Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
African Economic DevelopmentEvidence, Theory, Policy$

Christopher Cramer, John Sender, and Arkebe Oqubay

Print publication date: 2020

Print ISBN-13: 9780198832331

Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: July 2020

DOI: 10.1093/oso/9780198832331.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (oxford.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in OSO for personal use. date: 20 June 2021

High-Yielding Variety Policies in Africa

High-Yielding Variety Policies in Africa

(p.241) 10 High-Yielding Variety Policies in Africa
African Economic Development

Christopher Cramer

John Sender

Arkebe Oqubay

Oxford University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 10 highlights policy priorities capable of generating large productivity improvements, balance of payments improvements, and big increases in employment, especially for rural women. Growth, structural transformation, and welfare improvements in African economies require a sustained high investment rate, led by public sector spending to maximize crowding in of private investment; they require state support for the development of ‘national champion’ firms (and farms); they cannot be sustained without a massive export drive; investment needs to be encouraged in specific kinds of labour-intensive economic activities. This ‘possibilist’ strategy depends developing capabilities for monitoring performance and disciplining recipients of state resources; among the relevant targets for firms are measures to encourage the effective organization and voice of the workers they employ. The strategy also has to include policies to expand the non-inflationary supply of basic wage goods, including intervention to manage grain prices.

Keywords:   policy priorities, balance of payments, employment, public sector spending, monitoring, wage goods, grain prices

10.1 Introduction: Proving Hamlet Wrong

Many policy seeds have been planted in African soil, but their yields have often been considered disappointing. These seeds, often older ones rather than the most recently improved cultivars and hybrids, are sown with the folkloric wisdom of the most cited and renowned economists; they represent the common varieties of policy thinking that we have drawn attention to throughout this book.

Our metaphor can be stretched to cover other similarities: following the practice of many African farmers, policy officials often to try to compensate for low and erratic yields by planting a mix of different types of seeds and plants on their fields, in the hope that some at least may thrive and even generate cash returns. Just that kind of hope and risk-averse, scatter-gun approach is reflected too in the endless wish lists and unweighted bullet-point lists of recommendations that pepper the concluding sections of government policy plans, international agency advice, and consultancy reports. What we have argued for, by contrast, is a concentration on a very small number of priorities and criteria and a commitment to ongoing research and development (R&D) to support high-yielding variety policies (HYVPs) that can be adapted to the socio-political contexts of specific African economies.

There are two kinds of R&D required if HYVPs are to flourish. First, there has to be the adaptation to specific locations and the development of the most appropriate modern policy variety, using plant stock material stored in gene banks that have been curated as a public good. There is a large stock of research to draw on for this: the analysis of ‘what has worked’ across a huge range of contexts historically. Throughout this book we have highlighted many policies that have been effective. They are often different to those packaged and pushed as appropriate for all African economies and we have explained why the standard packages are in fact typically inappropriate. But, second, what has worked in one context—one political, historical equivalent of a specific agro-climatic zone—does not necessarily work at all or in the same way elsewhere.

This is true for certain varieties of rice, for example: the New Rice for Africa (NERICA) varieties are the result of interspecific crosses between the Oryza sativa rice species from Asia and the locally adapted and multiple-stress resistant Oryza glaberrima African rice species: ‘NERICA varieties can smother weeds, resist drought and pests and can thrive in poor soils like the African parent. Like its (p.242) Asian parent, NERICA has high yield.’ But NERICA varieties have been far more successful for some types of farmers in some African countries and regions than others.1 Relatively few improved rice varieties have been released that are appropriate for Africa’s more difficult and complex upland and rainfed environments; the varieties used on irrigated lowlands have usually been more successful.2 Just as the drugs developed by pharmacogenetics are effective for some patients but not others, the same is true for economic policies. Liberalizing a market—for fertilizer and seed distribution, say—may have initially positive results in one country but in another, given its specific political economy and the ability of the state to act independently under pressure from globally concentrated fertilizer producers, it may simply reconfigure concentrated market power without promoting lower prices or more efficient spread. Advocating a state-owned airline may draw on examples of success in some countries, even in one African economy (Chapter 6), but that does not mean a state-owned airline will be viable in another African economy.

