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Review of Beyond Economic Liberalization in Africa: Structural Adjustment and the Alternatives


By Ray Bush

Beyond Economic Liberalization in Africa: Structural Adjustment and the Alternatives. Eds. Kidane Menngisteab and Ikubolajeh Logan. London: Zed Press, 1995, pp. vii + 312, £45/$59.95 hb, £18.95/$25.00 pb.

Africa's debt is now about $199bn - modest compared with Latin America's of $500bn and Brazil's of $140bn.  One of Africa’s problem is that its debt is equivalent to 64% of the continent’s GNP.  Africa's problem is also that its foreign debt increased by $16bn in 1994 having grown by only $5bn in the preceding three years.  The debt is now equivalent to more than 230% of export income; over 254% for sub Saharan Africa.

There have been very many books and articles to explain the character of Africa’s debt.  They have asked why and how it emerged and have tended to concentrate on the long list of the disastrous consequences of both the debt and the policies instigated by the international financial institutions (IFI’s) to reduce it - especially structural adjustment policies (SAP’s).  The significant contribution of this publication is that it tries to go beyond these themes to examine what an alternative strategy  to the IFI prescriptions might look like and why it is necessary.

In tracing alternative positions to those insisted upon by the IFI’s, the collection of 14 chapters brings together case study analysis with theoretical discussion of the background to and consequences of economic adjustment across Africa.  In doing so it examines how  the emphasis on market liberalisation alone as a policy initiative has had deleterious consequences on the continent.  Yet in highlighting the very real problems of market failure the contributors also recognise the need for economic and political reforms in Africa.  Much like the Economic Commission for Africa, which in 1989 drew up an African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment [and which was buried by the IFI’s as inconsequential] this collection recognises the importance of economic and political reform in Africa.  It is reform needed to promote and then sustain economic growth and prosperity for what in reality is a very rich continent.

The strategies suggested as an alternative to the IFI’s include partnerships between the state and the market, the recognition of the importance for the state in Africa to remain a major economic actor, especially in infrastructural provision, health and education services and for the state to ensure that its present largesse is distributed equitably rather than retained by corrupt bureaucrats who use public office for private gain.  For this to become a reality the state, and the conduct of politics more generally, will require liberalisation and democratisation. This issue is reviewed in the chapters by Mamdani for Uganda, by Lehman for Kenya and Zimbabwe, and for the continent as a whole by Mengisteab and Saine.

The concluding chapters  review  [and optimistically] the more familiar issues of the prospects for and benefits which might accrue from regional integration and counter trade - two themes which are important building blocks for the authors’ alternative to SAP.  They refute the criticism that regional integration in developing countries would lead to protectionism.  Instead, the editors argue that African economies already rely too much upon the vagaries of the international market and that structural changes are needed within the African economies to reduce dependence upon the world market and improve self reliance.

The problem with structural adjustment of course is that its raison d’être is to increase Africa’s uneven incorporation into the world economy.  This is most noticeable in the World Bank’s insistence for devaluation to be at the core of the adjustment process and to give inadequate help with the diversification of Africa’s economies.  Instead, the World Bank’s concern is for the continued servicing of the continent’s debt and the surest way for that is if raw material producers increase the extraction and export of  commodities.  SAP thus reinforces the colonial economy and although for 12 months now the Bank has again expressed its concern with issues of poverty reduction, and sympathy for the poorest developing countries, there is as yet no tangible evidence of this commitment.  And despite signs that there are conflicts within the G7 industrialised countries as to the role and strategy of the World Bank in the closing years of the millennium, there is as yet little evidence that the IFI’s are prepared to countenance serious discussion of alternatives to adjustment.

[Published in Leeds African Studies Bulletin, 60 (1995), pp. 53-54]

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