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African agency: A paradox at the heart of governance


Discussion of ‘African agency’ must distinguish between the continent and specific groups of Africans, and can manifest as resistance to totalitarian power.

Assessing the extent to which Africa can act autonomously to shape its place in the world demands first determining which Africa is being talked about. Tracing the rise and fall of the governance agenda in development offers a useful perspective.

The pursuit of good governance, as defined internationally, has been central to development theory and practice since the end of the Cold War.

It values robust institutions, participatory democracy, accountability, the rule of law, and human rights – universal ‘good things’ in the eyes of many of Africa’s external partners, and foundational for state-building, stability, and pro-growth.

But the challenge is this view has not proved to be universally shared among Africans, and particularly not so by political elites because, in some places, good governance directly threatens the systems which sustain elites in power, often fuelled by patronage.

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