The development of Africa: outsourcing poverty

I asked the question in a previous article, as to whether history showed that humanity is gradually, but irrecoverably, moving forward and becoming more developed, and answered it rather superficially by saying that we are getting there slowly.

But who is getting where and who determines what being developed is? And is development inevitable, as modernization theorists from Rostow to Fukuyama have claimed, as long as the developing nations follow the path of the so-called developed West, is development possible in a more than one way, and is development interconnected or unconnected with European development and wealth accumulation?

Post-independence Africa

I have chosen to focus specifically on the development of Africa, probably the area that has been most underdeveloped by its colonial powers. Where e.g. India and Sri Lanka at least had some infrastructural and educational improvements to build on at independence, most African countries had none. And those that had large settler minorities to contend with, and with them a better-developed infrastructure, such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe and South Africa, instead had to endure much more long lasting and devastating wars of independence.

At independence, African countries were moreover left with highly specialised export economies that were targeted at the markets of their former colonial masters. Most of the commodities that they produced were not much in demand in Africa, and the newly independent nations were therefore totally dependent on the wealthy countries in the West buying their products. The declining commodity prices of the fifties, sixties and seventies (“… from 1950 to 1970, the terms of trade for primary products in relation to manufactured products decreased by 25 percent” – Cypher, The process of economic development: 163) forced many newly-independent nations to take loans, and the continuing decline of the terms of trade made it difficult for them to repay the loans that many had taken as a result of the oil crises in the seventies.


The Bretton Woods institutions, the IMF or World Bank, were where most African nations turned for these loans. These institutions were more or less designed as tools of American foreign policy in the reconstruction of Europe after WWII, which is probably why they have always seemed to ensure that their African clients competed unsuccessfully with the nations that control them, mainly the USA, EU and Japan, but increasingly China and the other Bric-countries.  The IMF in particular can micro-manage the policies of the countries that receive loans from it in almost every area. Does the IMF and World Bank therefore really advance development, or does the conditionality that they demand instead dampen the faith in democracy and participation in developing countries because their populations instinctively understand, that if the economical and other policies are already more or less determined in the halls of the Bretton Woods institutions, what is the point of voting – what is the point of trying to change your government is you can’t change its policies? Surveys clearly show that Africans are dead against privatisation and free marketism on the grounds that it fails to “provide employment and development services with the same effectiveness and equity as even corrupt and hollowed-out states” (Heather Deegan, Africa today: 80).

Especially during the eighties and early nineties, the IMF and World Bank were given almost unlimited powers to enforce neo-liberal stringency upon the African countries, in most if not all cases with dire results. David Budhoo, a senior IMF economist who designed structural adjustment programs during the eighties, later admitted that “everything we did from 1983 onward was based on our new sense of mission to have the south privatised or die; towards this end we ignominiously created economic bedlam in Latin America and Africa in 1983-88” (Naomi Klien, The shock doctrine: 164-165).

Successful industrialisation

Whereas the Bretton Woods institutions, and the countries that control them, clearly see all development as necessarily following in the footsteps of the West (if they are interested in the African countries developing at all, that is), most if not all of the nations that have successfully industrialised, and this includes both Western nations and nations such as South Korea, have done so by doing the opposite of what the World Bank and the IMF have advocated, namely by protectionist measures. Indeed, one might claim that the US and the EU have still not fully adopted the free trade policies that they demand of others, and that they only started doing so when their economies were strong enough for such policies to be beneficial. Moreover, the industrial revolution that economically developed the West, by amongst other things enabling it to invest heavily in infrastructure, was fuelled by profits based on the free labour and cheap products that were a result of the slave trade and vast colonial possessions – surely not something that any nation could or should try and emulate today.

