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NEPAD and AU Last update: 2020-11-27  

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NEPAD and the Challenge of Africa’s Development: towards the political economy of a discourse

2. Analytical Framework: beyond binary logic
The debate around policymaking and content, especially when interlaced with social location (gender, class, religious, ethnic, and so on), is always fraught with considerable danger. Much of this finds its expression in the clashes between activists and those designing policies. Very often the debate descends into ascribing immutable, essentialist, properties to human agencies on both sides of the divide. On the other hand more subtle analytical attempts to grapple with complex reality easily give way in the heat of political conflict. As indicated in the introductory section, the result is that the multiple interpolation of social positions and the ways in which these shift and change in the light of contested terrains of social existence, are lost. Often the retreat into Aristotelian binary logic (in which something is either/or, but hardly ever both) hinders both political practice and the understanding of social processes. As discussed in greater detail elsewhere (Adesina 2001/2002d), I will suggest that “the displacement of Aristotelian binary logic and the affirmation of contingent co-existence of opposites… provides the basis for a distinctly sociological” insight.

This is one in which the coexistence of opposites and the open-ended outcome of social interaction or contending social forces provide an analytical framework devoid of teleological discourse… Outcome is not fixed before hand. When we confront class, ethnic, religious, gender (etc.) manifestations of mutually exclusive identities; it will not be that we take them as alternative identities… Rather it is in their inter-penetration and mutual embeddedness that we understand real, lived existence as multilayered, contradictory and context-situated (rather than the postmodern imagined identities). We are not ‘either’/‘or’; we are often many things embedded in one. (Adesina 2002d:106)

The analysis of the NEPAD is within this analytical framework, especially the core thesis that the policy framework is better understood as a class project, within a particular interpellation of a network of identities: even when they seem contradictory at first. Identities here, to reiterate the point, are not some disembodied or imagined social practice; they are rooted in real material contexts, aspirations and interests. It is within this context that we will examine what I refer to as the silent revolution of the past two decades.

2.1. Neoliberalism: specification and analytical framework

Central to the project of this paper is the concept of neoliberalism. Earlier I have argued that NEPAD is profound neoliberal in mindset, especially its understanding of Africa and the prognosis on the way out of Africa’s development dilemma (Adesina 2002b). Within the wider policy debate in South Africa for instance, and the global social justice movement, neoliberalism has assumed the status of a catch all labelling of policy opponents and a shorthand for privatisation. The most cited definition, as Paul Treanor (n.d.) reminds us, involves ‘usual definitions’ that are so vague as to be of no heuristic value. It points to the consequences of neoliberalism as increased gap between the rich and the poor, and the fact that it has been imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. Often, it is in the dramatic analogy that its essence is conveyed: Bond (2001:4) used the metaphor of “knots in the economic rope tied around the necks of ordinary people getting ever tighter and digging ever deeper.”ii On the other side of the table are policymakers who increasingly resent the labelling of their ideas as neoliberal. An interesting case was when President Thabo Mbeki, (in response to a comment by a participant at the “Continental Experts’ Meeting on NEPAD” held in Pretoria in June 2002, about the neoliberal content of NEPAD), said he would like to be further informed on what “this thing called neoliberalism is”, because he has heard it used frequently but could not seem to understand what it means. The debate with the Congress Alliance in South Africa, demonstrates the extent to which the word is considered a byword for “right-wing” and wielded as a political weapon (cf. Endnote 1).

At the heart of the apparent confusion is a deficit of understanding concerning the relationship between conceptual discussions about neoliberalism and actual policy implementation. For the opponents, ‘privatisation’ has become mobilizational rather than analytical. For proponents, the charge of neoliberalism unfairly groups them with advocates of traditional economic liberalism, fails to recognise that privatisation (i.e. divestment of State assets or equity holding) is only a limited aspect of their programme of “the restructuring of state assets”, and that their social policy is concerned with poverty reduction, equity of access (opportunity) for historically disadvantaged segments of the population. In a sense, both sides are correct, but only because of a limited and circumscribed understanding of neoliberalism and what it actually entails.

