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Time, Perspective, Choice and Uncertainty: Globalization and the Political Economy of the Developmental State in Africa

By Stephen Commins

Paper prepared for workshop on Globalization and Human Security 1in Africa,
May 29, 2002

1 For the purpose of this short paper, ‘human security’ incorporates three domains: the basic elements of social development as outlined in various international agreements [notably the World Summit on Social Development, 1995]; protection from violence or threats of violence; and the opportunity to participate without coercion or threat in public forum and public actions.


Perspectives on the state and development in Africa change with both intellectual fashions and the opportunity to promote a particular policy or state as the new model for economic and/or social development.2 Attention given to the impact of ‘globalization’ on African economies can be useful in terms of assessing the relationship between various and varied African countries and international trends, as well as determining how globalization affects both larger political systems as well as human security at the household and community level. The attention to globalization can also, however, obscure the internal factors and dynamics that remain central to development outcomes.

This paper briefly discusses the relationship between globalization and African development within a few basic presuppositions:

When Mao was asked about the meaning of the French Revolution, he replied that it was too early too tell---our expected time frame for development outcomes or the achievement of development goals is usually too short

When Gandhi was asked what he thought about Western Civilization, he said it would be a good idea---our perspectives are shaped by mental models of development that are often too linear in their expectations

When I was Chair of the Complex Emergencies Working Group at World Vision International, we pressured our relief operations to close our camps in Goma in the fall of 1994. We argued that we were supporting genocidal leaders, they argued that they were helping destitute refugees---deep moral dilemmas and unavoidable trade offs are the nature of politics and policy making as they relate to human security

Ambrose Bierce defined ‘peace’ as the period in international relations between wars, characterized by cheating---nation states, power and politics still matter in a globalized world and on the African continent

Finally, from my favorite philosophers, Calvin and Hobbes (the boy and tiger):
Calvin: “It is interesting that evolution gave us a sense of humor”
Hobbes: “If we couldn’t laugh at different events, we wouldn’t be able to react to much that happens in life”----there is much we do not fully understand and we need to be better with questions rather than a new set of answers

Given these points, our thinking about the political economy of African development within the context of what is termed ‘globalization’ needs to go beyond the embedded ideas and mental models that tend to shape thinking on fundamental questions of economic growth and human well being. The development fads and political solutions in the past fifty years, including those for Africa in the post-colonial era, have generally swung between fixes that have come and gone as quickly as fashion trends.

2 The IFIs tout Uganda and Ghana; the Clinton administration had its ‘princes’ in Ethiopia, Eritrea, Uganda and Rwanda; the sandalistas embraced revolutions in Mozambique and Zimbabwe; and so it has gone.

We need to consider first concerning Africa’s political economies that the really important issues related to human well being, effective and well governed states, and long term economic improvement, do not have simple answers. They are what E.F. Schumacher called ‘diverging problems’, which require seeing issues from multiple points of view, identifying trade-offs, and making choices while continually remaining open to discovering errors in one’s reasoning.

Globalization and the Political Economy of Africa:

The term ‘globalization’ has acquired a connotation similar to karma, kismet or fate in the way that it is thrown around. It remarkable that a term that is less than twenty years old3 has become so quickly part of the jargon of academics, policy makers, activists and politicians.

For this paper, ‘globalization’ can be understood as a term that has come to characterize some of the vast changes that have taken place in the international economy over the past two decades. This includes the international diffusion of production, consumption and investment in goods, services, capital and technologies. This does not mean that we know enough about the past, present or future to determine whether this is indeed a ‘new era’ at an early stage and/or a continuation of an older set of processes that go back at least a century.

The term "globalization" has been widely used in the past decade to describe a range of factors that are integrating financial markets, weakening some aspects of nation states, and reducing the protective mechanisms that were established in welfare systems within the more economically developed countries. There is a danger that globalization has now become an overused and under defined term that often obscures more than it reveals.

In addition, it is misleading to describe globalization as a single process, or as having universally similar economic consequences. “Globalization” reflects a number of inter-related processes that are sometimes contradictory in their consequences: technological; economic; political; cultural; psycho-social.

What is important to recognize is that within globalization new economic, environmental, social, cultural and technological relations are emerging, but by themselves they may undermine or enhance human development and security, depending on a range of specific and particular mediating variables. Often, too much of the discussion about globalization has been framed in economic terms, debating over winners and losers, and arguing over whose data is better constructed and researched. Yet, if the emphasis is on a singularity or linearity about globalization as an economic and technological process that misses many of the subtleties and nuances within and between different societies. Certainly, in the case of Africa, locating the relationships between the various dimensions of globalization and the specifics of countries and regions is vital for assessing trends and policy choices.

3 see Theodore Levitt, “The Globalization of Markets”, OECD, 1985

Africa and the Political Economy of Development

In the case of Africa, the linkages between the various aspects of globalization and what has been characterized as ‘localization’ need to be considered in detail and depth. For African states, however strong or weak, deeply rooted or fragile, politics, power and identity (and thus key aspects of their political economy and poverty) remain embedded in the particulars of history.

