Poland’s Economic Miracle: Lessons for African Liberation Movements

William Gumede

After astonishing economic, state and social turmoil following the collapse of East European-style communism in1989, Poland is experiencing an ongoing economic miracle, described as the country’s new “golden age”.

The pragmatic reforms it implemented hold many lessons for African liberation and independence movements.

Versions of neo-Marxist ideological economic policies in post-colonial Africa have seen state collapse, economies crash, infrastructure decline, high indebtedness and capital and skills flight.  

Sadly, many African youths who describe themselves as ‘left’, appear to believe that pursuing neo-Marxism, or variants of communist policies which have failed spectacularly in Africa, is “revolutionary”, ”progressive” and will foster “transformation”.

The Polish economy has grown continuously for three decades, a record in the EU. Its GDP has increased tenfold and unemployment is at 3%.

It is now the sixth-largest economy in the European Union (EU), and ranks as the 21st largest economy in the world.

STARTLING STATS

Immediately after the end of the Cold War, Poland’s unemployment was 16%. Between 1990 and 2018, the economy grew by 381%.

It was the only economy in the EU that did not fall into recession during the 2008 financial crisis.

Between 1989 and 2013, the country’s export production increased 25 times.

Immediately after the end of communism, the country experienced poverty-inducing hyperinflation. In 1989, inflation was 344%.

In September 2023, inflation stood at 8,2%.

Jan Cienski, author of ‘Start-Up Poland: The People who Transformed an Economy’, said Poland “has experienced the best time in the country’s 1 000-year history”.

The country had a specific economic strategy – to move from being an assembly line for the products of foreign companies produced elsewhere, to producing high-quality components, to manufacturing finished products for export.

This meant the country’s technical education system had to become increasingly high-value, technology-intensive and globally competitive.

Poland invested heavily in its people. It produces 37 500 engineers a year, just marginally behind powerhouse Germany.

Many African countries have failed to prioritise quality, competitive education, particularly in mathematics, science and technology.

South Africa, for example, set a 30% pass mark for matric.

DEVELOPING DEMOCRACY

Immediately after the end of communism, Poland prioritised developing democracy, introducing democratic institutions, multiparty elections and a free press.

It invested in establishing both democratic and market-based institutions.

Many other former Eastern European communist states were ambivalent about democracy and now struggle under authoritarian rule.

They face runaway crime, stagnating economies and being failing states.

Poland privatised its state-owned companies more transparently and less corruptly than other East European and developing countries.

It did not create oligarchs – politically connected elites securing slices of privatised state-owned companies cheaply – like Russia, or other former communist countries.

In Poland, a proportion of shares in state companies that were privatised were given to employees for free.

Another proportion was given to individuals with contractual obligations to the privatised entity, such as farmers, fishermen and suppliers.

Every citizen was entitled to buy privatisation certificates at a token price – 96% of the people bought into this.

Privatisation was done on a case-by-case basis rather than overnight.

BRAIN POWER VS ‘STEROIDS’

The country single-mindedly focused on economic expansion, production and human development.

In a World Bank paper on Poland’s miracle transformation, Marcin Piatkowski wrote: “Quite remarkably, Poland’s growth has been based on brain power, entrepreneurship and hard work, not on natural resources or financial steroids.”

When Poland joined the EU in 2004, it received EU structural funds, similar to funds received by South Korea and Japan from the US for postwar reconstruction.

Poland, like South Korea and Japan, used these funds prudently to expand catalytic infrastructure, industrialisation and create new export industries.

Although South Africa, for example, did not receive Marshall Plan-like funding, the transfer of money from the private sector to black economic empowerment is akin to such a transfer.

However, empowerment money has largely enriched a few oligarchs rather than being invested in infrastructure, education, entrepreneurship or building mass assets such as housing for the poor.  

Many post-colonial African governments are ideologically opposed to private business and civil society organisations providing public services – unless they are linked to the ruling party, military or family elites.  

SLOGANS AND ‘SELL-OUTS’

Very few supposed political activists read widely, often relying solely on slogans, social media posts or on politicians who also do not read.

In South Africa, some who describe themselves as ‘left’ dismiss blacks who have non-groupthink views – or who support using business, non-state entrepreneurs, civil society and evidence or science-based policy to build more prosperous societies – as ‘clever blacks’, ‘sellouts’ or ‘proxies of the West’.

They are also labelled ‘puppets’ of whites or ‘white monopoly capital’.

Lastly, many African governments do not believe in pursuing economic growth as a serious objective – it is often seen as just a by-product of other reforms.

Sadly, prioritising growth is dismissed as a so-called neoliberal idea.

Not surprisingly, many these countries have been low economic growth countries.

Unless we learn from pragmatic reforms such as those that delivered an economic miracle in Poland, African countries will remain underdeveloped and indebted in perpetuity.

  • * William Gumede is associate professor, School of Governance, University of the Witwatersrand, and author of ‘South Africa in Brics’

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