The 'African' Development of a Continent

The 'African' Development of a Continent - at - the best of the international financial media

Whilst my friend and I were happy to sleep on the roadside some 30 kilometres out of town, the seven other passengers travelling in our Peugeot 505 taxi were not.

They were locals, not backpackers, and needed to reach Kayes, Mali's former capital city, that night. But since we refused to pay the roadside gendarmerie to escort us into town and, allegedly, deter night time road bandits, we all had to wait for dawn to get going.

With this distraction, it took us three days to reach Bamako from Dakar, the respective capital cities of Mali and Senegal - a distance of about 1,200 kilometres. Rain had stopped the train between the two cities so we travelled by road, taking us an extra day.

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Last month, Mali was ranked 174th on the United Nations' Human Development Index 2005, the world's most respected economic development league table, whilst Senegal was placed 157th. A week later we went on to Burkina Faso, 175th in the UN's list - only Sierra Leone and Niger were ranked lower.

At first glance, it is difficult to see where economic prosperity can come from. Big local and private businesses are either importers, sell bottled water or run expensive bus services between major towns - and the only signs of industry I saw on my 4,000 kilometre trip were one factory making shoes and another producing matches.

Having previously travelled to India, it was easy to see why Africa's economic engine runs much slower than Asia's. Railways link Asian cities together, but they link African resources to ports. Rail and bus journeys in west Africa are about four times as expensive as on the sub-continent, as are staple goods such as water, bananas, milk and bread. Many youngsters do not speak the main language used between different ethnicities in west Africa, French, whilst only the elderly in India do not speak English, the language used across ethnicities there.

However Senegal, Mali and Burkina Faso, like most countries on the continent, are developing and mostly by their own doing. Although there is still a clear lack of industry, the big cities are full of talent and skills and the potential for kick-starting development is tangible, though more in some cities than others. For example one just has to enter the 'meccanics' quarter of most cities (which in Dakar is nearly half of the city's suburbs) to realise the extent of the vast pool of labour available to car manufacturers. The International Monetary Fund expects Burkina Faso to grow by 3.5% this year and 5% next year. It expects Senegal to grow by 5.7% in 2005 and 5% in 2006 and Mali to grow by 6.4% this year and 6.7% next year.These growth rates are not as impressive as China's, but are respectable, especially if they can be sustained for a long period. At cebr, we expect sub-Saharan African growth to average around 4.5% and 5% over the next four years.

Transport infrastructure is improving - some roads are even better than in many Mediterranean countries. There have been advances in telecommunications, with mobiles and the internet becoming more of a common sight, just as I had experienced in India a few years back.These types of improvement provide the platform for growth.

Vitally, development on the continent is becoming increasingly African. Many governments are beginning to tackle the thorny issues of education, health, transport and trade for themselves. Markets are growing, Africa's fractionalised ethnicities are getting somewhat closer to each other, distances between cities and countries are shortening and governments are learning from their mistakes.

Many will say that the pace of change is slow; inept politicians, bad policies and 'official corruption' are still common features of everyday life. But slow - even decades slow - organic transformation is preferable to hastened externally imposed change.

The development of Africa needs to come from within and to recognise the way in which Africans work together: the cultural fabric of the continent. As such, 'development' should be led by the locals - interventions by outsiders run the risk of sidetracking residents from identifying what is best for their economy.

The developed world - and Africans - eager for development should be patient, very patient. Aid and debt forgiveness are tempting to African statesmen and the NGOs; but external interventions like these are usually temporary and all-too-often distortionary, acting as a disincentive to reformers and Africans working hard in businesses, governments, and, yes, hospitals and schools. Foreign interventions need to be clever and minimal, helping and encouraging locals to discover where they can add value to their economy.

I do, though, have every confidence that I will see a faster economic engine on my next African trip - and that I will be able to travel by bus from Dakar to Bamako in much less than three days.

By Jonathan Said, economist at the Centre for Economics and Business Research