The impact of colonialism and neo-colonialism on the structure of the state and political and social economy of countries across Africa has been discussed exhaustively by an array of eminent scholars (Mazrui, 1977; Nkrumah, 1965; Rodney, 1982, amongst others) to the extent that the subject may now seem passé. Given its enduring legacy, however, it is essential to reference this history when analysing the current trajectory of teaching and research on public policy and governance on the continent.
Notwithstanding some variance in the policies of different powers, the imperialist ambitions of colonialism were concentrated on the extraction of primary resources, the installation of basic infrastructure (railways and ports) to facilitate this, and control of the indigenous population. Due to this limited remit, Chabal and Daloz have argued, colonial states were never formally institutionalised and particularly in the rural areas, where the bulk of the population resided, they assigned considerable discretionary power to local officials and exercised administrative power through the indirect rule of traditional authorities (Chabal & Daloz, 1999, p. 4). Education in this context was afforded little importance and according to Walter Rodney:
“The main purpose of the colonial school system was to train Africans to help man the local administration at the lowest ranks and to staff capitalist firms owns by Europeans… It was not an educational system designed to give young people confidence and pride as members of African societies, but one which sought to instil a sense of deference towards all that was European and capitalist” (Rodney, 1982, p. 240).
Although there had been faltering steps to promote self-rule in some colonies in the aftermath of World War II (notably by the British), these initiatives, for the most part, envisaged a protracted process with no specific end date (Brookfield, 1975). Consequently, when the decolonisation process began in earnest in the 1960s, most African states were woefully ill-prepared for statehood in terms of their economic development, public institutions, and the number of skilled personnel at their disposal. Furthermore, from a Weberian perspective the colonial state, having never been formally bureaucratised, was not sufficiently emancipated from society to enable the public service to operate independently of the constraints of social pressure and the ties of ethnicity and kinship (Chabal & Daloz, 1999). This reality, together with the artificial nature of colonial boundaries, presented a serious constraint to nation building in the post-colonial era.
Notwithstanding this stark reality, there was a conviction amongst former colonial powers, the United States, and multi-lateral funding agencies such as the World Bank, that the economic development of African states could be fast-tracked in similar fashion to the reconstruction of the war-torn European states post 1945. In this exercise, they were guided by the principles of modernisation, first expounded by the likes of Durkheim and Tonnies but given their contemporary expression by Talcott Parsons (Parsons & Shils, 1951). Based on trends in Europe and North America, the modernisation theorists described what they saw in some states as a form of economic dualism which consisted of an agricultural sector, which was labour intensive and agricultural, and a modern sector, which was capital intensive and industrial. The theories of economic dualism that emerged to describe this phenomenon attempted to combine into one system, principles for the development of an advanced and a backward economy (Brookfield, 1975, p. 58).
The concept of modernisation was most clearly articulated in WW Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth which became a highly influential text in the development realm following its publication in 1960 (Brookfield, 1975). Basing his assumptions on what he believed to be observable principles of historical development, Rostow identified all countries as falling within one of five categories: “the traditional society, the preconditions for take off, the take off, the drive to maturity, and the age of high mass consumption” (Rostow, 1960, p. 4). He believed that most developing countries fell within the first of these categories and the preconditions for their take-off could be created by a rise in the rate of productive investment (through foreign aid and local savings), the importation of modern technology (to stimulate an industrial revolution), and support for the emergence of a new elite (Rostow, 1960, p. 26). The emphasis on elites formed the basis of the “trickle down” thesis, which supposed that the benefits derived from capital poured into the urban top would logically filter down to the rural roots. The priority attached to the economic development of the cities was based on the belief that the emergence of a motivated minority was essential for the generation of savings and investments necessary to get emerging economies off the ground. Significantly, the need to develop the preconditions for economic growth was a principle widely adopted in aid programmes implemented in Africa throughout the First Development Decade and Rostow and his contemporaries established economics (to the virtual exclusion of other disciplines) as the key to progress in post-colonial states.