Neoliberalism, as Treanor (nd) notes is best understood by focusing on “the historical development of [economic] liberalism”. Central to this is the “belief in the moral necessity of market forces in the economy” and “entrepreneurs… as a good and necessary social group.” Economic liberalism revolves around these two fundamentals and the propagation of the culture, norms and social framework of power and relations that sustain both ideas. In this regard, market forces are not only morally necessary but inherently good and are the most appropriate ways to allocate resources and create incentives in society. The entrepreneurs are the primary social force for deploying and implementing this virtuous mode of managing society. The extent of penetration of society—what Marx would call the “commodification of social life”—is itself a result of contestation of the social terrain.

What is significant about neoliberalism, deriving from this basis in orthodox market liberalism is “the desire to intensify and expand the market, by increasing the number, frequency, repeatability, and formalisation of transactions” (Treanor nd: 5). It is in this propagation of the principle of market transaction to as much areas of social and economic existence and interaction as possible that defines the core value and principle of neoliberalism. This could be spatial or temporal, or terrains of social relationship that would be considered unsuitable to the logic of market transaction. Bond (2001:4-10) appropriately identifies the basis of contemporary neoliberal globalisation as an attempt to address the crisis of over-accumulation by displacing the crisis. It is in pushing the frontiers of market, as a normative position, that we understand the attempt to resolve that crisis. In its specific manifestation, however, neoliberalism is under-girded by two other core ideas: Monetarism (as the normative framework for regulating macroeconomic affairs), and Supply-side Economics (as the framework for addressing firm level production activities).

The specific configuration of the expansion and intensification of market logic and norms, monetarism and supply-side management, and manifestation in actual policy practice and implementation, will, however, depend on the configuration of social forces and agencies that contest the policy terrain. Capacity to move from theory to policy practice is therefore a critical function of balance of social forces contesting the policy terrain. The outcome, to go back to the analytical framework, is not fixed before hand. Furthermore, the nature of the policy contestation is itself not binary, as in State versus Civil Society (even if one could assume that there is one civil society). The State itself is a terrain of active human agencies contesting the policymaking process and at various levels the human agencies are subject to multi-dimensional constellation of interest and aspirations. The same applies to the civil society, which one would see as even more multi-dimensional in this constellation of interest and aspirations.

What is crucial for our understanding of neoliberalism, therefore, is not privatisation, per se. That is only one of several options available in the extension of the market logic and the deification of the entrepreneurial spirit. In the specific case of “restructuring” of State assets, it is not so much the privatisation that underlines the neoliberal project, but the falling away of the welfare functions of public enterprises and utilities. The aspiration to extend the market logic to every arena of social and economic relations (realised or not) would manifest itself in attempts at inserting ‘commercial principle’ into the heart of traditional terrains of social policy: health, sanitation, education, social security, and so on. Added to this is the increased definition of every terrain of service delivery as a business concern, driven by business logic: from municipal services to running of health and educational institutions. The entrepreneur becomes the high-priest of this new brave-world of life driven by market logic. I will argue that it is in this reading of NEPAD, as a development framework, that we understand its true import.

To the extent that these are principles that have for the last twenty years been associated with the Bretton Woods institutions’ (BWIs) social vivisectomy (Adesina 1994) in Africa, NEPAD’s significance is in accepting the call by the BWIs and the ‘donor community’ for African countries to take ownership of these policies. The intensification and expansion of the market principle and practice and the deification of the entrepreneurial ‘class’ are themselves not a disembodied social process. They represent a distinct class project at the global level. The failure of the sponsors of NEPAD to pay attention to the debilitating consequences of twenty years of carnage of the neoliberal project is more than coincidental. I will argue that it is illustrative of the fundamental shift in the nature of the class forces on the continent itself.

