The accepted idea of economic development has operated with something like Figure 1 in mind. There is a PPF that is rather generous in terms of the status quo, and the development problem is twofold: to augment that production possibilities frontier through technical change; and to undertake structural adjustment programs that will move the IFL outward towards the PPF.
For parts of agrarian Africa, however, the PPF is both unforgiving in its position, and extremely difficult to move very far to the northeast (see PPF labeled AE in Figure 2). More critical perhaps, the movement along the axes in Figure 2 is likely to be asymmetrical. Thus, while it may be possible to extend the horizontal intercept out, by means of careful investments in agriculture, it seems improbable that the PPF (AE) can be moved up the vertical axis very far, if at all.
By Western standards, some nations in Africa face the prospect of continued relative poverty. These nations perhaps face a future of being called "underdeveloped" in terms of a teleology that is not of their choosing, and that is loaded with normative connotations from alien cultural precepts.
It remains to be proven that pastoralists and simple cultivators are somehow deprived in their essential existence in comparison with the urban apartment dweller of Lagos. Nothing in economic theory can prove that assertion. To equate level of income with happiness is simply to make a value judgment. To equate "range of choice" with happiness is equally loaded.
This is not uncontroversial ground I am traversing. Who, it might be insisted, would deign to defend life in dirt-floored huts? There are two answers--one metaphysical, and one empirical. The empirical response, based on earlier arguments, is that one need not be forced onto the defensive by explaining that which is largely ineluctable. Guilt is not the inevitable companion of those who would describe reality and necessity.
As for the metaphysical side, where is it written that all of humankind must, in order to be happy, reside in concrete jungles called cities? Where do we go for proof that wage laborers, performing at whatever task the market has given them, are better off than the African pastoralist sitting under a baobab tree contemplating the wind?
It is arguable that the idea of the coherent nation-state is still to take hold in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa. It follows, therefore, that the purposes of the future are not considered as collective concerns. And so it also follows that the idea of economic development as we understand that term has yet to take hold.
The long-run, sustainable success of economic assistance programs still requires, as a precondition, the existence of a coherent nation-state. Until the relatively young nations of Africa structure themselves internally so that discourse about the purposes of the future is possible, sustained economic progress will be most difficult to achieve. In the absence of this structure, many economies will remain stuck on the institutional feasibility locus well inside the technically feasible PPF.
Nation-states must create institutional arrangements--incentives and sanctions--that will redefine the domains of choice for atomistic economic agents. Some of these incentives and sanctions will come from the arena of volitional choice--that is markets. Others will necessarily come from the arena of compulsion, whereby the nation-state has to create the legal foundations of capitalism. Both will constitute a new behavioral arena for economic agents, which has the purpose of improving the human condition [Bromley, 1993]. Until these institutional preconditions for a vibrant economy are in place, much potential economic surplus will simply be dissipated in high transaction costs [Bromley and Chavas, 1989].
Past efforts to provide assistance in Asia have largely focused on coherent nation-states that had made some minimal commitment to the idea of development as an industrializing process. Most of these nation-states were mature survivors of colonial interventions. Some of them had mounted national armies to repel external aggressors (as opposed to regional armies engaged in civil war). Most of these nations depended upon the careful management of scarce water to cultivate a food grain that was the basis of the food supply. These sedentary societies had highly elaborated institutional arrangements for influencing and controlling the actions of its citizens.
Sub-Saharan Africa presents a picture differing from almost all the attributes described above. In essence, the very idea of economic development has to be redefined so that it fits the empirical circumstances found in sub-Saharan Africa.
The necessary first step is to abandon the automatic presumption of economic development. As outsiders, our purpose in collaboration with the nations of sub-Saharan Africa needs to be redefined so that it occurs under different presumptions. Are we there to cause economic development, or are we there to assist with particular problems for which we have special expertise? If the latter, we need not undertake these activities only on the condition that particular nations will someday choose a path that we have defined as economic development. We will be under no illusions as to why we as donors are there, thus making it easier to focus attention on the real problem of the moment. Is groundwater being depleted? Are pesticides getting into drinking water? Are children exposed to unnecessary hazards? Are crop diseases ravaging fields? Are post-harvest losses larger than they might be? Is land ownership an impediment to productivity or equity?
The foreign assistance community abounds with expertise to assist with each of these problems--and many more. That assistance is part of a long-run commitment to technical cooperation with a number of nations and their citizens in most parts of Africa. Such assistance need not presume development, nor should it be justified on those grounds. It is quite enough to justify such assistance on the grounds that it helps individuals deal with their difficult circumstances.
As this technical cooperation progresses, some nations will seem to embrace the traditional idea of development, while others will not. When the idea of development is endogenized and acted upon by a few nations, we will begin to see some of the changes now familiar in Asia and Latin America. Prior technical assistance will provide an enhanced plateau from which further development might proceed.
For those nations that fail to embrace the prevailing doctrine of economic development, technical and financial assistance will not have been in vain. Certain conditions, and certain lives, will have been improved. Beyond that, little else may have happened. But it is not for us as outsiders to denounce this outcome, or to despair that we have been unsuccessful in our economic development assistance. For we were never really giving development assistance. We were simply helping to solve particular problems, in particular places, that affected particular people.
The history of the idea of economic development suggests that we will certainly fail if we persist in believing that we can bring "development" to much of sub-Saharan Africa. Our idea of economic development must be reconsidered and augmented with the companion idea of gradual economic transitions. Each nation-state will adopt its own particular version of what it regards as development. Since the mid-1960s, outsiders have told African nations what constitutes economic development, and what they must do to achieve it. Perhaps the time has come to experiment with programs in which African nations figure out what they want and when they want it. Perhaps it is time for them to determine the purpose of their future. We should be ready when they call us. Indeed, we might even help them in that determination. But we should go quietly and with much humility about the alleged benefits of modernity and the "development" that caused it.