How much have development strategies changed in Africa since independence? It depends

This week in the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular, we talk about economic development in Africa. In a broad study of nine African countries, Landry Signé examines innovation in development in his book, “Innovating Development Strategies in Africa: The Role of International, Regional and National Actors.” Signé kindly answered my questions about the book.

Kim Yi Dionne: As you observe in your book, both African and international development leaders invoke innovation in describing their development strategies. But how much have development strategies in Africa actually changed over the decades since independence?

Landry Signé: It depends on the way you think about innovation. In identifying innovation, most scholars focus on the content of development policy. They ask if a new development strategy is just “old wine in a new bottle,” usually on their way to explaining why a policy is doomed to fail. This substantive perspective often overlooks the slow-moving processes of some development innovations.

Most scholars have taken little interest in explaining development strategies in a procedural sense, at least when focusing on Africa. By procedural, I mean the forms, processes and mechanisms by which development strategies emerge, change and impact development outcomes over the long term.

My book examines both perspectives on innovation — substantive and procedural — and pays special attention to the lesser-explored one: procedural. Much of the research by scholars working from a substantive perspective find a lot of continuity in development strategies in Africa. But I find in my work that there are innovations — often incremental ones — which lead in the long run to much more substantial and often overlooked economic and institutional transformation.

After independence, African countries shifted from state-led development to various levels of state withdrawal in the 1980s, combined with strategies for economic integration and development. In the 1990s, states continued to disengage, but added social protection measures. In the 2000s, the emergence of the World Bank’s Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers and the New Partnership for African Development (NEPAD) have marked a return to a more significant role for public institutions and continentwide development strategies in promoting economic development in a more market-friendly context. Only looking at the content of strategies, and not taking into account the process of emergence and the long-term impact of policies would miss this incredible transformation over the last few decades.

KYD: An important point you make in your book is that development strategies can be considered innovations even if they fail. Is there a failure you think is a good example of innovation in African development strategy?

LS: New development policies, whether substantially or procedurally innovative, could lead to poor outcomes over the short run, but can also contribute to a much more important dynamic of change. For example, although structural adjustment programs (SAPs) have broadly been considered a failure, they have defined new rules of the game and practices resulting in better macroeconomic management, increased accountability and governance effectiveness. Together with debt relief and a favorable international context, SAPs thus contributed to the transformation and overall good economic performance of African economies in the beginning of the 21st century. When scholars only focus on short-term impacts, they overlook more transformational changes brought by apparently failed policies.

KYD: Your book examines development in nine French-speaking countries formerly colonized by France. Why did you focus on these countries?

LS: I aimed to explain the overall transformation of African economies since the 1960s, providing a big picture of the changes which have taken place in development strategies. To make the study manageable, I first constructed a continental puzzle inspired by Paul Collier and Stephen O’Connell’s classification of African countries by economic structure and economic policy orientation. I wanted the sample of countries I studied to be a mix of low and middle-income countries, oil producers and non-oil producers, landlocked and poor in natural resources and landlocked and rich in natural resources, those that are coastal and poor in natural resources and those that are coastal and rich in resources, and those with socialist-leaning economies and those that are liberal-leaning.

After finalizing the continental classification, I realized that enough former French colonies were well represented in all the relevant categories to cover the full range of criteria for the continental analysis. I ultimately chose Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroon, Congo, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo for many reasons.

First, as members of the CFA franc zone, they have similar monetary policies. At the same time, these countries had contrasting economic structures, economic policy orientations and development outcomes. These important contrasts, despite the countries’ similarities, were more important in my decision to choose Francophone countries, than their former belonging to the French colonial empire, even if both are intertwined.

Second, I wanted to look at countries that shared the same colonial power as part of a growing effort among African scholars to dismantle the myth that colonial heritage is the main driver of contemporary development strategies in Africa. More and more work shows that domestic political economies interacted with international influence to shape development outcomes.

Third, Francophone Africa has often been unexplored, neglected or understudied in the Anglophone world, especially in the United States. By focusing on French-speaking countries, I fill an important gap in the literature.

KYD: How might we take what we learn from your study to examine development in — for example — former British colonies or former Portuguese colonies?

LS: My book’s goal was to better understand how economic development strategies emerge and transform economies in sub-Saharan Africa — not only in Francophone Africa. I offer a theory explaining change over time in African development policies that applies broadly to African countries that underwent structural adjustment, whether former French, British, Portuguese, Belgian or Spain colonies.

I focus on the dynamics of domestic political economies in African countries and on their interactions with external actors. Despite the asymmetry in power relations with their international counterparts, African governments still have agency in making decisions about their development. My book offers a framework for understanding these interacting dynamics in the emergence and evolution of economic policies and development institutions in Africa.

Finally, I’ll say that one takeaway from my book is that we should take a broader view. While we researchers witness institutional and political continuities in the short run, even minor innovations can give rise to great political, economic and social innovations and transformations in the long run.

Landry Signé is a distinguished fellow at Stanford University’s Center for African Studies, professor and senior adviser to the chancellor on international affairs at the University of Alaska Anchorage, Andrew Carnegie Fellow, Wilson Center Public Policy Fellow, Tutu Fellow and World Economic Forum Young Global Leader. Follow him on Twitter @landrysigne.


Kim Yi Dionne is Five College Assistant Professor of Government at Smith College. She studies identity, public opinion, political behavior, and policy aimed at improving the human condition, with a focus on African countries.

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