During the African-American summit "US-Africa Leaders Summit", Anders Borg will discuss how development-promoting institutions in Africa can be promoted. In these discussions, it is often overlooked that democracy and development rarely go hand in hand. That democracy and human rights should be prerequisites for development is more an expression of wishful thinking than objectivity. It writes Göran Hydén, professor emeritus of political science and African connoisseur.
"Africa is not a country". This is what it says on t-shirts you occasionally see young people wearing in the USA. This for most clear statement alludes to one of the many frogs that the former Republican presidential candidate, Sarah Palin, released during the 2012 election campaign when she claimed that the continent is a country.
Not least since 2012, Africa has been increasingly in the spotlight in both the United States and Europe. Africa is rising, say not least economically interested analysts and savvy people. Euphoria has replaced the long-standing Afropessimism.
Against this background, the African-American summit taking place in Washington DC this week can be seen as a recognition not only in the United States but also in other Western countries that Africa has finally become a global player with its own agenda. With the overwhelming majority of the continent's fifty heads of state in attendance, this summit is not only symbolically but also politically a potential turning point.
The event can be seen as a counterpoint to the growing Chinese presence on the continent. Not least the United States itself wants to show its interest and contribute funds to development, as exemplified by the already initiated "Power in Africa" investment in expanding electricity capacity.
European politicians and experts are also present in Washington this week. This includes the now African-saved Minister of Finance Anders Borg who participates in a panel on how to build and strengthen development-promoting institutions. His and others' presence suggests that this can be more like an Almedalen week than just a pompous event with champagne and shopping for Africans.
But how do you get to these development-promoting institutions? The donors have spent more than six decades trying to find working models but have not been very successful. Some may claim that previous failures took place because economic policy and thus the institutions were wrong. There was a lack of individual incentives, and so on. Another may argue that the Africans have been too tightly controlled by the donors. They have been denied a sense of ownership and thus interest and enthusiasm for what the outside world has offered.
Both of these factors contain a core of truth. What they mainly suggest, however, are two things that are usually overlooked in reasoning about Africa and its development. The first is that development is not fixed overnight or during a roundtable discussion. Institutions are not dragonflies but phenomena with strong roots in society.
As I said, Africa is not a country but a multifaceted continent where the domestic institutions differ. They vary according to religion and ethnicity but also increasingly as a result of the countries' own development experience: Kenya is not Tanzania, Ethiopia is not Somalia, Nigeria is not Ghana, and so on. Despite these differences, not least the Western world tends to focus on institutional reforms that lack structural support in African societies. The historical differences that still exist between these two regions are ignored.
It took the countries of the western world several centuries to reach a democratically based societal development. It was only when these countries reached an industrial base and society became class-based that the political pattern we take for granted in Sweden and other western countries came into being. Only in recent years have African countries begun to move in this direction. Despite the lack of a working class, a bourgeois middle class is now under way in most countries. Perhaps this is the first step in the direction that both Washington and Stockholm want to see in Africa.
The problem, however, has been - and still is - that the West wants to force this development in a historyless way that only plays into the hands of Chinese and other non-democratic forces. The zeal for democratization that has prevailed since the 90s has stalled in Africa, so the structural conditions are not yet in place. Politicians, consultants and activists have seldom shown the patience required for their own values to take root in African hearts and minds. How to reconcile one's own political beliefs with bringing about a change in attitudes and behavior from within other people's consciousness in a sustainable way remains an unresolved dilemma of democratization in Africa.
The second thing that is often overlooked is that democracy and development in Africa rarely go hand in hand. The thesis that democracy and respect for human rights are prerequisites for development is more an expression of wishful thinking than objectivity. In fact, in Africa, Ethiopia and Rwanda have come the furthest in terms of the Global Millennium Development Goals. Both can be described as “development states” where the focus on strong social governance is perceived as a prerequisite for progress. Democratic principles are more a concession to the international community than a cherished national concern.
African societies remain primarily divided vertically rather than horizontally. Because the economic forces have not yet produced functioning social class behavior, it is still religion or state affiliation that primarily contributes to social identity. This type of society is not the best breeding ground for liberal democratic values that we also experience in today's Europe. In Africa, one of the donors' often forced democratization has often led to its downfall and in some countries to civil conflicts. Against this background, it is all too easy to condemn leaders like Paul Kagame in Rwanda who, against all odds, have had their country ravaged by genocide appear to many as a model for how the rest of Africa can rise from poverty.
The fact that he has been able to achieve this in less than twenty years is, of course, proof that the Africans can make progress on their own and use aid funds effectively. What Rwanda also teaches us, however, is that development must come from within. It must be governed by values that are rooted in one's own society. Democratic values do not have to be irrelevant, but they cannot be expected to act as magic pills. The donors should loosen the leash and let a thousand thousand flowers grow. IN that diversity will be able to sprout democracy with greater force than through the bushy transplants that the West is still trying to achieve.
Professor emeritus of political science and African connoisseur.