The old internalist (state failure) v. externalist (neo-colonialism) debates about the reason for Africa’s underdevelopment could be too easily replaced between the comfortable tendency of ascribing the complex and multiple causes of political and economic outcomes to globalization (external) or neo-patrimonialism (internal). For each African country, changing external economic and political relations have an impact---highly varied and mediated by local conditions, which in turn are the result of both internal dynamics and longer term historic trends (and external relations).

Thus the dynamics that we label as globalization do have an impact----again, however, highly varied and mediated by politics and local conditions. The risk of the present discussions about globalization is that it too quickly descends in populist debates into a ‘gnomes of Zurich’4 view that is both condescending and wrong. It is condescending because it denies moral and political choice to the various groups in a given society. And it is conceptually wrong because governments and entrenched powers in every country have their own agendas, goals and survival strategies that do not bend easily to Great Powers, International Financial Institutions, finance capital or globalization.

A quick summary might point out that within globalization today, there are changes and continuities for African countries.

What is new for Africa?
---information technologies
---speed of capital flows
---communication systems

What is much the same for Africa?
---dominance of ‘North’ in international institutions and economic relations
---centrality of nation states and the problematic of state building
---inequitable trading system

The local aspects of the global/local can be found in the continuing debates and trends in relation to questions of political economy and the ‘developmental state’ where optimism, pessimism and ‘realism’ are continually reborn. The choices for each African state are both constrained by internal factors and various externalities, but also by the ideas that have shaped what is understood as ‘development’.

4 or gnomes of IFIs?

“The many pathways to development are indeed marked by dilemmas, contradictions and trade-offs, at different temporal or spatial levels, and suggestions to the contrary should be looked on with suspicion.”5

Within the choice of policies and models are older views that still inform development discourse and decision making----a view of progress, which despite two major wars, remained a universal ideal for the West (wedded to technology and various manifestations of capitalism), the East (Marxism being a devoutly progressive religion), and the post-colonial world where the leaders of independence movements promoted catching up economically with the colonizers as the task for their generation aligned with the task of nation building.

The end of colonialism brought a generation of giants---Sukarno; Nkrumah; Nehru; Nyerere---whose vision was of rapid and dynamic modernization, state led, a non-aligned model, which would end poverty and hunger in their countries. However, the promise and potential of a generation of giants went unfulfilled. As C.L.R. James noted in his book on Nkrumah, they could make revolutions but they couldn’t build the nation.

For the past two decades, since the ‘Great Reversal’ of the early 1980s, when the state was overthrown for the market in a disastrous pendulum shift that was as simplistic in its early prescriptions as the previous over-emphasis on state based structures, the bouts of optimism and pessimism have often missed some basics regarding human security or human development and the ‘African state’. In simple shorthand, these include factors that cannot be ‘fixed’ quickly, through a few project loans, or grandiose schemes.
---the relationship between ‘good’ governance and economic development
---the continued necessity to invest and transform agricultural production systems
---the cornerstone of basic education and basic health services
---the employment and the informal economy
---the continued weakness of African states in the global regimes


To return to the phrase from Goran Hyden, there are no short cuts to progress, only hard choices and difficult decisions with modest foresight and scarce resources. We need to take a hard look at the time frames often posited for development, at the ways in which intellectual fads can be as distorting of our perspective as short term political interests, and the hard trade offs facing states, donors and any organization involved in the practice of development.

In the case of African states, a major internal dilemma remains as stated by Charles Elliott in a workshop at UCLA over 15 years ago: in order to maintain political equilibrium, states often follow policies that create increasing economic disequilibria.6 Only with a longer time frame and perspective can policy advice address this inevitable

5 Stuart Corbridge, Development Studies: A Reader
6 perhaps the cases of Argentina’s provincial deficits or the new U.S. farm bill can illustrate this as a more universal dictum.

juggling, which takes place in the larger context of globalization, but which is based on the particularities of each (however weak) state.

In discussing a recent workshop on the IFIs and globalization with one of my students at the School of Public Policy, who has worked both in Latin America and Africa, she commented that we should get beyond the pro and anti labels about globalization, and think more deeply in terms of the structures and processes of politics and economics, of re-framing issues, and of what roles are played by different organizations and institutions.

Mike Edwards, now the head of governance and civil society at the Ford Foundation, and a long time internal critic of NGOs (and the author of a challenging and quixotic recent book, The Future Positive has pointed out the difference between---
Information---raw material that is the basis for learning
Knowledge---how we systemize information by filtering, testing, comparing, analyzing and generalizing
Wisdom---the ability to utilize knowledge and experience in action

For African states, international donors, development practitioners, and academics, finding the way from the verbiage around globalization, or globalization and Africa, to a few insights of acquired knowledge, and occasional wisdom, remains the enormous and daunting task.

My own reflections on the political economy of development have long been influenced by a statement by Donald Schon, taken from Educating the Reflective Practitioner. Schon compares the world to a swamp surrounded by high ground. From the high ground, we see problems clearly, while in the swamp, the problems are confused, murky and difficult to tackle. Schon writes that ‘the irony is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant…while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.”


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