That is one reason we cannot provide a policy blueprint. It would be satisfying to suggest a neat plan, and there are plenty of attempts to do so. They are the branding equivalent of Fairtrade labelling: policy officials may want to ‘do the right thing’ yet they have too little detailed evidence or knowledge about the complex reality they are dealing with and about the history of capitalist development, so a tidy blueprint cuts the information corner for them and guides them to what is generally believed to work. But such neat plans are largely pointless. Time and again their recommendations, even if drawn from theoretically elegant models or extrapolating from some randomized controlled trial results, fail to fruit when grafted onto different contexts. (We have also argued that they are often built on poor theory and evidence anyway.)

Setting out a branded blueprint would also be a vain exercise because of uncertainty. Fundamental uncertainty, the role of contingency within cumulative causation dynamics, and the fact that tensions, imbalance, and struggles always trump equilibrium mean that broad sweeping claims to generalizable laws of policy effectiveness cannot be trusted. Moreover, unintended consequences are not always positive ones. Green Revolution initiatives like improved varieties were part of a mix of intensification policies with social and economic, and environmental, implications. Some of these were environmentally and distributionally negative. New systems of crop production using new types of inputs have been shown to have contradictory impacts on gender and labour relations; they may well exacerbate intra-household conflict in the short run. For example, it is argued that the diffusion of a disease-resistant genetically modified banana is more likely to benefit capitalist (male) farmers in the south-west of Uganda than the large (p.243) number of smaller producers relying on the exploitation of female family workers in central and eastern Uganda.3 It is also argued that the Green Revolution in Punjab and Haryana had serious environmental consequences, partly because it was associated with a level and pattern of subsidized urea applications that damaged both soil and human health.4 High-yielding economic policy varieties will also require constant monitoring and adaptation to respond to unanticipated and damaging distributional and environmental outcomes.

So we hedge our policy discussion with doubt and issue stern warnings to officials to be alert to unintended adverse consequences. Much of the success of policies lies in allocating sufficient resources to enhancing policymakers’ ability to collect the data to monitor their effects closely; and to have the flexibility to change tack if needed. High-yield crop varieties have rarely achieved their yield potential without massive investment in infrastructure, above all irrigation; high-yield policies are unlikely to be effective, or even to avoid catastrophe, without a similar commitment to investment in the infrastructure of data collection and monitoring. It is necessary to develop an institutionalized ability not only to learn, but especially to learn from failure. For this reason, we advocate a policy officials’ version of the ‘error cabinet’ in Enzo Ferrari’s head office. Ferrari often held board meetings in a room whose walls were lined with glass-fronted cabinets displaying malfunctioning motor parts. Every time a Ferrari car broke down during a race, the offending parts were studied, and advances made on the basis of learning what had gone wrong.

Nonetheless, there are some things that we can say with confidence. There are strategic decisions that the evidence suggests are important almost everywhere and that policy officials in particular countries can study, considering how they could be tweaked, modified, and adapted to local conditions. There are criteria that have to be satisfied if a dynamic of economic development is to take hold that can be sustained over time with broadly progressive effects on welfare. This chapter, pulling out some of the implications from earlier chapters, therefore highlights priority areas for policy and a small number of criteria that officials do need to consider when making resource allocation decisions.

What shapes our priorities and criteria is our commitment, shared with Hirschman and his brother-in-law Colorni (who was also an anti-fascist activist), to ‘proving Hamlet wrong’. If Hamlet’s endless self-questioning freezes him into inaction in Shakespeare’s play, Hirschman and Colorni emphasized the productiveness of doubt: the importance of doubt to spur action even in the face of apparently overwhelming and barbaric obstacles—‘possibilism’. Thus, with Hirschman, we would encourage in policy officials even in the poorest African economies a ‘bias for hope’: not a dreamy utopianism fuelled by grand theory or (p.244) pan-Africanist dreams but an insistence on the possible, enriched by realistic analysis and by evidence.

As with doubts about the adverse unintended ecological consequences of high-yielding Green Revolution inputs, these doubts should not lead to an impossibilist resignation to a future with low yields but to redoubled research efforts to achieve adaptation. That means that we distinguish our approach from the impossibilist gloom of many development sages and many ‘dismal’ economists.5 Impossibilists continue to: make sweeping critiques of ambitious and large-scale projects; insist that global capitalism allows no space for economic development within Africa or for wage workers to develop defensive political powers; argue that straying from the purity of comparative advantage principles is ruinous; allege that state-owned enterprises are necessarily wastefully inefficient; and remain convinced that the stranglehold of rent-seeking, the politics of the belly, corruption, or what de Waal calls the ‘political marketplace’, means that there is no possibility of implementing progressive policy ideas.

