The Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa (OSISA), the UN Economic Commission for Southern Africa, the Southern Africa Trust and UNDP-South Africa hosted a regional conference on “Building Democratic Developmental States for Economic Transformation in Southern Africa” from the 20-22nd July 2015. The conference brought together over 50 participants representing academia, civil society organisations, and representatives of regional economic communities.
What emerged during the two-day discussions was that there is a huge leadership deficit in the region as a key enabler for a democratic developmental state. This was partly due to contestations within the region on leadership quality and capacity, especially in the context of a globalized world, confronted with domestic and international economic policy challenges. To address the challenges resulting from a lack of visionary and effective leadership, the conference agreed that leadership, as a key enabler of democratic developmental states should be committed to a rights-based economic development and inclusive growth. This should be complemented by a clear vision created through participatory processes undergirded by political, human and financial means to ensure its attainment.
Another very important issue that emerged across the conference proceedings was the lack of citizen engagement in the key decision making processes within the region. Research has shown that successful democratic developmental states promoted citizen engagement that holds the leadership accountable. Participants decried the fact that the top-down policy making approach was further exacerbating the increasing levels of frustration amongst citizens as examples were made of increasing service delivery protests in South Africa. This was a seen as an indication that top-down policy making processes was counterproductive to realizing a democratic developmental state. Therefore, citizen engagement throughout the policy making process was key and this needs to be the most important force driving constitutional frameworks.
The role and nature of the economy were robustly debated at the conference. Economies in the southern Africa region are largely enclave economies, which are economies that benefit a few political and private elites, whilst excluding the majority from actively benefiting and engaging in the formal economy. Participants decried the attention placed on the “Africa Rising” narrative, which they argued will not result in unemployment being halved and that the focus on the narrative excluded key major developmental challenges of illicit financial flows, capital flight and lack of domestic resource mobilization. It was therefore recommended that there is a need for creation of a conducive policy environment that will facilitate the transition from the informal to the formal sector of all bona fide economic activities that are being rendered illegal under the existing regulatory framework. Secondly, it was recommended that the democratic developmental state must focus on regionally integrated value chains.