Why French Speaking African Countries Are Lagging Behind English Speaking Ones Economically

Why French Speaking African Countries are Lagging Behind English Speaking Ones Economically
Ghana had the worlds highest GDP growth in 2011

AFRICANGLOBE – Lack of infrastructure, a poor corporate culture and bad governance. French-speaking countries in Africa are, in recent years, lagging behind their English-speaking neighbours.

French-speaking Africa is lagging behind English-speaking Africa, even without the weight of South Africa. Whilst languor has spread its tentacles from Dakar through Yaoundé to Kinshasa, inciting people to dream of emigration, life is beaming with vigour from Accra through Lagos to Nairobi, with flourishing projects and business deals only a computer mouse click or phone call away.

To measure this economic divide calls for the need to eliminate the two prevalent ills that bridge the continental divide: corruption and ethnic conflicts. With the exception of Zimbabwe, where Western sanctions and economic warfare unleashed an inflation rate of more 200,000,000 percent some years ago, a look at the overall figures brings some surprising results to the fore.

French-speaking countries account for only 19 percent of Africa’s average GDP whilst English-speaking countries boast of 47 percent (excluding South Africa). Countries belonging to the mainly French-speaking Economic and Monetary Union of West Africa (UEMOA) have been growing at an average rate of 3.4 percent per annum in the last ten years, whilst those of the mainly English-speaking East Africa Community (EAC) have registered a 5.4 percent growth rate.

English-speaking countries are also ranked in more favorable positions by the World Bank’s “Doing Business” report, which measures the quality of the business environment. In those countries it is much easier to start a business, clear imports and obtain payment from debtors. Telephone calls in Benin, for example, cost four hundred times more than in Ghana.

With regard to human development, seven of the ten worst ranked (out of 187) by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are French-speaking African states, and three of them- Burundi, Niger and DRC – occupy the last three positions.

Irremediable Disability?

Both development and non-development depend on many factors. Five experts from Africa have agreed to separate wheat from the chaff in order to determine cultural influences that have proved themselves as big barriers to some essential institutions and analyse bottlenecks in the area of monetary and geopolitical issues. The nagging question is: Where does this handicap come from? And is it salvageable?

According to Jean-Michel Severino, manager at Investisseur et Partenaire pour le Développement (I&P), dedicated to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) in Africa, and former director general of the French Development Agency (AFD), conflict is the bane of French-speaking Africa. “Over the last decade, two of the principal countries, DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo] and Côte d’Ivoire, have undergone turmoils that have affected development in the whole [Francophone] zone. These countries had experienced growth comparable to that of their English-speaking neighbours after independence.”

The common currency among French-speaking countries in both West and Central Africa, the CFA franc has also, seemingly, been a burden, despite the fact that it is more protected from inflation than currencies that are not aligned to the euro. “The CFA franc has been strong over the past decade” says the former executive director of the AFD, “and one can imagine that countries with floating currencies have adjusted better than those using the common currency. Whilst it is not favorable to exports, it is not the strength of the CFA that is under the spotlight, but rather the disconnect of the development of a monetary system outside its African conjuncture. It will require African leaders to reflect on what mechanisms to put in place rather than completely halting the regional monetary union or cutting links between the euro and the CFA franc.”

In his final argument, Jean-Michel Severino points out infrastructure as being deficient in most French-speaking countries. “I am struck to see that policies are quite conservative in terms of rates in the area of energy, water and transport. This has generated an infrastructure deficit – phenomenal in the case of Cameroon and Senegal – and impacted development in a big way.”

Thierry Tanoh, vice president of the International Finance Corporation (IFC)- a member of the World Bank group, and soon managing director of Ecobank Transnational Incorporated (ETI), also revisits the infrastructure issue as well as the size of the market, which he deems are the two major weaknesses of the CFA bloc.

Tanoh begins his description of these deficiencies with anecdotal illustrations. “The boss of a food company in Niger is desperate because her company has reached its full potential in the limited home market and yet it is impossible to export her products due to regulatory barriers and transportation costs.”

He cites another example about a desperate truck owner who transports cocoa and lives in a francophone country. “Under normal circumstances, a truck’s shock absorbers are overhauled over a three year period. But because of the very poor state of roads in his country, his truck requires repairs after only one year. This discourages investors, who seek minimum risk.”

