The Issue of Development
THE STATE OF AFRICA: ARE WE TO BLAME?
There has always been difficulty when it comes to explaining the current state of many African countries that are struggling to improve socially and economically. The conversations have always boiled down to the question of whether as a continent we struggle because of our colonial history or because of bad governance. Are we simply incapable of moving forward? Or do we still live under the fat thumb of neo-colonisation, making us incapable of ever becoming the best we can be?
Well, the idea of having to apportion blame on one side is a mistake, and inevitably limiting. The truth is that colonisation did happen, and it does continue to affect us. The other truth is that we have been dealt a terrible hand with our leaders, who continue to maintain colonial structures by profiting off the exploitation and oppression of our people. Like I have said in the past, to truly understand our problems, we must be free to look at things as they are; this means being honest about our current situation and how we got here. We need to define what development means for us, and in order to do that, we must have a fuller and more accurate perspective of the different factors that have contributed to the development issues African countries face.
Before exploring why African countries are ‘behind’ in development in comparison to the Global North, we must first understand what development and underdevelopment are. In many ways, development simply means the overall improvement of the quality of human life. Yet, often development is used to refer only to the economic position of a country, ignoring other indicators. However, when development includes social factors, we see that whilst capitalism has led to economic advancement, this has been at the cost of the workers. We still witness this today on a local and global scale. It is evident in the perpetual news cycles of large companies exploiting their workers by barely paying them minimum wage, despite being worth millions, and sometimes billions of dollars. On a global scale, it is obvious in how the West still interacts with the Global South. For example, the fast-fashion industry is entirely reliant on cheap and exploitative labour of workers in the global south, and occasionally in their own countries. Yet, these issues are often ignored or explained away. Corporations and laws governing these spaces, would rather see money pumped into justifying why workers should be paid the little they are, as opposed to just paying them more.
As noted by Rodney in How Europe Underdeveloped Africa, when discussing capitalism,
‘No mention is made of the exploitation of the majority which underlay all development prior to Socialism. No mention is made of the social relations of production or of classes. No mention is made of the way that the factors and relations of production combine to form a distinctive system or mode of production, varying from one historical epoch to another. No mention is made of imperialism as a logical phase of capitalism’.
Understanding what development is, and the shortcoming of capitalism allows us to better understand underdevelopment. Firstly, underdevelopment does not mean the absence of development because every nation has developed in one way or the other at different levels. Instead, the idea of underdevelopment exists mainly as a tool of comparison; it highlights the fact that human social development has been uneven and some human groups have developed economically faster than others. In other words, it reveals exploitation; the country that is underdeveloped is usually exploited by the other, and the current underdevelopment we see is a product of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation.
African and Asian societies were developing independently until they were dominated by capitalist countries. The domination of the West led to the increased exportation of human and natural resources, which in turn deprived these societies of the benefit of their natural resources and labour. This explains why developed countries continue to grow richer whilst underdeveloped countries are either stagnant or grow very slowly. Africa is nowhere close to making the most of its natural wealth. DRC, for example, has copper, cobalt, zinc, coltan, cassiterite, gold, diamond, oil, and gas. However, DRC is also one of the poorest countries in the world, because the Congolese people have barely benefited from these immense natural resources, which have been exploited for many decades.
Evidently, Africa’s underdevelopment began with the exploitation of its resources under European imperialism. Yet, when discussing development, this reality is often ignored by European scholars. As Rodney notes:
‘The interpretation that underdevelopment is somehow ordained by God is emphasised because of the racist trend in European scholarship. It is in line with racist prejudice to say openly or to imply that their countries are more developed because their people are innately superior, and that the responsibility for the economic backwardness of Africa lies in the generic backwardness of the race of black Africans. An even bigger problem is that the people of Africa and other parts of the colonised world have gone through a cultural and psychological crisis and have accepted at least partially the European version of things. That means that the African himself has doubts about his capacity to transform and develop his natural environment. With such doubts, he even challenges those of his brothers who say that Africa can and will develop through the efforts of its own people. If we can determine when underdevelopment came about, it would dismiss the lingering suspicion that it is racially or otherwise predetermined and that we can do little about it’.
