A Conversation with Dr. K.Y. Amoako on the Future of African Development
from Strength Through Peace, Africa in Transition, Africa Program, and Preparing for Leadership Transitions in Africa

A Conversation with Dr. K.Y. Amoako on the Future of African Development

CFR Senior Fellow for Africa Studies Michelle Gavin interviews Founder and President of the African Center for Economic Transformation Dr. K.Y. Amoako.
Workers of a local factory begin the production of personal protective gear for local frontline health workers as commissioned by the government, during the partial lockdown in Accra to slow the spread of the COVID-19, in Accra, Ghana. April 10, 2020
Workers of a local factory begin the production of personal protective gear for local frontline health workers as commissioned by the government, during the partial lockdown in Accra to slow the spread of the COVID-19, in Accra, Ghana. April 10, 2020 Francis Kokoroko / REUTERS

Too often, foreign policy conversations that aim to be global in scope lack sufficient attention to African opinions and equities. By 2050, one in four people in the world will be African. From questions of war and peace, the future of capitalism, the viability of democratic governance, and the fate of the climate to the institutional architecture that facilitates international cooperation, the future should be informed by Africans.

In an effort to bring a broad range of perspectives to the CFR community, Senior Fellow for Africa Studies Michelle Gavin spoke with a number of prominent Africans in different fields about their work and priorities. No one person can speak to the incredible diversity of the continent’s opinions and ideas, but our hope is that these dynamic individuals can help enrich readers’ awareness of and sensitivity to African dynamics, and perhaps encourage readers to learn more about their work.

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Dr. K.Y. Amoako is the founder and president of the African Center for Economic Transformation, a former executive secretary of the Economic Commission for Africa, and the author of Know the Beginning Well: An Inside Journey Through Five Decades of African Development (2019). This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

I loved your book—the combination of personal reflection and then a lot of great, more analytic content makes it very engaging. One of the things that really struck me about it—even as you’ve had these positions that have continent-wide responsibilities or even beyond Africa, coming through always is your love for Ghana and your commitment to it. It resonated so much with me—I think about how I feel when I watch my own country head down the wrong direction, and how heartbreaking it is. Obviously, you’ve felt the same sometimes when Ghana hasn’t been at its strongest. I wanted to ask—do you think that that capacity to identify with the national project is rather unique to Ghana? Is there something special about states like Ghana where there is identification with a national identity that has been strong and distinct since independence?

I think that Ghana occupies a special place, and that’s one of the things I tried to get to come through at the end of the book—what Ghana meant and what Kwame Nkrumah, Ghana’s first president, meant for Africa. Ghana was the first sub-Saharan African country to gain independence, and it inspired hope in many other parts of the continent. So in that sense Ghana was very special. But if you look at Ghana’s political history—and that’s what I try to explore in Know the Beginning Well—it’s complicated. If Nkrumah had turned out a bit differently, what greater impact would that have had on other African countries? We had a situation where we went very quickly from independence and freedom to a one-party state. That was followed by military coup d’états, with poor economic policy and declining growth. And Ghana got into trouble. And then we came out of it, in terms of the democratic movement, and governance started improving. We saw the hope come back.

So Ghana’s trajectory has always been special, and many other African countries look to Ghana for that. Even today, with some of the things that President Akufo-Addo has been saying, Ghana continues trying to inspire a new way of doing business. If Ghana can stay on track and transform, it can be a very good model. It has always been a beacon. That’s what inspires me to talk about Ghana. And I can be very tough on my own country, saying that we can do better, that we punch below our weight.

In the sweep of history Ghana has this singular place. I also think that in this moment, from a U.S. perspective, traditionally in West Africa we had looked to Nigeria for a lot of leadership, but Nigeria is very inwardly focused now. And Ghana’s voice—just recently the finance minister, very clearly laying out what needs to happen for the continent to recover from the economic costs of the pandemic—is very powerful. In that sense, it makes a bigger splash than its size might dictate.

You are right regarding Ghana, and the distinction with Nigeria, at least at this time. We are fortunate that President Akufo-Addo is playing an important leadership role at the continental level. And as you say, Minister Ofori-Atta is an articulate and strong technocrat. In Know the Beginning Well I drew lots of lessons from Ghana regarding multiparty democracy versus the developmental state. In the past I have worked with many leaders, including President Kagame in Rwanda. I have a lot of respect for him. I also worked with Meles Zenawi in Ethiopia very closely. I know the progress those countries have made under strong leadership. In a lot of African countries, a lot of people ask—which is the way to go? Is it the Kagame model, or is it the multiparty democracy model? What I try to say is this: the democracy model is messy, where one party comes in and then another party comes in, and the way elections take place. But if Ghana can make it work, that, in my view, is the best way for the rest to grow.

