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Homegrown answers for Africa

Economics professor argues for a new approach to addressing poverty

Sylvain Boko

Sylvain Boko

Associate Professor of Economics Sylvain Boko, an expert in economic development in Africa, worked with more than 20 other development experts for his newest book, "Back on Track: Sector-Led Growth in Africa and Implications for Development." The book advocates a new approach to fight poverty in Africa from the inside out, rather than rely on outside financial assistance. In 2008 and 2009, he led a group of Wake Forest students and faculty to his native Benin to work with small business owners and entrepreneurs. He has assisted with development projects in Benin, Uganda, Tanzania, Ghana, Togo, Senegal and Rwanda, and is currently on leave working in Mali, in western Africa.

Why hasn't foreign aid helped economic development in Africa?

Most African countries gained their political independence from Europe in the early 1960s. Since then, billions of dollars have supposedly been spent on development in the continent with barely a dent in the poverty level. Foreign financial assistance will fail as long as there is a serious leadership deficit; as long as the ideas for development are conceived outside of the continent; and as long as there is a growing divide between the minority who have access and the majority that continue to mire in poverty. Targeted assistance in response to identified needs works most effectively. Throwing money at the problem will not solve it.

How could money be used more efficiently?

Research suggests that an in-depth analysis of economic conditions by sector — such as telecommunications, service, trade, tourism, finance and banking, oil and mining — and improved policy decisions related to these findings will enhance overall growth and development more quickly.

How does your book help make these connections?

The expertise of the contributors is a rich resource for leaders in African development. Key economic sectors are analyzed by experts in a particular field. The research looks at the challenges and assets in each area to determine what policies and actions can lead to growth. The hope is that this information will provide a new development paradigm.

Can you give an example of how this strategy might work?

No country (or continent in the case of Africa) can develop without a deep understanding of the factors that impact its long-term economic growth. Research-based thinking allows Africans to develop indigenous solutions to their problems based on their own social and cultural needs. This approach contrasts with the strategy used in the past whereby Africans tended to import, wholesale, industrial practices from outside the continent that have been detrimental to its socio-economic fabrics.

What are Africa's greatest strengths?

Its cultural heritage and social capital are its greatest strengths. Throughout the continent, whenever local communities are empowered to lead their own development, I have seen rapid progress. For example, I have seen communities in Burkina Faso and Rwanda organize themselves to improve their economic and social wellbeing, when given the opportunity. This calls for a decentralized mode of governance, which of course requires tremendous discipline on the part of the national leaders.

What is the biggest misconception about Africa?

People who have never traveled to Africa ignore the cultural and social vibrancy and diversity of its people. The accounts of war and conflict in a few countries seem to overshadow the progress that the continent has achieved in political democratization and the enthusiasm with which the people of Africa want to lead their own destiny. African people have the same aspirations as everyone else. They work harder than people in many parts of the world. And it is my view that when fundamental issues of governance and leadership are settled, there is likely to be a huge leap in Africa's development prospects.

What needs to be done now?

Africa must look within for the resources (financial, human, natural, cultural, social) to achieve its development goals. A real emphasis on improved governance and less energy and effort spent in search of financial assistance is necessary. In our human history no country has sustained growth and development by depending on outside aid. Africa will be able to achieve development and poverty reduction only when it is able to create wealth on the basis of its own resources and efforts.




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