How can Africa become a developed continent

Why black Africa can hardly move

The majority of black Africans still live in circumstances that are reminiscent of the Middle Ages. The corrupt political elites of the continent bear the main responsibility for this. The fact that most African states can continue to ignore the interests of their citizens can also be explained by the fact that system competition has been largely eliminated by development aid.

Despite the hundreds of billions of francs that have flowed to sub-Saharan Africa as development aid over the past few decades, Africa remains the least developed continent in the world. When Ghana became the first black African state to gain independence in 1957, the country was roughly on a par with South Korea's development. Today, however, the per capita income in South Korea is nine times higher than in Ghana. Although the black continent is currently experiencing the strongest growth phase in the last 30 years, the majority of its inhabitants still live in conditions that are reminiscent of the Middle Ages. The number of black Africans living on less than a dollar a day has almost doubled since the early 1980s, from 164 million to more than 300 million. Over the same period, that number fell by more than 70 percent in Asia.

Stalled private initiative

Black Africa's politicians and many development workers blame colonialism and the allegedly unfair world trade system for today's problems on the continent. Instead of breaking with the colonialist traditions, Africa's political elites were actually using the structures established by the colonialists to exploit their countries themselves to the grain and to enrich themselves immeasurably. Instead of investing in their own countries, the political elite moves the misappropriated funds abroad. Even according to unsuspicious sources such as the United Nations Economic Commission for Africa, capital flight from sub-Saharan Africa is considerably higher than the development aid flowing into Africa.

The African malaise is illustrated, for example, by the story of Ibrahim Mussa, a refugee from the Sudanese conflict region of Darfur who found refuge in neighboring Chad. Ibrahim bought a parched field in the south of Chad, right on a river. He irrigated the land with three motor pumps and grew vegetables that he wanted to sell in the city. For the transport of the vegetables, however, a permit is required even within Chad, and there is a “customs post” on the road at the entrance and exit of each town. The police there demand bribes, even if all the papers are in order.

The prevailing land law is no less bad. Ibrahim bought his land directly from the local sultan. Thanks to the irrigation, the field was the only one far and wide that was green even in the dry season. This aroused envy in the neighborhood and called the sultan's brother to the scene. He wanted to share in Ibrahim's success without having invested or done any work himself. He claimed that the Sultan should not have been allowed to sell the land without the family's consent. Ibrahim had no choice but to get his motor pumps to safety and run away. The purchase price and the jobs of the farm workers were lost, and from then on vegetables were no longer produced in the area.

The poorly functioning state, corruption and traditional land law are decisive obstacles to development. If the state and its representatives steal the fruits of their labor, they have little interest in producing more than for their own needs. Because there is hardly any private property, the farmers hold back from investing. And even those who want to invest will not receive a bank loan, because in traditional land law there are no land titles that could serve as collateral for a bank.

The state as a robber

In sub-Saharan Africa, the state does not primarily serve to set guard rails for the development of the country, but is a vehicle for enriching the political elite. Government contracts are awarded in opaque procedures to companies backed by ministers, high officials and their wives or children. The state also regulates and monopolizes many areas of the economy with the aim of generating unemployed income for the elite. An inflated bureaucracy promotes the arbitrary rule of civil servants and opens up opportunities for them to demand bribes. In addition to the bureaucracy, the state-owned enterprises proliferate. In them, the politicians accommodate members of their own ethnic group. Unlike the industrialized countries, African states hardly care about collecting taxes. Therefore, the governments can usually not offer their favorites money, but can offer positions, monopoly rights or other economic advantages - in exchange for political support.

In addition to the state, some traditions also inhibit development. In Africa, for example, people have great respect for old age and especially for old men. This may have many advantages, but it leads to an extremely conservative attitude towards values ​​and thinking that rejects new ideas and stifles experiments. The vast majority of black African farmers practice rain agriculture, although the climatic conditions for this are not (no longer) given. The small state of Malawi in southern Africa is a good example: Malawians suffer devastating droughts every few years. A considerable part of the population then has to be fed by the World Food Program and other aid organizations. Thanks to Lake Malawi, the country has the largest freshwater reserves on the continent in terms of its area. However, only a tiny part of this potential is used for irrigation of agricultural land and if so, then mostly only for commercial farms. Most smallholders, on the other hand, follow their ancestors and persist in their traditional cultivation methods.

Pronounced envy society

Another problem that has to do with sticking to traditions is that instead of switching to more drought-resistant millet varieties or cassava roots, farmers in large parts of eastern and southern Africa continue to plant maize. White corn is the absolute staple food there. Corn cultivation of all places requires a lot of water. Most Africans believe that growing and consuming white corn is an ancient African tradition. But that's nonsense. The first corn plants were brought to Africa by the Portuguese, but the farmers don't know that.

In addition, most Africans live in a pronounced society of envy. Anyone who stands out and behaves differently than the norm is quickly trimmed and put in their place. This also applies, for example, to private saving: saving is antisocial, especially for Africans living in simple circumstances. Someone who saves is withholding money from family members. Those who have traditionally give to their less well-off relatives, although the group of relatives in Africa is often very large. As important as this tradition can be in times of need, it encourages parasitism and prevents funds from being held for future investments.

