Reflections on aid and regime change in Ethiopia: a response to Cheeseman

By Jimi O. Adesina, Andrew M. Fischer and Nimi Hoffmann

In a piece, published on 22 December 2020, that he describes as the most important thing he wrote in 2020, Nic Cheeseman penned a strong criticism of what he calls the ‘model of authoritarian development’ in Africa. This phrase refers specifically to Ethiopia and Rwanda, the only two countries that fit the model, which is otherwise not generalisable to the rest of the continent. His argument, in a nutshell, is that donors have been increasingly enamoured with these two countries because they are seen as producing results. Yet the recent conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia shows that this argument needs to be questioned and discarded. He calls for supporting democracy in Africa, which he claims performs better in the long run than authoritarian regimes, especially in light of the conflicts and repression that inevitably emerge under authoritarianism. His argument could also be read as an implicit call for regime change, stoking donors to intensify political conditionalities on these countries before things get even worse.

Cheeseman’s argument rests on a number of misleading empirical assertions which have important implications for the conclusions that he draws. In clarifying these, our point is not to defend authoritarianism. Instead, we hope to inject a measure of interpretative caution and to guard against opportunistically using crises to fan the disciplinary zeal of donors, particularly in a context of increasingly militarised aid regimes that have been associated with disastrous ventures into regime change.

We make two points. First, his story of aid dynamics in Ethiopia is not supported by the data he cites, which instead reflect the rise of economic ‘reform’ programmes pushed by the World Bank and IMF. The country’s current economic difficulties also need to be placed in the context of the systemic financial crisis currently slamming the continent, in which both authoritarian and (nominally) democratic regimes are faring poorly.

Second, we reflect on Cheeseman’s vision of aid as a lever of regime change. Within already stringent economic adjustment programmes, his call for intensifying political conditionalities amounts to a Good Governance Agenda 2.0. It ignores the legacy of the structural adjustment programmes in subverting deliberative governance on the continent during the 1980s and 1990s. 

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From the Washington Consensus to the Wall Street Consensus

Photo: Jpellgen

A new report published by the Washington DC office of the Heinrich Böll Foundation reviews the recent initiative being led by the G20 countries and their respective development finance institutions, including the major multilateral development banks, for the financialization of development lending that is based on the stepped-up use of securitization markets.

The report details how the initiative goes beyond the Washington Consensus reforms of the last few decades by calling on developing countries to adopt even farther-reaching degrees of financial liberalization on a new order of magnitude. In what Prof. Daniela Gabor of the University of West England, Bristol, calls the Wall Street Consensus,” such reforms would involve a wholesale reorganization of the financial sectors and the creation of new financial markets in developing countries in order to accommodate the investment practices of global institutional investors.

The new report, From the Washington Consensus to the Wall Street Consensus describes the key elements of the new initiative – specifically how securitization markets work and how the effort is designed to greatly increase the amount financing available for projects in developing countries by attracting new streams of private investment from private capital markets. The paper introduces the basic logic underpinning the initiative: to leverage the MDBs’ current USD 150 billion in annual public development lending into literally USD trillions for new development finance. In fact, the World Bank had initially called the initiative “From Billions to Trillions,” before finally calling it, “Maximizing Finance for Development.

While securitization can be useful for individual investors and borrowers under certain circumstances, the proposal to use securitization markets to finance international development projects in developing countries raises a set of major concerns. The report lists 7 important ways in which the G20-DFI initiative introduces a wide range of new risks to the financial systems in developing countries while undermining autonomous efforts at national economic development.

The key risks of securitization are:

  • The inherent risk because securitization relies on the use of the “shadow banking” system that is based on over-leveraged, high-risk investments that are largely unregulated and not backed by governments during financial crises;
  • The extensive use of public-private partnerships, despite the poor track record of PPPs, many of which have ended up costing taxpayers as much if not more than if the investments had been undertaken with traditional public financing;
  • The degree of proposed deregulation reforms in the domestic financial sector required of developing countries would undermine the ability of “developmental states” to regulate finance in favor of national economic development;
  • The degree of financial deregulation required would also undermine sovereignty by making the national economy increasingly dependent on shortterm flows from global private capital markets and thereby undermine the sovereign power of governments and their autonomous control of the domestic economy;
  • The uncertainty relating to governance and accountability for the environmental, social and governance standards associated with development projects. Such accountability has been fixed to traditional forms of public MDB financing for development project loans, but as future ownership of assets is commercialized and financialized, fiduciary obligations to investors may override obligations to enforce ESG implementation;
  • The deepening of the domestic financial sectors in developing countries, as required by the initiative, can create vulnerability as the size of the financial sector grows relative to that of the real sector within economies; and
  • The privatization and commercialization of public services, including infrastructure services, as called for by the initiative, has faced a growing backlash as reflected by the global trend of remunicipalizations. The fact that the securitization initiative is being promoted in such a high profile way by the G20 and leading DFIs despite all of these risks reflects an intensified contest between those supporting the public interest and those supporting the private interest.