The problems of corruption, armed conflict and hierarchical societies

Additionally, the African nations have many problems that the Western countries didn’t have to deal with, such as the widespread problem of corruption. The state became the African countries’ main source of wealth accumulation and social mobility, which is one of the reasons why many African countries built excessive state bureaucracies. These countries would certainly have fared better with leaner bureaucracies and consequently less corruption, but we must also look at those who corrupt African governments at the top level (that is followed by a “trickle down corruption”) by offering them deals, and who banks the money these governments officials steal from their populations. Are Western companies not at least as guilty as the African leaders in this?

Another major problem is the exceptionally high military budgets of many African countries. According to Heather Deegan, the cost of African armed conflict is one a half times the continents spending on health and education, and about the equivalent to the total amount of foreign aid (Heather Deegan, Africa Today: 148).

A third, and perhaps less evident problem, is that of the hierarchical and fixed nature of many African societies, amongst other things the result of the divide-and-rule policies of the former colonial powers and the continued centralisation of post-independence rulers. This means that the different groups in society more or less accept their lot in life, and when they don’t, their aspirations are not matched by the equality of opportunity that is to a much larger degree possible in Western societies. The effect of the hierarchical nature of African societies is consequently either inaction or frustration.

How can Africa develop?

Development assistance and foreign aid is seen as an important part of the development of African countries, but foreign aid itself has undergone several paradigmatic changes, not least because of concurrent ideological changes in donor nations. In the sixties, foreign aid focused on large-scale projects that tended to increase debt and mostly benefit the elites; in the seventies, aid became more focused on meeting basic needs of the poor populations of Africa; and in the eighties and nineties, focus again shifted, this time to private-sector funding. These changes have an important impact on the way African development is perceived, as well as how it is attempted, but attaching too much importance to outside solutions to African development can prove to be counter-productive.

Many development theorists and other views of Africa falls into one of two overall paradigms that, to put it crudely, attempt to describe the lack of development of the African continent as either basically the fault of the continent itself or the fault of both former colonial powers and the present neo-colonial ones. These views are simplistic in their attempt to lay the blame for African underdevelopment either squarely outside or inside the continent, and if we are to reach anything resembling a useful conclusion on the subject we must accept that the reasons for underdevelopment – as well as the solutions – are multifaceted, and are to be found both within and outside the continent. We must accept that it is the elites – both colonial and neo-colonial, within and outside Africa, and in both the public and private sectors – that are largely responsible for this underdevelopment. Given that these elites benefit the most from the status quo, all talk of elite- and business-driven transformation and development is either self-beneficial or illogical, however much it is in vogue among donors. Any real change must therefore come from the majority of Africans who stand to benefit from such change, and it must be organised through e.g. civil society movements that are able to resist the pressure that the elites will put on them and who will not themselves be turned into, or devoured by, a new elite (as has happened to the MMD in Zambia and the UDF in South Africa, respectively). Donors and foreign aid must therefore support these civil society movements, and not private businesses, if they want real, sustainable development.

But as I mentioned earlier, Africa’s development is not only the responsibility of Africans. The real bourgeoisie is not in Africa, but in the West, and many “ordinary” middle-class Westerners are therefore really exploiters, not as socialist theory commonly has it, exploited.

As George Orwell wrote in Writers and Leviathan,

”… left-wing parties … were ready to admit that the British workers had benefited, to some extent, by the looting of Asia and Africa, but they always allowed it to appear that we could give up our loot and yet in some way contrive to remain prosperous. Quite largely, indeed, the workers were won over to Socialism by being told that they were exploited, whereas the brute truth was that, in world terms, they were exploiters”.

We have thus, in effect, outsourced our social unrest to Africa and other underdeveloped areas, the unrest and poverty in these areas being the price they have to pay for the stability and affluence of the West. In all fairness, we therefore also have to accept responsibility for, and act to rectify, this exploitation.

2 Responses to The development of Africa: outsourcing poverty

  1. Outsourcing says:

    Nice post about the development of Africa outsourcing.


    Good outlining of problem facing the continent!

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