Brookings Institution, Cell Phones in Africa, Gabon development, Homi Kharas, Pravin Gordhan, Shanta Devarajan, World Bank Africa
While the South Africa Minister of Finance was the primary speaker at the Brookings Institution’s April 17 event on “Inequality and Inclusive Growth in Africa”, Shanta Devarajan, the Chief Economist for Africa at the World Bank and Homi Kharas, the Deputy Director of the Global Economy and Development program at the Brookings Institution were also present. While Mr. Kharas made some very insightful comments I was thoroughly displeased my Mr. Devarajan’s approach (although to be fair, the Finance Minister took up the vast majority of the time so I do not have to much material to evaluate the others).
Following Minister Gordhan’s remarks, Homi Kharas posed some very concerning questions about Africa’s growth. While the statistics point to an impressive rate of overall growth, the statistics appear to be equally clear that most of the benefits are not accruing to the masses. Mr. Devarajan, who was exceedingly fond of data, highlighted Gabon’s relatively high per capita income (in the African context) and juxtaposed it with a low level of development, stating that it has the lowest child immunization rate in all of Africa.
Although Minister Gordhan indicated the Africa would replace Asia as a global economic center in 20 – 30 years. Mr. Kharas sounded a note of caution, saying that rapid economic growth in Africa was not accompanied by improvements in development indicators. Kharas stressed obstacles in providing economic support to women, youth, and skilled labor as being leading reasons for Africa’s development woes despite growth. He did not consider governance, but perhaps that was in deference to Devarajan, who hammered away on Africa’s poor governance. I found Kharas’ emphasis on women and the benefits that come from two income households to be particularly compelling. From my own experience it certainly seems plausible that African women, who remain largely engaged in the informal sector, have not joined the global economy in the same way that female factory workers in Asia have.
I left the event wishing that someone other than Shanta Devarajan was the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa. He seemed very knowledgeable and he was a veritable fountain of statistics (he must have just read something on Tanzania, because he disproportionately referenced that country), but in my mind, that was his downfall.
While I appreciate the willingness of someone in authority to make critical statements, he followed his array of statistics on countries like Tanzania, Senegal, Chad, and Gabon with the refreshingly blunt comment that the data indicates ‘fundamental failures of governance,’ his numbers driven mentality played right into the hands of Mr. Kharas’ remarks. Data is important and may not lie, but it can certainly be manipulated. In the African context, where institutional capacity is very limited, I am extremely skeptical of the ability to accurately measure government activity, particularly in rural areas. I am also doubtful that as a general principle, quantitative measures are well suited to tell a qualitative story.
Although I found it distasteful that Devarajan sprouted of an array of statistics, attributed them to bad governance, and offered little to no analysis, it was a comment on cell phones that most provoked my ire. There seems to be a sense that cell phones are the panacea to all of Africa’s ills. Development officials in cushy offices believe that the simple possession of a cell phone can lift an uneducated, rural peasant eeking out an existence, to a more stable, financially secure life.
Devarajan fell squarely in this camp saying that farmers in Niger (I couldn’t see any particular reason why he referenced that country) have benefitted tremendously from cell phone possession. Having lived in Niger for several years, it almost seemed that the comment was designed to provoke me. A cell phone may be useful, but it cannot compensate for a lack of roads, water, or access to farming implements. There are many things that can help a farmer more than a cell phone.
Hopefully the World Bank will also increasingly consider trends and not reduce everyone to a statistic.
Reblogged this on Nyalugwe.
Shanta Devarajan said:
While I welcome criticism of my work, I am having trouble understanding what exactly your problem with my remarks at the Brookings event is. First, whenever I make a critical or complimentary remark about a country, I make sure it is based on evidence. That is why I spelled out the statistics before offering an opinion. Second, there is quite a lot of analysis that links the statistics I was presenting with the conclusion that they reflect poor governance. Much of it appears on my blog http://blogs.worldbank.org/africacan. There just wasn’t enough time at the Brookings session to present the statistics and the analysis. I would be happy to discuss this analysis further with you. Incidentally, I was not trying to measure governance in rural areas which, I agree, is very difficult to measure. I was presenting statistics on outputs in rural areas that can be measured, such as teacher and doctor absenteeism, or leakage of public funds. These are also variables that matter to poor people. Finally, I was certainly not suggesting that cell phones were a panacea. On the contrary, I was saying that, in addition to the difficult steps being taken by African policymakers, cell phones are having the effect of improving communication between government and citizens (in both directions) which, in turn, strengthens accountability. My article with Wolfgang Fengler in the latest issue of Foreign Affairs spells the argument out.
