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Lessons but no Learning: Bringing Asia to Africa

30 March 2020

Asia’s development since 1945 shows the power of better policy choices, and the perils of ignoring good lessons. This is one of the main arguments of The Asian Aspiration: Why and how Africa should Emulate Asia – and What It Should Avoid. The book’s four authors brought together decades of policymaking experience and first-hand exposure to Asia’s astonishing development. The result is a book that could serve as inspiration to anyone hoping that this will be Africa’s decade.

In 1968, a team of Singaporeans visited Kenya to learn lessons about their development. ‘At the time, we were then a more developed country than they were,’ remarks former Prime Minister Raila Odinga about the visit.

Some four decades later, Odinga himself was part of a study trip to Singapore with Kenyan cabinet ministers – ‘the latest in many trips taken by the Kenyan government to the island, about which no report was ever written, and where the participants kept everything to themselves.’

That Africa has not learnt many practical lessons from Asia is not for lack of enthusiasm – or effort: there has been no shortage of African delegations visiting Asia with the purpose of ‘learning’. This century alone, no fewer than 72 African delegations, comprising more than 3,500 officials, have undertaken official study tours of Taiwan.

Such visits have offered lessons in everything from leadership and state building, to innovation and industrialisation, the establishment of Special Economic Zones, and infrastructure hardware and software to the underpinning values of a meritocratic public sector.

Yet very few of these lessons survived the trip home.

If these examples are plentiful and useful, and information is not hard to come by, why are they so hard learnt?

One reason why Africa has not followed the Asian development story may be its preoccupation until now with the Western model, whether with admiration or dismay. In a survey of African individuals conducted recently by The Brenthurst Foundation, 44% noted that this is so. Another reason is simply that the Asian story is not well understood, at least in Africa, or than cultural, linguistic and geographical differences have hampered learning. Some 28% of respondents believed that this was the case.

Yet, nearly 80% responded positively to the question: should Africa be willing to learn lessons from the experience of other regions when it comes to development? In addition, there was widespread agreement – by no less than 76% of respondents – that Asia is the world region that Africa has most to learn from. Unsurprisingly, growth and poverty reduction, urbanization and infrastructure were identified as the areas in which Africa can learn the most from Asia. China was prominently noted in all of these.

This concurs broadly with a 2014/15 Afrobarometer study of African perceptions towards China, which found that China ranks second as a preferred development model behind the United States.

While no country or region is a complete analogue for any other, the East Asian experience illustrates the astonishing development results a determined government can deliver. China, for example, for many years was seen as hopeless – a view confirmed, seemingly, by the social catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution under Mao.

Then, with 40 years of growth touching 13%, China’s example became globally relevant: how it acknowledged the failure of Mao’s policy, and seemingly turned on its own axis to embrace free markets. As a result of this humble admission, the rise of China changed the course of the world, challenging the centuries-long domination by the West, signaling a shift of power and wealth to Asia – a process so profound that author Gideon Rachman describes it as no less than ‘Easternisation’.

But Asia’s example goes even further than showing the power of better policy choices. It also shows the value of learning by example, of cross-border exchange and knowledge transfer. It was Japan who led the ‘revolution’ as early as the 1860s, by importing technology and technicians from Europe to help kick-start their development.

Thereafter came the Tigers – Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and Hong Kong – carrying the torch and emulating Japan’s example.

Later, Singapore’s Lee Kwan Yew would claim: ‘Deng Xiaoping opened up (China) after he came to Singapore, and saw how we used private companies to bring about progress… Little Singapore acted as a catalyst because he visited us, and said, “Study Singapore, and do better than them!”’

This book centres on four realisations:
First, Asia can be an inspiration to Africa, illustrating that it is possible to turn around the lives of the population within a single generation.

This does not mean attempting simple ‘copy-andpaste’ emulation, as Asia’s own path regarding the environment, for example, is not perfect. The vast majority of African citizens, too, prefer democracy over a more autocratic Asian norm.

Second, Asia’s example shows Africa’s leaders that change can only take place if better policies are enacted. Imbued with a sense of crisis and urgency – informed by the threat of Africa’s impeding population boom and the growing group of jobless, disenfranchised youth – leaders must act decisively.

Third, while decisive leadership is important, generational growth requires both strong leaders and institutions. Building a meritocratic civil service.

And finally, what Africa needs urgently is regional exemplars as catalysts for development on the rest of the continent.

In the words of Nobel Laureate and former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: ‘That Africa should not be poor is the lesson from Asia, and this book [The Asian Aspiration].’

The authors are all affiliated with The Brenthurst Foundation. In addition to The Asian Aspiration: Why and How Africa Should Emulate Asia (Picador Africa, 2019), The Brenthurst Foundation has recently launched a podcast on the topic of Asia’s lessons for Africa. - See for more.




February/March 2020














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