Beyond Cookie Cutter Economics
Africa Needs its Own Path
Africa has long been a victim of ‘cookie cutter economics’ – the wholesale importation and attempted replication of growth formulas from around the world into Africa. When thinking about the development of their countries and economies, African policy and decision makers have always looked west, east, and everywhere in between. Of course, this is both the privilege and advantage of having hindsight: that you can learn lessons of what has worked and failed elsewhere. And the thinking there is simple: you look at what worked and took those lessons and used them to guide your own growth story. Conversely, you want to avoid those things that did not work at all. African economic strategists have thus borrowed from the successes of western capitalism and the ‘Asian Economic’ miracle. They have also borrowed from socialist and communist regimes ideas about social, political, and economic organisation.
To be sure, learning and adaptation is certainly not bad. Some economic models have produced some of the most dramatic results in delivering human and social progress. The free market model as espoused by the US and other western countries has produced some of the world’s most compelling results in long term growth, productivity, and wealth creation. In the case of the US, the system has produced products, innovations, and technologies that have made some of the most important contributions to our contemporary age. More recently, the world has seen the rise of growth models such as China’s which has lifted over 300 million people of poverty in about 30 years. Through its export led growth model, China has delivered some of the most stellar growth in recent economic history. So it then becomes almost natural to want to gravitate towards what has worked. However, caution could be urged against the wholesale adoption of growth strategies. At best, what works is a model that honours any country’s cultural, historical, policy, and institutional specificities. Even the best of ideas and models should be subjected to this test. What has worked elsewhere may not always translate with the same results in another context.
When asked about which direction, east or west, his newly independent country would face, the late pan Africanist and Ghanaian Kwame Nkrumah gave a profound response. Without equivocation, he stated that his country would neither face east or west. It would face forward. This kind of courageous and pioneering inventiveness is needed. This mind set is savvy in that the policy maker understands best practices and knows what works. But he or she does not take a wholesale acceptance of every institution or model. He or she has the originality to see how even the best models can or cannot work in his country context.
The next generation of African leaders will need to develop the ability to endow even the best economic growth ideas with local characteristics. Thus, for instance, capitalism can have Ethiopian, Kenyan, or Nigerian characteristics. To be sure, capitalism around the world has national ‘shades’ while retaining its core essence. It has its unique expressions in say Germany, the United Kingdom, or the Nordic countries. China has also pioneered a version of capitalism driven by the state which is inspiring the rise of the ‘developmental state’ in many developing countries. We live in a world where orthodoxy is being questioned and where even the best systems can innovate and evolve.
Thus, the new generation of African economic growth strategists will need intellectual courage. They will need the courage to assert their freedom to think and imagine. They will need to think in original ways which require that if necessary they provide innovative growth thinking which resides outside current orthodoxies. This does not mean negating the basic principles of what has worked. It means innovation which takes into account local context. It is the originality to write new and modern African economic growth stories. The way those stories will evolve will not necessarily be the same as those elsewhere in the world. And they must not be. Rwanda should grow as only it can. Ethiopia should do the same. Just as Nigeria, South Africa or any African country should. It is good to draw lessons, but Africa should not copy and paste its development. Africa needs to have the courage to think beyond orthodoxy and resist the urge to engage in cookie cutter, on size fits all economics.