability are increasingly influential in shaping economic strategy across the continent.