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Travails for the Ivory Coast

Published by Newsweek on 1998-11-01

Not long after the Ivory Coast gained its independence from France in 1960, the country's founding father, the late Felix Houphouet-Boigny, articulated his economic philosophy for the West African state. He called it "state capitalism"--which meant that government would energetically encourage the creation of wealth by offering tax breaks and other incentives to the private sector. But, unlike authorities in many nations emerging from colonialism, the Ivorian government would stay on the sidelines when it came to determining how that wealth would be distributed.

That is to say, President Houphouet-Boigny set out to deliberately create a contrast to the "state socialism" that had been made fashionable by developing-country titans such as Jawaharlal Nehru in India, Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt, and Josip Tito Broz in Yugoslavia. Houphouet-Boigny resolved that in the Ivory Coast, no welfare state would be supported, no web of bureaucrats would stifle the vigor of the marketplace, no government diktats would smother private enterprise. In promoting "state capitalism," Houphouet-Boigny would frequently quote former West German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard: "Let the men and money loose, and prosperity will follow." And under his long stewardship--which was part paternalistic, part authoritarian, and part democratic, until his death in 1993--the Ivory Coast was widely perceived by donor countries and developing nations as a showcase of economic and social development.

Last week, however, the nine-man military junta that deposed Houphou?t Boigny's handpicked successor, President Henri Konan Boedi?, averred that "state capitalism" had been little less than a massive fraud. The Ivory Coast had become a personal piggybank for rapacious politicians of the ruling Democratic Party (PDCI), the junta said. In effect debunking Houphouet Boigny's long-revered mythic status, Gen. Robert Gue?--the former army chief who seized power on December 24--declared that civilian government under both Boedi? and Houphouet-Boigny had fostered only a two-tiered society in this nation of 19 million: the very rich and the very poor. The 58-year-old Gueie pointed to the country's external debt of $20 billion; to the fact that pledged loans to the Ivory Coast had been suspended earlier in 1999 by several foreign donors who cited endemic corruption. The military--which allowed Boedi? to flee to neighboring Togo -said that prosperity was just chimerical, with the patina of Francophonic society concealing rising social and ethnic tensions spawned by rapidly growing poverty, disease and a deteriorating infrastructure.

Once rampaging soldiers ceased looting stores in major cities such as Abidjan, General Gueei's coup was cheered by everyday Ivorians, whose per capita income is barely the equivalent of $1,200. That was to be expected, of course, especially since the 65-year-old Henri Konan Boedi? had become a despised caricature, one who'd jailed political opponents, muzzled the media and condoned colleagues' profligacy. But the toppling of a government that was elected in 1995 raised fresh concerns about the capacity of politically fragile states in what used to be called the Third World to sustain democratic forms of governance. And the Ivorian upheaval posed new doubts about whether the year 2000 would indeed usher in what the United Nations has floated as the "African Century." Three especially piquant points present themselves:

_ An appropriate economic model. Although few developing-country leaders any longer yearn for Nehru's benign socialism, there's increasing recognition that market economics hasn't benefitted many poor states. In endorsing Reaganite "free market" policies, developing-country leaders had always assumed that during the transitional stage there would be continuing support from donors in the form of foreign aid. But in 1999, foreign aid from the 29 richest countries fell to a new low of $40 billion- from a high of $75 billion in 1965. Private investment fell substantially, too, and domestic resources in countries such as the Ivory Coast couldn't be mobilized sufficiently to meet the requirements of growing populations and rising economic and social expectations. Add to this the rampant corrupt and mismanagement in much of the developing world. Developing countries are bereft of a neat model for economic and social growth, and this in turn has darkened prospects for smoother political governance as poor countries witness ominous rising tides of social and ethnic tensions.

_ A moniker for the new decade. The 1950s were regarded as the decade of independence for a growing number of territories administered by countries such as Britain, France and Portugal; the 1960s were a time of soaring economic aspirations nurtured by independence, such as in the Ivory Coast; the 1970s were a time when developing countries saw world prices for their commodities and minerals fetch astonishingly high revenues--which in turn emboldened them to embark on ambitious, and often foolish, development schemes; the 1980s offered a "reality check," when world prices crashed and developing-country debt rose to more than $1 trillion; and the 1990s have ended with general economic despair for a former Third-World largely left behind by the prosperity engendered by Western-driven globalization, with democracy triumphant in Nigeria, reconfirmed in India, and thrown out in the Ivory Coast and Pakistan, and a politico-religious-inspired airplane hijacking in the Indian Subcontinent. So what will the 2000s bring?

_ A role for global institutions. The economic, social and political crises afflicting many of the world's 130 developing nations appear to have demoralized international institutions such as the World Bank, and many U.N. Agencies. These entities have been also hurt by incompetent management, tired ideas and depleted resources. Yet, multilateral agencies can provide timely assistance, particularly in humanitarian emergencies and in spurring development at the grassroots. But there's little sentiment among donors in support of strengthening these institutions--which may be a shortsighted position to take in view of the fact that bilateral assistance is scarcely adequate to cope with the mounting development needs of an increasingly interdependent world.

The incipient "African Century" that the shamans of the international development community like to proclaim is, of course, a metaphor for political peace, economic growth, social stability and environmental protection in rich and poor countries alike. During this century, Africa's population is expected to double to a billion people, while the global population will grow from 6 billion to almost twice that figure. Last week's events in the Ivory Coast may well be a harbinger for a world which universally wants the new century to bring more encouraging news.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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