Africa’s First Panther Economy? Wakanda’s development dilemmas

April 6, 2018

     By Duncan Green     

Guest post by Dulce Pedroso (Manager, Health) and Taylor Brown (Director, Governance), Palladium

Wakanda is in transition. This small, but prosperous East African nation has never been colonised. It has never received foreign aid, technical assistance, loans or outside advice. Yet Wakanda has thrived in its seclusion. It has managed its vast resource wealth wisely. Its isolationist foreign and autarkic economic policies have delivered prosperity, exceedingly high levels of social and human development and cutting edge technological innovation.

But now, Wakanda is opening up to the world. As it does so, it faces significant development dilemmas — both as a potential donor and as a member of the global economic and political community.

For those of you who live off the grid, Wakanda is the fictional country at the heart of Black Panther, Marvel’s Afro-futurist blockbuster. As the first Hollywood blockbuster about Africa that is not primarily about slavery, genocide, war, poverty, the movie has inspired numerous articles and blogs exploring race and representation. But Black Panther also asks big questions about development. Why and how should prosperous, technologically advanced countries assist poorer, less developed ones? How can such a resource rich country integrate with the global economy without distorting its traditions, or its own political economy?

Why give aid?                                                                                   

Black Panther illustrates different rationales for development assistance, through the eyes of its central characters.

Nakia, who balances a career as a spy and an aid worker, is one of the few Wakandans who regularly engage with the outside world. Frustrated with Wakanda’s historic isolationism she believes that her country has a fundamental obligation to contribute to the world and address poverty and injustice in all its guises. She believes that Wakanda should use its wealth and technology to improve not only the lives of those in neighbouring countries, but also those marginalised communities elsewhere in the world. Nakia has a strong notion of distributive justice rooted in empathy for those who are not lucky enough to be born in Wakanda.

Scarred by the death of his father and driven by revenge, the film’s complex anti-villain Eric Killmonger has a very different notion of distributive justice. He has much more in common with the real-world Black Panthers than the movie’s name sake. For him, Wakanda has failed its brothers and sisters in Africa and in the African diaspora: “Two billion people all over the world who look like us whose lives are much harder, and Wakanda has the tools to liberate them all,” he chides the Wakandan court, “where was Wakanda?” This thinking – where there can be no justice without righting the wrongs of the past – has its roots in post-colonial frameworks of retribution and reparations. Eric would hate the word ‘beneficiary’ even more than Pete Vowles and without “a scintilla of gratitude”, he would inspire Daily Mail columnists for years to come.

Under the funky body-contouring cat suit, T’Challa, or Black Panther, is an isolationist mostly concerned with following the customs that have enabled Wakanda to thrive. At first he listens to his friend W’Kabi’s, warnings of the problems that come with refugees and immigrants, but over time is influenced by Nakia and Eric. It takes him until a mid-credits scene, but in the end he decides that the time has come for Wakanda to open up to the world: “Now, more than ever, the illusions of division threaten our very existence. We all know the truth: more connects us than separates us. But in times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.” With this speech to the UN, T’Challa is upending the deeply embedded narrative that international development is fundamentally about the “global north” developing the “global south”…even if the assembled diplomats are still nodding along with the unnamed delegate who condescendingly asks what resources Wakanda could possibly offer to the rest of the world.

T’Challa’s challenge

Wakanda enters the world stage at a time when aid scepticism and isolationism have made their way from the fringes to mainstream politics.

The country now faces two crucial dilemmas: First, how can Wakanda best share its expertise and technology with the world – what should its development policies, programmes and priorities be? Secondly, how can Wakanda avoid the pitfalls other resource rich states have faced as it integrates into the global economy?

Wakanda’s first foray into development, a community outreach centre in Oakland, is more symbolic than substantive. It is also conventional — providing technical assistance and technology transfers in the hope that economic, social and human development will somehow follow. In doing so, Wakanda appears to be making the same assumptions that many tech entrepreneurs do when they turn their gaze and resources to philanthropy: that techy approaches alone can solve the world’s big problems including poverty. Still it’s a start. But it does seem that Wakanda’s first Development Minister (Nakia?) might need some strategic advice on how Wakanda’s expertise and resources can contribute to the SDGs.

Wakanda may be the world’s most technically advanced country and have a corner on the vibranium market, but T’Chala still faces significant challenges and policy choices as he integrates his country into the global economy: What fiscal and domestic policies might help Wakanda avoid the resource curse and Dutch Disease as it begins to export its resources? What strategies might it employ to diversify its economy against the day when the vibranium runs out? Should Wakanda allow FDI into the vibranium sector and if so, what regulations would need to be in place? How might it manage the potential influx of prospectors and other migrants attracted to the jobs and opportunities found in Wakanda?

Lastly, there are big questions about accountability. As Wakandan opens up to the world, will traditional combat on the edge of a waterfall (with shades of Monty Python’s “farcical aquatic ceremony”) continue to provide the only means through which civilians can hold their leader to account?

So…what advice would you give to Wakanda? As a development superhero, we are sure you will accept this challenge and share your ideas and recommendations by leaving a comment below…….

April 6, 2018
Duncan Green