What Happens When Africans Stop Owning Development?

What Happens When Africans Stop Owning Development?

By T. D. Harper-Shipman

African governments and societies that want equitable and ecologically-sound futures should stop owning development.

When I say that African governments and societies must stop owning development, there is a double-entendre here. What does it mean to own development? By “development,” I mean the contrived economic and political processes that are unfolding across the continent and the alterations they are making in African societies and eco-systems. 

Many point to the “Africa Rising” discourse to demonstrate how the continent is finally trending towards development. The increased instances of high economic growth and democratic elections on the continent drive this narrative. There is, however, considerable evidence to the contrary that suggests that this form of political and economic development – liberal democracy and neoliberal capitalism – has been nothing short of destructive. Examples abound of African governments being lauded for their high growth rates and free and fair elections, while those same governments are simultaneously entrenching ethnic and class divisions, dislodging indigenous institutions and greatly exacerbating the degradation of natural ecologies, all in the interest of economic growth.

Ghana, hailed as a star with respect to its commitments to liberalize its economy and see sustained Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth for nearly a decade, has experienced decreased living conditions during that same period. The gross underdevelopment of the northern region and its position as a labor reserve for the southern region is fundamental to the country’s success story. In the midst of this growth, the country is experiencing high rates of deforestation, with some projecting that the country will be deforested by 2050.

Over the past five years, Burkina Faso, a country noted for its peaceful ethnic relations, has now seen unprecedented levels of extremist violence and ethnic cleansing under its new liberal democratic system, after decades of rule under a despotic leader. The aftermath of an attempted military coup and an unresolved pogrom in Yirgou continue to reverberate throughout the country. The impending refugee crisis leads some to say that Burkina could be the next Syria.

In South Africa, members of the Xolobeni community have been in a protracted battle with the state and an Australian mining company to keep their community from becoming another site of extractivism. Similarly, Botswana, another jewel in the African crown, is now feeling the environmental consequence from the decades of diamond mining that led the country to be the most economically stable on the continent. Along with extreme heat waves and drought, Botswana is also the 10th most unequal country in the world.

These conditions and outcomes of neoliberal capitalism and liberal democracy shift the question from whether Africa is rising like global temperatures to who is responsible for the masses still stuck at the bottom?

Owning Can Be a Dangerous Path

This brings me back to my opening point, that Africans who want sustainable and equitable futures shouldn’t own development. In my book Rethinking Ownership of Development, I argue that the current development moment is predicated on aid-receiving governments owning development. The focus here is on the “owning.” What does it mean to own the strategies that have led to the detrimental outcomes listed above?  

By owning development, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) means “a developing country governments’ abilities to exercise leadership over their development policies and strategies and co-ordinate development actions (OECD 2011, 29)[1].  

Countries that want to “own development” do not necessarily have the power to design, dictate or control their own notions of development and attendant strategies. Instead, they must draft World Bank and IMF-approved Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs), refer to donors and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) as partners with whom they coordinate their PRSPs, and accept that they alone take responsibility for development outcomes.

Reorienting development around ownership so that African governments and civil society take responsibility for the savage developmentalism laying siege to the continent is not as surreptitious at one might think. Top officials at the World Bank, the primary architect of the discursive shift to ownership, have admitted to repackaging the same structural adjustment policies created on 14th street in Washington, D.C., so that they appear to be drafted in Bangui, Dakar and other capital cities on the Continent.

Still, ownership is intended to mark a transition to homegrown development. Countries draft development policies that are tailored to the unique problems of their own country. In my book, I illustrate how two uniquely different African countries, Burkina Faso and Kenya, are using the same tools – PRSPs and Sector Wide Approaches (SWAps) – to solve the same problem of “poverty.” Both countries continue to promote economic growth as the ultimate goal and requisite for poverty reduction, which equates to higher capacities to consume. In both countries, economic growth, in practice, takes precedence over the environment and social equity.  

To adopt the tools and language of ownership that grow out of the OECD is of no small consequence. This brand of ownership not only gives the illusion of partnership but also demands that African governments and societies be complicit in implementing strategies not aimed at sustainable and holistic growth.

An Illusory Proposition

But what is truly at stake in African governments and civil societies owning development? The savage developmentalism and self-devouring growth that has characterized dominant processes and outcomes across much of the continent since the turn of the century is part and parcel of the Africa Rising narrative. A departure from the now infamous Economist article that characterized the continent as “hopeless,” Africa Rising is a reference to the sustained and unprecedented levels of economic growth that some attribute to the structural adjustment policies that many African countries implemented in the 1990s.

If one merely scratches the surface, one finds that the growth had little to do with SAPs. A more plausible explanation is that the increased global demand for raw materials, especially in the industrializing BRICS countries (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa), led to a boom in markets for raw materials. Many of the African countries that experienced these high levels of growth were relying primarily on raw materials exports. Global markets for raw materials have historically been volatile and can perpetuate resource traps that force countries to restructure their domestic economies around finite resources whose prices are controlled on international markets.

What happens when these economies collapse? Will the World Bank, IMF, USAID and the other OECD partners be held partially responsible?

Owning development in Africa is dangerous because it perpetuates the false narrative that African governments and civil societies are alone in controlling their political, economic, and social trajectories. It proposes that donors merely support the desires and strategies of African governments and societies. In fact, one of the OECD’s slogans is that ownership means that governments are in the driver’s seat. Being in the driver’s seat, however, doesn’t capture the other nodes of power that come to bear on the driver. Who dictates the speed limit?  Who picked the destination? And more importantly, who designed the road map?

As Western scholars become more brazen about the need to recolonize Africa under the pretense of failed states, Africans taking full control of their destinies cannot be a mere matter of being in the driver’s seat. There must be full recognition of the various attempts by African leaders and communities to chart their own paths and set the pace of their journeys towards human flourishing –  and, how Western countries have used epistemic and material forms of violence to thwart those attempts. As cracks begin to appear in the universal map towards development, now more than ever it is important to begin re-imagining the map.

[1] Harper-Shipman, T.D. Rethinking Ownership of Development in Africa, 1st Edition, August 20, 2019


Bio: T. D. Harper-Shipman is an Assistant Professor of Africana Studies at Davidson College.

Photo caption: From the The Africa We Want Campaign

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