10.2 Possibilism and Experiment

Some development economists have relatively recently come to acknowledge what before were dismissed as unsound arguments: that the development of capitalism has always owed a particular debt to the role of manufacturing; and that industrialization has always and everywhere depended on state intervention that has ‘got prices wrong’. But the typical refrain of common sense is still: ‘well, it may have worked before—in Taiwan, in Vietnam, or somewhere, but please please don’t try this yourself!’ The argument is that the risks of failure are so high (and the historical record certainly does show many failures), and capacities in Africa so low, that it would be unwise to try to emulate the ‘lessons’ of economic history. For example, Paul Krugman came to realize that theoretically, there was a very good case for ignoring the principle of comparative advantage, but, he argued, officials should actually stick to the principle and to producing unsophisticated goods because otherwise politics will get in the way and ruin things.6 Rather, prudent African policy officials should bide their time, getting the elements of good governance aligned, gradually building capacities, and confining themselves to the modest work of the facilitating state. African states, this plausible version of impossibilist common sense has it, should intervene up to and not beyond their current level of capacity.

(p.245) Meanwhile, the other strand of impossibilist common sense rolls out a series of warnings suggesting that almost all policies or accumulation strategies simply have no chance of succeeding because the dominant material and ideological forces of global capitalism are stacked against low-income peripheral countries. Global value chains are controlled tightly by powerful systems integrators that brook no significant technological upgrading by developing country producers, who remain constrained to producing relatively simple goods on a lowly rung of the ladder. The world market prices for all the goods produced in poor countries are so volatile that the imports required for dynamic growth and political stability cannot reliably be acquired. The World Trade Organization (WTO) imposes rules so binding on developing countries that they are now unable to avail themselves of the kinds of policies in the trade and financial sectors used successfully by earlier ‘catching-up’ countries.

We acknowledge that it is easier to fail than to succeed with development policy—often more for domestic political reasons than reasons of measurable technocratic ‘capacity’. For example, in Ghana and Kenya political pressures were able—at some times more than others—to overwhelm sophisticated economic technocrats.7 We also acknowledge that the external financial and economic environment confronting developing country economies and governments is prone to wild fluctuations, often hostile, and poses risks to improving welfare. But there is still significant, proven scope for governments to intervene in support of an accelerated dynamic of accumulation, structural change, and not insignificant welfare improvement. And there is scope for governments to intervene beyond their current capacity levels, to experiment.

10.3 The Political Origins of Economic Institutions and Shifts in Policy

Keynes emphasized the fundamental uncertainty that might stall investment by rational actors. Something, for example the sentiments of a mimetic rush of animal spirits sparked by government spending, was needed to provoke private investors into action. By analogy, rational officials working for a state faced with a list of constricting rules of global governance and weighed down by the evidence of many failures in other African and Latin American economies might, like Hamlet, do nothing decisive. Something is required to push them to act in effective ways.

That something has eluded textbook economists: it cannot be modelled. It probably takes different forms and these may include a flush of nationalism or an (p.246) impending external military threat. Our greater understanding in recent years of the economic role and impact of institutions ‘has not been matched by our understanding of their political origins’.8 There are accounts of African economic development that consider being in a ‘bad neighbourhood’ one of the key ‘traps’ that prevents growth;9 being surrounded by countries mired in instability and violence can of course have negative spill-over effects, but it would not be wise to take this so literally, for the regional effect (just like being landlocked, for example—another ‘trap’) may provoke creative policy responses that lead to faster growth. Wars, and the presence of both internal and external threats, have historically played a significant role in prompting shifts in growth, in state organization and capability, in fiscal revenues and in the coherence of policymaking. Generally, jolts of political crisis have tended to be more important spurs to substantial reshaping of economic policy and production than the steady assembly of preconditions (of governance, of capability, of comparative advantage). It is the same with reductions in inequality: ‘Across the full sweep of history, every single one of the major compressions of material inequality we can observe in the record was driven by one or more of these levelers’: calamitous war that drew in societies as a whole, similarly violent revolutions, state collapse, or appalling pandemics that raised the wages of poorer (and suddenly scarcer) people.10

