Africa’s been constrained. It’s time to change that

 In op-ed, personal

 “Is a new debt crisis mounting in Africa?” “Africa’s debt crisis hampers its fight against covid-19” and  “African nations sitting on debt volcano These are all headlines from as far back as August 2019 , from various international and African media outlets, aiming to objectively inform the general public about Africa’s finances.

The problem with these headlines? They are not impartial.

They all come from a constrained narrative about debt – a narrative that is largely shaped from outside the African continent and goes back to the late 1970s. It has its origins in the colonialism that many African countries fought so hard to finally escape from in 1963. And it needs changing in at least four distinct ways.

Let me explain.

First, the narrative tends to group the entire continent together. The term ‘Sub-Saharan Africa’ is frequently used as a broad generalisation for a collection of African countries seen to be backwards. The fact is the diversity in economic and political experiences across the continent necessitates bespoke country-level analysis on the questions of debt.

Second, the narrative tends to be ahistorical. The headlines don’t incorporate figures from the debt crisis of the 1980/90s, which arose from reasons entirely outside of the continent – just like COVID19. Back then, many African countries – in particular those newly decolonised – had been using money from their exports, as well as loans from other governments and international private banks as a means to build infrastructure and industrial capacity. But with the second global oil price shock of 1979, this came to an end. Many countries then experienced a combination of falling commodity prices and rapidly rising interest rates on the international loans they had taken to start industrialising.  Debt then rose and  many African countries were encouraged to work with multilateral organisations to “reform” using Structural Adjustment Programs (SAPs). In simple English this meant cutting government spending while “selling off the family silver” – essentially privatisation to deliver basic public services. Sadly, yet predictably, these austerity programmes hindered rather than helped citizen’s abilities to access basic needs, cutting growth, further increasing debt and therefore slicing government budgets further. It was therefore no surprise that debt needed to be cancelled – austerity made it impossible to meet debt obligations.

Third, the current debt narrative does not acknowledge the very real need for finance that most African governments are seeking to plug with loans. While there has been a distinct improvement in growth and poverty outcomes over the last two decades, the fact is that more long-term developmental challenges across Africa remain, which in some cases can only be addressed through external finance – and in particular loans.

The African Development Bank estimates Africa’s infrastructure financing needs to be a massive USD 170 billion a year by 2025, with an estimated external financing gap of up to US$68 to 108 billion a year.[1]  This does not include the financing needs to meet non-infrastructure SDGs – such as education or health – nor the increased needs for digital access in a post-COVID19 age. An estimated 73% of the population in Angola, one of the most allegedly “indebted” African countries still has not got internet access. That figure for Cameroon – 70%. Ghana – 62%. Zambia – 46%.  Much will need to be borrowed, and it is responsible of African governments to try to, to pay for this much needed structural transformation of the economy to create jobs.

Fourth, and finally, the narrative tends to forget the “agency” of African governments and instead focus on what others are doing – portraying them either as saviours or bogeymen.  For instance, when the Nigerian government decided to seek a loan from the IMF for COVID19 recovery, the Bloomberg headline was “IMF Approves $3.4 Billion in Emergency Funding for Nigeria”.  An article that ascribed agency would begin by setting out Nigeria’s COVID19 spending to date, and describe the choices facing Nigeria’s government. It might set out the planned use for and terms and conditions of such a loan and thus explain the IMF as a choice. The same issues arise when African governments seek loans from China – except this time China is no saviour. Hence, we see coverage such as “China in the driver’s seat amid calls for Africa debt relief”. But African governments are not the subjects of others – they make decisions and should be accountable to their citizens. Questions such as whether borrowing is of high quality – whether it will deliver change and transformation – are pertinent. These need to be included in the narrative.

So what does this mean going forward? Well, the book “Scarcity” by Senhil Mulainathan outlines how poor people often make bad financial decisions – not necessarily because they are uneducated, but because they are under constraints. We saw back in the 1980s what trouble that can bring.

Right now, we are essentially back to the late 1970s – at stage one of the external shock, and there is a real risk now of falling into a new austerity trap if we, African citizens, do not assert a “unconstrained” narrative and understanding of our financial situation in order to make the right policy decisions. This narrative must have the core principles of African agency, accountability to citizens, and equity in terms of people’s access to basic needs and growth.

My firm Development Reimagined has just launched a series of “debt guides” including a new debt transparency index for 20 African countries to help kickstart an “unconstrained” narrative and “unconstrained” policy decisions. This is available for African citizens, journalists, civil society organisations and all others around the world to use as a starting point whenever exploring these issues. We’re also launching a new video series to explore what “unconstrained policy” looks like with leading African policy-makers, and in early 2021 will hosting a series of open debates on options for how African countries and other development partners can shape future domestic and global systems to have agency, accountability and equity at their core.

