Africa's Future Is Limited by Trade Ties to Europe

The continent's prospects for growth are rosy, according to IMF and World Bank economists who met this week in Washington, D.C. But to create a truly independent economy, Africa must focus on its growing trade with Asia and Latin America and dismantle its colonial alignments.

Sierra Leone Finance Minister Samura Kamara and Kenya's Uhuru Kenyatta
at IMF/World Bank meeting. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty)

By Njaramba Gikunju

When the global financial system went into a convulsion that eventually became what economic experts now refer to as the Great Recession, most pundits said that Africa, with its unsophisticated financial systems, would sail through the crisis unscathed. Proponents of this theory argued that Africa was "de-coupled" from the global economy, and the popular thinking was that the stunning collapse of erstwhile financial giants like Lehman Brothers would have ramifications only in the U.S., Europe and Asia, whose monetary systems were conjoined by subsidiary operations of the mammoth multinational banks and mortgage providers.

But this prognosis changed swiftly as the economic woes in the developed world deepened, drying up demand for African export goods, killing tourism and battering African countries' currencies, with most losing value at a frightening rate because of the sudden drop in foreign cash inflows. The slowdown in demand from advanced economies pulled back economic growth for the 53 African states from an average of 5 percent in the decade before the crisis to a paltry 1.8 percent in 2009.

Africa's economies were also affected by the global economic downturn because of the millions of Africans who reside and work in developed economies -- the majority of them in the U.S. -- and send home billions of dollars every month. The World Bank estimates that the Great Recession caused a 6 percent drop in such remittances last year, in which developing countries received $316 billion.

Economic chiefs who gathered in Washington, D.C., this week for the annual International Monetary Fund and World Bank meetings, however, all agreed that the global economy has turned the corner since those ominous months in late 2008 when news about collapsing banks seemed to come at a greater frequency than weather updates. And the African continent, with its population of 1 billion, is once again getting rosy assessments of its economic prospects.

"The rate of growth [in sub-Saharan Africa] is back to something like 5 percent. This time, growth is coming back in Africa at the same rates as other parts of the world," IMF Managing Director Dominique Strauss-Kahn declared at the opening plenary on Friday.

A Brighter Future for Africa?

The glowing reports will rightly hearten many in the world's poorest continent, whose huge economic potential remains bottled up by a fateful combination of historical injustices and corrupt leadership. But the bullish projections are also an eerie reminder of the mistakes that African policymakers, acting on similar assessments, made in late 2008 and early 2009.

Convinced that the crisis had little chance of spilling over to their borders, African finance ministers continued implementing the policies they had before the crisis, only to realize rather late in the day that they also needed to cushion their economies by rolling out stimulus packages similar to the ones that were announced in advanced and emerging economies.

It does not take a genius to realize that Africa's colonial past has strapped the continent's economic fortunes to its former colonial masters, who have erected such enormous trade barriers within the continent that only about 10 percent (by IMF estimates) of total exports produced in Africa are traded within the continent. More than half of all other exports -- which are primarily unprocessed agricultural goods, oil and minerals -- find their way to European countries, which to this day continue to benefit from economic exploitation of the continent.