By Bernard Wainaina
There are many stories about Africa these days that, if you’re African and have been thinking of trying your luck elsewhere,would make you think again, and stay put.
The good stories revolve around things such as the phenomenal economic growth driven by sectors such as natural resources, finance, retail, transportation, and telecommunications.
There are also the gains linked to greater political stability and increased economic growth, with several African economies
boasting among the fastest growth rates in the world.
Africa, those with an eye for business opportunities will tell you, has never been more attractive to foreign capital.
This particular observation conjures up images of a future of abundant job opportunities for the continent’s restless and potentially politically dangerous youth.
And if by chance you bumped into someone who is focused on everyday, bread-and-butter issues, the kind that believe Africa is doing badly, you will hear equally credible stories
about what is not working.
These people ones tend to be put off by the cheerfulness that has come to characterise thinking and conversation about how things have never been so good in Africa.
They will remind you that although poverty in Africa has fallen over the past two decades or so, 48 per cent of Africans still live in extreme poverty; that 25 per cent of the continent’s
children eat less than they should due to food shortages; that maternal and infant mortality rates remain high; that access to quality education, health care and safe drinking water is still abysmally low; and that large numbers of women all over the continent are virtually beasts of burden.
The interesting thing about all this is that it is all true.
What we have here are two sides of the same coin.
Africa is doing well and badly at the same time.
One half that lives above the poverty line thinks Africa is rising;the other half that lives below the poverty line thinks Africa is sinking!
What answer you get when you ask someone whether Africa is doing well or badly depends on whom you ask and what he or she is thinking about.
If you chance upon an Afro-optimist, the type that subscribes to the “Africa Rising” narrative, you will hear only feel-good stories.
If one scratches beneath the big story captured in “Africa Rising” one can see evidence of doing well at the level of individual countries.
In terms of reducing poverty, maternal mortality and illiteracy and raising access to quality education, health and agricultural extension services, some African countries have done well
over the past two decades or so, and seem destined to continue along that path.
The question one could ask, therefore, is why many continue to do badly.
International experts are quick to attribute slow
progress to bad governance, population growth, lingering political conflict and, in some cases, overall reductions in international aid.
If all these explanations were to be taken seriously, why, one ought to ask, have some countries done well, regardless?
There are studies suggesting that experts are merely jumping to conclusions.
There is some evidence to show that countries that do well in the most unlikely of social, political and economic circumstances have attributes that experts overlook in their
rush to reach for long-established truths.
What are those attributes?
Let us begin with policy ownership.
This refers to policies,whatever they are designed to achieve, coming from within
and targeting problems defined by the very governments that implement them and not models imposed from outside.
When governments identify problems they want to solve and devise solutions they know to be appropriate, failure is not common.
On the other hand, governments that embrace
models as a matter of fashion get little out of them.
Then there is the beast called “capacity.”
The capacity of state institutions to design, evaluate and adapt policy is important.
It does not end there, however.
It must extend to capacity for consistent implementation, itself dependent on capacity for
co-ordination between central and local authorities, and among ministries, departments, and agencies.
Decades of capacity building by outsiders have not produced capacity to match that which is internally generated and driven by determination to succeed against all odds.
Strong central governments are an absolute necessity.
They provide a sense of direction in the pursuit of broad national goals.
Two decades ago, conventional wisdom held that success in Africa would depend on creating strong, autonomous local governments,like the devolved county governments created by the new Kenyan Constitution.
Today we know that the massive efforts that went into devolution of power, resources and responsibilities did not live up to expectation.
We now know that strong central governments with the capacity to set goals and ensure their implementation by local authorities do better than their weak counterparts with no capacity to prevent local elites from pursuing their own
Strong central governments are unachievable in the absence of centralised bureaucracies with high capacity for policy design and implementation, and political control.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, whether or not civil society groups are part of decision-making makes little difference.
Governments that are focused on delivery do not need civil society groups to remind them of their responsibilities.
Nor are they necessarily the products or practitioners of good governance as pushed by purveyors of conventional multi party politics.
“The African Story as told by Africans”.©African News Digest®