How Can African Countries Avoid the Middle-Income Trap?

From Tony Blair Institute for Global Change:

“Since the early 2010s, economists and policymakers have noted that several countries are stuck in what has come to be known as the “middle-income trap”. Three main explanations are posited:

  1. Lack of structural transformation and weak industrial policies: the level of development of productive capacities, which includes the level of export sophistication, the change in their composition through comparative advantage and the state’s role in industrial upgrading.
  2. Lack of human-capital development and innovation: the unsuccessful transition to innovation-based growth (from factor-based growth), notably due to lack of investment in research and development (R&D) and education.
  3. Poor governance, weak institutions and an extractive political economy: the low quality of institutions and government effectiveness, and the role of political economy and political stability in explaining countries’ development paths.

While few countries have succeeded in their transition to the high-income level – based on gross national income (GNI) – including the East Asian “tiger economies” of South Korea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Singapore, the development trajectory of several countries currently in the middle-income trap validates the explanations cited in the academic literature on the subject. In this paper, we highlight the development paths of successful countries like South Korea, and of middle-income countries that are in the trap or at risk of being trapped, such as Malaysia, Brazil, Tunisia, Morocco, Vietnam and Bangladesh.

There are three factors that have contributed to South Korea’s success: a well-planned and consistent government policy combined with effective implementation, conditional support to companies that ensured the reduction of the rent-seeking approach, and an effective channelling of public resources, together with an early transition towards innovation, including a focus on short-cycle technology-based sectors.

The experiences of Malaysia, Brazil, Tunisia, Morocco, Bangladesh and Vietnam highlight that economic growth is not enough to enable countries to move up the income ladder. It is essential to have a commitment to industrialisation, to strengthening the rule of law and to moving away from an extractive political economy, and this must be set against the backdrop of political stability and equality. In addition, the level of investment in both human-capital development and innovation is a significant variable in determining countries’ development paths and in explaining their middle-income trap.

Latin America – with the notable exception of Chile – has failed to make the transition from middle-income to high-income status. In this paper we take the example of Brazil which, in common with much of the region, had – in the 1960s – been predicted to achieve a level of growth that would ultimately have led to it reaching the high-income level. However, poor levels of investment, low take-up of tertiary education, political instability and high inflation have all conspired to leave Brazil mired in the middle-income trap for more than half a century.

Ghana and Kenya, both of which have the potential to become the dominant hubs in west and east Africa respectively, have witnessed relatively high economic growth over the past decade and have transitioned quite recently to the lower-middle-income status. Both countries have the capacity to become pre-eminent centres of innovation and to help drive growth and trade in neighbouring countries. However, their current growth is not geared towards economic transformation, and there are signs that both countries are at a high risk of remaining trapped at the middle-income level. Productivity in agriculture remains low and exports of goods are concentrated on natural resources (oil and gold in Ghana and unprocessed agricultural products in Kenya) with only a small number of technology-intensive products. Moreover, the level of human-capital development remains relatively low compared with other lower-middle-income countries such as Tunisia and Morocco. Services play an important role in both economies but most jobs are in low-productive service sectors such as wholesale and retail. The digital economy and other highly productive sectors such as financial services have significant potential for growth in both countries, given the emerging technology hubs in Accra and Nairobi, but they currently represent a small share of service exports and don’t create enough jobs fast enough.

It is essential for both countries to invest in industrialisation by focusing on agri-processing, manufacturing and high-value-added tradable services enabled by information and communications technology (ICT) and other innovations, following a consistent, pragmatic and visionary approach. For industrialisation to be successful, it is important for political leaders to consider it as a political project to transform the economy by building productive industries, rather than seeing it as a technocratic reform. This political project requires strong political coalitions, institutional capacity and alignment within government for effective implementation, areas where both Ghana and Kenya can significantly improve. In parallel, there is a need to improve critical enablers for industrialisation, including agriculture transformation, human-capital development, energy access and reliability, while ensuring macroeconomic stability and a business environment conducive to entrepreneurial activity.”

Posted by at 9:08 AM

Labels: Macro Demystified


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