Are African Countries not Doomed to be ‘DEVELOPING COUNTRIES’ FOREVER?

By Matthew Ayibakuro


In the world, people are described in different ways depending on a range of factors not worth exploring here: White, Black, Asian and so on.  When completing forms in Britain for instance, the categories get a lot more interesting – Black or Black British, Arab,  Asian or Asian British, Chinese, Mixed, White and even an ‘unknown’ category for those who, well, do not understand their particular categorisation.

Countries are similarly described too, albeit in a more sophisticated manner.  Depending on the level of development as indicated on UNDP’s Human Development Report, a country could be termed a low-, medium-, high-, or very high human development country.  As expected, over eighty percent of African countries are in the low human development category. No surprises there.  It’s a trend. It’s normal.   On its part the World Bank classifies countries into four categories: low income, lower middle income, upper middle income and high income countries.  Unsurprisingly economies in African countries fall into the first two categories, dominating the first in particular.  Beyond these, fashionable descriptions of countries that are ‘not developed’ are not hard to come by; ’Underdeveloped’, ‘poor’ ‘third world’. . . .

However, the most prominent of all taxonomies is the blanket categorisation of countries into developed and developing countries.  In Africa, our countries are developing countries.  That is the way it is. It has always been that way, and it would probably continue that way for the foreseeable future.  The origin of this classification of countries as developed or developing is debated, but it is generally understood that the term was introduced in line with the development drive of the 1960s in describing the relationship between newly independent countries, especially in Africa and those countries ‘vigorously pushing’ for their development.

‘DEVELOPING’.  It is positive word.  It denotes forward movement – progress.  But what exactly are developing countries moving towards? Who determines the ultimate goal of this progress? What is the ultimate destination of their development journey?  Will they ever arrive at that destination, and will they even know when they have arrived?  In other words, will the current crop of perennial developing countries ever get to the point of being addressed as ‘developed’ countries, or being developed countries in fact?

Whilst it appears that should be ultimate goal, I am not sure if it would ever be achieved.  Development theory has long moved past the economic development paradigm set in the 1960s where the development of countries could be measured by a simple calculation of GDP and other statistical indicators.  Today, a country’s development is now measured by goals like political order and stability, equity and democracy with all its numerous attendant attributes, like free and fair elections and human rights and all the other globally-accepted high-horse sounding virtues that African countries are not known for.  Perhaps African countries are not known for them because we do not know them, because our societies were not built on those foundations, because our culture and values are very different from these goals.

But no, I cannot think that way.  That is the way only traditional ‘uncivilised’ people think.  It is the reason we had to develop – modernise in the first place.  So for over sixty years, African countries have been striving to develop, to modernise their countries based on the models of the ‘developed countries’. The strife appears perpetual.  It is hard to see the finish line.  It is as if the goals are being updated after every decade, depending on what big institutions like the IMF would call the ‘World Economic Outlook’.

At other times, we owe the change of goals to the genius thoughts of some smart nobel-prize winning individual, like in the 1990s when Amartya Sen declared that development was no longer about the economy or infrastructure, but about ‘Freedom’ – increasing the capabilities of individuals to be able to freely live the lives they can.  This caught on fast and firmly too. The World Bank, IMF, UN and all the other big ships sailing on the ocean of development quickly readjusting their sails and headed towards Freedomland.  And why not? Everything else that has, at one point or the other, being pursued as development could be easily subsumed under prerequisites for freedom – education, infrastructure, economy, democracy, political stability, etc.  All these and more were needed for individuals to enjoy and express their freedom.  Everyone had to readjust.

For the developed countries, it was easy.  These are the things they are known for, the things on which their societies have experimented for hundreds of years and become so good at. In fact, I doubt there was a real need for adjustment at all.  But not so for African countries.  Even before many had driven lap one like in Formula 1 races, they came to realise many more laps have just been added to the race.  More fuel than anticipated would be needed, more parts, more pit stops.  No need to worry, the developed countries and the big development institutions would provide support – aid, technical expertise and everything else in-between.

In fact, they will even throw in some extras like annual reports to tell each country how good or really bad they are doing. Those annual reports – on corruption, on human rights, on human development, on the economic outlook – there are reports for almost anything these days, I lose count.  But they are quite easy to use though, for Africans in particular. I will let you in on the secret formula in using them – just start from the bottom up.  It won’t be long before your country pops up!  Except of course, you are Botswana on the corruption index – they are the ‘miracle of Africa’ in that regard.  Miracles!  How we need them. If we are to win this development race, we would need lots of them.  Perhaps more than anything else.

The most prominent beacon for developing countries right now is the Millennium Development Goals, according to which developing countries by 2015  should eradicate extreme poverty, achieve universal basic education, promote gender equality and empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, amongst others.  It is worthy of note that the specific targets under each of these goals are often the barest minimum possible.  Hence, even when a developing country achieves  universal primary education, there is yet secondary education and tertiary education to be attained before that country would stand a chance of being considered a member of the comity of developed countries.

More so, with the rate at which technology is advancing, it would seem obvious that by the time developing countries get to the current stage of developed countries, the latter would be way ahead of the pile.  Perhaps the determinant of development might then be the number of robots co-existing with humans in a particular country or the countries that own colonies in outer space.  Exaggerated theory, perhaps.  But the point is that in the current state of things, it would appear that certain countries – mostly African countries – are doomed to be developing countries – second class countries if you will, in terms of development – forever.

Some have suggested that the measure of development should rather be the rate of happiness amongst citizens of a particular country without particular reference to income, infrastructure or other such measures.  The merits of theories like this notwithstanding, countries in Africa might just fare better under such standards.  In any case, there is a serious need for a change in paradigm.  Otherwise, developing countries will find themselves perpetually running a race where the strategy for victory is determined by their opponents, and the tape at the finish line also held by their competitors who may continue shifting it at will.  There is no winning such races, not even for our long distance maestros from East Africa.

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