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The Executive Secretary's Blog

50 years of Development Planning in Africa – lessons and challenges

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14 March 2013

Development planning has a long and chequered history in Africa, and the continent’s development trajectory has been influenced by various approaches to development planning since the early stages of independence.

The first phase of development planning in Africa spanned the 1960s and was characterized by centralized planning with three to five year planning phases. During this period, at least 32 African countries had a national development plan.

This first generation of development plans continued to the 1980s. These plans promoted state-engineered economies with resources allocated by governments. It was notably the time of state-owned enterprises operating in most of the productive sectors.

However, Africa’s development plans of the 1960s had limited success. This was due to a variety of reasons: deficiencies in the plan documents surely, but also failure to implement them; ambitious formulation of targets; institutional and bureaucratic weaknesses; exogenous shocks; and political factors

The second phase in the evolution of planning in Africa was marked by a wholesale abandonment of planning under neoliberal Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), which emerged in the 1980s-1990s with the support of the Bretton Woods Institutions. SAPs aimed to reduce the role of the State in production and service delivery and placed emphasis on macroeconomic stability, downsizing of public sector institutions, privatization and reducing government spending and budget deficits.

The social cost of SAPs is a sad story. The downsizing of the public sector institutions and massive privatizations led to net job losses; the budget restrictions compromised social service delivery and human capital development; and most importantly SAPs failed to yield the envisaged growth outcomes as the annual economic growth for Africa over the 1990s averaged only 2.1 per cent.

These past experiences in planning alerted policymakers and decision-makers to the need to broaden the agenda of public sector reforms and to the importance of good institutions in the development process, especially in the new context of globalization.

In the early 2000s, SAPs were replaced by Poverty Reduction Strategies, which aimed at reversing the negative effects of a decade of Structural Adjustment on welfare and social conditions. PRSPs placed strong emphasis on poverty reduction as a condition for debt relief. Many African countries embarked on at least two generations of PRSPs, mostly to ensure eligibility for debt relief.

Notwithstanding the principle of ownership and consultations that underpinned PRSPs, they lacked credibility because of the externally driven nature of the process. Furthermore, PRSPs tended to place disproportionate emphasis on the social sector at the expense of the productive sector thereby raising questions about the sustainability of the poverty reduction agenda.

In the last decade, there has been increasing interest in, and a return to, more comprehensive development plans that go beyond way beyond short-sighted PRSPs. Indeed, many African countries have adopted long-term development visions and planning frameworks with far more ambitious growth and social development objectives.

National Development Strategies (NDS) have now gone beyond the narrow objective of poverty reduction to encompass objectives such as accelerated growth, employment creation, structural transformation and sustainable development. Unlike the 1960s, these plans employ a mix of state and market-based approaches and appreciate the critical role of both the public and the private sector in the development process.

Many African countries have developed Long Term Visions to guide their steps towards these ambitious objectives. These long-term visions are characterized by stronger ownership from African actors and a more consultative and participatory process involving a broad spectrum of stakeholders, including Civil Society, the private sector, decentralized constituencies and development partners.

These broader national development plans often take into consideration various global and continental development goals and frameworks such as NEPAD.

Challenges however remain. They include, ensuring credible consultation processes, prioritizing funding in line with development aspirations, coordinating donors, strengthening capacities to implement projects and programmes, and developing effective monitoring and evaluation systems that feed back into the policy-making process.

In short, more work is required to improve the planning frameworks in Africa in order to translate development aspirations and priorities into concrete results.

ECA is committed to support the strengthening of member states’ capacities to design, implement and monitor effective planning frameworks.To this end, the institution is undergoing a repositioning exercise that aims to better align its work with the priorities of the continent with the ultimate objective of promoting economic growth and structural transformation.

The effectiveness of national planning systems hinges largely on the quality and availability of data. Data informs the setting of priorities and facilitates the tracking of performance. 

ECA is cognizant of the data challenges faced by member states and is currently strengthening its institutional structures and processes to better support countries address their data challenges. Our statistical capacity will be multiplied by ten in one year. Our sub-regional offices will play an important role in this effort by according greater priority to the collection and assembly of credible data to support countries with their data needs.

Another important aspect is coordination. Coordination between ministries of finance and the ministries or entities in charge of development planning, among others, is likely to better link the planning cycles to those of the budget, therefore ensuring an effective implementation of the national development plan.

We can leverage our development planning capacities by developing mechanisms for peer learning and experience sharing.

To support this effort ECA has developed a network of development planners which includes an electronic platform that will serve as a repository of literature current research related to development planning. The platform will also include forums for discussion and exchange of ideas and experiences related to all aspects of planning.

Africa’s turbulent experience with development planning in the past is ceding ground to a more positive outlook for the future. Indeed, there are some good examples of success stories among African countries, which graduated from low income countries to middle income countries (Cape Verde, Ghana, Zambia, and Botswana).

In addition, some African countries such as Ethiopia, Nigeria and Uganda have adopted long-term development visions and planning frameworks with far more ambitious growth and social development objectives and more detailed strategies and policies than those typically included in PRSPs.

Africa is at an exciting juncture in its development journey and is poised to become a new pole of global growth. To achieve this, however, Africa must continue to plan its development trajectory, increase policy space, and make prudent decisions about the appropriate strategies needed to achieve economic growth and structural transformation.

It is indeed commonly said that failing to plan means planning to fail.

Our past and current experiences tell us that Africa does have several challenges in the area of development planning.But we also know that there are opportunities for strengthened the design, implementation and monitoring of national development strategies.