Similarly, historically, states have made war and war has made states. The main mechanism through which this has worked is resource mobilization. Needing to find ways to mobilize people to fight and to mobilize the resources to keep fighting forces fed, transported, clothed, and armed, states have resorted to all manner of extortion, borrowing, and, over time, above all, taxation. Those states that have most effectively raised revenue have not only won wars and secured the state but also created lasting institutions of statehood.11 War has also often—very far from always—led to shifts in the extent and types of state intervention in economies and societies that is politically acceptable (even imaginable). It has had major effects on the organization of large capitalist firms and their links to state institutions that have often survived long after the end of wars.12

In the North East Asian economies of South Korea and Taiwan, for example, ‘systemic vulnerability’ played a very important role in the political origins of institutions and policies associated with ‘developmental states’ and rapid economic growth. One argument is that such institutions only emerge ‘when political leaders confront extraordinarily constrained political environments’, specifically where they stare down the barrels of


three different guns: (1) the credible threat that any deterioration in the living standards of popular sectors could trigger unmanageable mass unrest; (2) the heightened need for foreign exchange and war matériel induced by national insecurity; and (3) the hard budget constraints imposed by a scarcity of easy revenue sources.13

Similar constraints lay behind the shift in Ethiopia—associated with the then Prime Minister Meles Zenawi—towards efforts to create a ‘democratic developmental state’. Without copious natural resource rents and in one of the very poorest nations in the world, the Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front (EPRDF) took power in a context characterized precisely by ‘a scarcity of easy revenue sources’. Violent insecurity in neighbouring countries and tense relations with some of these countries, including military intervention by Ethiopia in Somalia and a war with Eritrea, resulted in a ‘heightened need for foreign exchange and war matériel induced by national insecurity’. And national insecurity was also fragile in a context of the fundamental strains on Ethiopian political economy. There was tension between the long historical source of political power in the highlands while the sources of economic reproduction were greater in the lowland peripheries.14 This tension at the heart of an unfinished project of creating a coherent ‘imagined community’15 of the Ethiopian nation state was exacerbated by rapid population growth, accelerating urbanization, continued poverty, and rising political challenges in the 2000s to the EPRDF.16 The EPRDF then committed, under Meles and his successor as Prime Minister, Hailemariam Desalegn, to delivering economic development in the pursuit of legitimacy. The latest dramatic turn of policy direction—in 2019—may perhaps be explained by the fact that sustained and remarkably rapid economic growth had failed to resolve this systemic vulnerability, and that the foreign exchange shortage was becoming even more pressing.

Dramatic political upheaval has been at the heart of major leaps in the national organization of production and productivity in the history of the USA, too. In the wake of the War of Independence from Great Britain, Alexander Hamilton famously pioneered American industrial policy. Hamilton’s practical policy involvement led him, in his Report on the Subject of Manufactures, to argue that Adam Smith’s academic approach led to propositions that were ‘geometrically true’ but ‘practically false’.17 The American Civil War in the 1860s led to a range of technological, organizational, and policy innovations with lasting consequences.18 And much later, when the USA entered the Second World War, President Roosevelt launched his campaign to build an ‘Arsenal of Democracy’. The strategy to produce victory involved creating ‘a production system that linked (p.248) technological innovations in weapons with the production capability to absorb and integrate technological change’, in other words to graft the mass production system pioneered in the USA onto a technologically advanced war production system.19 The ‘industrial empire’ that ensued was financed through ‘public-sector entrepreneurship’, in the form of a non-market leasing system through which the state financed two thirds of war-oriented private sector production.20

10.4 Priorities for Strategies of Economic Development

One of the main uses of our book is to offer practical suggestions about how to argue against fashionable policies that are not rooted in evidence or are theoretically incoherent. We also offer a guide to implementing some other and less-discussed economic policies, although we are aware that this guide may only prove useful in particular political conditions.

The evidence and arguments presented here, especially in Chapters 4–9, lead us to propose the following broad, strategic priorities.

Objective 1: A High Investment Ratio

Governments should promote a high investment ratio as an urgent priority. Stimulating a sustained high investment to gross domestic product (GDP) ratio is fundamental to prospects for rapid and lasting growth and structural change. The historical evidence shows this clearly. The state has to lead this investment push by making a commitment to economically productive public spending. This does not have to be financed by deregulation of the financial sector. Indeed, liberalizing the financial sector too much and too rapidly, the evidence shows, undermines such a strategic objective.

