Go to content
Is Africa Still Poor, Despite International Programs to Alleviate Poverty?
Published by in Economics · 26 September 2019
Tags: IndustrializationInfrastructureDevelopmentAfrica
There are several reasons for which it is hard not to be fascinated by the African continent. And one of them, put aside the beautiful landscapes, is that Africa is Rich resources-wise, but Poor infrastructure-wise. This is not a new observation/contradiction; it is actually a very old one and which greatly explains most of the problems faced by the African continent today. Despite the apparent generosity of international donors and international experts to help Africa develop, and the billions of dollars that have been spent to support the continent, we are forced to notice that things are still not necessarily moving in the right direction. Here too, this observation is not new; it is an old one.

There seems to be nothing really new when it comes to observing the things that do not work on the African continent. It is, however, important for younger generations that we keep on writing about the causes that may explain why Africa’s true development is still a mirage, at least for the vast majority of African countries. However, we have to be careful when we stigmatize the African continent. Indeed, it would be intellectually improper not to see that there have been some infrastructures, for instance, that have been built in several countries across the continent. Yet, it would be equally intellectually improper to assert that most African countries are emerging countries (the new slogan we can hear here and there in Africa). To say things more simply, the time-frame given by most African countries to become so-called emerging countries is quite … illusory (around 2025 - 2030). Why?

The same causes tend to generate the same effects or results. Some international institutions with a name would like to raise awareness about the importance of Africa’s industrialization, as well as the challenges faced by the continent. Others claim that Africa’s industrialization is one of their high 5 strategic priorities, which justifies why some of these institutions have invested billions of dollars/euros in industrialization programs through numerous projects across Africa, etc. Given the current state of most African economies that have actually not industrialized, who are, therefore, the real beneficiaries of these billions of dollars ($) or euros (€)? It seems that this question is often purposefully eluded by international financiers. Why?

The question of Africa's industrialization is actually as old as the independence of most African countries. In 1966, there was a Colloquium held in Royaumont (France) November 28-30. The theme was "Industrialization Strategies of Third World Countries." [5]. During this colloquium, the Ambassador of Ghana in France, Mr. Dadzie, said: " […], the economic backwardness […] of most of the countries in the third world was caused, as you know, by the fact of colonialism by which we were prevented from economic and industrial development […] In finer terms, this has been described as relegating the people of this part of the world to producers of raw materials […] and in my country this means the production of cocoa, timber, diamonds, metal ores, such as manganese, bauxite and, of course, gold […] " [6]

It appears, 53 years later, that this speech is still valid today. This is why my introductory words were clear about the fact that there is nothing new that we can discuss about Africa’s development and industrialization. Today, we can only contextualize the debates, but not pretend to embrace a new idea regarding the necessity for Africa to industrialize. By the way, African rulers are now incessantly repeating that it is high time for Africa to industrialize. The new slogan is no longer for Africa “to emerge”, but “to industrialize”. Question: what is the time-frame, as well as the criteria to become an industrialized nation?

What we can say, however, and without a shadow of a doubt, is that this rhetoric is an empty slogan purged of its true meaning or essence! Yet, this slogan is a lucrative business that translates into capital outflow from Africa to the rest of the world, as well as Africa’s indebtedness to the rest of the world. And this is an indication of where the aforementioned billions of dollars are going to, and who the beneficiaries are! The colonial legacy in the African mining sector, as portrayed by Ambassador Dadzie is, therefore, still the norm today. Why? Because the value chain of this vital sector is not controlled by Africans. Exploration/Prospection, Mining, Mineral Processing, Refining/Smelting and Product Manufacturing are links in the chain where Africans are not major players (except a few South African companies. But that's another story).

