Acton Institute Powerblog

Expanding the welfare state in Africa is a threat, not a help

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Traditional family values, a strong work ethic, and an informal economy have until now stood in the way of a creating a social-security scheme for most African nations. A new agenda aims to change that. What Africa needs instead are those good intentions wedded to sound economics. […]

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While bilateral and multilateral talks are hitting impasses around much of the globe, “Agenda 2063: The Africa We Want” is a continental agreement that breaks the mold. For all its lofty ambitions, this blueprint aiming at “transforming Africa into the global powerhouse of the future” is paradoxically both a celebration of and a threat to the family.

The document accurately captures the high esteem in which Africans hold the family and communal ties. It pledges that Africa will be a continent where “there would be a strong work ethic based on merit” and “traditional African values of family, community and social cohesion would be firmly entrenched.” This focus on the family is hardly novel—nearly half the countries in Africa explicitly evoke the family in their constitutions as the basic nucleus of social organization. The family often acts as the first social safety net the individual resorts to. In times of economic, social, or physical distress, the extended family is expected to step in and help.

The family also serves as the soil in which virtues like honesty, reciprocity, cooperation, and a strong work ethic are cultivated. While we tend to think that these concepts apply to the raising of children, Herman Bavinck reminds us that the family is also a powerful vehicle for internalizing values like “devotion and self-denial, care for the future, and involvement in society” in the parents as well. This confluence of factors often leads to scenes reminiscent of the bustling house in Disney’s Encanto: the family’s household becomes a makeshift retirement home and shelter for grandparents, cousins, and the odd distant uncle or two. But more importantly, that household produces individuals committed to virtues essential in market interactions and so critical on a continent stricken by corruption and a weak rule of law.

Yet despite its pledges in favor of the family, “Agenda 2063” misguidedly promotes the expansion of social security programs and policies. This is not to say that I oppose the laudable goals of alleviating poverty or taking care of the elderly; it is simply that I (and most proponents of the free market) refute that this is primarily the government’s role. This is to dangerously conflate local community and state duties. The welfare state may have brought about modest improvements by virtue of the its reaching the “low-hanging fruits” of development (such as South Africa’s asset delivery program that markedly increased the household access rate to public assets like formal dwellings), but as Frédéric Bastiat once warned us, oftentimes “when the immediate consequence is favorable, the ultimate consequences are fatal.” I fear we, too, are easily brushing off the consequences.

The expansion of centralized social safety nets crowds out the individual’s sense of familial duty. By conceding this battle to the welfare state, we effectively outsource the care of the poor, the sick, the widowed, and the elderly to faceless and often inhumane institutions. Not only would this be a blow to the moral responsibility inculcated in families, but a greater share of the family’s hard-earned money would go into the state’s purse. Actually, a perforated purse may be a more apt metaphor; studies have shown that an increase in government spending has caused as much as a 6.5% reduction in economic growth.

Such “social security” programs have been limited in Africa for three major reasons. The first is that the general African population’s view of culture and its work ethic run counter to the underpinnings of a welfare state. This set of values likely stems from Pan-Africanism and its insistence on self-reliance. The second is that Africa (and developing countries in general) have historically allocated less than 2% of their already limited GDP to welfare schemes. While this last figure pales in comparison to, say, France’s hefty 31%, this gap may soon be narrowed. The third reason for Africa’s reluctance to broaden its welfare state is the unviability of any significant employment-based contributory social security plan, a result of the informal employment sector in Africa. Fittingly, “Agenda 2063” aims at demolishing the second and third obstacles to broader state-centric welfare. Naturally, and thankfully, it cannot demolish the first.

As evidenced by the goals of “Agenda 2063,” and the growing number of welfare schemes in Africa already, a clear and alarming pattern is forming. Western nations hailed as the exemplars of democracy continue to extol the virtues of a strong welfare state, and Africa’s leaders are entirely beguiled. My word of advice is that they fight the urge to chase their Western counterparts on the path to supposed social equity. Africa is far from perfect, but for all its problems, the love and commitments of family life is not one of them.

If we as Africans were to lean more into the traditional family structure and aim at limiting government interference (while conversely not falling into tribalism), the Encanto-esque scene confined to singular households might very well spread and formalize into institutions like private healthcare providers and private charities that can effectively and efficiently provide relief where it’s truly beyond the capacity of individual families.

Fr. Robert Sirico once posed a sobering question akin to the one made nearly 200 years prior by Alexis de Tocqueville: “How is it possible that society will escape destruction if the political tie is strengthened and the moral tie is relaxed?” As reflected by “Agenda 2063,” Africa is standing on a precipice. The question is, will she choose to stand on the bedrock of humane civil institutions or will she jump into the treacherous nets of the state?

Brian Ntwali

Brian Ntwali is a member of the Acton Institute’s 2022 Emerging Leaders class and an incoming junior at Hope College, majoring in economics and minoring in computer science. Brian hails from Kigali, Rwanda, and loves spending time with friends, playing anything from Dutch Blitz to volleyball. Another cherished part of his time at Hope has been engaging in challenging readings and discussions at his school’s book club, aptly named Markets & Morality.