The Guardian development blog is running a series of end of year reflections on development, including one by me. Many of the articles are upbeat about progress in developing countries, but pessimistic about the short term economic prospects for the industrialised world and for global cooperation to tackle shared global problems.

The series so far includes:

  • Duncan Green from Oxfam, who contrasts progress in developing countries over the last year with the gloom of the ‘formerly rich’ countries of the G-8.
  • Calestous Juma from Harvard, who identifies regional integration and better links with the diaspora as key drivers of Africa’s growth.
  • Shanta Devarajan from the World Bank, who is cautiously optimistic, especially in the light  of increased demand by Africans for their governments to be accountable.
  • Linda Raftree from Plan, who also emphasizes progress towards more inclusive and open societies.
  • Kevin Watkins from Brookings and UNESCO, calling for “a properly financed global fund for education like those that have delivered such striking results in the health sector“.
  • Jonathan Glennie from ODI and the Guardian, who is pessimistic about the prospects for international cooperation in the face of rising protectionism and nationalism as a result of poor economic prospects in the US and Europe.
  • and my contribution, reproduced below, which gives a positive account of progress in many countries in Africa over the past year, and emphasizes the importance for developing countries of better global decision-making.

Economic growth has made the developing world less dependent on aid

A new generation of leaders, business friendly policies, technology, the spread of peace, and strong demand for natural resources have helped Africa to withstand the global downturn.

The Merkato in Ethiopia Addis Ababa

The largest market in Africa – The Merkato, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. 

I celebrated New Year’s Day 2011 in Ethiopia, where we lived for three years. Ethiopia is humming with the optimism and energy of a fast-growing country, creating more jobs, sending more children to school, expanding healthcare, and providing electricity, clean water, sanitation and roads.

Ethiopia’s economy grew by 7.5% this year, and it is not the only country in Africa to boast a high growth rate. Africa has been the fastest growing continent of the past decade. The emergence of a new generation of leaders, the end of the continent’s debt crisis, business-friendly policies, new technologies, the spread of peace, and strong demand for natural resources have helped Africa withstand the global downturn.

Steve Radelet, a former senior fellow at the Centre for Global Development, has documented the emergence of 17 African countries in which total income is growing by more than 5% a year – increasing average incomes by 50% in 13 years. That growth is attracting businesses and investors from Africa and abroad, and the continent’s middle class is expanding. By 2015, about 100m African households will have incomes greater than £2,000 a year, roughly as many as India today.

And as they grow, developing countries are becoming less dependent on aid.

At the start of 2011, we did not expect a year in which so many people would be able to claim their rights and freedom. The Arab spring has moved many of us, but should not have surprised us. Better government has spread across Africa and the Middle East, defying outdated assumptions in the west. Thirteen African countries held national elections in 2011, four leading to a change of government; there will be 13 more in 2012. South Sudan gained its independence after a largely peaceful referendum.

When the year began, we did not know the rains in east Africa would fail. But in contrast to the 1980s, in today’s Ethiopia drought no longer means famine. Unlike its neighbour Somalia, there has been no repeat of the TV images of starving people in Ethiopia. That’s because, with the help of foreign donors, it has put in place early warning, food reserves and distribution systems, and a safety net that supports the poorest families in their own communities.

As developing countries have become more integrated into the world economy, and less dependent on aid, so their interests have changed. The most important international events for developing countries this year were the repeated failures of European leaders to put in place a credible plan to save the euro, the G20’s decision to put the world trade talks out of their misery, and modest progress at the Durban talks on climate change. These will all have more impact on developing countries than gatherings of the “development set” at World Bank meetings, the UN general assembly or the Busan forum on aid effectiveness.

But while progress has been good, it is not yet fast enough. Hundreds of thousands of people in the Horn of Africa will have spent Christmas in refugee camps, and about a billion people will go to bed hungry on New Year’s Eve.

In the years ahead, the Centre for Global Development in Europe will be working with policymakers, researchers and academics to find evidence-based, politically savvy ways for rich countries and powerful institutions to help developing countries lift themselves out of poverty. Our focus is on the world’s efforts to promote shared growth, protect our environment, reinvent our financial system, clamp down on international corruption, encourage and share innovation, reduce inequality and entrench peace.

For affluent and developing countries alike, these are the aspirations for 2012.



Owen Barder

Owen is CEO of Precision Agriculture for Development. He has worked in the office of the UK Prime Minister, the British Treasury, the Department for International Development; and at the Center for Global Development.


Sam Gardner · December 28, 2011 at 7:28 pm

My oh my,

“a new generation of leaders”. Excuse me, but when did I hear this phrase before?
“the bend in the river” talking about Mobutu. Some years later, Arab Moi, Mugabe. Another ten years later, Kagame and Museveny. Did these governments became really more responsive to the needs of the population, beyond the whims of the enlightened despot?

I like your piece for the rest, the whole of it, but why this cheesy start?

I believe that you are right, and that the economical growth leads to a bigger pie that leads to even more pro-business and inclusive policies. I believe the democratic accountability leads to ever-better adapted policies. But the jury on the leaders is out. In the UK, leaders get booted out after 10, maximum 12 years, mainly because it is difficult to keep focused on policy, and scandals multiply. How about these “new leaders in Africa”? Can they keep their focus? Do they keep a broad coalition, or do they count on a narrowing clique? There are certainly new leaders in Africa: those that give way to their successors after their 8 years in government are over.

Development policy should acknowledge and respect new leaders, but the beneficiaries should be the poor, and not the leaders.

Graham Rawlinson · December 29, 2011 at 9:53 pm

I think it is great to end the year of gloom with some optimism, and overall I think it is justified, just about. Sure, who knows, next year could be the worst year for Africa ever, but it may be the best, who knows? no-one knows. That is the truth of it, surely.
So what can we do to help, though that in itself may seem patronising?
First, we can get to know people and places better than we do now. Simply having more people know more about Africa will, in this time of social networking improve Africa’s self reliance, which means the self reliance of the people of Africa. Be better informed. Have some idea of the size of the countries, of their populations, of their interests, don’t just look at the media, make connections and ask people who live there, make open connections, don’t pre-judge.
Pick a country you want to know most about, and tell friends what you find out, create a blog and share stuff. And then, when you know a bit more, and maybe even try to learn a bit of local language, go and visit, make new friends, but please, don’t patronise. The closest you should get is some kind of cousin to cousin. How to find mutual interest, then you really engage. Your ‘cousin’ knows some things better than you, but you may know some things better than your cousin.
It looks like world economies are shifting, the techtonic plates are creating change, the USA may again be separated from South America, and South America may get connected again to Africa. Who knows?
And if we don’t know, we should stay open minded, stay positive, think with care and compassion and creatively, it is going to be an interesting year which none of us will be able to predict.

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