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2013-12-04 12.29.06

The last time I heard the head of the Africa division of a global financial institution speak on Massachusetts Avenue (Shanta Devarajan of the World Bank at Brookings), I was thoroughly displeased.  Yesterday, I heard Antoinette Sayeh, former Finance Minister of Liberia and currently the Director of the Africa Department at the IMF speak on “Drivers of Growth in Middle and Low-income sub-Saharan Africa.”  Although one can almost always find a bone to pick (keep reading for what it was this time), on the whole, I found her macro-economically focused remarks to hit most of the notes I would like to hear.

Sayeh combined optimism about Africa’s positive development trajectory, marked by increased good governance, with caution about the large gap that remains.  She began her remarks by noting that there has been ‘significant and real progress’ in the lives of Africans and that the region’s middle class has doubled in the last two decades.  However, she closed by noting that the infrastructure gap remains enormous (electricity was a particular concern) and that African governments have been poor stewards of natural resources.

Sayeh noted two critical areas in which additional investments are sorely needed – physical infrastructure and agriculture.  After my Peace Corps experience in the rural Sahel, I was particularly pleased to note the emphasis on agriculture.  She also spoke of the need to ensure that economic growth actually produces jobs.  My economic knowledge is quite spartan, but I suspect that countries like Angola would particularly benefit from that advice.

The one area of Sayeh’s remarks that concerned me was her selection of six economic success stories which show that development in Africa is not simply limited to a commodities boom.  These countries are Burkina Faso, Ethiopia, Mozambique, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Uganda.  Dedicated readers will be familiar with my criticisms of US relations with Burkina Faso and Uganda.  The other four countries that Sayeh cites also have a restricted political space, with the same parties controlling power for roughly two decades or more.  I often feel that even today, good governance is often subsumed in the face of economic success that is often measured by how it helps foreign investment rather than the people of a country and the mention of these six countries only reinforced this view.

Sayeh concluded with plenty of time for Q&A, unfortunately, despite my raised hand, I was not called upon to stir the pot before I had to leave a few minutes early to return to work.  It was interesting to note that SAIS’ Deborah Brautigam (who sat just in front of me) was working on her doctorate at Tufts at the same time as Sayeh.  She apparently looked at Chinese engagement in Liberia, which I found interesting as I understand that Liberia recognized Taiwan when she would have been working on her PhD.

2013-12-04 12.28.15
Sayeh speaking with SAIS’ Brautigam