Wilson Center Fellow Examines Neoliberal Reforms in Africa

Feb 18, 2004

By Peter Bean

There has been a tendency among political scientists to attribute the lack of neoliberal economic reforms (such as liberalizing markets, withdrawing subsidies, reducing tariffs) in Africa to "neopatrimonial" practices in African states. Woodrow Wilson Center fellow Anne Pitcher, however, contends that such a view requires reassessment. "The term [neopatrimonialism] has been overused and misapplied to dismiss the entire continent," Pitcher contends. Neoliberal reform has varied "widely and wildly" across the continent, she argues, and is a complicated process that is a product of the interaction of political leaders and social forces. "This is not a failure of the states," Pitcher says, "but a challenge of the reform process itself."

Pitcher claims that whether a country fully or partially implements neoliberal economic reforms depends on the relationship between state commitment or "political will" to enact reform and the way that societal forces such as business, labor or consumers respond to it. Now that many African countries are nominally democratic, governments have to be more responsive to the will of the electorate and it may not always support reforms. Alternatively, social groups may drive governments to enact reforms or face instability and possible defeat. "This [argument] may seem obvious, but it's not being made for African countries," Pitcher points out. Her current study focuses on four countries—Mozambique, South Africa, Zambia, and Angola—and seeks to show how their experiences mirror those observed in many East and Central European and Latin American countries.

In an effort to measure African countries' degree of commitment to or ownership of an economic reform such as privatization, Pitcher is developing a scoring chart. Using multiple criteria, such as evidence of adherence to private property rights in the constitution and the creation of investment agencies or privatization units, Pitcher is seeking to gauge any given state's level of commitment to reform. "The commitment score serves as a guide to what a country's formal policy on privatization was during the period of 1995-2001," Pitcher explains, "and what steps the leadership took to enact the policy with regard to valuing companies, attracting investment, improving the climate for business, and so forth."

Pitcher hypothesizes that states that combine a high level of government commitment to privatization and an organized coalition (which she calls a workable coalition) dedicated to reform will achieve the greatest amount of reform. Those that lack government commitment or have social groups that are indifferent to or oppose reform (or both) will be less successful. Angola, for example, which lacks both state commitment and a workable social coalition, has not achieved any meaningful reform. South Africa, which has a highly committed government, has only achieved partial reform because of an unstable social environment.

"A workable coalition is vital," Pitcher says. "Neoliberal reform is not an administrative exercise; it's a political exercise. There must be a workable coalition sufficiently united behind the reforms if they are to succeed."

With regard to measuring the outcome of reforms, Pitcher makes a distinction between completing the reform process and the impact of that process. The former evaluates whether, for example, privatization actually takes place following the enactment of privatization policies. The latter evaluates, using normative criteria, the impact of that policy. For example, has the policy led to economic growth? Who has benefited from the policy? "Equity is a key component of viable reform," Pitcher insists. "I'm unwilling to call growth without equity a success." Moreover, in some cases, neoliberal reforms are not incompatible with gains to rent-seekers. In Mozambique (a country which has achieved full reform), insiders connected to the state benefited from the reforms.

Mozambique is also a counterexample to commonly heard arguments that African countries lack the capacity to achieve real reform. Mozambique is one of the poorest countries in the world, yet has managed to privatize over 1000 state companies. Pitcher attributes part of that success to the relatively small size of the economy and assistance from the World Bank, but "also, there were capable, dedicated Mozambicans running the state bodies set up to privatize the state companies and a ruling party with a high degree of coherence. Once they decided to privatize, they were pretty systematic about it. It defies the standard view of Africa as full of corruption, always in crisis, unable to accomplish anything."

None of this is meant to deny the existence of neopatrimonial practices in some African states, Pitcher points out. "I would add that while personalism and clientelism are strongly associated with some of the larger states in Africa like the DRC, Angola, and Nigeria, if these words are used to characterize the whole continent they lose their analytic value. Surely we need to differentiate between what goes on in Nigeria and what goes on in South Africa or Botswana."

The outcomes of neoliberal reforms in African countries have also been undermined by policies of industrialized nations. Agricultural subsidies in the United States drive prices down, at the expense of farmers in developing countries. In Mozambique, for example, which saw a strong rebound in cotton production following the end of its civil war in 1992 and the implementation of neoliberal economic reforms, United States subsidization of its own cotton farmers has seriously hurt the Mozambican sector. "It's rather hypocritical of industrialized countries to encourage developing countries to reduce tariffs, withdraw subsidies, and liberalize markets, when we aren't doing it ourselves," Pitcher notes.

Anne Pitcher is an associate professor of political science at Colgate University. Her work on economic restructuring in Africa will be the subject of her next book. She is also the author of Transforming Mozambique: The Politics of Privatization (Cambridge University Press, 2002) and Politics in the Portuguese Empire: The State, Industry and Cotton, 1926-1974 (Oxford University Press, 1993).


Related Links

EMAIL UPDATES