Emerging Africa

‘Emerging Africa: how 17 countries are leading the way’ by Steven C. Radelet; Center for Global Development, 2010. 169pp

Reviewed by Joel Cohen | 22 August 2012

On the 50th anniversary of the publication of Things Fall Apart, Nigerian author Chinua Achebe was asked “Are things really falling apart or are they starting to come back together in Africa?” His reply was incisive: “It’s always happening both of them. It depends on where you look.” [i] It seems his words have been heeded by Steven Radelet whose recent book Emerging Africa tells the story of only 17 ‘emerging countries’ which he hopes will help reverse the perception of Africa as ‘the dark continent’.

Radelet’s central argument is that democracy is changing realities on the ground. Where Achebe might easily reply that he is only ‘seeing the Africa he wants to see’, despite its faults I would argue that the book gives a useful insight into the current debate around the continent’s changing role in the world economy. The more we discuss Africa in terms of trade, not aid, the more Radelet’s analysis seems to provide an alternative context to relations between the West and the rest.

His appointment as International Development adviser to US State Department Secretary, Hilary Clinton, shows just how successful Emerging Africa’s analysis has been in busting the classic Afro-pessimist myths: now in their fourth or fifth election cycles, many countries in Africa are no longer subject to the demands of over-powering elites; mobile telephony and a new generation of entrepreneurs striving for opportunity are transforming how one does business in potentially risky places; the IMF’s shift from demanding debt repayments to encouraging poverty reduction schemes is enabling African governments to focus more on domestic problems. The emerging optimism amongst mainstream policy makers was cemented in a recent White House strategy document[ii] echoing the sentiments expressed by Radelet and committing the US to a closer relationship with Africa’s success stories.

That said, the international establishment’s enthusiasm for Radelet’s thesis provides cause for worry. Still unsure about the bigger picture, the appeal to stop seeing Africa as a unified continent allows policy-makers to replace a deeper understanding of the problems yet to be overcome in the region with a series of anecdotes about small-scale triumphs: the use of technology by businessmen and middle class activists to avoid the pitfalls of underdevelopment does not tell us anything about how those problems might be fixed.

Likewise, two decades of ‘democratisation policies’ does not automatically mean that Africans are able to challenge those in power: the democratic gains of Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya, South Africa and Mali – all of which are included in Radelet’s hallowed 17 – are overshadowed by the difficulty of passing power from the incumbent party to any other one.

Emerging Africa’s spin on the growth story also makes for uncomfortable reading: Radelet argues that the IMF’s structural adjustment policies made possible the high growth rates many African countries are experiencing presently. Having 7 of the world’s top 10 fastest growing countries over the next five years makes Africa’s growth hard to argue with. However, in exonerating the IMF, Radelet champions externally imposed stability over the growth that Africans have achieved themselves.

I for one am concerned that the present-day effects of integration into the world economy are leading the world’s economists to underestimate the fragility of African growth. For all the talk of a new entrepreneurialism in Africa, mass unemployment persists as does chronic under-investment in infrastructure. In the face of such evidence, the harder it is to distinguish the rhetoric from the reality, the more patronising analysts like Radelet sound.

If he can happily bend the stick on these issues where does this leave a realistic reading of the African growth narrative? For a start we should reject the bifurcation of Africa into success stories and failures. The disaggregated, polarised view presented in Emerging Africa ignores the intricate relationship between the two.

Regional planning matched by foreign investments are developing energy and transport infrastructure across Africa’s several economic communities; new power brokers are also emerging to provide African solutions to African problems; and most importantly the break between urban and rural areas within countries – often the lines of political disagreement on the continent – is being bridged. While these are causes for optimism there is still a long way to go.


Joel Cohen is a politics student at the School of Oriental and African Studies. He produced a series of debates on International Relations at the Battle of Ideas 2011, including the session ‘Is This Africa’s Decade?’.

Joel is the producer of Occupy: illusory radicalism? at Battle of Ideas 2012


[i] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M5OAjnG6rKo&feature=related

[ii] White House “US Strategy Toward Sub-Saharan Africa”, June 2012 http://www.whitehouse.gov/sites/default/files/docs/africa_strategy_2.pdf

Author: austinwilliams

Austin Williams is the director of the Future Cities Project and author of a number of books on the environment and on China. The latest are "China's Urban Revolution" (Bloomsbury) and "New Chinese Architecture: Twenty Women Building the Future" (Thames and Hudson).

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