African Political Economy Essay

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African political economy is a field of study within political science that analyzes the relationship between the state and the market in Africa. This field is generally geographically delimited to include only sub-Saharan Africa. The major preoccupation of scholarship in this discipline has been analyzing the role of the state in promoting economic growth and poverty alleviation.

The Failure Of State-Led Development

As sub-Saharan African countries gained independence (primarily in the 1950s and 1960s), policy makers and scholars alike emphasized the importance of the state in driving development in the new African countries. Due to the weakness of the indigenous capitalist classes in these countries, it was assumed the state would lead the development process. In both socialist countries, like Tanzania, and more market oriented countries, like Nigeria, the state subsidized industries, manipulated exchange rates, and restricted international trade with the goal of encouraging industrialization.

However, by the early 1980s, the failures of the prevailing development strategy had become clear. Most countries in Africa were experiencing a decline in growth rates, an erosion of per capita income, and an increase in external debt. A World Bank investigation into the economic crisis laid the blame squarely on the interventionist policies adopted by African governments. The publication, which became known as the Berg Report (World Bank, 1981), argued that these policies had undermined the functioning of the market and had created bloated public sectors.

The major puzzle motivating academic research was why African governments had not abandoned these interventionist policies once it became obvious they were not stimulating growth. The key insight of the political economy literature was that governments often secured political gains from economic mismanagement. Robert Bates (1981) influentially argued that governments had incentives to distort the operation of the economy to secure cheap food for organizationally powerful urbanites at the expense of the rural population. Richard Sandbrook (1985) emphasized that African leaders depended on the disbursement of patronage to maintain political support, which resulted in poor policy choices and incompetent administration.

Structural Adjustment And External Accountability

In response to the recommendations of the Berg Report, the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) decided to make future loans to African governments conditional on a reduction in state intervention in the economy. The structural adjustment programs (SAPs) countries were required to adopt in return for new loans involved cutting the fiscal deficit, devaluing exchange rates, and liberalizing trade policy. The prescribed policies were highly contentious within Africa. The United Nations Economic Commission for Africa challenged the Berg Report’s explanation for the economic crisis, instead blaming colonialism and Africa’s subordinate position in the global economy. Many countries experienced “IMF riots” in which citizens protested against the austerity measures proscribed by the SAPs. However, in the face of balance-of-payments crises, most African countries eventually had little choice but to adopt SAPs.

The political science literature on structural adjustment focused on the interaction between regime type and economic reform. The initial consensus was that SAPs could only be implemented by authoritarian governments, because draconian measures were necessary to implement unpopular economic reforms. However, Nicolas van de Walle (2001) demonstrated that authoritarian governments were not any more successful in implementing reform than their democratic counterparts in Africa. He argued that both autocrats and democratically elected leaders depend on the allocation of patronage to remain in power. As a result, they have all resisted reducing public sector employment, even as they have cut educational and medical programming. Although a few countries, such as Ghana, have experienced sustained growth following economic reform, SAPs have brought limited benefits overall.

State Capacity And Participatory Development

In the aftermath of structural adjustment, the new consensus was that African governments needed to play a greater constructive role in fostering development; they could not simply engage in fewer negative interventions. Governments must—at a minimum—provide basic law and order if they are to encourage their citizens to be economically productive. In addition, economic development requires public investment in infrastructure, education, and health. Both academics and policy makers emphasized the need to build the capacity of African states to deliver basic goods and services to their citizens. This view corresponded with the United Nations’ development of the Millennium Development Goals, which commit member states to increasing access to primary education and basic health care.

Furthermore, in contrast to the earlier consensus that citizen participation would hinder economic reform, the new argument was that citizens should drive the development process because they had an interest in ensuring economic improvement and poverty alleviation. International agencies adopted the mantra of “participatory development” in the hope that domestic pressure would be more successful than external pressure in encouraging economic development.

As a result, many observers were optimistic about the reintroduction of multiparty elections and the decentralization of government in Africa during the 1990s. Democratization and decentralization were thought to increase citizens’ ability to demand development. In a similar vein, the proliferation of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and civil society associations was encouraged as means of delivering development.

Later studies have been more uncertain about the developmental impact of democracy and participation. David Stasavage (2005) demonstrates that democratization is associated with increased government spending on primary education. However, many scholars have argued that elections and NGOs simply provide new venues for preexisting political practices; established politicians will stay in power by disbursing patronage to their supporters, rather than providing programming with broad welfare benefits.

Certainly, neither donor conditionality nor domestic participation has initiated a quick recovery of African economies. In contrast, recent research has found that structural factors, such as ethnic diversity and geography, explain a significant component of African governments’ poor performance in providing public goods. A longer view of the development process may be necessary, given the importance of historical factors in explaining Africa’s weak economic performance.


  1. Ake, Claude. Democracy and Development in Africa. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 1996.
  2. Bates, Robert. Markets and States in Tropical Africa: The Political Basis of Agricultural Policies. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.
  3. Chabal, Patrick, and Jean-Pascal Daloz. Africa Works: The Political Instrumentalization of Disorder. Bloomington: International African Institute, in association with James Currey and Indiana University Press, 1999.
  4. Habyarimana, James, Macartan Humphreys, Daniel Posner, and Jeremy Weinstein. Coethnicity: Diversity and the Dilemmas of Collective Action. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2009.
  5. Herbst, Jeffrey. States and Power in Africa: Comparative Lessons in Authority and Control. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2000.
  6. Mkandawire,Thandika, and Adebayo Olukoshi, eds. Between Liberalisation and Oppression:The Politics of Structural Adjustment in Africa. Dakar, Senegal: Codesria, 1995.
  7. Sandbrook, Richard. The Politics of Africa’s Economic Stagnation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
  8. Stasavage, David. “Democracy and Education Spending in Africa.” American Journal of Political Science 49 (April 2005): 343–358.
  9. van de Walle, Nicholas. African Economies and the Politics of Permanent Crisis, 1979–1999. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.
  10. World Bank. Accelerated Development in Sub-Saharan Africa: An Agenda for Action (“Berg Report”).Washington, D.C.:World Bank, 1981.

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