Objective 2: National Champion Firms

Rather than supply-side small-is-beautiful entrepreneurship programmes, policy officials should prioritize the creation and subsidize the success of large national champions and ensure the complementarity of public and private initiatives. These large firms are the ones that can capture the productivity gains from increasing returns to scale, they are more likely to survive than small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) (among which there are typically high rates of (p.249) collapse), they make a disproportionate contribution to exports, and they are more likely to create large numbers of decent and unionized jobs.21

Officials should acknowledge the historical evidence that major private sector investing firms have typically developed thanks to state support. This support has taken a wide variety of forms, including: protectionist and ‘infant industry’ policies, the creation of state-owned enterprises, procurement policies, supporting legal cartels, laying the base for private sector firms through public research and development, and other mechanisms of the ‘entrepreneurial state’, as well as effective management of social conflicts and security provision to secure the conditions of capitalist investment and production. These are not just policies of historical interest. They are what governments around the world do (in advanced Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) economies and in middle and lower-income economies)—with varying degrees of success—to support successful large firms. It is what the Brazilian state has done in supporting second-generation bio-tech firms, through innovative financing mechanisms. Sometimes, major firms emerge from mutual interests in a tangle of calculation among politicians and business—winners picking states just as much as states picking winners. A case in point is Aliko Dangote, founder of the immense Nigerian and now continent-wide cement firm. Dangote had made strenuous efforts to develop very close political ties, including to General Obasanjo, over many years of accumulating rents from a number of ‘crony capitalist’ trading enterprises. ‘Dangote used his close connection to Obasanjo to influence the Nigerian government to adopt and sustain a Backward Integration Policy (BIP) for the cement industry in Nigeria.’22 There is clearly an element of the contingent in these histories, but it certainly helps for officials to be aware of the scope of the possible, rather than to continue wasting resources chasing fantasies of development and structural change through tiny start-ups.

Objective 3: A Rapid Rate of Increase in Imports and in Exports

A publicly led investment boost will necessarily imply a faster rate of growth of imports. This is only sustainable if there is a rapid rate of increase in exports. Investment booms tend to lead to debt problems. This is natural. What matters is preventing a debt problem becoming a debt crisis. There are all sorts of ways of negotiating and managing external debt, all of them an important part of a shrewd strategy, including: ensuring a sensible spread of debt maturities, limiting non-concessional borrowing, renegotiating repayment structures, preventing (p.250) unregulated private sector borrowing abroad, and others. Investment–import booms in Africa can also be financed in part by resort to concessional foreign funds or aid. But just as exposure to commercial debt is risky, so is too great a reliance on too few sources of foreign aid, because individual donors may be unreliable, and because the strings attached to some aid are difficult to reconcile with the strategic objectives of sustained economic growth. The real key to managing a rapid rate of growth of imports is to promote very rapid export expansion. Despite naysayers, this remains possible. While improving the scope for (and reducing costs of) intra-African trade may be a boon to economic activity, it is most unlikely to be an effective substitute for maximizing exports to demanding (in terms of quality and phyto-sanitary or labour or other standards) large higher income markets. Intra-African trade should be a complement to, not a refuge from, a strategy of wider global economic integration.

Objective 4: Promoting Investment in Specific Types of Economic Activity

Investment, especially public investment in infrastructure and state-owned enterprises, and government policies designed to encourage private sector productive investment, needs to be targeted—directed towards particular types of activity. There are three particularly important criteria to bear in mind here. First, investment will have a greater economic and social impact if it is concentrated in those activities most likely to create growth of demand for the labour of women with little education. (This should be combined with measures to keep girls in school longer: both to improve their own knowledge and skills and to tighten the labour market.) Such investment may be in high-value agriculture (not just ‘agro-processing’), which should be recognized as industrial, complex, and sophisticated production, as well as in urban/peri-urban manufacturing factories. Complementary policies might support both types of investment by reducing the financial and social costs of labour mobility as labour shifts from low to higher-productivity forms of employment (low-cost accommodation, travel, the cost of phone network usage for communicating with family and transferring savings home, or to rural post offices).

