Analyzing Economic Reform Policies in Africa

By Powers, Mike | Human Ecology Forum, Fall 1994 | Go to article overview

Analyzing Economic Reform Policies in Africa


Powers, Mike, Human Ecology Forum


More than a decade of economic reform has brought little improvement to the lives of Africa's poor. Economists in the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program are attempting to find out why.

Structural adjustment is a common phrase among economists who are studying Africa's developing nations. A somewhat vague term, it's used to describe the wide range of policy reforms that have been made in Africa over the last decade in an effort to promote economic growth and reduce poverty--policies whose effectiveness has been disappointing. Many economists feel they are actually doing more harm than good and are making the lives of Africa's poor even worse.

David Sahn, director of the Cornell Food and Nutrition Policy Program (CFNPP), and Paul Dorosh, an associate professor with (CFNPP, disagree with that assessment. They feel that the policies are sound but that slow implementation and failure to stick with the reforms have prevented them from producing positive results.

"When asked whether the policies are hurting the poor, our basic answer is no," Dorosh says. "One of our main messages is to keep at it. Economic liberalization is necessary for growth and poverty reduction."

CFNPP is housed within the Division of Nutritional Sciences and is funded largely by the U.S. Agency for International Development and the World Bank. Additional funding sources include UNICEF, the governments of nations where projects are being conducted, and a variety of foundations.

"We have a pretty wide substantive mandate," says Sahn, who, like Dorosh, also is an associate professor in the Division of Nutritional Sciences. "Although our name says food and nutrition policy, much of our research is focused on economic development and poverty alleviation, of which food and nutrition policy is certainly an important part."

Sahn worked for the World Bank and the International Food Policy Research Institute in Washington, D.C., before coming to Cornell in 1987. He heads up a team of eight senior research staff members, most of whom have been studying the impact of economic reforms and transitions in Africa.

"Basically, we've been interested in the impact of state disengagement on income distribution and the poor," he says. "We're looking at the effects of moving away from centrally planned and controlled socialist economies to market-based economies."

CFNPP has been conducting projects in Ghana, Gambia, Guinea, Cameroon, Tanzania, Lesotho, Malawi, Madagascar, Niger, Mozambique, and Zaire. Researchers have found that the policies instituted to bring economic reforms to these countries have been implemented in dramatically different contexts and in response to a variety of prior circumstances.

"The situation in each of those countries is different, and the differences have contributed to the confusion over the effects of the reforms on poverty," Sahn says. "We're not particularly interested in condoning or condemning the policies. We want to evaluate their impact within the specific circumstances of each country and come to some appropriate generalizations about their effects on growth, income distribution, and poverty. Then we can consider what this implies for the design of adjustment programs."

The distribution of poverty in Africa is striking, with the vast majority of the poor living in rural areas. Their incomes are largely dependent upon agriculture, and they are predominantly self-employed. They are heavily engaged in subsistence farming and purchase little food from markets. Most produce enough food to engage in trade and participate in export markets, an activity that helps bolster their incomes. Some are able to derive income from self-employment and employment in agro-processing or marketing. Almost none are employed in public sector jobs, a major employer of the urban non-poor.

Most of the nations Sahn, Dorosh, and their colleagues have been studying were forced to implement policy reforms by creditors when, after a period of enjoying healthy export markets and engaging in heavy borrowing, their economies soured. …

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