Asia’s remarkable economic transformation in recent decades has attracted global attention. It has sparked scientific and policy debates on the region’s development models and strategies.
African policymakers have not been immune to the global fascination with the ‘Asian miracle’. African leaders and officials have made a steady stream of study visits in recent years to countries such as China, Singapore, South Korea, and Vietnam.
What lessons can African countries learn from the successes and failures of Asia? And how can they pursue those successes and avoid the mistakes of their Asian colleagues? These are the two main questions in the book The Asian Aspiration – Why and how Africa should pursue Asia tries to answer. Co-author: Greg Mills, Olusegun Obasanjo, Hailemariam Desalegn and Emily van der Merwe, the book is divided into two parts.
The first part shows the ‘growth stories’ of 10 East Asian and Southeast Asian countries. These are Japan, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, China and Vietnam. It analyzes the development paths of these countries and highlights what they have done well to stimulate their emergence and their policy errors. The second part discusses five lessons for success from Asia and illustrates them with comparative examples from both Asia and Africa.
The book mentions the differences between Asia and Africa and the importance of differentiation. But it ends with the question of what Lee Kuan Yew perhaps he would have if he were at the helm of Africa. Lee was the formidable statesman who chaired the change of Singapore’s fortunes from 1959 to 1990.
The book identifies some parallels between Africa and East Asia. These include a colonial heritage, a complex composition of ethnic groups and human and institutional underdevelopment.
The book also draws attention to differences between the two. These are rooted in the development of Africa’s political economy after independence. This was typified by clientelism, “the management of elite access and preferences in exchange for support, leading to” rent-seeking “- wealth creation not through investment but through the connections of organized groups.”
The development story of East Asia, on the other hand, is determined by the unity of purpose between leaders in different countries. It is also characterized by the deliberate use of institutional and constitutional means to broaden opportunities beyond a small elite. This does not mean that these countries were isolated from or spared from the ills of bad government. The experiences of Indonesia and the Philippines, for example, show the ominous influence of corruption, favoritism, fragile institutions and populism on government.
They identify the vital principles of leadership, the policy choices and considerations to be made and the required policy implementation. The authors emphasize the importance of differentiation between – and within – East Asian countries, based on factors such as language, religion, economic wealth, governance systems and urban-rural divides. They argue from ten case studies that the phenomenal changes that have taken place in East Asia are not the product of a “miracle.” They are the result of calculated policy actions.
The case of Japan
East Asian countries have looked to Japan as a success model. Japan represents the power of example and innovation. The country’s industrialization process is borrowed from a mix of American, British and German industrialization models.
The technocracy of Japan, led by the Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI), played a key role in the extraordinary rise of the country in the post-war period. At the heart of the country’s development was strong government-business cooperation, facilitated and led by MITI.
This public company prototype was later copied by Taiwan and South Korea.
Taiwan’s success can be attributed to its ability to modernize its economy through macroeconomic stability, careful planning and institutionalization. South Korea, in turn, succeeded in making a transition from an agricultural to a high-tech society. In both countries, business was central to industrialization efforts.
In the case of China, the authors recognize the impressive steps the country has taken. But they claim that her development experience does not provide a perfect model for African governance. This may disappoint several African policymakers who are fond of the Chinese development model.
The meritocracy of Singapore
Singapore’s success is revered across Africa. The city-state used the resulting crisis separation from the Malaysian Federation in 1965 to focus relentlessly on national growth and development.
Singapore embodies the pinnacle of technocratic rule. The success is based on expert management, focus on meritocratic talent and long-term thinking. Leadership performance is non-negotiable. As a Singaporean scholar said for the book:
The reality is that East Asian leaders have to perform, even in an authoritarian setting, because their legitimacy and tenure is due to their successful growth performance, even in the absence of free and fair elections.
Like Singapore, South Korea had an authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee.
But the authors warn of the focus on authoritarianism as a reason for the rapid growth and transformation of these countries. They cite other key success factors, including a meritocratic civil service, a skill in combining the political and expert components of the governance system, and pragmatism in policy.
These countries also attach great importance to hard work, discipline, education, innovation, stimulation and growth. These experiences have been taken over and replicated by other countries in the region, with Vietnam being an example.
The book outlines five lessons for Africa from the success of Asia. These are encapsulated under the headings:
- The premium of leadership and institutions;
- Don’t be a prisoner of the past;
- Provide the basis for growth;
- Build and integrate;
- Open up to stay in control.
Call to action
This carefully researched, well-written and solution-oriented book is a call to action. It urges African leaders and other actors to avoid parochial thinking and ideological dogmas and pursue policies that prioritize the collective interests of their nations. It is not limited to diagnosing the problems facing Africa. It also offers thoughtful and tested ideas on how the continent can overcome them.
The book was published before the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic, which has caused significant social and economic damage worldwide, including in Africa. This makes his message even more relevant and urgent, given the urgent need for African countries to implement institutional and policy reforms to address the effects of the pandemic.
Asia has lifted a billion people out of poverty in one generation through an inclusive and sustainable growth policy. As the authors note, Africa is neither a continent of chronic hopelessness, nor an unbridled optimism. With the right leadership, mindset and policies, African countries can achieve and even surpass the amazing successes of their Asian counterparts.
They cannot duplicate the Asian development path, but they can learn from their peers’ experiences, avoid their mistakes, and replicate their successes.
Sign up here for the Quartz Africa Weekly Brief for news and analysis on African affairs, technology and innovation in your inbox