In contrast, public administration theory, which at the time had yet to achieve similar prominence in the global North, proceeded according to a positivist logic which viewed policy formulation as a technocratic exercise, best addressed through the application of rational decision-making models. Furthermore, premised on an idealised Weberian principle, policy making was viewed as a process distinct from politics, and hence, primarily the responsibility of public officials (Pollitt & Bouckaert, 2011, p. 5). Thus, whilst there was talk of the need for ‘good government’ in African states, this was understood to be the degree to which their policy making and administration systems most closely emulated practices in the former colonial powers (Seidler, 2016, p. 159). The concept of governance, as shall be discussed, had yet to enter the discourse on public administration and policy formulation.
Adding complexity to the process of decolonisation, the transition to independence took place at the height of the ideological struggles of the cold war. In this milieu, newly independent countries in Africa were encouraged to adopt models of economic development administration advanced by Western states (and, to a lesser extent, by the former Soviet Union and Communist Bloc), and indeed, this was generally a precondition for the receipt of foreign aid. In this context, it should perhaps come as no surprise that Rostow’s Stages of Economic Growth was subtitled “a non-communist manifesto”. During this period allegiance to the West and a commitment to capitalism, took precedence over concerns about democracy, autocratic rule, and even corruption. As a result of this, and the desire to maintain their sphere of political and economic influence, former colonial powers and other Western states continued to support despotic leaders such as Mobutu in the Congo, Eyadéma in Togo, and Bokassa in the Central African Republic throughout the first 2 decades of the post-colonial era and beyond.
Notwithstanding increased technical and financial assistance from the global North from the 1960s onwards, however, post-colonial governments in Africa struggled to develop effective public services and were equally unsuccessful in addressing the multiple challenges of statehood and nation building which they had inherited from their colonial masters. In many respects, as Chabal and Daloz have pointed out, this was to be expected since the existence of a Weberian bureaucratic state in colonial Africa, was “essentially a myth of the colonial mission and there was never much chance it would survive at independence” (Chabal & Daloz, 1999, p. 12). The reasons for these shortcomings were multiple and included unequal terms of trade, poor infrastructure, weak institutions, underdeveloped economies, a limited pool of skilled officials, inter-ethnic struggles (accentuated by the divide-and-rule strategies of colonial rule), and elite corruption. This is not to ignore the agency of African leaders in the process or to condone corrupt and authoritarian rule, but rather to suggest that the structure and form of post-colonial states provided an enabling environment for this to happen.
By the late 1970s, confronted with a succession of coups, failing states, weak economic growth and limited poverty reduction, multi-lateral and bi-lateral development agencies began pushing for reform of the administrative systems they had hitherto promoted in states across the continent. As had been the case in the immediate post-colonial era, the focus of these reforms was, in the first instance, on the economy and this tracked neoliberal trends in the North. The most far reaching of the reforms imposed as a conditionality of aid were the Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs) which entailed downsizing of the state and the reduction of government expenditure amongst other measures intended to introduce tighter fiscal control and promote economic stability. As the literature reveals, the SAPs and subsequently New Public Management (NPM), did little to stimulate economic growth and, in many instances, aggravated poverty (Manning, 2001; Mutahaba & Kiragu, 2002; Olowu, 1999). Furthermore, as the cold war subsided and the influence of the Soviet bloc in Africa waned in the 1980s, the attention of international funding agencies and donors shifted to the need for greater political accountability and more effective governance in the states they were assisting. In so doing, what had been viewed as the technocratic process of policy formulation was now seen to include the need for the rule of law, transparency, efficiency and effectiveness, equity, and strategic visioning, amongst other variables of good governance (United Nations Development Programme, 1999). Henceforth, policy formulation in Africa was seen to form part of the exercise of ‘good governance’, but once again, this was premised on the idea that this should replicate ‘best practices’ in economically advanced states in the North. Considerably less thought was given to the development of administrative models which might better suit the context of developing states on the continent. In this environment, prospects for the emergence of indigenous forms of public administration theory in the post-colonial era were by no means propitious.