I should add that you have gotten your wish that someone other than myself is the World Bank’s chief economist for Africa. I have left the post and am now the chief economist of the Middle East and North Africa region.
I’m pleased that you discovered Africa in DC and took the time to address the comments in my post. Thank you for alerting me to your piece in Foreign Affairs, perhaps it will serve as inspiration for a future post.
I certainly agree with you that the session at Brookings was overloaded and that the lack of time available precluded the possibility of a more substantive analysis. That is indeed the primary reason why I have expressed disgruntlement – I felt that you were so wrapped up in the statistics you failed to get to the delivery of your opinions. I’m sure that the World Bank has plenty of statistics available that buttress your claims. However, when I’m attending one of these panels that provides a rare chance to hear the public remarks of an economic luminary, I’d much prefer to hear a qualitative analysis (however abbreviated, as Homi Kharas attempted to do) than an encyclopedia relaying a series of figures detailing the unequal development of countries like Gabon. Most of those in the audience will know that Gabon has been ruled by the same family for over 40 years and that accordingly, its governance structures are likely lacking.
It was this decision to focus on statistics that gave me pause. While they tell an important story, there appears to be an increasing tendency to let data stand on its own, without fully exploring its context. Not everything is linear, not everything fits in a neatly compartmentalized box. Data can be used many ways and its easier to use it to tell an incomplete story than one that accounts for numerous and complex nuances.
I’m sure that a statistical analysis of Africa in 1980 would show apartheid South Africa as having the continent’s most developed economy. The data on Ivory Coast in the 1970s would also show a strong economy, but the fragility and regionalism of its development was a significant contributor to that country’s civil war decades later. I worry that as we increasingly overemphasize data, we will lose the societal and historical analysis needed to evaluate ongoing developments and the non-economic factors that both drive and impede them. Ethiopia and Rwanda seem to particularly fit the bill here, a bright present may not mean a bright future is assured.
On that note, I was much heartened to hear you single out some countries for criticism that are not on the list of usual suspects, such as Tanzania and Senegal.
Shanta Devarajan said:
This is turning into a useful discussion. First, I’m sure you agree that opinions based on facts are better than opinions not based on facts. I was presenting facts that, taken together, represent an argument, namely that African governments (not just Gabon) suffer from a failure of accountability. Indeed, I would question some of the opinions that my good friend Homi Kharas was expressing because the facts say something different. For instance, his focus on formal-sector jobs (based on the East Asian experience) was somewhat misplaced because, in low income Africa, over 80 percent of the labor force is in the informal sector.
Secondly, I mentioned Gabon precisely for the same reason as you said we would be wrong about South Africa in the 1980s. The high per capita income does not indicate a high level of development. Yet I don’t see the kind of protests about Gabon’s poverty the way we saw in relation to Apartheid South Africa.
Finally, the reason I mention Tanzania and Senegal is becau these countries are both longstanding democracies, and yet suffer from governance and accountability problems. We should not become complacent into thinking that, just because a country has free elections, the poor’s voice is always heard. This was the general opinion I was expressing with my statistics.
I am sorry to say that the usefulness of the conversation may be coming to an end as I agree entirely with just about everything that you just mentioned (I won’t argue the point, but I personally would not refer to either Senegal or Tanzania as longstanding democracies, although they probably are in the African context).
It is very interesting that Equatorial Guinea has received much more negative attention than Gabon, which as the facts seem to indicate, is equally deserving of it. I saw your recent comments on Think Africa Press, which I found insightful, and I’ll conclude by stating that I am pleased that the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa would bring Senegal and Tanzania into the conversation on Africa’s accountability deficit by highlighting their governance problem as well (I just think that your emphasis on Tanzania at the Brooking event was a bit much).
Thanks again for consulting Africa in DC, I hope that you and your World Bank colleagues continue to contribute to the conversation here.
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