Increasing and Diminishing Returns – Africa’s Opportunity to Develop

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‘This tendency to Diminishing Returns was the cause of Abraham’s parting from Lot, and of most of the migrations of which history tells’ wrote the founder of neo-classical economics, Alfred Marshall, in the first edition of his textbook Principles of Economics (1890). In a footnote he refers to the Bible’s Genesis xiii : 6: ‘And the land was not able to bear them that they might dwell together; for their substance was great so they could not dwell together’. (Marshall 1890: 201)

Marshall’s observation also applies to today’s migration patterns: from countries where most activities are subject to constant or diminishing returns to countries whose key economic activities are subject to increasing returns to scale. Diminishing returns occur when one factor of production is limited by nature, which means that it occurs in agriculture, mining, and fisheries. Normally the best land, the best ore, and the richest fishing grounds are exploited first, and – after a point – the more a country specialises in these activities, the poorer it gets. OECD (2018) shows how this occurs in Chilean copper mining: every ton of copper is produced with a higher cost than the previous ton.

In Alfred Marshall’s theory, the ‘Law of Diminishing Returns’ is juxtaposed with ‘The Law of Increasing Returns’, also called economies of scale. Here we find the opposite phenomenon; the larger the volume of production, the cheaper the next unit of production becomes. Traditionally economies of scale were mainly found in manufacturing industry, and increasing returns combined with technological change has for centuries been the main driving force of economic growth. Increasing returns creates imperfect competition, market power and large barriers to entry for challengers – companies or nations – making it difficult for them to enter these industries. In contrast to the rents produced under conditions of increasing returns, raw materials – commodities – on the other hand, are subject to perfect markets, and productivity improvements spread as lowered prices. This is the essence of the theory which explains why former World Bank Chief Economist Justin Yifu Lin was correct hen he asserted that ‘Except for a few oil-exporting countries, no countries have ever gotten rich without industrialization first’ (Lin 2012 : 350).Read More »

Pitfalls of the Developmental State: The Fate of the Sudanese Economic Model

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I have lately been grappling with the question of how African states came into being, not just as political, but especially economic territorial units. Connected to this are questions of how experts, especially economists came to influence and account for what became national economies. At the center of the state, economy and society are critical question of development and welfare. How did independent African countries make sense of their inheritance and what mechanisms did they deploy to transform themselves into coherent nations of multiple but entangled identities with disparate circumstance but common material goals united by the logic of a national economy? As I grappled with these issues, a great new monograph informed by an impressive historiography has arrived. The author grounds his work in an archivally based history of the transformation of the Sudan into an economic unit between the 1940s and the 1960s. Alden Young’s new book: Transforming the Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development, and State Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) is centred on addressing these question using the history of a territory that transformed from being an Anglo-Egyptian Sudan condominium into the independent state of Sudan.Read More »

Thinking politically about capital controls: a class perspective

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The recent global financial crisis sparked renewed debates, both within academia and policy-making circles, about regulating highly mobile cross-border money-capital flows. A particular type of policy tool has received considerable attention: capital controls (CC). Within mainstream economics and policy-oriented circles (including policy-makers in central banks, finance ministries, and international organisations such as the IMF and the G20) there has been a growing recognition that unregulated cross-border money-capital flows can considerably disrupt capital accumulation, and debates have accordingly focused on the potential role and effectiveness of temporary CC in limiting the destabilising potential of those flows, while maintaining a long-term commitment to an open capital-account and free capital mobility.[1] By contrast, the Left (including organised labour, progressive economists, and civil society organisations) has been largely critical of capital-account liberalisation, and has denounced its detrimental effects in terms of constraining policy options for development and long-term industrial development.[2]Read More »

The BRICS and a Changing World

This July and August, I led an international group of experts in preparing an Economic Report on the role of the BRICS countries (Brazil, China, India, Russia and South Africa) in the world economy and international development.  The Report was commissioned as an input to the Summit of BRICS countries that took place in early September 2017 in Xiamen, China.

It surveys the BRICS countries’ sizable contribution to global growth, trade and investment, evaluates the prospects for this to continue in the future, and explores the possible role that these countries can play in bolstering the global economy, in reshaping international economic arrangements and in contributing to the Sustainable Development Goals and to international development generally. An important conclusion in the report is that continued BRICS growth as well as policy initiatives can substantially benefit other developing countries (the report uses the IMF category of Emerging Market and Developing Countries, or EMDCs) – and developed countries too.  I will  be pleased if the report will be circulated widely, and welcome all reactions.Read More »

Small and Medium Enterprise Development: A Case of Hamlet without the Prince

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Towards the end of 2016, something remarkable happened in the relationship between the private sector and state in South Africa. In an effort to keep the big three rating agencies from downgrading the country’s the sovereign credit rating to “junk status” the CEO Initiative was convened at the request of the President and his Deputy and led by the then Minister of Finance. The initiative’s initial goals were to prevent a sovereign rating downgrade and to stimulate inclusive and sustainable growth. To achieve this, three work streams were established: a fund for small and medium sized enterprises (SME), a youth employment scheme, and an investment intervention team. This post critically assesses the theoretical basis for SME development as a tool for inclusive growth.Read More »

The Limitations of Zimbabwe’s Contenting Political Economy Paradigms

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As the 2018 elections in Zimbabwe draw near, the political contest on which political party is best suited to steer the country towards a better future will be dominated by the economic agenda during campaigns. The kind of language that both ZANU PF and the opposition coalition led by the MDC (M) will use to persuade the electorate has become all too familiar.

On the one hand will be the nationalist/patriotic discourse celebrating land reform and advancing the programme for indigenisation and economic empowerment. Inherently connected to that is a sharp criticism of global imperial machinations against Zimbabwe through sanctions against a party determined to defend the fruits of its economic transformation following the fast track land reform programme. Underlying this discourse is the argument that Zimbabwe is using local economic transformation to challenge the worst excesses of enduring global imperialism. ZANU PF will again depict the opposition, particularly the MDC, as a movement that is severely compromised by collusion with the imperialist west to the extent that it will struggle to balance local national interests against those of the British and American governments.

Offering an alternative narrative to this discourse is opposition politics that will claim that the more immediate struggle is against nationalist authoritarianism. Making reference to the unending economic crisis, the opposition will argue that the ruling party presided over a poor human rights record, economic collapse characterised by high deindustrialisation, record unemployment, the informalisation of the economy and hyperinflation in the period between 2000 to 2009; as well as its contrasting current excesses of severe illiquidity. The suggested alternative will be re-engagement with the global economy through attracting investment and creating jobs for all.Read More »

The Forthcoming 2018 Elections in Zimbabwe: A Gaze from the Economic Lens

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This blog post attempts to proffer insights on the possible influence of prevailing economic circumstances and how they may play out in political dynamics in the run-up to the 2018 elections. Zimbabwean politics has been intensely competitive since the formation of the MDC in 1999, giving the ruling ZANU PF the most effective challenge since independence. Nowhere, however, did the opposition come any closer to clinching electoral victory than in 2008 where they were eventually talked into sharing power after a violent build up to the run-off elections. The two parties will face each other again in 2018 and the question that remains is whether the efforts at ‘grand coalition’ building will address the deficiencies of the opposition. However, as 2018 draws near, it is becoming crystal clear that the structural constraints facing the economy is already setting the battlelines for political parties. Therefore, debates on ‘grand coalition’ building in one way or another will have to address the question of the economy in a manner that will resonate with the ordinary men. The political parties that will see beyond electoral fraud and malpractices in their strategies will most likely have more traction with voters.Read More »