Research project

This project proposes to study the place and role of African states in the context of a changing development landscape at the global level as well as on the continent. Our reflection builds on two interrelated observations: (a) since the end of the Washington consensus, new paradigms in the field of international development are emerging, whereby the state is given a more important role as driver of development; (b) thanks to unprecedented levels of economic growth and a diversified donor and inverstor landscape, African states are in a position to increase their room for maneuver and thus able to play a more central role in the definition of their development agendas. In this project, we put the development strategies of African states at the centre of the analysis. We interrogate how they react to and appropriate changes in development policies at the global level as well as the arrival of new players such as China and other emerging economies on the development scene. We also ask whether and to what extent the strategies of African states in this new setting are conducive to long-term changes in terms of social and human development, or whether they tend to reproduce and reinforce established power relations. We thereby bringa new perspective to both academic and policy debates on the topic.

Over the past 20 years, the landscape of development in Africa has gone through three parallel processes of change. (1) Since the mid-1990s, growing concerns have been voiced about the overall failure of the neo-liberal ‘laissez-faire’ agenda to promote growth and contribute to poverty reduction. Development policies and discourses have moved away from the so-called Washington consensus, which was based on the idea that “growth is threatened more by government incompetence and corruption than by market failures” (Birdsall and Fukuyama 2011). In the current “post-Washington consensus” phase (Stiglitz 1999) critical economists argue that the liberalization of the market should be preceded by strengthening state institutions and the development of strong economic policies and plans under the control of the state (Fine et al. 2004; Hayami 2003). Thus, attention has shifted to the role of the state and government institutions from obstacles to potential drivers of economic growth.

(2) Considered “hopeless” at the beginning of the 2000s, African economies have gone through a period of unprecedented growth fuelled by high prices of raw materials and rising demands for the continent’s mineral wealth. While it seems clear that the recent decline in oil and other commodity prices on world markets and the slowdown of China and other emerging economies will have an impact, growth propsects for the subcontinent remain high at about 4.5 to 5 percent for the period 2015-2017[1]. Several of the world’s fastest growing economies over the past decade are African (Shaw 2012; WEF 2011). While such growth scenarios based uniquely on macroeconomic indicators need to be looked at critically (Hibou and Samuel 2011; Jerven 2013), this shift in the continent’s economic performance and attractiveness has given African leaders a new leeway in their dealings with the International Financial Institutions (IFIs), bilateral donors and investors.

(3) This change in context is all the more important as it coincided with the rise of new global powers such as the BRICS countries in general and China in particular. Their rise has had two related consequences for African states. First, the arrival of new donors provides alternative sources of funding to developing countries, thus broadening the room for maneuver that African leaders have in their dealings with the IFIs, bilateral donors and investors. This is in particular the case with Chinese aid and investments for large infrastructure projects throughout the continent (World Bank 2009). Even if China is still a relatively minor contributor of ODA, its impact on overall project funding in Africa is important (Strange et al. 2013)[2]. As a consequence, China and other new donors have given a new impetus to a particular vision of large-scale development schemes through investments in basic infrastructures (trains, roads, bridges, dams, etc.). Second, emerging ‘Southern’ global powers are also important and attractive as alternative models of development. China, with its impressive achievements in terms of poverty alleviation and rapid industrialization increasingly stands as such (Hofisi 2013), particularly against the backdrop of the financial and economic crises in Europe and North America. Brazil has also renewed the focus on social safety nets and has provided an alternative to standard strategies of poverty reduction (Merrien 2013).

So far, research has concentrated on the international dimension of the debate, i.e. on the ways in which the IFIs and Western powers on the one hand, and China and other emerging powers on the other have been dictating strategies of economic development and growth, imposing political and other conditionality on aid and investments, or exploiting the continent’s mineral wealth. We argue in contrast that in this new context it is essential to take into account the agency of African states and development planners in the debate (Mohan and Lampert 2012) and to see how they respond to the ongoing changes. But the developmental orientation of these states should not be taken for granted on the sole basis of their governments’ and leaders’ declaration of intent and strategic development plans. Indeed, there now seems to be a general consensus that the ‘lost decades’ of African development (Hofisi 2013) were mainly the result of neo-liberal policies based on the view of the state as an obstacle to economic growth and development. However, the return of the state as an engine of development in both policy discourse and development practice on the ground also needs to be looked at critically. This is what this project sets out to do. In a context where the developmental state seems to be “striking back”, we propose to askwhether and to what extent the development strategies of African states will lead to the simple reproduction of long-established relations of power and the deepening of social inequalities, or whether they are part of asocially transformative agenda – or both.

[1] See for instance the World Bank projections on

[2] We use the classification developed on the platform:

For more information about the resarch project.