”What Went Wrong with Africa?”

The subject title is from the 2004 book by Roel van der Veen who presented his findings and theories at The Swedish Institute of International Affairs on June 7, 2012.

Co-presenting on the headlined topic, “What Africa?” was Erika Bjerström, international correspondent for the Swedish public service television company, SVT.  Her research resulted in the TV documentary Det Nya Afrika (The New Africa).

The two speakers come from two different viewpoints, and it seems that UI set them up as adversaries. To put it simply, Mr van der Veen sees the African cup half-empty and Ms Bjerström sees the cup half full. I found Ms Bjerström’s presentation the more heartfelt and hopeful, but I found Mr van der Veen’s assertions the more persuasive—I will explain.

In 2009 I wrote about the The Dismal Record of African Leadership based on analysis and findings of The Mo Ibrahim Prize for Achievement in African Leadership. The foundation’s prize was first awarded in 2007 (Mozambique) and then again in 2008 (Botswana). No prize was awarded in the years 2009 and 2010. The prize for 2011 was awarded to Pedro de Verona Rodrigues Pires, the President of Cape Verde during the years 2001-2011. Cape Verde is a small island nation of slightly more than a half million people. The phrase “what went wrong?” regarding the other, much larger nations of Africa, seems applicable here.

Roel van der Veen, Erika Bjerström, Moderator Victoria Veres at UI, 7 June 2012

Roel van der Veen

Mr. van der Veen spoke first and at length, providing history and analysis of not only Sub-Saharan African countries, but also East Asian countries—through the years ending in 2008. He used the measure of gross domestic product (GDP) per person per year as the basic comparative measure, both historically within selected African countries and comparatively with respect to selected East Asian countries.

Van der Veen asserted that “no continent of earth is as poor as Africa”. He asked, rhetorically, whether we could attribute this primarily to external or internal factors. He cited several external factors including:

  • artificial national boundaries
  • environmental factors
  • the effects of colonization by European countries

He stated flatly that these, and the other external factors which he cited, were not the cause of Africa’s poor condition. For proof he offered comparisons between the countries of Indonesia vs. Nigeria, and Malaysia vs. Kenya. Both sets of countries have artificial boundaries, similar environments, were subject to centuries of colonial rule, and were similar in several other factors.

Yet The GDP/person in the two Asian countries has grown in recent years ‘way beyond their African counterparts which van der Veen used in this comparison: Indonesia since 1981 and Malaysia since 1959.

Mr. van der Veen’s theory (his term) is that no nation-state has developed without the support of its state rulers and apparatus, and that Africa (i.e., the countries in Sub-Saharan Africa) has a method of state governance which prevents development.

So, what’s a state? Mr van der Veen illustrated the generic state thus:

Structure of the Generic State

Van der Veen’s thesis is that, however they gained their position, the rulers in any country depend on a complaisant general populace (“common people” in my diagram) and a satisfied elite to retain power.

When current African countries gained their independence from European colonial powers the existing elites were purged or they left the country. A new elite replaced them which are different from the elites of developing countries. These are local chiefs and other leaders from the local level, not all of whom had similar interests, other than to retain local power. This makes the state a fragile entity because these elites do not have the concept of a state foremost in their interests.

In Sub-Saharan countries the following dynamic occurs: to satisfy the elites the government subsidizes their basic needs, especially food. The state government, as a monopsony,  buys the agricultural produce from the farmers at below world-market prices and sells it to the elites at a profit, but still at below world market prices. “Who cares about the farmers?” is the attitude of the government and the elites, according to van der Veen.

Over time, the farmers are discouraged and some number of them migrates in one of two directions: toward the city, or toward more remote areas to return to subsistence farming. Thus, the agricultural base of the nation-state is reduced and, concomitantly, its wealth. This creates a dangerous dynamic in the relationship between the state and the elites, among other pathologies which are easily imaginable—and evident in the weekly or monthly news one might read from a distance about Africa.

What was different in the Asian states which van der Veen compared with African states? “Massive state investment in agriculture”. He asserted that before there can be industrial development in a state there needs to be agricultural reform and development. This is what happened in Indonesia and Malaysia.

But, what will motivate the state’s rulers to change the status quo, when the default position of any group in power is to maintain it, according to van der Veen? When the change is seen to be in the interests of the rulers, as well as the common people.

The experience of Asian countries was decades of civil unrest and, therefore, uncertainty about the rulers retaining power. The rulers decided to adopt a change in economic policy which, since then, has worked for all three groups of people. The key is to view national politics as secondary to, and dependent upon, national economic policy. This is the opposite of what is found in Africa.

