Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Numerous initiatives have been set up to catalyse development in Africa over the decades. One of the oldest is the Economic Commission for Africa established by the UN over 50 years. There is hardly any evidence of ECA’s impact. It needs revamping.

In his forthcoming book, tentatively titled ‘Understanding African Underdevelopment: Rethinking the Future’ (Oxford: Peter Lang International Academic Publishers, 2013), Anthony Obeng argues that despite Africa’s history of exploitation and dehumanization during the centuries of trade by chartered companies, slavery, colonialism, neo-colonialism, and the current neo-liberal globalization, there has been relatively little effort to design and implement innovative home-grown strategies that would make for independent and sustained development. For this, it is natural that much of the venom should be directed at the African states and governments, particularly in that for much of the post-independence era the state has played an all-dominant role in the management of economies and societies. The state has been omnipresent and omniscient and, consequently, must be held accountable for all sins of omission and commission connected with the socio-economic well being of the continent.

Be this as it may, there is no gainsaying the fact that this mammoth failure in development is a shared responsibility, particularly between the African governments and a plethora of national, regional, continental and international actors. In some form or the other, and in line with their official mandates, these actors have been active participants in the business of promoting African development. It then follows logically that they have contributed and continue to contribute to the outcomes of development efforts at all levels. The Organization of African Unity/African Union (OAU/AU), the UN Economic Commission for Africa (ECA), and the African Development Bank (ADB) have been among the most prominent and the main points of reference in this paper. Particular focus is put on the ECA though in several areas the analysis is applicable to the others, mutatis mutandis.

Why the ECA? Briefly, five reasons come to mind. First, the United Nations resolution establishing this organization (ECOSOC Resolution 671A (XXV), 29 April 1958) assigned it the broad mandate of promoting the economic and social development of African countries, through international cooperation. ECA has evolved into the premier organization for research on African development and for policy advice to its clients, the African governments. This gives it an authoritative voice in Africa in matters related to Africa’s economic development.

Second, a new ECA management assumed office a few months ago. It has declared as guiding tenet the pursuance of transformative development for a renascent Africa and is currently immersed in introducing wide-ranging internal reforms. It is therefore timely to contribute in-puts to the process of transforming ECA itself for greater effectiveness.

Third, ECA is the regional arm of the United Nations (UN); this gives it added authenticity in speaking for the continent in all organs of the UN. It is the only structure in the world body whose work focuses wholly on Africa; unlike most UN agencies it is multi-sectoral. To quote:

“ECA’s dual role as a regional arm of the UN and a significant pillar of the regional institutional landscape in Africa endows it with unique comparative advantages that enable it to make distinct and valuable contributions to member State efforts to address these challenges.” (UNECA, ECA and Africa: Fifty Years of Partnership, Ethiopia: Addis Ababa, 2009, page 3)

These comparative advantages accord ECA a leadership role in UN inter-agency operations in the continent. Its UN status also gives it clout in mobilizing different types of resources from within the UN itself and from external parties involved in the continent’s development. To add to this, given the nature and scope of ECA’s mandate its own resource base is relatively extensive and diverse, particularly as regards its human resource capabilities.

Fourth, of the three major regional organizations in Africa ECA was the first on the scene: whereas it was established on 29 April 1958, the OAU was founded on 23 May 1963 and the ADB in September 1964. This gives ECA a certain seniority especially as it was an active player in the creation of the other two. But, for some, it is a UN organization and, as such, not purely African - which detracts from the significance of this claim.

Fifth, especially in recent years precious few studies, particularly academic studies, have dealt with the ECA; many more published studies are on the OAU/AU and perhaps the ADB. Thin as it may appear this can be another justification for directing the searchlight on the ECA.


The all-dominant concern has been the inability of the past leaderships (broadly defined) in these regional organizations to think outside the box, to think in terms of alternative development paradigms compared to what is touted as gospel truth. In relation to methodologies and strategies for development in Africa, conventional wisdom is unquestioned; the task at hand then becomes how to manage the variables involved in the process of attaining system-goals. Here and there adjustments were made to the paradigms but the basics remained intact; tinkering at the edges has not affected the core.

In a direct way, most seminal policy publications of the regional organizations have towed the line; they respected orthodoxy even though, in theory, they were intended to challenge a status quo which since the 1960s had not resulted in any social and economic development of consequence. These included the Lagos Plan of Action (1980), the African Alternative Framework to Structural Adjustment Programmes for Socio-Economic Recovery and Transformation (AAF-SAP, 1989), and the Treaty Establishing the African Economic Community (1991).

AAF-SAP, for instance, was marketed as: [An"> assessment of orthodox adjustment programs (with the classical instruments of control of money supply, credit squeeze, exchange rate and interest rate adjustments, trade liberalization, etc.) led to the conclusion that although they aimed at restoring growth through fiscal and external balances and the free play of market forces, the objective could not be achieved without addressing the fundamental structural bottlenecks of African economies. Consequently, in 1988 the ECA embarked on a search for an African alternative that would address simultaneously both adjustment and structural transformation problems of the African economies.

The reality is that the thinly-veiled campaign against structural adjustment programmes by the ECA, based on AAF-SAP, was not maintained and died a natural death. Even its most vocal and articulate missionaries soon relented. To fill the space resulting, the structural adjustment programmes spawned the look-alike Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSPs) with changes more in style than in substance.

This absence of an “ideological” framework for designing and implementing programmes in the African regional organizations contrasts sharply with the situation in the Bretton Woods institutions. They make no bones of their entrenched faith in neo-liberal capitalism and make no attempts to conceal it or to call it by any other name. Therefore, if one desires to do business with these institutions it is assumed that there is this common ground and understanding; invariably, the subject is not even mentioned. In like manner, it is assumed that staff who freely choose to serve in these institutions do not harbour any strong animosities towards neo-liberal capitalism; if they did they would not fit in.