Tackling industrial value chains and wanting to progressively control them should be a true industrial objective for Africans. But since the 1960s, it is as if Africa has deindustrialized; as if ending colonization from a formal point of view did translate into efforts by exogenous forces to prevent Africa from actually industrializing! Thus, the raw materials are still exported and transformed overseas. Worse, equipment used throughout the value chain up to Refining & Smelting are imported (and this creates jobs and economic/industrial value outside Africa). And we know it because, again, this observation is not new! But why is it that in Africa, despite historical evidence that the proposed solutions by international experts are inconsistent, we are still relying on those inadequate solutions?

Either because they are ignorant, ill-advised or the accomplice of the exogenous forces mentioned earlier, African decision-makers are still convinced that importing turnkey plants is the solution to the industrialization of African countries. Their government use their reserves and/or borrow the needed funds to purchase foreign expertise, technology and equipment. There is not only capital outflow from Africa to industrialized nations, but African countries must also pay back the principal and interests from the borrowers (generally from financial institutions based in the developed world).

The sad reality is that once the turnkey plant is mounted in Africa, foreign experts do not transfer the technology that allowed them to build the plant (or the modules of the plant). This is not their main objective because Africans must remain unable to duplicate the plant themselves if they need a similar one. Foreign experts only teach African technicians how to operate and maintain simple equipment or machines within a factory. If it is true, nonetheless, that a turnkey plant like an oil refinery does increase productivity, it is as true that the mechanism set up by African partners is such that African countries will keep on relying on foreigners for their expertise and spare parts, among others. The colonial system is still in place, but in a more subtle way that some African economists and strategists fail to see.

The biggest flaw in the comprehension of what industrialization really means in Africa is that it is often confused with infrastructure development. If industrialization necessarily implies building infrastructures, it is also true that not all countries with modern infrastructures are necessarily industrialized nations. The Kingdom of Bahrain, for instance, has modern infrastructures, but is not an industrialized nations.

If these concepts are getting very fuzzy, just remember that it is undeniable that infrastructure development (electricity, transportation systems, etc.) is key to address general development issues in Africa. Who can objectively deny this? Nobody. So that’s a given. The subtlety or the line of demarcation between infrastructure development and industrialization is that infrastructure development, in simplistic terms, means building infrastructures (roads, hospitals, schools, bridges, Power Plants, etc.), while industrialization means having the competencies (i.e. technology, equipment and human resources) that will enable Africans to build these infrastructures themselves (at least with minimum help from external industrial players). In other words, Africans must control the "industrial value chain", from mineral extraction to equipment manufacturing. To reach this objective, the African continent must invest heavily in Research & Development, as well as develop the Industrial Ecosystem that will enable African companies to manufacture made in Africa equipment in energy, mining, construction, etc. Otherwise, letting foreign companies build such infrastructures will not make Africa an industrialized continent.

Another reason why Africa is a fascinating continent is that most African rulers seem to be convinced that their fellow Africans are not that smart. They think that Africans are unable to build complex or sophisticated plants. And local and international media do help convey this very subtle and pervasive message which aims at downgrading African people, and black people in general. This is why, in one of my articles, I stressed on the fact that “Africans and Blacks are Feeding the Matrix of their Inferiority Complex”.

The truth, despite what "they" think, is that there are African talents in and outside Africa who have the skills / know-how that can propel the entire continent into the economic and industrial arena as a force to be reckoned with. African inventors, researchers, scientists, etc. do exist. The problem is that they are more celebrated than they are valued. This is the result of lack of leadership at the highest level in most African countries; a "constant" that dramatically hinders Africa's true development and industrialization processes. And if Africa wants to thrive economically and industrially so as to alleviate poverty, she must really start counting on herself.

[5] A book came out of this Colloquium titled "Stratégie de l'Industrialisation d'Outre-Mer: Motivations et Structures, Technologies, Financement", Royaumont, du 28 au 30 novembre, 1966. Colloques du CEDIMOM n°4. Editions CEDIMOM 1967.
[6] Ibid, p.430
Post sources:

comments powered by Disqus
Lenda Rudy Massamba
Back to content