Second, investment is needed to underpin rapid export growth. If possible, the selected activities absorbing unskilled female labour migrants from rural areas should therefore also make a rapid net contribution to foreign exchange earnings. That involves a range of policies including the competitive undervaluation of the exchange rate.

Third, and complementary to investment in export capacity, we have shown that it is extremely important to allocate investment resources to increase the supply of food and other basic wage goods, which in turn underpins dynamics of (p.251) investment. Investments are required to monitor real wages and to intervene rapidly in food markets to smooth price spikes. In the longer term, investments to accelerate agricultural production of wage goods and exports requires R&D expenditures and targeted infrastructure provision focused on particular crops (e.g. coffee and avocados for exports and cassava or yams—rather than dairy and poultry—for the poorest consumers); and it requires betting on the strong, that is, on farms with a proven track record either in expanding exports or in producing large marketed surpluses of basic foods for domestic consumers. Clearly, it would be desirable to combine several strategic objectives, selecting national and ‘export’ champions that also employ large numbers of, especially, women from poor rural backgrounds, or selecting the most dynamic and efficient producers of wage goods for a low-income domestic mass market that also employ large numbers of unskilled wage workers (see Chapter 3).

Objective 5: Develop Capability for Monitoring and Disciplining

Designing incentives for well-targeted investment promotion is not difficult. But it is bordering on pointless to introduce incentives to firms if there is no parallel development of capacity to monitor performance and to discipline firms (including by withdrawing access to exemptions or subsidies, etc.). This quid pro quo—the reciprocal control mechanism to ensure that firms meet targets for exports, investment, employment, and productivity– is a sine qua non of effective policy.

If labour productivity is to improve and if absolute poverty is to be reduced, there is one aspect of the performance of capitalist firms that it is particularly important to monitor. In return for state support, firms need to be set targets not only to increase exports, but also to encourage the organization and effective voice of the workers they employ. We are well aware that firms can and do evade modest levels of employment protection legislation in Africa (and elsewhere). But minimum wage, health and safety rules, child protection, gender rights, and other legislation to enforce decent working conditions may nevertheless be expected to have positive effects, encouraging the growth of trade unions and strengthening their negotiating capacity. Even when states appear unable to impose strict discipline on capitalists—ensuring that all subsidized enterprises comply with agreed rules—employment protection legislation can provide a rallying cry and a reference point for struggles to organize workers. Workers’ organizations and professional associations, together with relatively efficient compliant firms, may also put pressure on state institutions to monitor and discipline those firms continuing to compete on the basis of illegal working conditions and low labour productivity.

There are many good reasons for policymakers to make a serious effort to create the institutions and mechanisms to monitor (preferably on a monthly basis) (p.252) the real wages of all wage workers, especially the lowest-paid female workers. Publishing trends in these wages would improve the quality of public debate about poverty reduction and support Objective 6. It would also help to rapidly identify failing investment projects and to legitimate strict disciplinary action by governments against errant subsidized capitalists. Most importantly, it would provide emerging workers’ organizations with the information necessary to target their limited resources towards particular sectors and employers.

Objective 6: Protecting Welfare, Profitability, and Political Stability through Grain Market Management

A key feature of the analysis in this book (chiefly in Chapters 4 and 7) has been to highlight the importance of a non-inflationary supply of basic wage (especially food) goods. This protects the ability of firms employing workers to ensure that profitability is not eroded by wage hikes necessary to allow workers to meet rising costs of basic living; and it protects politicians from the political consequences of wages not rising sufficiently in such circumstances. Part of the strategy, (Objective 4) involves promoting investment in the supply of basic food goods (especially those cereals purchased by the poorest wage workers). But the evidence from elsewhere (especially in Asia) is that part of the strategy also has to involve direct intervention in food grain markets to prevent price spikes. If export revenues are increasing and the long-run real international market prices of certain foods are declining, a successful accumulation strategy in Africa (as elsewhere) will involve increases in the volume of food imports (and the manipulation of tariffs on food imports to smooth domestic price fluctuations).