For now, we just need to remember that those headlines are not always impartial. In 2021, we will start changing that.

Visit for more information.

This article was published in Quartz Africa

Photo Credit: Quartz 

[1] African Development Bank, 2020. Supporting Public Private Partnerships in Africa: African Development Bank ready to scale up.

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Research Analyst

Edmond is a research analyst who is passionate about sustainable development, innovation, and the environment. Passionate about climate financing, he firmly believe there is a more reliable system to promote equality, growth, and welfare in societies without affecting the ecosystem. Through his skills, knowledge and experienced gained over 7 years, he wants to make an impact in the world of development. Edmond holds a Master’s Degree in Public Policy from Korea Development Institute and a BA Degree (Honors) in Business from University of Derby.


    Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.


Deputy Director

Leah Lynch is Deputy Director of Development Reimagined (DR), and head of the China office. Leah has over 10 years of experience in development and has lived in China for over 8 years. Leah has also travelled extensively around Asia and Africa for research. Leah supports the strategic direction of the team across China, with a mission to deliver high quality research on sustainable development and poverty reduction. Leah is also Chair of the Sustainability Forum at the British Chamber of Commerce in China, providing direction on sustainability initiatives for British and Chinese business. Leah has also consulted on various evaluations on UK aid (ICAI) and is a specialist on development cooperation from the UK and China. Leah has also consulted on various UN projects, including providing support to the UN China team during the COVID-19 Pandemic. Prior to DR, Leah was at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) China, supporting the UN’s portfolio on communication strategies, China’s South- South Cooperation and the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Before UNDP, Leah lived and worked in Kenya developing sustainable water policies for the Kenyan government.


China-Africa Policy Analyst

Yike Fu is a Policy Analyst and has been responsible for leading numerous areas of work, including on debt analysis in Africa and beyond, and China-Africa trade and investment logistics and analysis. She is the co-author of “African Debt Guide”, in which she challenged the narrative that Africa is in the midst of a new debt crisis by analysing data back to the 1970s and adopting new metrics to present the real story behind the data. She also developed a benchmark to compare the financial distribution of development partners such as the UK, US, Japan, France and China in Africa. Prior to her role at DR she worked at the International Finance Corporation and African Union Representational Mission to the US. She holds a Masters in International Affairs from George Washington University.


Research Analyst

Judith is a Research and Policy Analyst, where she specialises in Africa-China relations, international development, and diplomacy. During her time at Development Reimagined, Judith has co-authored several articles published in The Diplomat on debt and China-Barbados relations and was quoted by China Daily in a piece on Women Rights in China. Previously, Judith worked as a research analyst for an Advocate and Commissioner and Oats office in Kenya.


Policy Analyst

Ovigwe specialises in geopolitics with particular reference to Africa in a changing Global Order. He is adept at critically analysing the politics of contemporary development processes and providing insight into the geopolitical interests that influence them. His work includes research, publications, tailored briefings and advising on global and regional trends, and issues at the nexus of geopolitics and development. Ovigwe appears frequently in media around the world such as Al Jazeera, TRT World, SABC, CGTN, BBC Radio, and other platforms.


Policy Analyst

Jing leads China-African health and agriculture cooperation research at Development Reimagined, having managed our FOCAC Policy Analysis and Advocacy project. She is also the co-author of “China-Africa Health Cooperation under FOCAC Umbrella”, in which she analysed China’s commitments around health cooperation since the first FOCAC summit and deepdived into four African countries’ health overview, challenges and cooperation with China as cases studies. Before DR, Jing worked at GIZ Cambodia on M&E of a disability advocacy project. She also worked as a translator with Chinese medical team in Benin.


Trade Policy Analyst

Patrick is an International Trade Policy and Trade Law Expert with over 5 years of experience. His expertise includes trade law, trade policy analysis and regional integration. He is currently engaged with Development Reimagined as a Senior Trade Analyst and was the lead author of Development Reimagined's recent Report on Africa-China Relations titled "From China-Africa to Africa- China: A Blue Print for a Green and Inclusive Continent-Wide Strategy Towards China." and “Reimaging FOCAC Going Forward.” Patrick has previously consulted for the East African Community, UNECA and for the Kenya Ministry of Trade.


Senior Policy Analyst 

Rosemary is our Senior Policy Analyst. She is a skilled policy analyst and has previously worked as a UK civil servant. She is studying Human Rights at Birkbeck, University of London with a research focus on international law in the context of health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic.


