Political autonomy and resistance in electricity sector liberalization in Africa

Christopher D. Gore, Jennifer N. Brass, Elizabeth Baldwin, Lauren M. MacLean

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Electricity access in sub-Saharan Africa is the lowest amongst all regions of the world. In response, since the 1990s, the World Bank and other donors have pushed African countries to reform their electricity sectors. While a “standard model” of liberalization reforms has been endorsed, the timing, pace and extent of reform adoption and implementation undertaken by countries varies significantly. This paper asks: why do some countries adopt electricity sector reforms more quickly and more fully than others? The paper uses a comparative historical analysis of Ghana, Tanzania and Uganda to answer this question. Each country's experience with reform varies. Our study finds that the timing of reform was largely contingent on economic factors, primarily the need for financing to improve sector efficiency. The pace of reform was shaped largely by international political considerations, namely differences in the countries’ reliance on aid from key donors, especially the World Bank. And the extent of reform was determined primarily by internal national political factors. Specifically, where elite decision-makers faced a historically-grounded national ideology that created citizen expectations that the state provide electricity, a competitive democratic regime, and stronger civil society, electricity sector reforms were less extensive. The paper makes an important contribution to understanding the politics of institutional change. We show how African governments exercise autonomy and resistance, both internationally with donors, and domestically, in the rewriting of institutional rules; that reforms are contingent on political calculations by national political elites about domestic conditions and needs; and that global norms are not sufficient to cause policy change. Overcoming energy poverty in Africa is expected to remain a challenge for the foreseeable future. As new development partners replace or complement the World Bank's role in African energy sectors, attention to how domestic institutions and politics engage with global norms is critical.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)193-209
Number of pages17
JournalWorld Development
StatePublished - Aug 2019


  • Africa
  • Electricity
  • Institutional reform
  • Neo-liberal reform
  • Power
  • World Bank

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Development
  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Economics and Econometrics


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