“Working Together”

French-speaking countries are too small and sparsely populated. Tanoh goes on to add. “With the exception of DRC, we must acknowledge that the big countries in Africa are English and Portuguese-speaking. This means that market integration is the only solution to compensate for this handicap. But whilst there are more regional economic organisations in the French zone, in reality it is the English-speaking countries, with SADC [Southern Africa Development Community] and EAC, that have become a force to reckon with, all in the absence of a common currency!”

Bouthelier Anthony, deputy chairman of the French Council of Investors in Africa (CIAN), argues that if French multi-national companies,  such as Lafarge and L’Oreal, are steering towards English-speaking countries it is because “regionalisation of the market works better [East Africa] than in West Africa.”

“Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Mozambique give the impression of wanting to work together,” he adds.

He believes that collective philosophy accounts for a lot. “Countries with the Anglo-Saxon culture are more oriented towards business and entrepreneurship, and people in those countries are less inclined to yearn to become civil servants than their counterparts with the French culture.”

Serge Michailof, professor at the Institut d’Etudes Politiques de Paris argues along the same lines. “The training of elites in English-speaking countries, especially administrative elites, accounts for this trend, as it instills the belief that private business is essential for the development process.” He says. “The left-wing oriented training provided by French teachers is a polar opposite.”
Adding that “the overvalued CFA franc has been very negative, and its particularly disempowering characteristic has been harmful, because it is controlled by its former colonial power France.”

Shanta Devarajan, chief economist for Africa at the World Bank, has a more nuanced stance. He suggests that the gap between the two language blocs is “not as strong as we think” and that English-speaking countries have also gone through some tough times. In reference to some of the causes of lethargy in French-speaking countries, he points to the fact that first and foremost West African countries “have significant natural resources, a wealth that go hand in glove with their predisposed fragility by virtue of their multiple conflicts, more than in East Africa”. But these conflicts are not only limited to French-speaking countries as Sierra Leone and Liberia were particularly ravaged by civil war.

An Opaque System

Devarajan especially blames the system of funding by states. “In [francophone] West African countries where revenue generated from natural resources is omnipresent, money does not go through the citizenry, but rather directly channelled to the government by mining and oil companies. This process provides manifold opportunities to re-route revenue in a very opaque system. It does not seek to involve people who do not pay taxes, for lack of income, and are therefore not much concerned about the proper use of public funds.”

Corrupt money is therefore not as easy to come by in some English-speaking countries, which could explain not only the lower levels of conflict but also an effective government control, both a macroeconomic necessity.

Lastly, Devarajan points out that there are more landlocked French-speaking countries in Africa than English-speaking, and trade comes at a higher expense due to glaring infrastructural inadequacies. “The Port of Lomé is not functioning as it should and landlocked partner countries bear the brunt. The most dynamic countries in Africa lie in the coastal areas.”

Summing up these analysis, it comes as no surprise that the causes of the Francophone bloc’s slowdown have been known for quite sometime, and their remedies have been drummed by the multilateral agencies in order to accelerate the development of the continent. Obviously, the CFA franc is problematic. While it serves to cement a French-speaking culture, it is obvious – as in the case of the euro – that a currency without a common vision or governance can be a handicap, especially when that currency is controlled from Paris.

The example of the vast and populous East African English-speaking region shows that investment and wealth are moving towards areas with more consumers. For West Africa, this means going beyond the mere removal of borders and rather into an integration of budgetary policies. But that will be a heroic task as even Europe is struggling to deal with that kind of integration. Nonetheless, in a an address made on 15 December in Geneva, European Commissioner Michel Barnier sought to give Africa his specialist view point and called on the continent to organise and pool its markets into common markets.

It is not surprising that the quest for good governance as well as the fight against corruption remain top priorities. If French-speaking Africa wants to prevent its raw materials from being transformed into a politico-economic curse ownership of revenue must be public and controlled by citizens.

An Easy Ride

It should be noted that the inadequacies in the transport and energy sectors strangle growth in French-speaking Africa more than anywhere else. According to a study by the World Bank, the additional US$31 billion needed by African countries each year, in order to attune its infrastructure to its needs, should be directed to French-speaking countries as a matter of priority.

The remaining efforts should be in the area of formal education to promote a much needed entrepreneurial spirit and deal away with the jobs-for-life gravy train. This will give the emerging middle class in Dakar, Lomé, or Brazzaville the real desire to create wealth.

The battle is not yet lost for French-speaking Africans, as long as their governments, banks, teachers and elites understand the dynamics of openness and modernity.