Facing Facts in Africa

A comprehensive new review of Africa’s woes by the World Bank is impressive in three ways:

--It is more candid than previous reports about the contribution of inept African leadership to the crisis, cautioning that economic and social progress hinge on political reform.

--It is a compelling argument for increased foreign assistance and debt forgiveness despite the disappointing results of earlier aid efforts.

--It illustrates the yawning gap between knowing how to make things better and actually getting ailing nations and donors of aid to do what is required.


The 301-page study is entitled “Sub-Sahara Africa: From Crisis to Sustainable Growth.” Its diagnosis is solid, but its prescriptions for cure are admittedly “couched in general terms.” That is inevitable in dealing with a continent so large and diverse and with problems so varied and seemingly intractable. What is not at all clear is who will and can translate the general to the particular, given the continent’s grim shortage of managers and analysts.

The report’s reaffirmation of the need for reform is crucial. Increasingly, aid and debt relief are offered on condition that countries implement structural reforms. Resistance to such conditions and resulting strident attacks, notably on the International Monetary Fund, do not change the fact that many bailout efforts have failed because of bad government and ill-structured economies. In this new report, the bank acknowledges that structural adjustment needs to take “fuller account of the social impact of reforms.” But the report wisely concludes that “None of these measures will go far, nor will much external aid be forthcoming, unless governance in Africa improves.”

Some may come away from the report overwhelmed with despair because of the failures of the past. That would be a mistake because it would ignore the warning of the report: “The outlook for Africa is potentially devastating.” And it would ignore the hopeful signs that “give grounds for believing that recovery has started.” Half of the sub-Saharan nations have embarked on structural adjustment programs. The spirit of entrepreneurship has survived the post-independence imposition of authoritarian, undemocratic, corrupt, centralized regimes. There is new interest in enhancing the private sector and the influence of markets while reducing the distortions of over-valued exchange rates, administered prices and loss-making public enterprises.

Furthermore, there is now in place a body of knowledge, if not a consensus on how to use it. The continued weakness of agriculture is but one indicator of the failure to put that knowledge to work. The basic tools for improving food production, cited in a 1986 study by the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, are reaffirmed in this 1989 World Bank study. The oppressive weight of Africa’s population explosion--"Never in history has population grown so fast"--and its impact on development were detailed in a 1986 World Bank study.


In the hopeful column, Ghana has struggled back to where it was before plunging into a prolonged depression. It has sustained annual rates of growth of 5% or more since 1983, trimming inflation to manageable levels and moving, with a balance of payments surplus, to repay its debt arrears by the middle of next year. Most of its people still live in misery. It is appalling to contrast their situation with that of Koreans, whose nation started on its post-war development from an almost equal base. But it shows that the misery of Africa can be reversed.

Ghana stands apart from other African nations in at least one way. Its acceptance of the rigors of structural reform have won it a disproportionately high flow of foreign aid from international agencies and from the United States, Japan, Canada and European nations. That huge flow has been crucial to implementing internal reforms and to moving toward sustainable growth.

Donor nations, including the United States, will need to continue expanded aid for at least 20 more years, according to this report. There is no alternative if Africa is to be rescued from devastation, a devastation that could not be limited to Africa itself.