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Solving Africa’s state-society gap

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The advent of 2019 has many wondering what kind of world will emerge in the next many years. Predictions of disruptive, technological change, and the transfer of geopolitical power abound. A recent report by the Hoover Institute specifically analyzes what kind of political, economic, and technological trends will form on the continent of Africa, given the shifting sands of our times.

One portion of the report pays particular attention to African governance. Given that governance is a key ingredient to economic development, the answer to this questions has enormous implications for not only Africa, but for the world.

Although it has abated, conflict and poverty-driven migration in recent years caused political and economic shock waves throughout Europe and beyond. Given that the average age across Africa today is 18 and the continent’s population is predicted to essentially double from 1.2 billion people today to 2.4 billion people by 2050, it would be easy to imagine another migration crisis brought on by an influx of young, opportunity-starved Africans seeking better fortunes beyond their native shores.

Will the governance styles employed in the immediate future by African states be supportive of economic development or act to retard it? Will they help establish opportunity for their burgeoning and youthful populations or spark another migration crisis? The answer to these questions will be found, in part, to whether many African countries can solve their “state-society gap.”

Identified in the Hoover Report, the “state-society” gap is a negative characteristic of many African country’s governance styles. This phenomenon can best be defined as the habit of governments to orient themselves externally, concentrating primarily on the wants and demands of foreign interests in order to secure financial support and investment. This results in governments ruling with minimal input from their people or the institutions that make up civil society within their nations.

This state-society gap, the Hoover Report states, “lies at the heart of the problems faced by many [African] states. Governments that rely on foreign counterparts and foreign investment … for a major portion of their budgets – rather than on domestic taxation – are likely to have weaker connections to citizens and domestic social groups.”

In other words, because foreign interests have provided so much financial support to African governments, the incentive is to appease and focus on those same foreign interests, instead of establishing the relationships with civil society that results in a flourishing society. These governments are essentially discouraged from building the institutional foundations necessary for a prosperous country because all of the funds needed to function are provided by foreign entities, not domestic taxation.

How did this disconnect develop? Unfortunately, the West’s meddling on the continent, both past and present, created this destructive chasm. This characteristic was almost certainly baked into the very formation of many modern African states as they were largely the creation of colonial officials and cartographers, not native political will.

The Cold War between the West and the Soviet Union certainly exacerbated many African nations’ state-society gap. In order to bring countries into their respective orbits, the two Cold War powers provided various forms of aid to many African nations. As the Hoover Report notes, “This situation supported an external orientation in African politics in which Cold War reference points and former colonial relationships assured that African governments often developed only a limited sense of connection to their own societies.”

Most recently, the West (and China) helps perpetuate this state-society gap through the provision of international aid, or Official Development Assistance. How does aid, which is meant to help a country, unintentionally undermine its economic development? Michael Fairbanks, an international development expert who worked for years with Rwanda’s government, gives a few reasons:

The development consultants that accompany aid money themselves have an external orientation, which leads them to focus on the wants and desires of the foreign entities from which they came. The counsel they provide to African governments therefore, ends up influencing these governments to focus on those priorities instead on those of the people. Hence, aid “severs the link between a ruler of a country and his people.”

For Africa to rise, the state-society gap that plagues many of its countries will have to be bridged. Africa will truly prosper only when countries focus more attention on building the native institutions necessary for their own development. For its part, the West has the opportunity to stop exacerbating that gap by rethinking its approach to aid, which has done so much to make African governments more reactive to foreign interests than to its own people. It’s not only Africa’s prospects for flourishing that rest on the closure of this gap. In this increasingly interconnected and globalized world, ours does as well.

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Andrew Vanderput is the Poverty Initiatives Manager at the Acton Institute where he promotes business and enterprise solutions to material poverty. Andrew comes from a diverse background in public policy, nonprofits focused on international poverty, marketing, and consulting.

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