As long as Africa remains economically hobbled by these exploitative global financial flows and systems, it will not just be capital that flees from the continent but, increasingly, its desperate population too, hungry for basic opportunities to develop and dignify itself. However, more often than not, these economic evacuees find only a frosty reception on reaching foreign shores: described and dismissed as ‘migrants’, they end up at the bottom of yet another pile.
Africa was not colonised because it was poor, but because it was, and continues to be, very rich. Colonialism was fundamentally about extracting natural resources and labour power. But it was also about establishing an economic, political, legal, educational and cultural ecosystem that institutionalised its abusive power structure, presented that structure as the only model of economic development, and persuaded the natives to embrace and reproduce it long after the colonisers left. Colonial institutions were not just administrative, bureaucratic, organizational, and legal codes. They were also habits of thought and routines of behaviour that were deeply embedded within the social fabric.
African countries acquired territorial sovereignty after independence but they never developed a high degree of monetary sovereignty because of three structural deficiencies: the lack of food sovereignty, lack of energy sovereignty, and the low value-added content of exports relative to imports. A weak exchange rate means that imports of basic necessities such as food, fuel, and medicine will be more expensive. This type of inflation often leads to social and political instability, which governments typically avoid by subsidizing the price of basic necessities, and by artificially keeping their exchange rate strong via the accumulation of debt denominated n foreign currencies. This external debt accumulation is believed to be a solution when it’s in fact a quagmire. Prioritizing debt payments often means reducing budget allocations for education, health, and critical infrastructure investments. Furthermore, the policies that are designed to increase foreign currency earnings to pay off the debt end up deepening the quagmire.
Policies that encourage tourism end up increasing food and fuel imports to feed, transport, house, and entertain millions of tourists. Policies that encourage exports end up leading to more imports of fuel, capital equipment, and intermediate inputs. Policies that promote foreign direct investment (FDI) end up increasing imports of fuel for energy production and transportation. Policies that encourage outbound immigration in order to increase remittances of foreign currencies end up promoting brain drain. Policies that promote the liberalization of financial services end up hurting domestic investors and inviting speculative attacks from abroad. All of these policies masquerade as solutions when they make the problem worse. The damage these policies do is made worse by a global race to the bottom that forces most developing countries into lower labour and environmental standards, more regulatory and fiscal concessions to foreign investors, and ever more dependence on the Global North.
Africa’s industrial strategy cannot prioritise the needs of the Global North by continuing to serve as the source of cheap raw materials and assembly line for low-paid workers. The obsessive focus on economic growth for its own sake, and the myth of “catching up” and competing in the global economy are two of the most destructive habits of mind in the Global South.
Ensuring food sovereignty begins with sustainable agricultural strategies to restore soil health and to reallocate land and water use to enhance food security. You cannot have a prosperous economy without adequate energy production capabilities. Africa has tremendous potential for renewable energy production including solar, wind, tidal, and geothermal energy. The goal is to build a resilient and carbon-free electric grid to power the entire continent via a network of national and regional grids, supplemented by microgrids, and energy storage capabilities. The manufacturing, installation, and maintenance of this critical infrastructure will create millions of well-paid jobs and will improve access to electricity, reduce pollution, improve health outcomes, and boost overall quality of life across the continent.