The report also documents the relatively minor degree of interest expressed so far by global financial markets in the initiative, suggesting it is not likely to galvanize the trillions of dollars claimed by its proponents.

It concludes by reviewing the arguments for the scaled up use of traditional public financing mechanisms and several of the important ways in which this can be done, including steps that could be taken by G20 countries, DFIs and governments.

Rick Rowden recently completed his PhD in Economic Studies and Planning from Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) in New Delhi.


Advocates of the SDGs have a monetarism problem

UN Secretariat Headquarters, New York. UN Photo.

More expansionary fiscal and monetary policies are needed to meet the Sustainable Development Goals

This month, the international community will gather at the United Nations in New York to review progress on the implementation of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) that are intended to reduce poverty, hunger and economic inequality and promote development, particularly in developing countries. But only one of the SDGs, #17, says anything about how to finance all the efforts. While SDG 17 calls for more international cooperation and foreign aid, it only suggests that developing countries strengthen domestic resource mobilization (DRM) by improving their tax collection and curtailing illicit financial flows, etc.

While important, this approach neglects much bigger problems with the prevailing set of macroeconomic policies that hamper the ability of developing countries to increase public investment, employment and scale-up the long-term investments in the underlying health and education infrastructure needed to achieve the SDGs. The policy framework used in many developing countries is characterized by an overly restrictive low-inflation target achieved by using high interest rates and backed up by strict inflation targeting regimes at independent central banks.Read More »

Tensions in Hegemonic Stability and Global Structural Transformation


In this article I argue that there is a fundamental tension characterizing the process of global development and structural change. Industrial policy is necessary for triggering structural change in the developing world. Yet such efforts put pressure on economic leaders to adjust structurally as well. Drawing from international relations theory, a hegemon is necessary to provide international public goods such as peace, which are critical for development to be possible in the first place. But this necessity gives the hegemon expansive powers over international institutions of economic governance; and this enables the hegemon to externalize the costs of adjustment associated with structural change in the developing world.Read More »

To be Poor in Times of the Current Financial Architecture

Late developers are nowadays confronted with the problem of having to earn foreign currency to finance structural transformation under extremely unfavourable conditions. The dependency on forex is rooted in the international financial architecture and represents a major pitfall for countries trying to catch up. However, this structural impediment to transformation is not paid much attention to by the dominant development economics.Read More »

Market Power = Trade Power? Why the Strong Don’t Always Win in Trade Negotiations


Do stronger countries always get what they want in trade negotiations? My new book – Power in North-South Trade Negotiations – suggests not. In it, I ask how African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) countries were able to extract a series of concessions from the European Union in negotiations for free trade agreements over the last two decades. In doing so, I explore the underlying reasons why power relationships in trade politics are more complex than they appear at first glance. Read More »

The World Bank Pushes Shadow Banking in the Name of Development

10229163274_7cb142ccf3_o.jpgLast month, central bankers and politicians around the world remembered the global financial crisis and the lessons learnt in its wake. The consensus goes at follows: we have done a great deal to reform banks and protect tax payers from their aggressive risk taking but we haven’t done enough on shadow banking. At this point, the consensus fragments. Central banks claim that they need more power to deal with systemic risks stemming from the shadows, whereas politicians worry about the moral hazards involved in future rescues of shadow banks like Lehman.

We are all the more concerned that the same authorities have been actively promoting shadow banking in the Global South. Under headings such as Billions to Trillions and the World Bank’s new Maximizing Finance for Development (MFD) agendathe new strategy for achieving the Sustainable Development Goals is to use shadow banking to create ‘investable’ opportunities in infrastructure, water, health or education and thus attract the trillions in global institutional investment.Read More »

Increasing and Diminishing Returns – Africa’s Opportunity to Develop

A drone shot of colorful shipping containers in a shipping terminal

‘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 »