Current citizens of developed countries should count themselves lucky that their forbearers were able to take a slow and methodical approach to nation-building. During their time, there weren’t much better lives elsewhere to distract them. As a result, they were able to focus on building the enduring economic and political foundations that help make life relatively predictable in this part of the world today.

The story is entirely different in African countries that are now trying to develop. When I was growing up in Ghana in the 1960s and ‘70s, most of us had little knowledge about life outside our small towns and villages. We were generally satisfied with the bare basics we had. Many African countries had just gained independence, and the collective focus of leaders and ordinary citizens there was, for a time, on national development.

Things began to change as some of us became exposed to life in the developed world, mainly through travel, but also increasingly due to technology. We acquired tastes that were quite expensive relative to our environments, and as we individually sought the resources necessary to maintain our new lifestyles, national interest was relegated.

Regaining that initial focus on building the foundations for sustainable socio-economic development required forms of leadership that, unfortunately, most African countries lacked. There is seemingly little appreciation in Africa nowadays for the fact that the comforts and conveniences enjoyed by developed-world residents resulted from hard work, postponement of consumption, and various sacrifices that occurred over centuries. Successive African leaders have failed in their duty to preach this important message to their nations’ citizens. Rather, they have routinely made lofty pledges to their constituencies to win votes in elections.

Admittedly, this happens in the developed world also, but in Africa, most electoral promises have no connection whatsoever to reality. Its poor governments simply don’t have the means to deliver what politicians promise, but they make the promises anyway.

The result of this unfortunate trend in African politics is a complete failure to set national priorities. Many countries have instead taken slapdash approaches to development, with little to show for the efforts. A prime evidence is the generally poor state of infrastructure across Africa.

Over the last several decades, Ghana and Nigeria have both struggled to build robust electricity grids to power their national economies. Neither country has hitherto come anywhere close to achieving that goal. In both countries, corruption and mismanagement—the usual suspects—are major reasons for the failure. But in Ghana’s case, it is also a result of the government stretching itself too thin by promising universal access to electricity for its citizens.

Because large segments of the Ghanaian population still live in very remote places, this is a rather unrealistic goal for such a poor country, at least in the short term. Nevertheless, one government after another has doggedly followed that policy objective. The result is a rickety national electricity grid that neither industrial nor residential consumers can predictably rely on for their needs.

South Africa has implemented a similar disastrous policy. In a recent article, The Economist reported that in 1994, the post-apartheid government asked Eskom, the state-owned power company, to provide electricity to the more than two-thirds of black households that didn’t have it. It is considered one of the fastest electrification projects in history. The company is currently in deep financial trouble, largely due to corruption and mismanagement, but also because of that ambitious effort. “Eskom is the greatest systemic risk to the South African economy,” according to a Goldman Sachs executive quoted in the article. The frequent power cuts the country is experiencing will reportedly reduce GDP growth by 0.9 percentage points—about half the officially projected rate.

The IMF recently warned about the current state of Ghana’s electricity sector and the fiscal risk it poses to the government. Accumulated debt in the sector has reached dangerously high levels. To sustain the mass electrification program, the government has had to raise industrial tariffs to subsidize the rates for residential consumers, something businesses have repeatedly complained about. They point out that it makes them uncompetitive in world markets.   

Unfortunately, the otherwise noble efforts to provide electricity for all often end up depriving everyone of it. Large sections of African countries are frequently plunged into total darkness, sometimes for days. The focus now, in Ghana, South Africa, and elsewhere in Africa, should be on prioritizing infrastructure development to serve critical sectors of national economies. It is only through careful nurturing of those sectors that broader national development can ultimately occur.

In the interim, expectations will have to be properly managed in Africa. That exercise should logically be led by African politicians. However, given the governments’ poor track record, multinational institutions like the World Bank and the IMF that provide technical assistance and financing for various purposes in Africa, and developed countries that give foreign aid, should step in to help establish the disciplined approach to development that has hitherto been absent.

Ironically, some of those same multinational organizations and donor governments have at times been guilty of helping to inflate expectations, by introducing well-intentioned but unsustainable poverty-alleviation programs. Another recent article described welfare schemes that various African governments have implemented in recent years to help the poor. At first glance, that is something to be applauded. However, many of the countries introducing the programs are too poor to independently fund them. In Tanzania’s case, for example, 90 percent of the funding is said to come from donors such as the World Bank and the British and Swedish governments. It is difficult to see how programs with such heavy reliance on outside funding can be long-lasting.

Living conditions for Africa’s poor are dire, without question, so any immediate relief that can be provided should be welcome. That should not be a substitute however, for the back-to-basics approach to socio-economic development that is so urgently needed on the continent. Building the strong platforms that the poor can rely on to earn their own living should be the primary focus of every African government.