This piece was earlier published in March in


Submitted by Brouk Yiheyis on

At the time of independence, the African states have faced four fundamental challenges:

1. Firstly, newly independent states needed to instill a national identity and a sense of national unity among the people living in their territories.

2. Secondly, the new political leadership was faced with the challenge of addressing the colonial legacy of ‘under-development’ and embedded inequalities in education, health, employment and other aspects of social development.

3. The third challenge for newly independent states was to take control of the economy and improve national economic performance.

4. Finally, newly independent states were faced with the challenge of ‘state building’ and the need to establish legitimate, viable and effective organizations of governance and development.

The 1950s and 1960s: the development era

Evidence suggests that in the first two decades of independence, African states made significant strides in relation to the four fundamental challenges outlined above.

The 1970s: crisis in development planning

The early 1970s saw a continuation of the gains made in the preceding ten to twenty years but with more attention to the distributional dimensions of development.

1980s: structural adjustment

In the 1980s, a narrow perspective of development as economic growth, best facilitated and distributed through the market mechanism, held sway.

The 1990s: ‘structural adjustment with a human face’

As early as the late 1980s, concerns about poverty equity and the narrow conceptualization of development in neoliberal thinking resurfaced.

Between 1960 and 2000, African states have been able to make impressive achievements in relation to almost all social development indicators. The attributes of China, India and the Republic of Korea-three of the recently acclaimed major emerging economic power houses and global growth poles in 2000-2010 provide a basis for proposing the imperatives to make Africa a global growth pole. Future growth in the World Economy and in the developing world will depend on harnessing both the productive potential and the untapped consumer demand of the continent. ( AfdB, UNECA and AUC).

Submitted by Fantu Cheru on

Thanks for opening up the debate on development planning. Three things to keep in mind. 1. An effective and competent democratic state is a pre-requisite for formulating a realistic and people-centered development. 2. Development planning must be realistic. The three drivers of transformational change--the state, the private sector, and civil society should have equal weight in formulating and implementing the development plan. Neither the state, civil society nor the private sector has a monopoly of knowledge as what is to be done in Africa today. Times have changed. There must be mutual accountability between the three agents of change. 3. Development planning should not become a platform to reproduce old inequalities.

Submitted by Eyob Balcha Geb... on

Thanks for your insight!

I agree to most of your points and the crucial role that UNECA has been playing. Indeed, the present context across the world proved us the fact that we need muscular government that can manage to plan effectively for long term structural transformation and execute its plan irrespective of the external challenges which may sustain the already existing inequality.

I know that UNECA has huge capacity to contribute in the continental development and transformation process. What I would like to kindly ask you is that to what extent does UNECA keep on using its policy documents to influence the processes at continental level. I certainly believe that the one of UNECA's greatest contribution particularly during the SAP period was the African Alternative Framework for SAP. The policy options and recommendations of this document were very appropriate to the developmental challenges of the continent and I believe that they are still some valid elements at the present time as well. Yes, the political power of the WB and IMF were beyond measures at that time to sideline the alternative perspectives. I think we can still benefit from UNECA if there is a task to review what went right in the past so as to take some inspiring lessons.

Submitted by Yohannes Hailu on

I salute the Executive Secretary for articulating the past challenges with regard to development planning in Africa, and the consequences there-of. The prognosis has led to the recommendation that Africa-owned development planning is timely, which could offer Africa the opportunity to guide its development course. This assertive position on Africa-driven development is indeed a breath of fresh air.

I believe that while planning is important, and strengthening it through concrete and reliable data is indeed crucial, the risk of proper State planning lending to the temptation of centralized economic directing has to be recognized. Growth and prosperity, as economic science would predict, are largely tied to free enterprise, innovation, entrepreneurship, good institutions and infrastructure, greater private sector participation, and sound, tested, science-driven economic policies, all supported by proper economic development strategy and plan.

The delicate balance between development planning and securing space for free enterprise, innovation, entrepreneurship, and private sector growth are indeed necessary.

This is indeed Africa's century, and this time, we remain confident that we get it right.

Submitted by njeri on

Great article. I think we also need to go beyond linking ministries of finance and planning and also include those that deal with citizen's security as we can plan development but not go far due to insecurity. there is need to adopt a joined up approach where security, development and planning are are all linked up togther.

Submitted by Ndangwa Noyoo on

Many thanks. These are indeed refreshing thoughts. However, it must be mentioned that national development plans failed to interface with policy development in Africa, in past epochs. Arguably, there had not been much robustness in the public policy realm, especially social policy, because such arenas had remained the domain of politicians, who in most cases were of humble education. Nonetheless, they continued to be key players, especially during the one-party state era. Due to this unfortunate situation, it was always difficult for governments to translate policy intents into programmatic actions, due to lack of rigour. Africa’s socio-economic woes can mainly be attributed to both policy and institutional failures. In fact, in certain instances, there were no policies or institutional frameworks to guide national development pursuits articulated in such plans. The dearth of policies or their non-articulation ultimately led to the public spheres to degenerate to such levels that public goods could not be accessed by the citizenry. Effective policies and institutions in Africa must be taken as vital arteries that should deliver well-being, in the form of services, to the mass of the people. This requires a very competent cadre of public servants who are appointed by African governments not because they belong to the ruling party, or originate from the president’s ethnic group, but because they are capable. They must be able to ferret out the necessary evidence necessary for arriving at a well-defined and well-informed policy development process. In short, there is a need for evidence based governments in Africa and unlike now where many are still driven by emotions and anecdotes.

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