Dictatorships and military governments have also fallen out of fashion in sub-Saharan Africa since the fall of the Iron Curtain. Their number has greatly decreased. But most African democracies are really democratic only on paper. As recently seen in Nigeria, many elections are far from free and fair. In addition, in the face of rampant poverty, it is very easy and cheap to buy votes. The fact that the transition to democracy has not improved the quality of governance in sub-Saharan Africa is due not least to the fact that the heads of state are still extremely powerful. In fact, Africans virtually elect a dictator every four or five years. Power restraint mechanisms are almost non-existent and the judiciary is seldom independent.

Perhaps the decisive factor is the role of the village, clan and tribal chiefs. Whoever wants to be elected president has to rally a majority of the notables behind them - with money or the promise of financial advantages. The traditional bosses, in turn, decide who is elected in their "sovereign territory". Last but not least, they have power over their protégés because they determine the distribution of the soil. This eliminates an important democratic control mechanism: Candidates do not have to win a majority of voters on their side, only the chiefs of the tribe, who are usually easy to buy.

One can of course ask why the state in sub-Saharan Africa continues to inhibit development and not, as has happened in Europe, at some point, out of self-interest, favor progress by guaranteeing property rights and ensuring law and order. If one compares Europe's history and that of Africa, one notices the large number of interstate wars in Europe. There were enough fertile areas on the old continent for the kings and princes to fight for. In sparsely populated Africa with its comparatively poor soils, however, conflicts mainly take place within the individual countries.

The almost complete absence of interstate conflict has some important implications. Moeletsi Mbeki, an entrepreneur, original thinker and brother of the South African President, says: “In Europe, the fear of devastating interstate wars was a decisive factor in the economic integration of the continent. This is not the case in Africa. Interstate wars have also helped to develop national consciousness in Europe. In contrast, there is largely no such in Africa. In addition, a state with external enemies is forced to organize itself better in order to equip large armies without at the same time letting economic production plummet. Interstate wars also force the rulers to make concessions to minorities in the country in order to create a unified front in the face of the external threat. The large number of internal conflicts in Africa, on the other hand, has the opposite effect. They fragment society instead of uniting it. They undermine trust in the state and its legitimacy. Overall, they weaken the state. "

It should also be added: The fear of external threats forces the state and the rulers to keep corruption in check. Of course, Europe's princes and kings made use of the state treasury, but those who built palaces that were too big and neglected the army risked a "hostile takeover". Anyone who did not master the collection of taxes or allowed their officials to generously misappropriate state funds was threatened with the same. The competition in the military field and the competition between states for capital and know-how have contributed significantly in Europe to the fact that the powerful developed an interest in property and contract rights. Europe's princes and kings were no more benevolent than today's African politicians. Rather, thanks to international competition, they were doomed to progress. Anyone who pursued outdated economic models perished.

Help undermines system competition

This type of systemic competition is almost completely absent in Africa. The countless guerrilla wars in Africa never created the threat of interstate conflicts in Europe. African rebels often only control peripheral areas in which the central government has little interest anyway. The cases in which African rebel groups came to power can be quickly enumerated. The first thing the Organization for African Unity, the predecessor organization of the African Union, did in the early 1960s was to establish colonial borders. In addition, the African heads of state agreed not to interfere in the internal affairs of their neighbors. In effect, they formed a cartel in which everyone concentrated on the exploitation of their own territory. This practically eliminated the violent systemic competition.

But what about the competition for foreign capital and workers with know-how? In many African countries, the share of foreign direct investment in gross domestic product (GDP) is less than 3 percent. And where foreigners invest, it is usually only about raw materials. In contrast, the share of development aid is almost 10 percent of GDP. This corresponds to a multiple of the proportion that flowed to Europe under the Marshall Plan after the end of the Second World War. From this point of view, it is worthwhile for African countries to remain poor and make themselves attractive to development workers instead of attracting foreign investors through good governance.

Development aid as part of the problem

Development aid undermines the already undeveloped systemic competition in Africa and thus helps to perpetuate corruption and mismanagement. It cemented structures that hinder development in the state and society. So it becomes part of the problem that is actually to be solved. Development workers in Africa also take on many tasks that would actually be a matter for the state. In doing so, they weaken the state instead of nurturing it. This allows government and administration to concentrate even better on what they love to do best: embezzling public funds and enriching themselves. For example, practically no roads outside of South Africa or Nigeria are financed by their own state. Road construction has long been outsourced to development workers. But when foreign countries build roads, the African state has little incentive to pay for road maintenance itself. It is much more preferable to wait for broken traffic routes to be repaired or even rebuilt by other helpers.

Development aid is a political reality, so it cannot simply be abolished. Less and better focused and better coordinated help would often be more. In addition, development workers should concentrate on improving the democratic control mechanisms in the recipient countries and on giving the largely powerless entrepreneurs, among them the smallholders, more political clout. And above all, they should avoid anything that hinders international competition for capital. As long as aid money goes to those states that trample human rights or who pay lip service to the fight against corruption, not much will change in Africa for a long time. Here it would usually be sufficient if the development workers strictly adhered to their own guidelines and punished evildoers with immediate withdrawal of aid.

It would also be helpful to recognize that the fight against poverty and misery is primarily the task of the African governments. If they prefer to spend their scarce resources on luxury sedans, private jets and useless summits and conferences, then they simply do not deserve our help. If Africa is to finally move from the spot, there must be a radical rethink not only on the black continent, but also in the western capitals and, above all, in the headquarters of the relief organizations.

Abridged version of the presentation to the NZZ General Assembly on April 14th.