10.5 Conclusion: Impossible is Nothing

In conclusion, we emphasize two features of the analysis and argument in this book. First, we have argued that variation matters. Descriptively, identifying variation in policies and in performance is crucial to analysis and is often smothered in averages. Closer attention to variation reveals, for example, that there is usually more variation within sub-Saharan African countries—in undernutrition, in wealth, in access to education, and so on—than there is between African countries, while, nonetheless, the variation between countries is itself more significant than often acknowledged. But we have also argued that it matters to ask: variation in what? Much poverty analysis, for example, focuses on categories—simple geographical distinctions like rural/urban or categories such as ‘female-headed households’—that can be misleading. These analyses, we have (p.253) argued, obscure ‘intra-category’ variation, for example, inequality within areas classified as rural or huge diversity of living standards among ‘smallholders’ or ‘female-headed households’. And we have suggested some examples of what we argue are more useful categorical distinctions. The same is the case for distinctions between broad economic ‘sectors’, which we have argued have become even less useful analytically than they may have been in the past. The blurring of boundaries captured in the idea of ‘servicification’ and of ‘the industrialization of freshness’ is a prompt to recalibrate the assessment of which kinds of activity are most relevant for the objectives of economic policy, which then leads to the identification of new kinds of variation.

Variation can then become a source of policy possibilism. That it has been possible to achieve very steep declines in fertility rates in Rwanda compared to Burundi, despite many similarities of ‘structure’, history, and endowments, or in Kenya compared to Uganda, or Ghana compared to Nigeria (Chapter 2) suggests a clear role for policy. And the policy history of these countries confirms a clear commitment to meeting women’s contraceptive needs—sustained over a lengthy period—in those countries with sharp fertility declines. Again, the variation in the incidence of insecticide-treated bed nets or in the equity of their distribution cannot simply be ‘read off’ from indices of endowments but reflects purposive policy design and implementation. Similarly, the fact that some farms have managed to generate far higher agricultural yields than others within the same agro-ecological zones suggests a clear role for officials to identify why and to pursue policies that can clearly secure higher yields on a much larger area. And differences between African countries in the rate of adoption of high-yield variety (HYV) seeds reflect variation in an important policy choice: public spending on agricultural research (Chapter 9). It is also extremely important to emphasize, as in Chapter 4, that some African countries have adopted policies to achieve much higher and more sustained levels of public sector investment than others.

Second, we have not only shown that mainstream economic analysis and policy advice is empirically unfounded, has deep theoretical weaknesses, and has not produced the results insistently claimed, but we have also provided a coherent (and possibilist) alternative. But criticizing the mainstream is relatively easy and also commonplace. Subjecting alternatives to a non-mainstream critique is more uncommon and, we argue, necessary. Because these alternatives have so readily and uncritically been accepted by non-economists in Africa and by heterodox economists, it has been all too easy for orthodox economists and advisers to deploy dodgy quantitative evidence to brush these alternative policy proposals aside. We have therefore, at the risk of alienating those we have worked with and often agreed with, also tried to offer an alternative to the most widespread forms of critique of the mainstream: these oscillate between stifling impossibilism and fanciful expectations of capitalism with a human face, (p.254) of South–South solidarity, of homogeneous and mutually supportive rural societies, of the triumph of small-scale capitalism (based on millions of very small farmers and entrepreneurs).

Above all, we have sought to contribute analysis and evidence that make it easier for policy officials to pursue some variant of what Meles Zenawi called the ‘Sinatra model’ of policymaking—assessing what has been effective in a range of contexts and adapting to specific African contexts, and then doing it ‘my way’.


(1) Arouna et al. (2017: 55).

(2) Diagne et al. (2015: 203).

(3) Addison and Schnurr (2016).

(4) Abrol et al. (2017).

(5) The ‘dismal science’ is widely believed to refer to those classical economists (the original impossibilists), above all Malthus, who believed that capitalist growth would run aground before long (Heilbroner, 1987: 78).

(6) Krugman (1987).

(7) Fahnbulleh (2006).

(8) Doner, Ritchie, and Slater (2005: 327).

(9) Collier (2008).

(10) Scheidel (2017: 36).

(11) Tilly (1992).

(12) Cramer (2020).

(13) Doner, Ritchie, and Slater (2005: 328).

(14) Clapham (2017).

(15) Anderson (1987).

(16) Markakis (2011).

(17) McNamara (1998).

(18) Cramer (2006).

(19) Best (2018: 27).

(20) Best (2018: 24–54).

(21) On ‘national champions’ in China and China’s industrial policy learning from other East Asian economies, see Li and Chen (2020).

(22) Akinyoade and Uche (2018: 835).