When independence arrived in sub-Saharan Africa in the early 1960s, everyone was optimistic higher living standards would quickly follow. But after almost half-a-century of intensive policy and institutional reforms, and massive foreign grants and loans, the condition of the majority has hardly improved.
Bad governance has been a key factor, and must be rectified before the region can attain its aspirations. But the need for reforms extends beyond African governments alone. Some of the prescriptions donors enthusiastically promoted were flawed. Others acted as disincentives to development. Market principles, backed with external aid mostly targeting humanitarian relief, did not lay a solid foundation for growth. The problem though is not with the basic principles, but with the failure to apply them contextually.
The response to poverty - the major challenge in the region - is a typical case in point. Conventional programmes try to mitigate the suffering of the poor, only to keep them hovering at the edge of hardship. A pragmatic response would recognize that poverty prevents an economy from operating at its full potential, and would elicit action to bring the poor into mainstream economic activity. Reducing poverty is no longer a magnanimous gesture, because it makes good economic and business sense.
This uncommon perspective, taking social realities in the region into account, is the basis of the new strategies for policy and institutional reforms, aid management and governance, that are advanced.
It is not policies and strategies alone that need to be fixed. Complex delivery processes need to be simplified. Progress would not require a revolution, but a gradual accumulation of small results, interacting to produce big impact. Most importantly, development should be promoted as an activity people do for themselves. With the right incentives, people can organize themselves to beat the adversity of poverty.