Beyond African ’growth’: some comments on the Swedish media debate, by Linda Engström

On Saturday the 26th October, the Swedish National Radio broadcasts its traditional 20 minutes of economy news – ‘Ekonomiekot’. The reporter and editor Pär Ivarsson interviews national economist Peter Stein, and Stefan Kullander, Sales manager for Africa at the company ABB in Sweden. The topic of today’s program is the economic growth of Africa.

There are many things that strike me, listening to this program. Below, I have listed my four main points of critique that I hope could contribute to that ‘Ekonomiekot’ partly revises its take on economic growth, development and ‘Africa’.

First of all, the recent and frequent reports on outstanding economic growth in Africa have quickly turned this into mainstream ‘knowledge’. But, earlier this year, the Norwegian scholar Morten Jerven published his book ‘Poor Numbers – How we are misled about African development statistics and what to do about it’. Looking carefully at what is behind these numbers he concludes that “the quantitative basis for knowledge about African economic development is very fragile”. In Ekonomiekot, for example, Ghana is pinpointed as one of the more successful countries regarding economic growth. According to Jerven, Ghana’s increase in GDP depend to a large extent to use of better data and better methods for accounting.  Tanzania is also mentioned, which is the country where I myself conduct field work. Certainly, there has been progress in some regions of Tanzania. However, the contrasts between a rich elite and a poor peasantry is striking, especially if you spend time in rural areas. According to some experts – inequality is only increasing.

Secondly, the program approach is strictly technical – economical, and crucial aspects of development such as social well-being and environmental sustainability are being left out almost completely. Some reservations are mentioned in the beginning of the program by the reporter: There are many issues left to be solved, incomes are distributed unequally, and we cannot generalize for the whole of Africa. Yet, this is what is being done throughout the program. As exemplified above, the fact that distribution is unequal is not possible to put into a parenthesis. This is a key issue that needs to be in the center of the discussion if all of ‘Africa’ is to enjoy ‘growth’. Moreover, connections between social, environmental and economic development are being downplayed by this narrow focus. If you consider these linkages, the focus of ABB on the expanding mining industry, gas and oil exploitation becomes somewhat more controversial, also knowing about social conflict and poor working environments in the mining sector. If you add the fact that mining, oil and gas industries in Africa is dominated by foreign companies, reality becomes even more complex. A majority of the profit is subsequently not staying in the African countries. And to the extent it does, the unequal distribution plays its role. In addition, environmental costs from fossil fuel emissions and mining sites are not included in the ‘growth’ discussions. When asked to give examples of the progress that you can see when travelling in Africa, Kullander’s reply contains mostly technical progress: Airport terminals, infrastructure and mobile phones, even though he also mentions health systems and urban planning. While agreeing strongly that mobile telephones play a crucial role for many African citizens, reducing development to technical solutions solely has been questioned by many scholars, for decades. For example, in his book “Seeing like a State” (1998), James Scott compiles experience from several large development schemes that failed during the 20th century. One of the common factors behind this trend is “the self-confidence about science and technology [in the West], without acknowledging the role of local knowledge and know-how” and without proper analysis what fits in the local context.

Thirdly, the view of Africa as a continent of opportunity is another theme of the program. Opportunities mentioned in the program are; economic growth, technical development, mineral resources and – a lot of unused land. This is another cornerstone in the global narrative on Africa, also practiced by several African governments; the availability of vast tracts of marginal land, for foreign or domestic investment in large scale agricultural production. Alden Wily, one of the most prominent scholars on land in African countries, states that a key issue in today’s discussion on land is that “governments consider unfarmed lands to be ‘unowned, vacant, idle and available”. While I am not denying that land of that kind does exist to some extent, it is completely misleading to make that statement as a general ‘state of African land’. If you ask around in the countryside in Tanzania, there is no such thing as unused land. Land that appears ‘unused’ is often far away from water sources, not fertile, used for grazing, collection of fuel wood, vegetables, construction material for houses etc. This has been well described by many scholars from many different countries. Allocation of that land to investors does have an impact on rural people. In Tanzania, many villages also set aside land for future generations; an extraordinary arrangement from a sustainability perspective also accounting for future population expansion, often referred to as a threat to African future food security and well-being. And, if there is ‘available’ land, shouldn’t it not then as a first priority be used by the country’s own farmers? Alden Wily states that the rush for land takes place in a time ”when the opportunity exists to establish a more inclusive route to agrarian transformation by acknowledging the immense land and resource capital customarily possessed by the sub-continent’s rural poor”. This would also contribute to solving another issue referred to by Peter Stein, namely the high unemployment rates, whether we define it as formal or informal. Small scale farming in African countries has been persistent, despite efforts to replace it with ‘more efficient’, large scale agriculture. Based on a wide set of empirical data, Scott argues that a key reason why small scale family firms, farms and businesses have survived in times of large changes, it that the small scale in itself has the merits of being able to adjust. Technical and large scale solutions are not always the best option.

Lastly, the questions in the program are mainly framed ‘what’s in it for us’. What are the possibilities for ABB to invest or expand? Can H&M produce cheap clothes in Ethiopia? The claim that ”Africa was even ahead of Sweden” (regarding the spread of mobile phones) is met with a surprised question: “In what way?”. These and other statements like ”Africa has taken a leap into the modern world” is similar to the colonial and persisting view of Africa as lacking behind and old fashioned. It also fits well into what Scott describes as one of the reasons for failure of development interventions, namely the notion of states and other actors of “those who are going to be ‘developed’”.

To summarize; I ask ‘Ekonomiekot’ for a more critical approach when discussing development and economic growth that also includes the interplay between economic growth and environmental and social well-being. I hope for discussions that more take into account the perspectives of urban and rural Africa, not only of Swedish private sector interests, as well as a stronger understanding of the difference in social and natural contexts between our continents.

Linda Engström, researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, PhD student at Swedish University for Agricultural Sciences. Background in natural science research and as adviser to Sida on environmental integration in project, program and policy development in Swedish Development Cooperation.

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