Democracy and Development in Africa: Pressures for Political and Economic Reform

Democracy and Development in Africa: Pressures for Political and Economic Reform
By Rod Alence

Though the wave of democratization in Africa did not gain momentum until after the Cold War ended, in the 1980s critics inside and out began asking tough questions about the performance of the region’s authoritarian governments.

Dragged down by global economic shocks and domestic policy failures, from the 1970s the region was falling sharply behind developing economies elsewhere.

By the late 1980s, nearly every African country had formally adopted a market-oriented reform agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. For cash-strapped governments, these agreements unlocked much-needed financial assistance, but with major strings attached. Recipients were required to reduce budget deficits substantially, devalue their currencies, and more generally scale back state intervention in their economies.

Whatever the economic merits of these controversial reforms, they struck directly at the political foundations of African governments. Expenditures that the IMF and World Bank wanted cut were central to patronage networks that helped keep incumbents in power, while existing patterns of state intervention helped shield politically pivotal groups from the full brunt of the economic crisis. Squeezed between the policy demands of international financial institutions and the domestic imperatives of political survival, governments typically responded with varying degrees of “partial reform”—delivering enough policy change to keep external donors at bay, while dragging their feet on the most politically sensitive items.

Through the end of the 1980s, most governments maintained this balancing act, though doing so exposed them to mounting criticism from both sides. Highly urbanized countries with strong trade-union movements faced particularly stiff domestic political opposition to policies that scaled back public-sector employment and raised the cost of living. From its side, the World Bank released a landmark 1989 report arguing that a “crisis of governance” was at the heart of Africa’s economic problems, calling for institutional changes to enable fuller and more effective implementation of market reforms.

The collapse of the Soviet Union quickly expanded the agenda of governance reform in Africa. Superpower rivalry had previously discouraged Western powers from linking bilateral, government-to-government aid to democratization. Now a division of labor emerged in which the IMF and World Bank continued to make their funds conditional on “apolitical” policy and institutional changes, while bilateral donors like the United States added what came to be known informally as “political conditionality.” African governments seeking to maintain flows of external financial assistance confronted increasingly strong pressures toward establishing open and competitive political regimes. This environment emboldened domestic opposition groups who, like their Eastern European counterparts, mobilized behind the banner of “civil society” in demanding democratic reform.
Events outside the region were a crucial catalyst for Africa’s wave of democratization. But the speed of the wave reflected existing tensions within the region, which were related to the ways authoritarian governments handled the economic difficulties of the 1980s.

Rod Alence is Visiting Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Michigan for the 2008-2009 academic year. He is also Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. His research focuses on the political economy of African development, and his research has appeared in publications such as theJournal of Democracy,theJournal of Modern African Studies,and theJournal of African History.