Development, Economic and Social

In general, development refers to a process by which countries use their natural and human resources to improve the economy and the lives of their people. Many experts also study development in terms of its outcome—the results that are achieved through economic, political, and social programs. A complex concept, development includes economic measures such as income and economic production, political measures such as civil rights and freedoms, and social measures such as literacy and public health. In terms of development, Africa lags dramatically behind most of the world.


Development is not simply a matter of building factories, improving farmland, or investing in new technology. It also involves providing opportunities for all citizens to participate in economic and political activities and to benefit from them. This aspect of development has presented particular challenges to many African nations over the past 40 years.

Trends in African Development

During the colonial period, European powers carried out various improvement projects in their African territories. They built roads, railroads, and airports, expanded cities and ports, and founded schools. In the years immediately following independence, most African nations modeled themselves after their former colonial masters. Economically, this meant building an industrial society that could produce the kind of material wealth enjoyed by Europe and the United States. Government was seen as the institution best able to carry out these tasks, and development activities were centralized within African national governments.

Most African nations at this time began large-scale projects designed to stimulate certain sectors of the economy, such as mining or manufacturing. Government experts decided what needed to be done and how to do it. The general population had little involvement with the planning or execution of development projects. By the mid-1960s, however, it had become clear that this approach to development was not working. Wealthy and educated people tended to benefit from development projects, while the majority of the population did not.

In the next phase of development, African nations began to emphasize the redistribution of resources. The aim was to make vital resources, such as land and access to technology, more widely available. Lowerlevel officials were given greater freedom to make decisions and carry out policies. Projects designed and supervised by central government planners gave way to programs adapted to local needs and priorities.

During the 1970s, Western economists identified government as the main obstacle to effective development. They said governments were trying to do too much, growing too large, and creating too many regulations. Many nations introduced reforms that reduced the size of their governments, cut social services, sold off nationalized industries, and eliminated policies that protected local businesses against foreign competition.

Such actions helped stabilize currencies and increase market efficiency, but they also led to cuts in social services and funds invested in the country's infrastructure. In many African nations, the level of development actually decreased during this time.

Since the 1980s, economists have placed greater emphasis on the role of the individual in development. Local programs created and run by individuals, families, and community groups are now seen as powerful sources of change. In addition, international agencies and nations that have lent money to African states for development have placed increasing pressure on African governments to change the way they operate. One thing they demanded was the establishment of more democratic forms of government. In recent years, more open government has been seen as the key to development in Africa.

Models of Development

African nations have several models of development that they can follow. Some favor a system of Western capitalism—with the marketplace determining what goods and services are needed and private businesses providing those goods and services. Other nations have adopted a system of socialism—with the government setting priorities and creating state-run institutions to achieve its goals. So far no single model of development has proved best for all countries at all times. Because many African nations are heavily in debt to other countries and to international lending institutions, those lenders have a good deal of influence on which models the borrower nations adopt.

An important issue facing African nations is whether to try to be selfsufficient and produce all needed goods locally or to rely on the international marketplace for certain goods. Some countries have looked beyond national borders and joined with neighboring states to draw up regional development plans.


In the early years of independence, many African nations took steps to control their economies and provide employment for their people. They created state-run industries and passed laws protecting these industries from foreign competitors. They also greatly expanded the government's role in developing the infrastructure and social services. Many governments borrowed heavily to finance these development plans, but much of that money was lost due to mismanagement and corruption.

In the 1980s worldwide economic developments—a major recession and very high interest rates—made matters worse for hard-pressed African nations. As their debts mounted, African leaders turned to institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund to refinance their loans. To qualify for debt relief, borrowers were required to undergo “structural adjustment.” This meant adopting reforms aimed at reducing government spending and control over the economy, promoting the growth of private enterprise, and relaxing trade restrictions to allow foreign businesses to compete with local businesses. It was hoped that these policies would reduce inflation, make markets more efficient, and stimulate long-term economic growth. This, in turn, was expected to improve social and economic conditions.

The success of structural adjustment programs has been mixed. Many experts agree that they helped stabilize local African markets and economies, but they did not promote long-term growth. Some experts argue that structural adjustment actually held development back by cutting government funding for improvements in infrastructure and education that are necessary for continued long-term growth. In addition, advances expected in agriculture and industry did not take place. Again, critics charge that development in these sectors of the economy has been hurt by poor transportation and roads, lack of access to credit, and poor education—all areas where funding was cut under structural adjustment programs.


According to early theories of development, the best way to promote growth was to increase the amount of capital in a country and to plan carefully how to invest it. The thinking was that outside financial aid would allow people in developing countries to purchase goods and services while still saving money. This aid would also provide revenue for the nation until its economy was strong enough to generate money from foreign trade.

Unfortunately, this theory did not work out as hoped in Africa. Its failure can be explained, in part, by the fact that during the Cold War financial aid was often given for political rather than economic reasons. In many cases, aid went to nations considered strategically important, not necessarily to those that needed help the most.

By the early 1990s, various financial institutions had begun to stress programs run at the local level rather than ones coordinated by the central government. However, for such programs to work, local people had to learn the skills needed to run programs themselves. Unfortunately, at the same time technical assistance decreased, aid for long-term projects was increasingly replaced by short-term aid. This made it more difficult for local people to gain the ability to operate on their own.

International lenders also emphasized that to receive aid in the future African nations would have to develop more democratic and efficient forms of government and to change their economic policies. However, laying off government employees or ending protection for local businesses can lead to political unrest. So African governments often resist such changes and lose their eligibility for international aid. These new lending policies have contributed to a decline in the amount of aid flowing to Africa.


Community development is a different approach to development. It combines funding and services from the central government with the participation of local citizens. The goals of community development are modest compared to those of large aid programs. They include digging new wells, improving local sanitation, increasing literacy, and other small-scale works.

Community development programs achieved some successes in Africa, but they also ran into problems. Perhaps the most serious was that the government programs and their directors often came into conflict with local officials, who saw the programs as challenges to their authority and considered the directors to be political rivals. Because the programs did not produce large-scale progress, international aid agencies and central governments in many nations lost enthusiasm for community development. In a number of cases, community development programs were taken over by the central government.

The success of community development programs depends largely on a close working relationship between central and local governments. The local governments must have a great deal of independence to set priorities and decide how to achieve goals. They also need to control their own budgets and resources to pursue their goals. Some African countries have relatively independent local governments. In many others, however, local governments are merely an extension of the central government, and they lack the power to set goals and must depend on the central government for money and resources.

Many African countries lost faith in the idea of building up local governments and sharing power with the central government. Some substituted a system in which the central government appointed local officials and controlled their policies and budgets. As Africa's economies went into decline this system was abandoned, and some countries returned to more independent local governments.

Recently, many local African communities have begun to take development into their own hands, often with little or no government help. A new model is emerging in which communities plan their own programs and provide the people to run them, while local government provides financial assistance. This approach cannot provide large-scale development—such as maintaining roads, building, or utilities—but it is changing accepted ways of thinking about the people's and the government's role in development.