Project Manager and Africa-China Communication Assistant

Jade is a Project Manager for Development Reimagined’s flagship project Africa Unconstrained, which focuses on financing needs and debt vulnerabilities of African countries. Her research focuses on China-Africa development finance alongside debt vulnerabilities, infrastructure needs and South-South cooperation. She has worked with a breadth of stakeholders from China, Africa and the wider international community, including governments, private sector, NGOs and civil society. Her writing has appeared in a number of publications, including The Africa Report, The China-Africa Project, The Diplomat and more. Jade holds a Master’s in China and Globalisation studies from King’s College London.


Programme Manager

Rosie is the Project Manager of Africa Reimagined (AR) at Development Reimagined (DR) where she supports high-end African brands with entering the Chinese market by operating services such as trademark protection, Chinese market research, Chinese partnership building, and Africa to China logistical support and import/export services. Rosie has worked with DR for over two years now with proven success in helping high-end African brands navigate the Chinese market. She is extremely passionate about her work because more African brands selling in the Chinese marketplace means African countries can export MORE value-added goods, create MORE jobs and foster MORE innovation in African countries.

Rosie is also alumni of the School of International Studies at Peking University in Beijing where she is also an editor at the Peking Africa Think Tank. PATT is led by a diverse group of scholars who specialise in African Studies within the context of Sino-Africa relations.



Lauren has lived in six countries from the Americas to Europe and Asia and speaks both French and Spanish proficiently. At Development Reimagined, Lauren’s research focuses on climate action both in the Asia-Pacific and in Africa, and how countries are using tools such as SDGs and Covid-19 action to build a more climate-resilient future. She holds a Masters in International Relations from Leiden University.



Etsehiwot holds a Masters’s degree in Development Studies from the London School of Economics. She has diverse experience in humanitarian and development issues by working in both multilateral organizations and international non-governmental organizations. Etsehiwot is currently a consultant focusing on the SDGs and development finance.


Economist Consultant

Dibekulu is an economist by training. He holds an MSc in International Development Studies from Palacky University Olomouc, an MSc in Development Economics from the University of Clermont Auvergne, and an MSc in Economics, Finance, and International Integration from the University of Pavia. At Development Reimagined, he works as an Economist consultant. He has strong data analysis skills, with research interests centring around development finance, impact assessment, food security, and agricultural insurance.


Project Manager

Osaru is a health professional with an MSc in Health Systems Policy and an interest in women’s health and population management. At Development Reimagined, she applies her health sector experience to global health research and collating locally applicable development insights from China.


Research Analyst

Ferdinando’s research at Development Reimagined is centred on South-South Cooperation dynamics, specifically on the analysis of Chinese investment and debt flows in Africa and their linkages to African industrialisation. He is currently a Yenching Scholar at Peking University, after having graduated from the University of Cambridge with an MPhil in Development Studies.


Research Analyst

David is a Research and data analyst at Development Reimagined. His scholarly focus is mostly on interdisciplinary research in demographic economics and development with interests in migration, economic development and policy, education, health and subjective well-being. He is currently a PhD scholar at Nelson Mandela University from which he also holds Economics and Statistics and respectively.


Research Analyst Kenya

Ivory is a Kenyan lawyer with experience in policy research and analysis. She also supports the communications team at DR. Ivory speaks English, Swahili and French.


Research And Data Analyst China 

Joy Ene is a Research and Data Analyst at DR. Joy is passionate about African/global development, poverty eradication and trade policies between underdeveloped and developing countries. She is also a fourth-year student of International Economics and Trade at the  Liaoning University, Shenyang, China. She serves as the President of the Student Union, Liaoning University, International Students chapter.


Research Analyst 

Chensi Li is a research analyst. She has previously worked for local NGOs in Nigeria and Cameroon and think-tanks in China.  Her research areas include Sino-African relations, African foreign affairs, public diplomacy, state-building and national governance.

Yixin Yu

Research Analyst 

Yixin is a Junior Research Analyst and her focus areas is on public-private partnership and entrepreneurship. She has over three years of working experience in both private and public sectors in Ethiopia. She was the China Liaison Officer for project ‘Partnership for Investment and Growth in Africa’ at International Trade Centre, where she accumulated rich experience in investment and trade promotion


Founder and CEO

Hannah Ryder is the Founder & CEO of Development Reimagined. A former diplomat and economist with 20 years of experience, named one of 100 most influential Africans in 2021, she is also Senior Associate for the Africa Program of the Center for Strategic International Studies (CSIS), sits on the Board of the Environmental Defence Fund, and is a member of UAE's International Advisory Council on the New Economy. Prior to her role at DR, Ms Ryder led the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP)’s work with China to help it scale up and improve its cooperation with other developing countries, including in Africa. She has also played various advisory roles for the UN and OECD and co-authored the seminal Stern Review of the Economics of Climate Change in 2006.