It is in understanding the core values of neoliberalism that we appreciate its enduring logic in the policy “weaving and diving” by the BWIs and the handlers in Washington and Europe over the last two decades. While there has been significant shift in the language of deploying the neoliberal policy instruments, from the early days of orthodox stabilisation and liberalisation agenda (or Washington Consensus) and the current so-called post-Washington Consensus, the core values remain the same (cf. Adesina 1994: vi-viii). It is in following the distinction that Imre Lakatos made between the core and the protective belt of a research programme or paradigm that we understand the shift in the language of the neoliberal discourse. I have argued (Adesina 2002b) that NEPAD is rooted in the post-Washington Consensus of the Wolfensohn Comprehensive Development Framework type, not Joseph Stiglitz’s. The rediscovery of poverty, concession to basic education, and “good governance”, etc., are not simply driven by deception. Protests from street-level activism, the global social justice movement, multilateral organisations, and those having to assume responsibility of the policy instruments in the recipient countries had their tolls on the proponents of the Washington Consensus. Beyond the usual suspects one must add protests against orthodox neoliberalism have come from countries like Japan and conventional economists like Joseph Stiglitz (1998a, 1998b) and Paul Krugman (1998) over the IMF’s bungling of the Asian Crisis of the mid-1990s. The limit of the concessions was, however, set by the core values of neoliberalism. So while there has been a lot of an effort to massage the protective belt of neoliberalism, the core values have remained largely the same. While not everyone has remained as dogmatic as Deepak Lal (1994), Bhagwati’s (1988) excellent documentation of the basis of this concession—something in which he is himself a high priest—shows the extent to which the neo-Walrasian trade-off (between growth and equity) is rooted in sustained adherence to the core values of market liberalism.

Many of us have been surprised, though pleasantly his time, by the realization that we had exaggerated our early fears about the trade-off between “consumption” expenditure (such as financing education and health) and investment expenditures aimed at growth… More is known now, therefore, to wean us away from the fear that such educational and health expenditure are necessarily at the expense of growth. (Bhagwati 1988:549-550)

Mkandawire (2001a) provides an excellent overview of these issues. Concession to social policy spending is, however, without prejudice to sustained adherence to the core values of neoliberalism. Indeed, the core proposition of neoliberalism is that addressing equity issues—to a lesser or greater extent—follow fundamental transactional principles. Public Private Partnership (PPP) often involves the application of market principles to traditional areas of social policy. User-fees involve the application of quasi-market logic to areas traditionally considered as requiring universal entitlements. That this might be wholly inappropriate in most contexts, and that the fundamental assumptions of neoclassical economics (and specifically market liberalism) have little validity in broad-day light of social existence, remain fundamental sources of the damage and instability that neoliberalism continue to wreck, and its link with heightening inequality and worsening poverty. The issue is not whether neoliberal adherents and fellow-travellers cannot (or are incapable of) empathy with the poor: that will be to essentialise the more vociferous expressions of market liberalism and assume that all neoliberal think the same way. It is that sustaining the core principles of neoliberalism sets the limit on empathy with the poor. Particular manifestations of neoliberalism will reflect the highly contextual nature and diversity of social experiences, biographies, aspirations, and interests of particular adherents, as well as the capacity of other social forces to contest the terrain of policymaking with the neoliberal adherents.

It is in this highly contextual understanding of particular deployment and engagement with the core values of neoliberalism that we can better understand NEPAD as a policy document: in all its antinomies, misconceptions, and high-minded aspirations. It is in this context that we move from the anger and despair concerning NEPAD as a betrayal to a social reading of the project. To facilitate this, I believe it is important to understand the origin and evolution of the document itself.


  1. This is not to take anything away from the collection of essays—which continue to show Patrick Bond’s detailed, brilliant and poignant documentation and insightful analysis of South Africa’s policy context.
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