This idea that Europe’s development is somehow ordained by God is reflected in the modernisation theory. This embodies the idea that the Global South needs saving and that the only way this can be done is by emulating the development stages of the Global North. Europe wanted Africa’s development trajectory to reflect theirs. The Rostowian theory of development identified the stages Africans were classed in, as: Stage 1-Traditional society, Stage 2- Transitional stage (Preconditions for Take-off), Stage 3- Take-off, Stage 4-Drive to maturity, Stage 5-Stage of mass consumption (Rostow 1960). He theorised that the reason why developing countries suffered from underdevelopment and poverty was because the West had gone through the historical path which involved moving from traditional cultures to modern ones, which developing countries had not yet done. In other words, according to this theory, until African countries go through the five stages of economic growth, underlined by Rostwian’s theory, they will continue to fail to develop.
This theory is problematic in many ways. First, it assumes the West to be the ideal model for which countries deemed as underdeveloped should aim for. Second, It ignores the realities of the historically exploitative nature of the West’s interaction with Africa. Further, it undermines indigenous knowledge systems and propagates ideas of Western knowledge supremacy. The notion is inherently flawed. The idea that one size fits all within the context of development is reductive. There is no alpha formula. Suggesting that there is reiterates and cements Western knowledge hegemony by undervaluing the creativity and initiative of Africans. Instead, it pushes international aid down our throats whilst ignoring the conditions attached to such aid. It is the very idea of Western supremacy which this theory propagates that obliterated Africa’s superstructure of beliefs and value system.
The critiques of modernisation theory as a tool for understanding Africa’s advancement led to a new strand of thinking, resulting in the dependency theory. They noted that modernisation theory failed to account for the real relationship between the developed world and the Global South. At a macro level, the main notion of dependency is that it is impossible to understand the problems within Africa without including the wider socio-historical context of Western imperialism and colonisation. As noted earlier, colonialism was not just about physical domination, instead, it was about the West positioning themselves strategically to reap the profits of their exploitation of Africa. The development of the West was thus largely dependent on African labour and resources, in other words, we cannot appreciate the development of the West without linking it to the underdevelopment of Africa
Rodney captures this relationship between the West and its colonies, noting:
‘Colonial Africa fell within that part of the international capitalist economy from which surplus was drawn to feed the metropolitan sector… exploitation of land and labour is essential for human social advancement, but only on the assumption that the product is made available within the area where the exploitation takes place.’
In this regard, Africa was and continues to be dominated economically and politically by external powers. An industry that contributes significantly to this is the oil industry. Oil multinationals (OMNCSs), due to their strength, play a huge role in capitalist globalisation. They dominate the global energy market due to their access to such a primary source of energy. Large multinational corporations like Shell, produce the majority of Nigeria’s oil. Their presence, however, has caused environmental and developmental damage to the people of Niger-Delta, thereby affecting the socioeconomics of the community. This is because OMNCs are uninterested in the way their work affects the community, instead, they are only concerned with obtaining maximum profit and cutting down manufacturing expenditure. Thus, using dependency theory, the cementing of Nigeria’s location as a periphery in the global structure has a huge effect on its socio-economic state.
This leads to the question of why things are still this way. If Africa produces the raw materials that allow for the manufacturing of phones, aeroplanes, and more, why are these things not made in Africa?
It would be dishonest and unfair to portray Africa as a complete victim to external influences. Perhaps, once this was true, but now, African leaders have allowed for Africa to still be exploited. They sign unfair deals and allow for external forces to enter their countries with limited regulations. For example, the Chinese government and companies, like Anjin investments, are known to collude with African governments and militaries. In 2003, Mugabe encouraged the embrace of China, and this led to Mugabe disrupting the informal economy in Zimbabwe in favour of Chinese stores. This displaced 700,000 people, whereas China now owns 70% of Zimbabwe’s electricity generation capacity. More currently, the Nigerian government continues to enter loan deals to the detriment of their country’s economy. According to the Debt Management Office, Nigeria’s total public debt as of December 2020 was N32,915 trillion, a shocking 20.13% increase over the figures in 2019. Yet, President Buhari keeps on taking loans, with a recent approval of two fresh foreign loans of $1.5 billion and €995 million which have resulted in no improvement of the country itself.
African leaders have failed Africans in many ways and continue to do so by signing onto unfair deals and allowing for the exploitation of their people, only for the short-term monetary gain they make from these unsustainable deals. They look out for themselves first.. The West, and countries like China are complicit in that they are willing to exploit the continent as long as they are allowed to do so. The cherry on top is that they ignore their active exploitation when discussing contemporary African issues, as though they simply cannot understand why most countries are socially and economically destabilised.