In your book, you also underscore the importance of leaders having a clear and consistent vision. One of my questions is, what about an inclusive vision? I think about someone like Meles, who did have an extraordinary record of achievement in many ways, who I think wanted gains for all Ethiopians, but had very much a top-down vision. In states where there is a huge generational divide between leadership and most of the population, what is the preferred way of ensuring that a vision is shared, and actually informed by the aspirations of citizens, not delivered to them as a prophecy to be followed?

It has to be context specific. You mention Meles. I was very close to him. Each time I would travel to AU meetings with him, we would talk for hours. I always admired his intelligence. But we disagreed on this inclusiveness issue. I kept saying, “Look, just open up and bring the other voices in.” I remember one incident in particular. I was on the Commission for Africa that Tony Blair started, with Meles and President Mkapa and many other people. We had a meeting in Addis and there was a press conference afterward. Blair and Meles were supposed to go, but Blair couldn’t make it. Meles asked me to go with him. An Ethiopian journalist asked Meles a direct question. He said, "Mr. Prime Minister, this Commission has a mandate about democracy and openness. So we don’t understand why you are a member." I froze. Meles danced around it. He was very unpleased with the question and told me so later. I had a discussion with him at his office in the midst of the political unrest following the 2005 elections, and he stated bluntly, “You cannot deal with these people”—in reference to dissidents. That showed you the mindset of the man. Inclusiveness was just not there. Now when current Prime Minister Abiy came in, he tried to turn 180 degrees. But the historical issues in Ethiopia are so big, it is very difficult to reconcile.

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In Ghana, inclusiveness is there. But I have always felt strongly that our elections should be more issues-based and we should build more trust and better educate the voters. This is the goal to work toward, in Ghana and elsewhere. We should try to bring all the political parties and all the think tanks in Ghana together and make it issues-oriented, right? Pick up the key issues, have a discourse, and make sure that the issues drive it analytically. These are some of things we need to do for inclusiveness. It can be done.

That sounds exciting. Then I suppose the challenge is making sure that information gets out to people, not just in Accra, but countrywide.

Exactly. But you need to have the vision. And that vision needs to be long-term, and the programs need to be sustained. And you have to make it as inclusive as possible.

As you were talking about Ethiopia, and the situation in which Prime Minister Abiy now finds himself, trying to balance order with a reform agenda, I was thinking a lot about history. In your book you talk about the importance of understanding history, and of knowing where you’ve been to know where you’re going. But history is so hotly contested in Ethiopia. In some ways it would seem to be a great strength, because much Ethiopia’s history is quite proud. But Ethiopians have very different perspectives on their history. Bringing it up often seems a very quick way to get Ethiopians to argue. How does a society reconcile competing historical narratives so that they can find something unifying going forward?

I think the sense of pride—the fact that Ethiopia was never conquered and was never a colony—binds them. But how do you build upon that? Unfortunately, that’s where the ethnicity issue—the Amharas, the Oromos, the Tigrayans—comes in. That’s also part of the history, when they decided to go to an ethnic-based constitution. Meles would have said they were taking into account their history in how the constitution was written. But what we are finding today is that the fissures were always there. If you suppress this, it comes up again. Ethiopia has pride but also its divisions. How to reconcile the two?

I don’t envy anyone that challenge. When you talk about growth with depth, you cite some examples, like Rwanda. I think about a place like Angola, which seems to be the antithesis of the growth with depth idea. I wonder, how, in places like Angola, does one turn around an economic model that wasn’t created for that depth?

My organization, the African Center for Economic Transformation, devised the growth with depth model, and we’re very proud of it. ACET was the first to create an empirical model for defining transformation in African terms. Growth with depth basically says that you cannot rely on just one sector, such as oil. It also says that in any given country, or any given sector—whether it’s agriculture, services, tourism—you need to deepen and diversify your production and exports. You need to be very competitive with your exports, and you need to emphasize productivity. Those principals apply in any sector.