One of the few remaining trees in the Valley of the Baobabs, Malawi

In Africa, currently, the politics of retaining power is of foremost interest, with national economic policy non-existent, or poorly conceived and executed.

There has been a turning point for Africa, however, starting around 2002. Powerful external forces are indeed affecting various African states, including:

  • Globalization, especially Chinese and Brazilian investments
  • High market prices for African mineral resources
  • Fewer wars
  • Technology, especially the use of mobile phones: “people can do more now, despite the state”

Nonetheless, the accumulated and continuing effects of national political and economic policies have caused a general “de-industrialization” of Africa.

Erika Bjerström

Ms Bjerström sees an emerging renaissance. She noted that The Economist magazine in 2002 called Africa a “lost continent”, but in 2012 apologized for having said this, and changed their opinion.

She noted that Mr. van der Veen’s data run only through 2008, and that she had travelled seven countries to see and report directly what was happening in: Burkina Faso, Ghana, Malawi, Mozambique, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Tanzania. She saw positive trends in these countries, including that Rwanda has a national health service, to which she compared the United States unfavorably. She then showed the TV documentary she created from her six-month trip.

Rwandan school children will have their own laptop from the age of seven
(Documentary: “Det Nya Afrika”)


In that the language used in the TV film was Swedish, I have to rely here on the summary given in the headline page for the documentary (translated by Bing® with editing my me):

In the shadow of news media spotlight, an economic miracle is happening in Africa. Today, seven of the world’s ten fastest growing economies are in sub-Saharan Africa. Africa is so much more than hunger, wars and disasters.

SVT correspondent Erika Bjerström and photographer Emil Larsson have travelled over half a year to view a new Africa, full of confidence. They have met with businessmen, politicians and civil servants who exude a new self-confidence and pride in what they are about to do. This documentary is about a miracle that is happening with great speed, while much of the world is still blinded by the old image of Africa.

What I gleaned from the film is that the cities shown looked modern and busy, and that automated factories were producing modern products. The working people lived in non-modern housing, but appeared happy to be working. These seemed to be mostly women. I saw many idle, able-bodied men in this film, however. It appeared that food and building materials were being provided by foreign investors or donors.

I analysed the seven countries presented in the documentary film (using the current data provided by the World Factbook of the CIA). I also compared both Nigeria and Kenya with the two Asian countries mentioned as similar to these by Mr. van der Veen. I added Sweden as an example of a developed country. (Please click on the image of the chart)

*Real Economic (GDP) Growth Rate defined


Only one country, Ghana, of the seven countries Ms. Bjerström visited, ranks within the top ten world countries in current, annual economic growth. The others range from rank 19 to 86. The GDP per person in these seven countries ranges from US$ 900 to US$ 3,100, with a median of US$ 1,500. The average for the world’s countries is US$ 11,800.

The comparisons of Kenya with Malaysia and Nigeria with Indonesia bear out Mr. van der Veen’s assertions.

Interchange between the speakers and the audience

The two speakers acknowledged that each of these seven countries has started from a very low base of economic activity, so the figures for percent growth will naturally tend higher than for developed countries. Both also noted there is a big gap between the living conditions of the elite and the common people.

Ms. Bjelström cited Africa as being a “victim of climate change” as a factor preventing greater economic growth.

Ms. Bjelström referred to the findings of Freedom House for noting there are only five regional conflicts currently, compared to more in the past. I couldn’t find the source for this assertion, but here is a status summary for Sub-Saharan Africa issued by Freedom House:

Despite being home to several of the world’s worst performing countries in terms of respect for human rights, the region saw overall if uneven progress toward democratization during the 1990s and the early 2000s. However, recent years have seen backsliding among both the top performers, such as South Africa, and the more repressive countries, such as The Gambia and Ethiopia. Lack of adherence to the rule of law, infringements on the freedoms of expression and association, widespread corruption, and discrimination against women and the LGBT community remain serious problems in many countries. Across the continent, Freedom House works to strengthen elections and civic mobilization, good governance, defense of human rights, rule of law, and independent media.

The “silent revolution” mentioned in the documentary includes government tax revenues going toward social programs. Mr. van der Veen asserted that the tax revenue would be better spent on physical infrastructure.

China is investing heavily in selected countries of Africa, mostly in minerals and high-tech industries. Brazil’s investments are offering  “know-how” and “soft-tech.” These and other foreign countries are investing in land and bringing foreign workers to Africa.


Despite areas of improvement and optimism presented by Ms. Bjelström, nothing substantive seems to have changed in the economic policies of the African countries discussed. Most of the resources for improvement seem to be coming from foreign countries, not from the basis for a developing country’s wealth—its agricultural base.