Rethinking Africa’s Turbulence – By Eliot Pence
Africa is in the midst of unprecedented change. At five percent growth rates, standards of living increase 30 to 50 times over the course of a single human life. But we know that rapid social and economic change can create problems.
New research shows that African protests have increased four-fold since 2005. Growing unrest, violence and political instability in Burkina Faso, Democratic Republic of Congo, Uganda and elsewhere on the continent, beg the question: is Africa’s growth causing more problems than it solves? What more can we learn from other dynamic systems about where and how to focus efforts on reducing the turbulence growth creates?
One analogy that might shed light on the nature of instability is found in physics. In fluid dynamics, there are two types of flows: turbulent flow and laminar flow. Turbulence is characterized by essentially chaotic changes. Fluids moving at higher velocities tend to exhibit turbulent flow characteristics, while fluids moving at slower velocities will have “laminar” (smooth) flow characteristics.
When the flow is laminar, the flow “absorbs” shocks that result when it is interrupted by things like surface roughness, heat transfer, vibration, noise, and other disturbances. When it’s turbulent, the absorptive capacity of the flow is reduced, which sets off “eddying” motions.
Eddying motions are essentially chaotic vibrations that have a mind of their own. As they accumulate, they generate their own disturbances and reverberations. Eventually the flow is characterized not by the initial conditions, but by the relationship between the eddies and the energy they put off.
This makes turbulence essentially non deterministic: it can go faster, slower or stay the same speed depending on the interactions between the eddies. Whatever absorptive capacity the flow may have had at the beginning, is worn off. What’s left is turbulence.
The physics of fluid dynamics is not a perfect analogy in which to consider economic growth. But it’s a useful conceptual framework to consider rapid change in general and to reconsider how societies have sought to pursue sustainable development paths.
Three fundamental features of fluid dynamics stand out as particularly relevant when re-considering what matters for growth and development: 1. the irrelevance of “initial conditions,” 2. the importance of absorptive capacity, and 3. the interaction between “eddying motions” and the turbulence these reactions create.
The importance placed on the “initial conditions” of a state – the constitution, division of power, the form and function of the elections, and the division of state and religion – has been a major focus of development practitioners. While there is a widespread assumption that getting these initial conditions right matters to long term stability and growth, the links are actually much more tenuous in practice.
Despite the fact that many African countries are technically constitutional democracies, seven of the top 10 countries in the world most at risk of state failure are African. And of the 34 constitutions with term limits implemented in sub-Saharan Africa since the 1990s, only seven have adhered to the term limit.
Even when the constitution and elections are met with fanfare from virtually all sides, things often fall apart – Burundi is a regrettable case in point. Regardless of how a country achieved independence, or what is enshrined in its constitution, as it undergoes rapid growth, everything is up for grabs.
More important to continued growth and stability than initial conditions is the “absorptive capacity” of society. The ability for a society to contain its turbulence can be characterized by a number of things, but the best definition might be the resilience of its institutions – both formal and informal.
Investment into formal institutions has formed a growing part of official development assistance. From 2006-2011, public sector institutional reforms were featured in over $50 billion worth of World Bank sponsored projects.
But less than 40% of 80 countries getting World Bank support for public sector reform between 2007-2009 had improved governance scores (Andrews, The Limits of Institutional Reform; 2013, Pgs 6,13). And according to the African Development Bank, average country scores fell in government effectiveness and regulatory quality indicators from 1998 – 2006, despite substantial reforms. So what are we doing wrong?
The deepest reservoir of absorptive capacity in a given society often emerges not from its formal institutions, but from its informal institutions. Informal institutions evolve as society does. They reflect the norms and means of life and adapt to promote solutions to conflict and the provision of social services.
For example, the Christian Health Association provides up to 40% of healthcare services in Nigeria. In Tanzania, the land courts system offers a widespread alternative to the winner-take-all system the western legal system promotes. In South Africa, member-based alternative asset management clubs called “Stockvels,” comprised of individuals sharing similar interests who manage their own money, are growing rapidly precisely because the formal pension sector is inflexible and costly.
Exploring ways to invest “in the grain” of local institutions is especially important, as reforms of formal institutions can mask or deter real reform. In order to be successful, institutional reform needs to be linked with local norms and realities. Refocusing efforts on understanding which informal institutions would benefit from what forms of assistance should be a priority.
Lastly, understanding the interactions between the “eddies” of discontent rather than the specific eddies themselves would better focus enforcement efforts. We should look not just at Boko Haram or Al Shabaab in isolation, but specifically at the nature of the relationship they have with other sources of discontent – be it in business, civil society, government and/or religious institutions.
A growing body of work and initiatives focused on understanding what are sometimes called “illicit financial flows“ is painting a far more complex picture of the beneficiaries of, and contributors to, instability. By investigating the interactions between sources of discontent, it could reveal weaknesses in the relationship between terrorist groups and their supporters. It might also reveal new ways for different groups to have their grievances met through different means.
At this month’s World Economic Forum in Cape Town, the sentiment surrounding Africa’s growth was overwhelmingly positive. But a different conversation was emerging in the hallways.
Enthusiasm about Africa Rising is increasingly tempered by the recognition that progress is an inherently unstable process. It generates counter-currents which both advance and stall progress. It transforms small disturbances into widespread economic and social disruption.
