Strong Institutions: Key to Unlocking Africa From Potential to Prosperity

Updated: Mar 27

Photo Credit: African Union Commission

From bountiful natural resources to world-renowned tourist attractions, Africa has the potential of transforming from the poorest region in the world into a major economic power. Potential alone, however, is not enough to propel Africa into such a reality. What would it take for this ‘sleeping giant” to transition from the potential to prosperity? Numerous studies on African governance have attributed the continent’s underdevelopment to non-democratic political systems. It is argued that a shift from authoritarian to democratic institutions can potentially increase a country’s economic growth by 20% of GDP per capita over 30 years. Democracy, scholars argue, can stimulate economic growth as it allows equitable and inclusive distribution of public resources, as well as restricting a few powerful elites from monopolizing and abusing political power. Moreover, democratic regimes provide peaceful pathways of resolving conflicts, which in turn may help a country to efficiently focus its resources towards development. However, an observation of development patterns in Asia tells us a different story. Despite the reported authoritarian nature of Singapore and China, their economies are heralded as exemplary success stories. Singapore, being among the top ten developed countries in the world, is categorized as being in the “flawed democracy” by the Economist Intelligence Unit (EIU). The criteria are based on the electoral process and pluralism, civil liberties, the functioning of government, political participation, as well as political culture. Likewise, China’s political system, recognized as an “authoritarian regime”, has competently steered the country into high levels of economic growth, with 850 million people being lifted out of poverty to date, according to the World Bank’s report. This phenomenon has emboldened some leaders across the globe to perceive that, authoritarian regimes are more effective than democratic ones. It is argued that authoritarian regimes under competent political leadership can just as well, if not better, transform their countries into high levels of economic growth. They are said to be politically convenient; the leadership being unrestrained in implementing reforms, therefore benefiting from efficiency gains. Going by this logic, and given that Africa is characterized as the least democratic region with the highest number of authoritarian regimes (22), the continent should have been the wealthiest economy in the world. The reality is that countries under different regimes (democratic versus authoritarian), under certain conditions, can potentially produce the same development outcomes. For example, Sweden and Singapore respectively, have more or less the same ranking of high living standards as depicted in the Human Development Index (HDI) of 2018, even though there is a significant disparity in their democratic indices. It is by far, more beneficial for a country to adopt democratic values, as they have proved to be more resilient to sustaining peace and political stability. Nevertheless, democratic practices alone are inadequate to transform Africa from having great potential for economic prosperity; neither will authoritarianism fast-track the continent into economic revolution as is the belief of some. Singapore’s transformation is mostly a factor of visionary leadership that has built competent institutions positioned to deliver strong economic outcomes. When thinking of institutions, therefore, one should look beyond organizations and structures to the rule of law, codes of conduct (as laid down in the constitution), and norms that guide decision making, and restrict political elites from benefiting at the expense of the nation’s greater good. Singapore has one of the most efficient bureaucracies in the world. This is due to a strong adherence to the rule of law which constrains the individual interests of elites over institutions. As a result, it enables autonomy on public agencies to optimize the country’s limited resources into high economic gains through highly skilled human capital. The same can happen for African countries when they change the posture of their institutions. As the late Professor Calestous Juma of Harvard University stated: “those leaders who think that by merely flouting political power they will help their countries to grow are misreading the history of Singapore.” If there is a lesson to learn from Singapore and any other developed country, the leadership can direct their institutions from being mere machinery by which to obtain and retain political power to vehicles for development that can be aligned with long-term strategies to deliver economic transformation for their countries. It is not too late for Africa to reposition its political systems and build strong institutions that can catapult it from potential to prosperity. This intervention would be just the lever Africa needs to shoot from behind into a global position of economic dominance. With strong institutions driving its development agenda, the world would finally witness the sleeping giant charging into a roaring lion.


© 2020 Mhando Mbughuni