The strength of Africa: Beyond Recovery by Thandika Mkandawire lies in the historical account of the problems facing Africa because of the structural, economic, technological, ideological, and political constraints prevailing at global and regional level, says Michael Chasukwa.
The book discusses the challenges and opportunities for Africa as far as the quest for development is concerned. It is an output from the 2013 Aggrey-Fraser-Guggisberg Memorial Lecture that Professor Thandika Mkandawire delivered at the University of Ghana on the topic of Africa: Beyond Recovery-which is also the title of the book. From the political economy perspective, Mkandawire argues that central to any initiative on improving living standards of people in Africa is the understanding of factors underpinning development, underdevelopment and the recovery of economies in the context of their respective time and space. Throughout the book, he directly and indirectly weighs in on the role of institutions and history to come up with better development policies and programmes for Africa.
The book is organised in three chapters. The first chapter, From Recovery to Development, discusses different policy options that came onto the scene in post-colonial Africa. While post- independence Africa wanted to pursue state-led development, the Bretton Woods institutions were for private/capital-led development – a clash of ideas with negative political and economic consequences for African countries. Policy errors in the ‘getting prices right’ mantra have been admitted by International Financial Institutions (IFIs) hence shifting focus to ‘getting institutions right’ in an attempt to fix economies in Africa. Mkandawire indicates that the recovery of African economies, which has played out differently in a variety of countries, implies a combination of several factors including political changes, terms of trade, neighbourhood effect, linking up to dynamic economies, natural resource-driven investments, special drivers of Foreign Direct Investment and debt relief.
Chapter two, Social Equality and Development, explores different conceptualisations of development that have been experimented and engaged with in Africa. Justified by the persuasive argument of nation-building (but later abused by political elites), social equality policies were a way of redistributing wealth in line with the egalitarian communalism of African culture. The emergence of African socialism, Ujamaa, Nkrumahism and African Humanism reflect a quest for brotherhood in the distribution of resources that was to be later dismantled by the Structural Adjustment Programme. By illustrating the Nordic model, Mkandawire makes a case for social equality in Africa which should be embedded in a broader context of social policy and democratic governance. The rise of Ubuntu and the calls for Black Empowerment in South Africa point out the need for social policy in African countries.
In the final chapter, Bringing The Universities Back In, Mkandawire makes a case for African voices in the policy-making process. He advocates for the reversal of the process of marginalisation of knowledge generated by African universities from vicinities where decisions on Africa are made. An essential idea in this chapter is that universities are key agents in a bid for sustainable development. Mkandawire observes that African universities are limited in this role because of several problems. They still remain teaching institutions as they were at their inception. The fight for academic freedom is still going on decades after attaining political independence. Research is not prioritised because of inadequate government subvention, and the research activities are dependent on funders. Academic capitalism, rooted in the culture of consultancy as a survival strategy for the underpaid academics, is also contributing to the weakening of scholarship in African universities. With little academic research, coupled with the politics of knowledge production, African universities have been relegated to the bottom of the world rankings. This has implications on their competitiveness at the global level.
In the final chapter, arguably, should have been a discussion around the hype for commercialisation of African universities. The commercialisation of universities aims to generate revenue to enhance the quality of services. But at the same time, it also hinders access to education and lowers standards – the perils of treating students as customers. Public universities now face stiff competition from private institutions in the scramble for clients. In the same chapter, Mkandawire talks of ‘Africa Must Run Whilst Others Walk.’ To make the book complete however, a detailed discussion on the ‘How’ part of making Africa Run Whilst Others Walk was expected. However, Mkandawire has adequately tackled the How aspect in some of his writings.
The book reminds readers that Africa has had substantial coverage of development issues from a wide array of themes; political, economic and social. The overall story of development in Africa can be worrisome at times, especially when one takes into consideration the massive financial and technical assistance channelled to every corner of the continent. However, the good news of ‘Africa Rising’- despite some doubts about its authenticity – is a relief to those with genuine interest in the development of Africa.
Mkandawire cautions that dramatic recovery of African economies should not throw away the mea culpas of IFIs. Instead, lessons should be picked from such admissions of policy errors to exploit the full potential of Africa. Obviously, the past cannot be used as an excuse for Africa not to move forward. But at the same time, the past cannot be ignored because the starting point of any strategy will have to be sorting out the initial conditions created by the maladjustment. In this context, the book is timely and useful because it offers critical insights on the recovery of Africa. Its major strength is the use of data spanning decades to illustrate the development trajectories Africa has undergone. With such massive data, readers have a comprehensive view of Africa’s fortunes and misfortunes on its yet to be finished long and winding journey to development.
Having read a number of Professor Mkandawire’s papers and attended two workshops where he was one of the main speakers (2015 APORDE in Johannesburg, RSA and 2016 CODESRIA-UNIMA Colloquium), I reason that he has eloquently maintained his arguments when it comes to the causes of poverty in Africa and how these problems can be addressed. In accessible language and inspiring writing style, he has continued illustrating how neoliberalism has ransacked African economies and how African policy makers and the political elite need to largely look around themselves for ideas that would take the continent on the right path of development. His work experience with several influential organisations is well utilised in this book.
The book is worth added on ‘Must Read’ category for any student, scholar, practitioner and policymaker working on Africa. The strength of the book is in the historical account of the problems Africa has faced, is facing and will continue facing in the foreseeable future because of the structural, economic, technological, ideological, and political constraints prevailing at global and regional level.
Africa: Beyond Recovery. Thandika Mkandawire. Sub-Saharan Publishers, 2015.
Michael Chasukwa is based at the University of Malawi, Chancellor College, Department of Political and Administrative Studies. Currently, he is a PhD candidate (Development Studies) at the University of Leeds, School of Politics and International Studies, United Kingdom.
The views expressed in this post are those of the author and in no way reflect those of the Africa at LSE blog or the London School of Economics and Political Science.