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.