Africa’s state of development is often the topic of discussion for many European scholars. Africa is often talked about and rarely listened to. We should be listening to local experts who know about the areas they work in and people who live through and understand the diverse and multiple struggles of what it means to be African. It is imperative that we are able to define our problems for ourselves, and what development, understood as the overall improvement of the quality of human life, means for us. In other words we must define who we are and where we are going in the global community in order to develop practical solutions that actually suit our needs.
Development strategies should place African perspectives, experiences, and knowledge systems at the forefront. An interesting fact here is that Nigeria’s first development plan, 1962-68, which focused on issues such as equal distribution of national income and promotion of economic growth, was headed by American expert, Wolfgang F.Stopler. However, it is difficult to understand how experts who had never lived in Nigeria could have drawn up a development plan for the country. This once again shows the problem of relying on foreing experts to analyse our issues. Instead, approaches to development should reflect an understanding of our needs and a pride in our knowledge systems. For example, in Zimbabwe, Africans could use the indigenous knowledge system to read and forecast the weather. They had their own way of dealing with crime, deviance, and conflict.
In this regard, the African centred approach to development highlights the importance of social movements which prioritise engaging with people to tackle issues of justice, sustainability, poverty from a collective approach. African countries like Nigeria fail to do this because a real conversation on what independence meant from anti-colonial perspectives was never had. Common sense dictates that a conversation should have been had on where we were, how colonisation had affected us, and having an honest conversation about what benefited us and what didn’t- this also applies to our own indigenous cultures as well. Instead, our leaders simply maintained the effects of colonisation and continued colonial traditions of keeping the locals oppressed and prioritising the needs of the elite.
Although subject to valid and serious criticisms surrounding his approach to protests and in addressing homophobia in his country, an example of an African leader addressing colonial structures is President Nana Akufo-Addo who announced that Ghana will end the selling of raw materials to trade partners like Switzerland and other European nations. He noted during his visit to Switzerland last year:
“There can be no future prosperity for the Ghanaian people in the short, medium or long term if we continue to maintain economic structures that are dependent on the production and export of raw materials.”
Ghana is responsible for about a fifth of global cocoa exports. Yet, of the $130bn global chocolate industry, less than $2bn goes to Ghana. Many farmers live in poverty and are forced to employ children to make ends meet. Farmers receive, at most, 7% of the chocolate value chain. Those who manufacture and sell the chocolate get over 80%.
A major deterrent to actually changing things is that people honestly believe it is not possible for African countries to regain their power. Yet, Ghana’s president has made a decision that suggests otherwise. He has set his country on the course of producing chocolate bars on a commercial scale. Although it will be extremely difficult due to the fact that they are behind in manufacturing tech, have storage issues to think about due to the fact that Ghana is a hot country and have little market know-how in this area, these are challenges Ghana can overcome. Several companies already make their own chocolate. For example, 57Chocolate is run by two Ghanian sisters. Similarly, in Nigeria there’s Loshe’s Chocolate.
Ghana may not yet be able to compete with the European factories yet, but it is an important first step in reclaiming its own wealth and resources. Hopefully, other African leaders can work together to make similar changes. The development discourse should not be led by non-Africans looking in and misdiagnosing our problems. Eventually, we need to decide what we want for ourselves and fervently reach for it. Our futures cannot be dependent on international aid and foreign intervention.
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Guardian Nigeria. 2021. Senate approves Buhari’s fresh loan of $1.5b, €995m amid rising debts. The Guardian Nigeria News - Nigeria and World News. https://guardian.ng/news/senate-approves-buharis-fresh-loan-of-1-5b-e995m-amid-rising-debts/
Iheanacho, E.N, 2014. National Development Planning in Nigeria: an endless search for appropriate development strategy.’, International Journal of Economic Development Research and Investment, 5(2), pp.49-60.
Matunhu, J., 2011. A critique of modernization and dependency theories in Africa: Critical assessment. African Journal of History and Culture, 3(5), pp.65-72.
Pilling, D., 2021. Making chocolate can give Ghana a taste of prosperity. Financial Times. https://www.ft.com/content/dbd20f9f-b9f7-4bf4-86dd-1a8c84069f01
Rodney, W., 2018. How Europe underdeveloped africa. Verso Trade.
Taylor, A., 2017. In the midst of Zimbabwe’s crisis, China’s influence comes under scrutiny. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/11/16/in-the-midst-of-zimbabwes-crisis-some-question-chinas-influence/