Backing up the multilateral institutions are educational institutions which reinforce the values and principles underpinning the prevailing neo-liberal system. It should not be forgotten that it is from these self-same educational establishments that the human resources in the African regional organizations were and are still sourced. In this regard, these regional organizations have been very efficient in executing their agency functions.

Another macro issue of concern relates to processes in programme development and delivery. There is an urgent need for even greater cross-programme cooperation and coordination than at present. The absence of intensive coordination results in each organizational unit conducting research on what it considers the key questions in its own domain, in abject disregard of what others are doing, even within the same organizational unit.

Granted there has been a recognizable shift for the better in this area. Nonetheless, a bolder scenario would involve selecting an overarching theme for, say, a biennium, to which all sectoral and cross-cutting research to be implemented at the divisional level would relate. Regional integration, trade, or statistics are obvious candidates. Or the theme could emerge from the ECA African Development Forum. This line of thinking and action has obvious benefits; most especially the research would throw up concrete policies which would be “sold” to the client-states in a pluri-disciplinary manner. This deserves urgent attention.

Turning next to the burning question of the impact of the work of the organization which has bedevilled stakeholders from the early days of the existence of the organization: As afore-noted, the primary clients of the ECA are the African member states. The organization exists for service to these states. This is the level at which ideas for programming should emanate. It is the level for programme design and formulation, and it is the level for performance assessment. Without doubt the organization loses its raison d’être if it does not have impact on the ground, especially on matters of development policy and programmes.

The reality is that there is still a gap between service provider and client. ECA produces a large range of research papers some of which are of high standard. Yet, for reasons outside the scope of these reflections they tend not to attract and retain the attention of those to whom they are primarily addressed. A pertinent recollection. After one of the sessions of the highest policy-making body in the ECA system, the Conference of Ministers of Planning and Development (as then known), a senior official at the Addis Ababa Hilton Hotel visited the ECA Cabinet Office to complain about the volume of papers that had been left behind in the rooms by the participants; he maintained that it was not the first time that this had happened. He stressed that to dispose of them would be costly so the hotel management had decided that ECA should foot the bill. The policy-makers had not even bothered to take the papers back to their offices! This speaks volumes. It sends out many messages.

Thus, innovative means must be devised to increase impact in African countries. Perhaps one way out is that there should be fewer workshops, meetings, and conferences. It is worthy of note that bilateral and multi-lateral partners appear to experience less of a problem as far as this issue goes. Why? Obviously, the answers would have implications for ECA’s modus operandi.

There are three other areas of concern related more to the external environment. In the first place, there is very urgent need for a rethinking of the role of the field arms of the ECA, that is, the Sub-Regional Offices (SRO) in Niamey (Western Africa), Rabat (Northern Africa), Kigali (East Africa), Lusaka (Southern Africa) and Yaoundé (Central Africa) - formerly MULPOCs. First, these offices are not resourced enough to undertake any type of serious research; the infrastructures for quality research are fragile. Anyway, enough research is being done elsewhere in the ECA system; there are enough problems associated with this research not to compound the situation with additional ones from the sub-regional so-called research. Similarly, the effectiveness of the SROs in carrying out policy advisory functions is much compromised by the limited technical knowledge and experience available in the offices.

The thrust of any new mandate for the SROs should be facilitative. Networking should be the sole remit and this as regards three constituencies. First, the SROs should serve as bridges between ECA headquarters and the national governments. This would involve establishing forward and backward linkages in all areas of work, and multi-level conduits for the ECA divisions in their relationships with the governments. The existing Intergovernmental Committee of Experts (ICE) would serve as a platform for reviewing the outcomes of region-level meetings and their applicability to countries in the sub-region.

More specifically, the SROs can undertake scientific needs assessment in member countries whose results would be fed into the programming processes at the centre; they can also undertake scientific assessments of the impacts of the products coming out of the centre. The SROs must encourage governments to formally identify individual ECA focal points within the overseeing ministries; SRO personnel will nurture very intimate one-on-one contacts with these focal points, particularly for monitoring implementation of resolutions and policies adopted at meetings of the policy organs.

This is as far as relations with member states go. Bearing in mind ECA’s long-standing commitment to regional integration in Africa and its varied contributions to the realization of integration ambitions, the second constituency is the Regional Economic Communities (RECs); relations should be both special and privileged not just in speeches but more so in practice. Here, as with the member states, the SROs have to build stronger links and consolidate relations. Focal points for upgrading links should be institutionalized and there should be a more prominent SRO presence in the RECs and more intensive involvement in all phases in the programme cycle.

The third constituency for networking and partnerships is the growing number of inter-governmental organizations (IGOs), think-tanks, research organizations and the like throughout the continent. Some of these are doing excellent work which easily dovetails into that in ECA. A case in point is the African Centre for Economic Transformation (ACET), Accra, Ghana; as the name indicates much of the research in this centre deals with transformation, including measurement issues. This coincides with the chosen focus-area of the new ECA management and is therefore a ready-made collaborator. Strong substantive linkages with this category of partners can only be of benefit to all – and definitely to the continent.

Finally, with the SROs reinvigorated and reoriented the question of the country locations would have to be confronted head-on: how suitable are the locations of their headquarters if they are to execute their new roles and responsibilities effectively and efficiently? Apparently, political factors were influential in deciding their present sites; such considerations must now give way to technical imperatives.

Hopefully, this essay has whetted the appetite. Arguments raised therein need to be further refined and fleshed out; the concerns expressed call for further reflection and action by different categories of stakeholders.


* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

* Jeggan C. Senghor ([email protected]) is a Senior Research Fellow at the School of Advanced Studies, University of London.