One of ACET’s flagship products is the African Transition Index, where we measure the progress that countries have been making using the growth with depth model. The latest index will be coming out later this year. In it, we see some countries have made quite a bit of progress, like Kenya, Rwanda and Senegal. Others, like Angola, are not transforming very fast. It lags well behind. The index gives you a framework to see how countries are growing. You can grow on the basis of oil, but that growth alone doesn’t translate into the whole economy.

That’s what the growth with depth model is all about. It’s about policies. It’s about institutions. It’s about leadership and vision and creating jobs. That’s where countries like Angola are falling short. If you have these things, then Angola can begin to change its trajectory. But it starts with leadership. You need strong leadership to get on the pathway to growth with depth.

It’s probably a long turnaround, right, for a place like that to begin to see the gains from investing in that kind of model?

Yes. But it’s essential. Otherwise you are stuck. Take DRC [the Democratic Republic of the Congo]. With all those resources, it is still stuck. If the country had the right leadership and the right policies, you could create more jobs and lift so many people out of poverty. DRC has the resources to do that. Compare that to countries like Niger or Chad, which have significantly fewer resources.

You talk about how difficult it is for African leaders to speak frankly with each other, when they see neighbors going off the rails. Do you see this changing anytime soon?

The way I look at it, there may have been a missed opportunity. In Know the Beginning Well, I write about the African Peer Review Mechanism, and the NEPAD framework. What I didn’t say in the book—where I pulled a lot of punches—is that we missed an opportunity. The original model of the APRM was my idea at the Economic Commission for Africa. I brought African finance ministers together and said, “Let’s come up with a framework for measuring our own performance and holding each other accountable for results.” The idea was to reduce conditionality from the World Bank and other donors. That was the principle.

The original idea I had for the APRM was to start with a few countries, and set a bar, or certain standards, for other countries to meet to join—not start with 40 countries. I thought you needed space for the leaders to come in and speak frankly to each other. Start with ten or so like-minded countries, and over time bring the others along. Because I wanted a framework to encourage open dialogue and frankness. But that’s not what happened. The idea grew bigger than the ECA when it became part of the NEPAD framework. Then it became part of the OAU and then the African Union, and it was open to everybody. In that setting you cannot have a frank and honest discussion. It’s too big and too diverse, and you have to be very careful what you say to each other. It got too politicized.

On the positive side, I’ve been very impressed with the coordination and leadership coming out of Africa around the COVID-19 pandemic, where institutions like the AU and the Economic Commission for Africa have been clear and direct and very smart in their approaches to raising the alarm about the stakes for the continent.

Yes, I absolutely agree. The AU and the AU COVID-19 Special Envoys, the Africa CDC, and the ECA have shown strong regional leadership. Having been the executive secretary of the ECA for ten years, I am particularly pleased to see Vera Songwe, the current executive secretary, doing a wonderful job. And you are right; many heads of state, finance ministers, minsters of health and central bank governors have shown strong leadership.

My organization, ACET, is working with many of these organizations, in part through the Transformation Leadership Panel, which is chaired by Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and has 17 members. What we did was to bring together all the major organizations working on Africa to try to have a more concerted, coordinated approach. We have the vice president of the Africa Region for the World Bank, the head of the African Union Development Agency and NEPAD, representatives from McKinsey, the Mastercard Foundation, so many others—all at a very senior level. Vera Songwe at the ECA is part of the panel, for example. We meet to take on some key issues, and our last meeting was virtual and all about the pandemic.

ACET has developed a framework with ten policy recommendations. The question that we asked is: what does this pandemic mean for all the gains made over the last 10–15 years? In addition to the short-term impact on health, the balance of payments, fiscal space and all those issues, how do we safeguard for a strong economic rebound and get back on the transformation trajectory? We had a series of meetings with global and regional organizations on implementation of our recommendations. We have also sent this to the AU, and the AU has sent it to all the African leaders. It’s on that basis that the bank, the AU, and others will coordinate to make sure that recovery and rebound will be fast enough so we don’t lose gains.

One more question. What would be your advice to a new U.S. administration, should one be elected in November? What’s the top priority?

At the top of the list, you have to listen. There is so much going on, so many ideas. Listen to Africans, listen to the leadership. Consult, and out of that come up with your programs. After that, of course, take into account your political considerations and so on. Don’t design your programs and policies without listening to the other side. You have to connect with the people. That would be my advice.

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