Edward Miguel suggests several reasons to be hopeful about Africa’s economic prospects and a few causes for concern. One in each category, democratic governance and climate change, deserve further elaboration.

First, democratic governance. Miguel rightfully lauds the almost continent-wide movement toward greater democratization. Despite Kenya’s recent electoral setbacks, Miguel is right that “opposition parties are ubiquitous and open debate the norm in a growing  number of African countries.” But reaping the economic fruits of democratization will require more than multiparty elections. Elections in and of themselves need not force leaders to be responsive to the public good; electoral competition can drive political parties into patronage instead. Scholars studying African politics are divided on whether democracy is beneficial to African economies.

Miguel argues that, on balance, democracy has been good for Africa. But if elections are not sufficient to consolidate the political, social, and economic gains of democracy, then what is? What more does Africa need? The answer lies in transparency and accountability mechanisms that provide checks and balances, particularly in regard to public spending.

Public spending often determines whether democracy delivers for the average citizen. Are roads built so she can get her crop to market? Are textbooks available in the school for her children? Is the local health clinic staffed? It’s not just a matter of attention-grabbing corruption and malfeasance, but more importantly of creating incentives for the efficient allocation and use of public resources.

Scrutiny of budget allocations, tracking of actual expenditures, and the monitoring and evaluation of service delivery are vital watchdog functions for independent civil society organizations, the media, parliaments, and executive audit agencies. Consider the benefits. In one case, comparative cost surveys carried out by a policy research organization across municipalities in an Indian state highlighted the differential costs of public services, spurring bureaucrats in high-cost towns to lower their procurement costs. Successful fulfillment of these important watchdog functions requires transparency.

Of course, it is easier to set up elections than effective public accountability mechanisms. Indeed, donors have traditionally spent much more money and time focusing on the development of elections than other techniques for public scrutiny. Our collective knowledge of how to build a system of checks and balances, which are necessarily context dependent, lags far behind our knowledge in other areas. Research devoted to improving efficiency and reducing corruption in public works projects, for example, is helping us get beyond simple notions of community monitoring as the best or only means for achieving public accountability. But more investment in learning which accountability mechanisms work best under which circumstances would be well worth making.

We should not pretend that transparency and accountability are not critical to the continent’s economic future. Whether Africa’s current commodity boom is harnessed for long-term development or simply leads to a repeat of the dismal economic performance that followed the commodity boom of the mid-1970s will depend in part on the checks and balances Africans establish to constrain the management of revenues and expenditures.

Second, climate change. In what is surely one of the most troubling ironies of our time, the people who have contributed the least to climate change will suffer the most from its effects. Although rich countries have caused the problem with decades of greenhouse-gas emissions, developing countries are the most vulnerable. Many African countries will be hit especially hard, as Miguel points out.

According to the April 2007 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the poor will bear the brunt of climate risks. The IPCC report concludes that “even the most stringent mitigation efforts cannot avoid further impacts of climate change in the next few decades, which makes adaptation essential.” Miguel suggests tailored drought insurance mechanisms and agricultural research as two necessary adaptation measures.

I couldn’t agree more, but there is a larger point to be made: one of the key determinants of a society’s capacity to adapt to climate change is access to resources. For example, smallholder farmers lack the resources to invest in basic adaptation measures—such as improved irrigation and fertilization—that would better insulate them from shifts in weather patterns. Therefore, equitable economic growth is urgently needed to arm the world’s poorest people with the resources to adapt to climate change. 

Researchers are now recognizing that equitable development and adaptive capacity for coping with climate change actually rely on a common set of conditions. Unless this complementarity between equitable development and adaptive capacity is widely understood, there is a risk that additional financing for climate adaptation could displace investments in economic growth and poverty reduction. This would be a huge mistake, since the key is to build the capacity of societies to adapt to and mitigate climate change over the longer term.

If you care about poverty in Africa, you can’t ignore the impact of climate change, and if you care about climate change, you can’t ignore economic development in Africa. It is therefore imperative to tackle both of these challenges simultaneously. However, this is not happening. Poorly thought-out biofuels policies pushed by some environmentalists have helped spark a world food crisis, while not doing much, it turns out, to mitigate climate change once land-use changes are taken into account. A similar harmful potential exists for other climate policy proposals that fail to account for secondary effects. Unless we consider the development consequences of our policy solutions, not only will Africa’s poor face the worst effects of climate change, but the worst effects of the policy interventions too.  ©