The economic slowdown in China, the declining demand for mining commodities, dwindling consumer spending power and the drought have all negatively impacted container trade in South Africa, with both import and export markets declining year-on-year by 8% and 12%, respectively. Photo: Supplied
Africa’s development has been undermined, since the end of colonialism, by its former colonial powers’ control over the production of, access to, and over what is “credible” knowledge, ideas and policies.

African countries have unequal power to industrial countries such as former colonial powers. The knowledge, research and ideas on, about and for Africa, perceived by industrial country governments, institutions, media and civil society to be credible are, even if faulty, often generated in industrial countries.

Compared to industrial countries, Africa suffers from knowledge inequality. African countries often do not have the resources to come up with relevant knowledge to tackle their developmental problems.

For most of the African post-independence period, the world has been dominated by the US-led industrial country consensus on knowledge, ideas and policy.

At the crux of this consensus has been a very narrow version of capitalism, based on neoliberalism, which argues that African and developing countries must agree to unregulated free markets, free trade and protection of industrial country businesses in Africa and developing countries even if they exploit the latter.

Because industrial countries have more power than African and developing countries, the latter are forced to accept this neoliberal consensus - or face a market backlash.

However, by accepting this consensus, African countries destroy their own industries, environment and unleash social unrest in their own countries.

Ironically, in many cases industrial countries often do the opposite of what they preach to African and developing countries.

Typical examples were generated during Africa’s recent global trade negotiations with the European Union, in the form of the Economic Partnership Agreements (EPAs) and the US, in the form of the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA).

Both the EU and US offers to African countries in these trade deals were mostly based on neoliberal trade terms. African countries were forced to agree on unregulated free markets, free trade and protection of industrial country businesses in Africa and developing countries even if they exploit the latter.

However, in the EU and the US, key manufactured and processed imports from Africa face high tariff rates. EU and US agriculture are protected under a wall of state subsidies. African businesses face tough health, environmental and quality regulations in the EU and US markets.

However, African countries had to agree on liberal protection for US and EU companies in Africa, and could not introduce tough environmental, labour and anti-corruption standards on them.

Nevertheless, in many cases, EU-based or US-based research, data and information about the supposed advantages for Africa in the EPAs and Agoa trade negotiations are often dominant in the industrial country media, academic literature and research think tanks.

EU and US-government backed research, information and data, which argue to the advantage of the EU and the US, are often provided to African governments, research institutions, civil society and media.

Many African media, civil society groups and research institutions do not receive funding or support from African governments and depend on funding from the EU, US and other industrial countries. Many rightly then fear they may lose out on EU, US and industrial country funding if they are perceived to be too critical of donor viewpoints.

Research and policy advice from global multilateral organisations, such as the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and OECD, often also back the viewpoint of the EU trade negotiators, providing African countries with very little alternative information to strengthen their trade positions.

Often research, ideas and policies from industrial country-based management consultancies also provide exactly the same dominant viewpoint as the EU/US governments and multilateral organisations.

Global multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank, IMF and International Finance Corporation (IFC), tie their funding to African countries to these countries having to follow the advice, knowledge-products and policy-prescriptions of these institutions.

Last year, the International Monetary Fund, in an internal paper, conceded that the neoliberal policies prescribed by the US and the EU and international multilateral organisations such as the World Bank and IMF, are flawed, have increased inequality, and have not necessarily delivered economic growth in Africa and in developing countries.

Many African governments have also lacked the research, knowledge and ideas capacity to negotiate better trade deals. But many African leaders and governments also often perpetuate Africa’s knowledge compared to industrial countries.

In many cases, African governments often do not value as crucial for development African-owned evidence-based knowledge production, the transfer of knowledge to Africans, or African-based and owned research, ideas and policies.

Most African leaders often see themselves, by virtue of being “leaders”, as the font of knowledge on everything, even if their knowledge base in fact is very superficial. What they say, even if simply inane, becomes officially accepted knowledge, public policy and discourse.

African leaders and governments since independence have also been dismissive of African intellectuals because they did not want criticism of their misrule. This meant that African intellectuals who could provide the knowledge, ideas and policies were marginalised by African leaders and governments.

Many African countries use industrial country management consultants to provide development advice. Consultants are often recently graduated MBAs from industrial countries, with very little knowledge about African countries.

These organisations are mostly dominated by and use the knowledge generated in industrial countries. Often the “experts” are parachuted into African countries from industrial country capitals that then authoritatively analyse these countries. Such “experts” often have ready-made off-the-shelf advisory packages, in many cases inappropriate.

Because African governments shortsightedly do not support their own domestic knowledge, policy and ideas institutions, they often lack credible alternative information, research and ideas from their own, and are therefore reliant on outsiders.

In some cases the independent knowledge, research and ideas that are generated from within Africa is slogan-based, superficial and airy-fairy.

In other cases it is overly ideological, or solutions based on antique African communal economy notions. They are often not providing pragmatic, evidence-based and real-life alternatives to receptive African governments.

Throughout the post-colonial periods, African governments and leaders, depending on which side of the ideological spectrum they were on, have either used packaged information, ideas and policies from the extremes of the neoliberal industrial countries, or the marxist-leninist Soviet Union, or maoist China.

African government and leaders must financially support, commission and use African research, knowledge and policy institutions.

They must allow African researchers, scholars and policy analysts to be independent and critical of African governments - and still provide them with funding.

The African Union and regional African institutions must become more relevant to combat the dominance in Africa of one-sided industrial country knowledge, ideas and policies, which are often undermining Africa’s development.

African researchers, policy analysts and research institutions must produce more relevant research based not on rigid ideology, and less on slogans and less on mythical notions of a retreat to an African past communal economies.

African researchers, institutions and analysts must partner with each other and with their developing country peers to create more appropriate knowledge, research and policies.

However, such knowledge, research and policies must be evidence-based, and not be based on slogans, be rigidly ideological, or solutions based on antiquated African communal economy notions, which cannot provide the answers for current complex realities.

  • William Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. His latest book is Restless Nation: Making Sense of Troubled Times