The result isn’t always an Arab Spring, as the most pessimistic observers suggest. But taken together, the accumulation of these factors reveal a more uncertain future than Africa Rising currently captures.
To ensure these alternative futures are managed, civil society, the private sector, governments and development stakeholders would do well to refocus their approach to managing growth.
Until now, too much focus has been spent making sure the initial conditions of the state are sound, too little time understanding informal institutions, and even less on understanding the often very complex relationship between different sources of discontent. By refocusing resources to better understand these three areas we would be better able to soften the shocks of Africa’s rapid growth.
Eliot Pence is the director of the Africa Practice at McLarty Associates and founder of the Africa Expert Network.
interesting piece. One will somewhat agree with what has been raised in this piece, however will disagree on the assertion that growth is igniting numerous “turbulence” There is more to Africa issue than simple statistical growth numbers shown by governments and the international community. Personally, any growth reported on the continent is questionable to me because growth for a decade should make the life of a greater section of the poor better than where they are now. Africa has been engulfed with questionable economic measuring indicators and we continue to adopt Westernized economic models that are irrelevant to the African situation. Time changes, therefore economic thoughts change as well. The problem is not growth, it is more to do with leadership, mind set, and desire to see real equitable change among the general population. Leadership with compassion, leadership with selflessness and vision for ones country is what we lack. It also comes down to the mind-set of the ordinary African to want change, desire change and participate in change. We do want change but until the continent move away from dependence to more independent thought and actions we will be kept in the rhetoric of 5% growth and nothing tangible to record. People are agitated because democracy gives them the voice and exposes what leaders are doing. People demonstrate because they are fed up with continued abject conditions. They could see others prospering and they deepening in severe destitution. Why not ask for a piece of the national pie? It isn’t growth that encouraged “turbulence” it is more to do with enlightenment. We love our continent and we will be well off if we change how things are done and how bad we want the change.
The whole of African history for the last thousand years has been “turbulence”. Come to think of it, you could say the same of Asia, or anywhere else for that matter. Good things always go alongside the bad, particularly when looking at a huge landmass of people’s and nations. That does not automatically mean they are connected. But this is the very first time in my life that I’ve heard an expert on Africa suggest that somehow the good economic progress happening in the continent is fueling political discontent. The mind boggles!
Let me give a humble suggestion:the next time one wants to theorise on Africa, let them first Substitute Asia for Africa and see if they are making any sense. This will help weeding out the historical Afro pessimism that besets western discourse and thought on things Africa. Africa is not one country. And let me just say right now that I find the suggestion that economic growth in Africa is too fast for us poor Africans to manage peacefully quite distasteful and insulting to say the least.its not very long ago that these very experts were telling us we needed fast economic progress or we were going to keel over and die en masse.
As for the African “”Arab spring” sorry, but that was the nineties.Long before the Arabs roused themselves from their religious stupor. Africa need not have waited for “inspiration” from the Arab world and indeed we did not. There is no inspiration to be drawn from the Arab spring , it’s an unmitigated mess because Arab culture today cannot cope with plurality.That most in the west missed that significant period in Africa must be because there wasn’t enough blood and gore to rouse the well known western journalistic talent for African reporting.The thing was too quiet and I’m not surprised the writer now contextualises the happenings in bukina faso and places like that in such strange economic terms rather than attribute it to a continuing tradition of African agency to improve governance on the continent. This is just alarming from an Africa expert!
Let us stop reading the book upside down on Africa, and if we can’t do that, then let us give Africa a break and stop pretending we can explain everything there through our own narrow visions of the continent. Do Africa a favour and stop contriving woes out of her good news and misery where there isn’t any. There is just no need for so much pessimism.
Mwalinafiki, Thank you for your comments. I actually agree with many of them – so we’re not so far apart. But I think it’s wrong to think of growth as strictly linear, one directional and uninterrupted. One book that has influenced my thinking on the subject is Sam Huntington’s “Political Order in Changing Societies.” Id encourage you to take a look at it. Thanks again for your well considered comments.
Macro-statistics and pan-African speculations… blegh..
ISIS Building On Governance may require a Strategic Rethink which will include members of the African Union
The realpolitik consideration may well be that perhaps the most effective way to counter this most pernicious civic social dialectic of unbridled violence and destruction entailed within the ISIS civic social ethos is to consider civic negotiation with ISIS appreciating ISIS in being as a prehensile state form organization. All dialogue with ISIS must presume this non-negotiable caveat. ISIS must no longer condone participate in any kind of violent destruction to both person and property or encourage and promote violence as a means to state caliphate status. Agreed, de facto Syrian President Bashir al-Assad is no better or worse in his manner method of kinetic engagement to the most vulnerable people in Syria than is ISIS. Therefore, the Western Alliance ought to consider at least opening up lines of communication with the absolute presumption that violence will only breed greater violence and with this presumption encourage ISIS to come to the table and ‘palaver’. Personal security in all regions of post conflict is what the people crave with fervor, as personal security will allow for a regularization of living in civic social commerce. ISIS must be made to understand that civic social respectful pluralist tolerance is not for negotiation or compromise. Agreed dealing with theocratic fundamental fanatics will require the patience of a ‘Job’. The alternative option I suspect will contribute only to further blood and distress among the most weak and vulnerable and for me this is a ‘sin’ in which all organized forms of Religious Theological Expression bear responsibility and ought to be held to strict account.
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