Debating Ideas is a new section that aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It will offer debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
K.Y. Amoako’s book, named after his favourite African proverb (‘If you know the beginning well, the end shall not trouble you’), asks two fundamental questions: what are the right economic policies to achieve faster economic growth and poverty reduction in Africa, and how do you persuade governments to adopt them?
K.Y. (as he is known to all) has been one of Africa’s foremost economic thinkers and doers for nearly 50 years. His experience of trying to change the economic weather in Africa is second to none. Yet his book is very different from most other books offering economic prescriptions or econometric analyses for Africa. It tells instead the human story of how in practice you go about trying to identify the right economic policies and persuade African governments to follow them. It is in effect a practitioner’s guide on ‘How to Build an Economic Policy Consensus’, and is all the more valuable for that.
One of the first African economists to be recruited by the World Bank, K.Y spent three formative years in Zambia in the early 1980s struggling to persuade Kenneth Kaunda to introduce ‘structural adjustment’ policies. By the time he left, he’d drawn four lessons on what was necessary to achieve successful reform: the need to understand the local politics; to build partnerships with the key economic actors; to ensure domestic ownership of the reforms; and to have clear and strong leadership. He understood why the ‘Washington consensus’ became ‘a pejorative shorthand for Western-imposed policy prescriptions’ (p. 345). Sadly, Zambia then disappears from the narrative, as its travails up to the present day are an object lesson in the difficulty of lining up these four requirements.
After another decade at the World Bank, in 1995 K.Y. was picked by UN Secretary General Boutros Ghali to head the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), an institution struggling to emerge from the shadow of its long-standing and firmly anti-Western Executive Secretary, Adebayo Adedeji (p. 158). In his 10 years at the ECA, K.Y. evolved a model for shifting economic thinking and practice that he applied with tremendous success. It was based on:
- Building a solid basis of economic fact and analysis.
- Providing a clear policy narrative and strategy focused on key areas for change (IT, gender, AIDS, regional integration and governance).
- Building an African consensus through regular formal and informal meetings.
- Converting the agreed policies into action at the national level, with consistent and effective international support.
He was to some extent lucky. From 2000 on, there was a favourable conjuncture of a benign international economic climate, an exceptional group of reform-minded African leaders including Presidents Mbeki, Obasanjo, Meles, Museveni and Kagame (whatever people might think of them nowadays), and consistent, sympathetic and generous support from Western donors led by the British, Dutch, Germans and Canadians.
There are times when the book reads like one damned meeting after another. But K.Y. is clear about the underlying purpose – to move assumptions about what needed to be done and provide the policy tools that would enable it to get done. K.Y.’s genius, and the purpose of all those meetings, was to bring together more effectively those who were doing the thinking and those who were doing the doing. As a result, in the first decade of the 21st century, Africa grew faster and poverty reduced more quickly than at any time since the 1960s. This is not a coincidence.
But the moment passed. Huge effort was put into improving aid effectiveness, building development partnerships, and providing finance for development. But the world was moving on. Financing for African governments came increasingly from private investment, Chinese loans and the Eurobond market rather than the Bank, Fund and donors. Africa’s growth and the trend towards more representative government have both stalled in recent years. After 20 years of reform, scarcely a handful of African countries have a viable, internationally competitive manufacturing sector. Some countries that appeared to be on the right track have gone off it; others are struggling to maintain their momentum; and now the whole continent has been hammered by the fallout of the Covid pandemic. Times are never easy.
The African Center for Economic Transformation (ACET), set up by K.Y. when he left the ECA, has developed a compelling economic policy prescription for achieving the economic transformation that Africa so desperately needs, and is working hard to put it in practice. But it is only at the end of the book, when he returns to the economic history of his own country, Ghana, that he puts his finger on the crux of the problem. It is not just leadership that matters, but the political process itself, which all too often consists of ‘seeking votes and trading favours to secure power, then manipulating macroeconomic policies to retain power in the short term rather than to benefit the country’s development in the long term’ (p. 494).
Of course, African countries are scarcely alone in facing this dilemma. But it highlights that successful economic policy can never be divorced from real life politics if it is to be successful. K.Y. has given us a masterclass in how to do that. It is up to the next generation to apply the lessons.