Now’s Not the Time to Abandon Liberalism in Africa

There’s no denying it: the last few years have been bad for liberalism.

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Africa Giraffe Tree Liberalism

There’s no denying it: the last few years have been bad for liberalism.

Even before the Covid-19 Pandemic, it already appeared that the “liberal world order” was receiving a stress test of sorts. Freedom House’s Freedom in the World 2019 report was aptly titled “Democracy in Retreat.”[1] To say that this was a forewarning would be a dramatic understatement.

Then came the geopolitical shake-up that the intelligence community warned about for a significant period of time: the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

With Russian tanks rolling across the border into Eastern Ukraine, paired with missile-strikes and an assault on the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv, the post-Cold War global structure was jolted from its Pax-Americana slumber.

As America and the West continue to pour billions of dollars into the Ukraine crisis, the global geopolitical structure is realigning itself.

Just this April, the BRICS collective, comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa, began working on a common currency to counter American dominance in the financial sphere.[2] With global financial markets running through New York, the move by these countries appears to be an attempt to provide an alternative to the US hegemony more broadly speaking.

And as the world begins to enter into this new era highlighted by the reemergence of great power conflict, the West continues to overlook Africa and other nations deemed “peripheral.”

America and the West have (for better or worse) involved themselves in African development goals for decades. They have thrown billions of dollars towards structural adjustment programs, ambiguous UN-defined development goals, and disaster relief.

The product of all of this work and focus is disappointing to say the least. Despite these seemingly well-intentioned efforts, Africa is losing the battle against extreme poverty and the battle for freedom. Out of the 16 official coups d’état since 2017, 15 occurred in Africa.[3]

As the Institute for Security Studies notes, Africa’s extreme poverty rate of 43.1% in 1981 was approximately equal to the average for the rest of the world. In 2015, the extreme poverty rate in Africa was about 35.5%, or 6.8 times the average for the rest of the world.[4]

The lack of progress in this area is putting aid programs and Western involvement under scrutiny. As the United States approaches an upcoming fight over the federal budget, Republicans appear increasingly likely to significantly cut USAID funding.

Another example of this fatigue is French President Emmanuel Macron’s decision to withdraw French troops from Africa’s troubled Sahel region, in what is increasingly looking like a “French Afghanistan.”[5]

With Western countries continuing to botch their involvement on the continent, foreign nations are filling the void. The US House Foreign Affairs Committee notes that “Over 10,000 Chinese firms are currently operating throughout the African continent, and the value of Chinese business there since 2005 amounts to more than $2 trillion, with $300 billion in current investments.”[6] Additionally, the Russian Wagner group is actively fighting in countries like Burkina Faso and Mali, further influencing the course of African conflicts.

As liberalism continues to regress on the global stage and illiberal regimes appear eager to insert themselves in the African context, now is the time to reassess our approach and relationship with these countries.

The previous decades have taught us that top-down models are inefficient and wasteful. What’s more, development “experts” fail to appreciate the situation on the ground in a localized setting.

In this new geopolitical era, Western countries have a capacity to enable and enhance a bottom-up approach that celebrates the liveliness of civil societies on the continent. Rather than throwing money into the hands of corrupt bureaucrats, an opportunity exists to facilitate innovation, entrepreneurship, and free trade.

A prime example of this is the Rwandan coffee market following the 1994 genocide. Then-President Paul Kagame embarked upon a crusade to restructure and liberalize the economy. In the coffee sector, reforms eradicated legal restrictions and enabled farmers to engage in market transactions with any part of the world. As a result, prices soared and incomes of coffee workers nearly doubled. Additionally, this liberalization softened the wounds of a recent conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, while simultaneously facilitating cooperation.[7]

Yes, the liberal world order is being tested. But with this test comes an opportunity to critically assess what’s been working and what hasn’t.

The author Dayo Olopade argues in her book The Bright Continent that a shift is needed in our thinking about Africa. Our contemporary approach obstructs and excludes the dynamism and innovation that occurs on the continent every day.

So, while the recent global events are certainly a blow for liberalism, they’re also a unique opportunity to stake a new claim for the decades to come.


[1] “Democracy in Retreat.” Freedom House. Accessed April 12, 2023.

[2] “Ditching the Dollar: Will a New BRICS Currency Replace the US Dollar for Trade?” Firstpost. Firstpost, April 4, 2023.

[3] Mwai, Peter. “Are Military Takeovers on the Rise in Africa?” BBC News. BBC, January 4, 2023.

[4] “Africa Is Losing the Battle against Extreme Poverty.” ISS Africa, July 13, 2022.

[5] Schofield, Hugh. “France Calls Time on Anti-Jihadist Operation Barkhane in Sahel.” BBC News. BBC, November 9, 2022.

[6] “China Regional Snapshot: Sub-Saharan Africa.” Committee on Foreign Affairs, November 21, 2022.,%24300%20billion%20in%20current%20investments.

[7] Oro, Ángel Martín. “Rwanda’s Economic Success: How Free Markets Are Good for Poor Africans: Ángel Martín Oro, Marc Bisbal Arias.” FEE Freeman Article. Foundation for Economic Education, June 27, 2012.

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