50 years of Development Planning in Africa – lessons and challenges

First published by UNECA

Development planning has a long and chequered history in Africa, and the continent’s development trajectory has been influenced by various approaches to development planning since the early stages of independence.

The first phase of development planning in Africa spanned the 1960s and was characterized by centralized planning with three to five year planning phases. During this period, at least 32 African countries had a national development plan.

This first generation of development plans continued to the 1980s. These plans promoted state-engineered economies with resources allocated by governments. It was notably the time of state-owned enterprises operating in most of the productive sectors.

However, Africa’s development plans of the 1960s had limited success. This was due to a variety of reasons: deficiencies in the plan documents surely, but also failure to implement them; ambitious formulation of targets; institutional and bureaucratic weaknesses; exogenous shocks; and political factors

The second phase in the evolution of planning in Africa was marked by a wholesale abandonment of planning under neoliberal Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), which emerged in the 1980s-1990s with the support of the Bretton Woods Institutions. SAPs aimed to reduce the role of the State in production and service delivery and placed emphasis on macroeconomic stability, downsizing of public sector institutions, privatization and reducing government spending and budget deficits.

The social cost of SAPs is a sad story. The downsizing of the public sector institutions and massive privatizations led to net job losses; the budget restrictions compromised social service delivery and human capital development; and most importantly SAPs failed to yield the envisaged growth outcomes as the annual economic growth for Africa over the 1990s averaged only 2.1 per cent.

These past experiences in planning alerted policymakers and decision-makers to the need to broaden the agenda of public sector reforms and to the importance of good institutions in the development process, especially in the new context of globalization.

In the early 2000s, SAPs were replaced by Poverty Reduction Strategies, which aimed at reversing the negative effects of a decade of Structural Adjustment on welfare and social conditions. PRSPs placed strong emphasis on poverty reduction as a condition for debt relief. Many African countries embarked on at least two generations of PRSPs, mostly to ensure eligibility for debt relief.

Notwithstanding the principle of ownership and consultations that underpinned PRSPs, they lacked credibility because of the externally driven nature of the process. Furthermore, PRSPs tended to place disproportionate emphasis on the social sector at the expense of the productive sector thereby raising questions about the sustainability of the poverty reduction agenda.

In the last decade, there has been increasing interest in, and a return to, more comprehensive development plans that go beyond way beyond short-sighted PRSPs. Indeed, many African countries have adopted long-term development visions and planning frameworks with far more ambitious growth and social development objectives.

National Development Strategies (NDS) have now gone beyond the narrow objective of poverty reduction to encompass objectives such as accelerated growth, employment creation, structural transformation and sustainable development. Unlike the 1960s, these plans employ a mix of state and market-based approaches and appreciate the critical role of both the public and the private sector in the development process.

Many African countries have developed Long Term Visions to guide their steps towards these ambitious objectives. These long-term visions are characterized by stronger ownership from African actors and a more consultative and participatory process involving a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including Civil Society, the private sector, decentralized constituencies and development partners.

These broader national development plans often take into consideration various global and continental development goals and frameworks such as NEPAD.

Challenges however remain. They include, ensuring credible consultation processes, prioritizing funding in line with development aspirations, coordinating donors, strengthening capacities to implement projects and programmes, and developing effective monitoring and evaluation systems that feed back into the policy-making process.

In short, more work is required to improve the planning frameworks in Africa in order to translate development aspirations and priorities into concrete results.

ECA is committed to support the strengthening of member states’ capacities to design, implement and monitor effective planning frameworks.To this end, the institution is undergoing a repositioning exercise that aims to better align its work with the priorities of the continent with the ultimate objective of promoting economic growth and structural transformation.

The effectiveness of national planning systems hinges largely on the quality and availability of data. Data informs the setting of priorities and facilitates the tracking of performance. 

ECA is cognizant of the data challenges faced by member states and is currently strengthening its institutional structures and processes to better support countries address their data challenges. Our statistical capacity will be multiplied by ten in one year. Our sub-regional offices will play an important role in this effort by according greater priority to the collection and assembly of credible data to support countries with their data needs.

Another important aspect is coordination. Coordination between ministries of finance and the ministries or entities in charge of development planning, among others, is likely to better link the planning cycles to those of the budget, therefore ensuring an effective implementation of the national development plan.

We can leverage our development planning capacities by developing mechanisms for peer learning and experience sharing.

To support this effort ECA has developed a network of development planners which includes an electronic platform that will serve as a repository of literature current research related to development planning. The platform will also include forums for discussion and exchange of ideas and experiences related to all aspects of planning.

Africa’s turbulent experience with development planning in the past is ceding ground to a more positive outlook for the future. Indeed, there are some good examples of success stories among African countries, which graduated from low income countries to middle income countries (Cape Verde, Ghana, Zambia, and Botswana).

In addition, some African countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda have adopted long-term development visions and planning frameworks with far more ambitious growth and social development objectives and more detailed strategies and policies than those typically included in PRSPs.

Africa is at an exciting juncture in its development journey and is poised to become a new pole of global growth. To achieve this, however, Africa must continue to plan its development trajectory, increase policy space, and make prudent decisions about the appropriate strategies needed to achieve economic growth and structural transformation.

It is indeed commonly said that failing to plan means planning to fail.

Our past and current experiences tell us that Africa does have several challenges in the area of development planning.But we also know that there are opportunities for strengthened the design, implementation and monitoring of national development strategies.

Read the blog here